King of Mercia (757-96)
Rex Anglorum - King of the English
Born c730 Died 796

He became king after the assassination of his predecessor Aethelbald by one Beornred, who naturally claimed the throne for himself. Offa was victorious in the subsequent struggle driving out Beornred, but in the process Mercia lost its hegemony over southern England patiently built up by Aethelbald. Offa seems to have claimed descent from one Eowa a brother of Penda, the seventh century ruler of Mercia, but it is uncertain exactly who Offa's father was, and the exact nature of his claim to the throne is therefore unclear.

Political policy

Offa therefore spent much of his reign seeking to re-establish and consolidate Mercian power over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England. During the first fifteen years or so he was successful in extending his influence in the south over both Kent and Sussex and by 774 was styling himself as rex Anglorum; 'king of the English'. This was most likely achieved in the traditional manner; that is by violence or the threat of violence, but was not unopposed.

Despite defeating the men of Kent at the battle of Otford in 775, Kent rebelled against his authority in 776, and under the urgings of Jaenberht theArchbishop of Canterbury remained fiercely independent for the next ten years, until Offa re-established his grip on Kent in 786.

Offa defeated Cynewulf, ruler of Wessex at the battle of Bensington in Oxfordshire in 779 and pushed Wessex back south of the Thames. But Mercian influence over Wessex was limited until the sucession of Beorhtric in 786 when Wessex became effectively a client state of Mercia, with Beorhtric being married off to one of Offa's daughters, and in 789 Offa forced Egbert, a rival and anti-Mercian claimant to the kingdom of Wessex inro exile.

Aethelbert, king of East Anglia, must also have proved a trifle unco-operative as Offa had him seized and beheaded in 794 and established direct Mercian rule in East Anglia.1

All of which effectively gave Offa command of all of England south of the Humber , probably the greatest extent of territory ever ruled by a single Anglo-Saxon king at that time.

Ecclesiastic policy

Offa was eager to free Mercia from the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, if only because the incumbent archbishop Jaenberht was a focus for the Kentish independence movement. In 786 he induced Pope Hadrian I to despatch two legates, George of Ostia and Theophylactus of Todi and formulated a plan to create a new Mercian archbishopric at Lichfield.

This plan was confirmed the following year at the Synod of Chelsea2 and put into effect in 788; Jaenberht was deprived of the the sees of Worcester, Leicester, Lindsay, Elmham, and Dunwich which were all transferred to the jurisdiction of Hygeberht the first Archbishop of Lichfield. It has been argued that the institution of the payment of Peter's Pence to the Papacy was initiated by Offa as the inevitable payoff for the Pope's assistance in the matter.3

Assessment

Despite Offa's obvious dominance of late eighth century England, the sources for the detail of his rule are somewhat sparse (as they tend to be for most Mercian kings), but amongst whose most noted achievements were;

  • He codified and promulgated a new code of laws which has not, unfortunately survived, but was later used by Alfred as a basis for his codification.
  • He reformed the currency and introduced a new silver penny, which was to remain the basis of English currency until the thirteenth century.
  • He entered into negotiations with Charlemagne; a marriage alliance was considered but came to nothing but they did agree on a commercial treaty, arguably the first record of such an agreement in English history.
  • Possibly most famously, sometime between 784 and 796 he ordered the construction of a massive linear earthwork now named after him as Offa's Dyke that stretched across the western border of Mercia dividing it from the Welsh kingdoms beyond.

Despite his use of the title 'king of the English;, he was a long way from being 'king of England' as his authority depended more on his recognition as the leading king amongst a number of rulers rather than the direct control of territory by Mercia, and it is debatable how much actual control he exercised north of the Humber. But he was certainly the most powerful English king before Alfred, his ability to command the resources and organisation to construct his famous dyke is a testament to the extent of his affluence and power.

By the time died on the 29th July 796 Mercia was at the peak of its power and influence. He was succeeded by his son, but only briefly, Ecgfrith was dead by the December of 796, and despite Offa's grip on power, Mercia would within a generation by eclipsed by its southern neighbour Wessex.


Offa the Muslim

One of the most curious features of Offa is the serious argument put forward by some Islamic scholars that Offa was a convert to the Muslim faith. This assertion is based on the evidence of a gold coin produced by Offa that bears the legend "Offa Rex" together with a phrase in Arabic Kufic script which translates as "There is no god but ALLAH and there is no associate unto Him". To some this coin is taken as evidence of Offa's profession of the Islamic faith and is his public proclamation thereof.

Of course the obvious weakness in this argument is that profession of a non-Christian faith by an eighth century English king would have resulted in fairly instant excommunication by the Pope together with a fairly rapid removal from power as the king's subjects rose in rebellion. As far as we can tell none of these things actually happened. In fact Offa seems to have spent most of his reign behaving in a standard Christian fashion, endowing Churches with land, negotiating with the Pope, all of which would have been distinctly odd behaviour for a professed Muslim.

The plain truth is that the coin is simply a copy of a gold dinar by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur, the original of which is dated to 157 AH (AD 774). Offa probably had the coin copied to facilitate trade with the Mediterranean where payment in gold was the norm; it is unlikely that the manufacturers of the coin or Offa himself had any understanding of what the Arabic text actually meant.


NOTES

1 Tradition has it that Aethelbert conveniently went to see Offa to seek the hand of his daughter.

2 Offa also took advantage of the synod to have his son Ecgfrith consecrated as his co-ruler who subsequently styled himself as 'king of Mercia', even before his father's death.

3 Or alternatively as part of his penance for the murder of Aethelbert.


SOURCES

Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby 1991)

Articles on Offa at;

  • The Catholic Encyclopedia at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11215c.htm
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica at http://33.1911encyclopedia.org/O/OF/OFFA_KING_OF_MERCIA.htm

For the debate concerning Offa and Islam see the following articles;

  • Did King Offa Accept the Faith of Islam? From 'The Muslim' Magazine at http://www.sunnahonline.com/ilm/seerah/0037.htm
  • King Offa of Mercia and the Islamic Coin at http://www.bohra.net/archive/offa.html
  • Did King Offa Become a Muslim? at http://answering-islam.org.uk/Hoaxes/offa.html

It seems that the 'Offa' of Mercia, whose origins are obscure, may well have been born with an entirely different name and that Offa was rather his adopted name, chosen one must presume, because it had some significance to the Mercians of the time.

It may possibly have been a harking back to the legendary king Offa of the Angles, but the name Offa also means in Latin a 'ball of dough', which may have had some concious religious symbolism and an attempt by the Mercian Offa to portray himself as some kind of redeemer king.

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