King of Mercia (658-675)
Born ? Died 675
Under the thumb of Northumbria
In the year 655 Penda, king of Mercians was defeated and killed by Oswiu, ruler of Northumbria at the battle of the Winwaed. As a result, the kingdom of Mercia fell entirely under the sway of Northumbria; the portion of the kingdom north of the river Trent was placed under Northumbrian 'direct rule', whilst that south of the river was placed in the charge of Peada1, the eldest son of the former king Penda.
This new order was not to everyone's taste, Penda's remaining sons Wulfhere and Aethelred appear to have gone into hiding and plotted rebellion against their new Northumbrian masters. Peada was soon assassinated and in the year 658 the Mercians revolted under the leadership of Wulfhere and regained their independence.
Despite the initial struggles against Northumbria Wulfhere's aggresive instincts were directed south rather than north. His father Penda had already had his own clashes with the Gewissae (as the proto-kingdom of Wessex was known at the time. In particular in 628 Penda had wrested control of the area around Gloucester and Cirencester away from the Gewissae and established what became the sub-kingdom of the Hwicce.2
In the year 661 Wulfhere followed his father's example and launched a major invasion of the south, defeating Cenwalh king of the Gewissae in battle at Pontesbury and pursuing him as far as Ashdown in modern Berkshire. Wulfhere was further able to take control of the territories of the Meanwara3 and the Isle of Wight and to persuade Aethelwalh, king of Sussex to adopt the Christian faith and acted as his godfather, granting Aethelwalh control of the captured territories in return for his submission.4
It is clear that Essex also fell under his control as in 665 he sent Bishop Jaruman there to bolster the church in the face of king Sigehere's apparent pagan sympathies5. Frithuwold of Surrey also recognised his dominion and Wulfhere maintained at least friendly relations with Kent. (He married Eormenhild daughter of Eorcenberht the king of Kent.)
These moves to expand the influence of Mercia south across the whole of England below the Humber established a policy that was to be echoed time and again in the future history of Mercia. His successors such as Aethelred and Offa would all seek to establish the same dominion. But it was perhaps this focus on the south that enabled the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith6 to seize control of the territory of Lindsey away from Mercia in the early 670's. Wulhere's attempted assault on Northumbria in 674 ended in defeat and he was forced to abandon the attempt at recovering Lindsey.
In 675 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that he was once again fighting the Gewissae under Aescwine with an indeterminate result.
Wulfhere died later in the year 675. He is remembered for his achievement in establishing Mercia as the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the south, a position that it would essentialy retain for the next two centuries. Naturally the the Venerable Bede did not heap any praises on him, as he was a Mercian and therefore an enemy of Bede's native Northumbria, but this should not obscure the fact that he demonstrated that seventh century Mercia was at least Northumbria's equal in terms of power and prestige.
He was succeeded by his brother Aethelred who carried on where Wulfhere left off.
1 Paeda had married one of Oswiu's daughters and seems to have been happy to co-operate with his father-in-law.
2 It may well have been the case that the events of 655-658 prompted the Gewissawe to expand westwards at the expense of Mercia and encouraged Wulfhere's vigorous reaction.
3 The territory of the Meanwara is the Meon Valley, roughly south Hampshire.
4 It is sometimes assumed that these were taken from Wessex/Gweissae, but they were more likely to have been independent or semi-independant Jutish kingdoms at the time.
5 In the 670s Wulfhere is also recorded as having sold the bishopric of London.
6 Ecgfrith the son of Oswiu who succeeded him in 6xx as king of Northumbria.
Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum