Open main menu

OFFA (d. 796), king of the Mercians, was son of Thingferth, who was descended from Eoppa or Eowa, brother of Penda, king of the Mercians. In 757 Offa's cousin Ethelbald or Æthelbald (d. 757) [q. v.], king of the Mercians, was slain by rebels, led probably by Beornræd, who usurped Ethelbald's throne. But Beomrsed was at once either slain by Offa or driven into exile by the people, and before the year closed Offa succeeded to the Mercian kingship (Flor. Wig. i. 56; Will. Malm. Cfesta Regum, i. 79 ; Chronica Majora, i. 342). Internal troubles had greatly weakened the power of Mercia since the period of Æthelbald's supremacy south of the Humber, which had been lost through his defeat by the West-Saxons at Burford in 754. Wessex had firmly established its independence, and the East-Angles, East-Saxons, and Kentish men were no longer subject to the Mercian king, while it is evident that the Welsh had grown formidable on his western frontier (Green). For fourteen yean after his accession nothing is known of Offa's doings ; those years were apparently epent in making good his position and reducing his kingdom to order. At the end of that time, in 771, he began a career of conquest by the forcible subjugation of the Hestingi (Symbon Historia Regum, ap. 0pp. i. 44). Who these people were is not known ; it is suggested that they were the East-Angles (the two names might easily be confused by a copyist) (Stubbs), and on the other hand that they were a people who have given their name to the town of Hastings (Stmbon, u.s. n.) On the latter assumption Offa's campaign implies a triumphant march through the territory of the East-Saxons, and would have to be reckoned as an early attempt at the conquest of Kent. It is with that kingdom that Offa is next found at war; he defeated the Kentish army in 776 at Otford, and his victory seems to have made Kent subject to him. At this time, too, the East-Saxons were no doubt brought under his supremacy, and their subjection would imply that he gained London, where he is said, though on no good authority, to have built himself a residence. Having brought the south-eastern part of England under his dominion, he made war on the West-Saxons, and in 779 fought with their king, Cynewulf [q. v.], at Bensington, or Benson, in Oxfordshire, and took the town (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an. 777). This victory gave him Oxford and the territory north of the Thames that had been lost to Mercia by the battle of Burford, and south of the Thames the country between the Thames and the Berkshire hills as far west as Ashbury (Historia de Abingdon, i. 14 ; Parker, Early Hiftory of Oxford, p. 109). Offa next attacked the Welsh, and under him the English for the first time obtained a permanent increase of territory west of the Severn. In the same year as that of his victory at Bensington he began a series of incursions across the river, and finally, in order to check the retaliatory raids of the Welsh, defined and defended his frontier by an earthwork drawn from the mouth of the Wye to the mouth of the Dee. Offa's dyke, as this earthwork is called, is, roughly speaking and reckoning Monmouthshire as Welsh, still the boundary between England and Wales, though the traces now left of it are few. Offa thus added to Mercia a large part of Powys, together with the town of Pengwern, the modern Shrewsbury (Rhys, Celtic Britain, p. 141 ; Annales Uambrenses, ann. 778-784 ; Asser, ap. Monumenta Historica Britannica, p. 471). The native population remained in the conquered land, and lived side by side with their conquerors. An opportunity of establishing amicable relations with the West-Saxon kingdom occurred on the accession of Beorhtric or Brihtric [q. v.], when Egbert or Ecgberht {d. 839) [q. v.], afterwards king of the West-Saxons, a member of the royal line who had claims to the throne, fled for shelter to the Mercian court. Beorhtric desired that he should be expelled, and in 789 Offa gave Beorhtric his daughter Eadburga or Eadburh [q. v.] in marriage, and drove Egbert from his kingdom.

The commanding position that Offa obtained south of the Humber was recognised on the continent, for Pope Hadrian I, writing to the Frankish king Charles, or Charlemagne, described him as king of the English nation, spoke of a baseless rumour that Offa had proposed to Charles that they should depose the pope, and declared that he had received ambassadors from him with pleasure (Monumenta Carolina, pp. 279-282). Offa soon had need of the pope's assistance in a scheme for the consolidation of the Mercian power. His conquests tended to impress on England a threefold political division into Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex, and he desired to complete the independent organisation of his kingdom by the institution of a third and Mercian archbishopric, to the prejudice of the rights of the see of Canterbury ; while it can scarcely be doubted that he saw that to weaken Canterbury would strengthen the hold of Mercia upon Kent. His plan was rendered possible by the fact that the conquest of Kent had made Archbishop Jaenbert [q. v.] his subject. In accordance with his request the pope sent to England two legates named George and Theophylact, who, in a synod held at Celchyth, or Chelsea, in 787, sanctioned the surrender by Jaenbert of his rights over the sees of Worcester, Leicester, Lindsay, Elmham, and Dunwich, in order to form an archbishopric for the see of Lichfield, then held by Higbert [q. v.] This arrangement received the papal approval, and

was completed in the course of the next year (Ecclesiatical Documents, iii. 444 seq.) At this synod Offa's son Ecgferth was nominated king in conjunction with his father (not specially king of Kent, as Hen. Huxt. p. 128), though it is probable that his as- sumption of royalty was delayed until, in common with the erection of the new archbishopric, it received the express sanction of the pope. Moreover, at this synod Offa granted to the see of Rome a yearly payment of 365 mancuses for the relief of the poor and the maintenance of lights in St. Peter's Church (Ecclesiastical Documents, iii. 445, 524). This grant seems to have been the origin of Peter's pence. The trade between England and Germany received the attention of both Offa and Charles, and Offa was on terms of close friendship with Gerwold, abbot of St. Wandrille, who was several times sent to him on embassies by the Frankish king, and was employed by Charles to collect the customs at different ports, and specially at Quentavic, or Etaples, at the mouth of the Canche. On one occasion the friendly relations between the two kings were for a time interrupted. It is said that Charles asked for one oi Offa's daughters in marriage for his eldest son, that Offa refused unless Charles would give his daughter in marriage to Offa's son, and that Charles was deeply angered by this assumption of equality by the Mercian king. Whatever the cause may have been, the fact of the disagreement between the kings is certain. In 790 both of them stopped all trade between their countries. Gerwold used his influence to arrange matters, and Alcuin [q. v.] wrote that he thought it likely that he should be sent to England to that end (Gesta Abhatum Fontariellensium, c. 16 ; Monunienta Alcuiniana, p. 167). The two kings soon became friends again. Letters from Charles to Offa request the recall to England of a Scottish priest residing at Cologne, promise immunity to pilgrims on their way to Rome and protection to merchants, and announce that gifts had been sent by the Prankish king to Offa and to Mercian and Northumbrian sees (Monumenta Carolina, pp. 351, 357, 358 ; the letter from which Lingard, Preeman, and others derive the assertion that Charles addressed Offa as the 'most powerful of the Christian kings of the west,' in Heciieil des Historiens, V. 620, is an obvious forgery, and as such has not been included by Jaffé in his Monumenta Carolina).

Offa was a liberal benefactor to monasteries, and a large number of extent charters purport to be grants from him to Christ Church and St. Augustine's at Canterbury, to Worcester, Peterborough, Evesham, St. Alban's, Rochester, and other churches. Some of these charters are forgeries ; but, setting aside their authenticity, their number alone seems to prove that nis benefactions were numerous, for otherwise so many would not have been attributed to him (all the references to these charters in Kemble's Codex Diplomaticus are given, and some of them are criticised by Bishop Stubbs in his article on 'Offa, king of the Mercians,' in the Dictionary of Christian Biography, iv. 68 seq.) He is said to have founded the abbeys of St. Albans and Bath ({sc|Hen. Hunt.}} p. 124; Will. Malm. Gesta Pontif. pp. 196, 316). Bath monastery he received in exchangre from Heathored, bishop of Worcester, in 781, and he may perhaps nave raised new buildings there ; but there were monks there when he received it (see Codex Dipl. No. 143). He is also credited with having restored Westminster (Monasticon, i. 266), and with having granted land to the abbey of St. Denys at Paris Birch, Cartularium Saxonirum, i. 360). On the other hand, William of Malmesbury asserts that he despoiled many churches, Malmesbury, from which he took an estate to give to the see of Worcester, being among the number (Gesta Pontiff. p. 388 ; Gesta Regum, i. 86). In the latter years of his reign he made an alliance with Æthelred, king of Northumbria (murdered in 796), and gave him one of his daughters in marriage, in 792. In 794 he caused Ethelbert or Sithelberht [q. v.], king of the East-Angles, to be beheaded, probably on account of some sign of impatience of the Mercian supremacy among his people, and subdued his kingdom. This act is generally condemned as cruel and treacherous [see under Ethelbert or Æthelberht]. He is said to have again made war on the Welsh and to have ravaged Rienuch in 795 (Annales Cambrenses, sub ann.) During his last days the Kentish nobles made some attempts to shake off the Mercian yoke, and resisted the strenuous efforts of Ethelhard or Æthelheard [q.v.], archbishop of Canterbury, who was devoted to the Mercian cause, to keep them in order (Ecclesiastical Documents, iii. 495, 496). Offa died on 29 July 796 (comp. Flor. Wig. i. 63, and Monumenta Carolina, p. 357), and immediately on his death Kent openly revolted under Eadbert Praen [q. v.] Save as regards the death of Æthelberht and William of Malmesbury's probably exaggerated accusation with respect to certain dealings with church lands, Offa left behind him a high character. He was certainly religious, and was a remarkably able and active ruler. The correspondence between him and Charles the Great proves

that he was worthy of respect, both personally and as a powerful king. Offa put forth laws for his people; they are not extant, but King Ælfred, in the preface to his laws, declares that he used them in common with the laws of others of his predecessors (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, i. 58). His queen was Kynethryth, who is said to have been concerned in the death of Æthelberht. His only son, Ecgferth or Egfrith, succeeded him, and reigned only a few months, being succeeded in the same year by Cenwulf. His daughters were Eadburga, Eadburgh, or Eadburh (fl. 802) [q. v.], wife of Beorhtric, king of the West-Saxons; Elfleda or Ælflæd, wife of Æthelred of Northumbria; Ethelburga or Æthelburh, an abbess; Ælfthryth, perhaps the Elfrida said to have been promised to Æthelberht, died a virgin (Flor. Wig.); and Æthelswyth.

Offa is the subject of legends. Some are connected with the death of Æthelberht [see under Ethelbert]. Others are contained in the ‘Vitæ duorum Offarum,’ falsely attributed to Matthew Paris, which gives, first, a wholly legendary life of one of his ancestors, also named Offa, fifth in descent from Woden; and, secondly, a life of the Mercian king, whose name, so the writer asserts, was originally Winfrith, and was changed to Offa on account of his likeness to an ancestor of that name. The story is of no historic value. It was believed at St. Albans and elsewhere that, after Offa had translated the relics of St. Alban, he journeyed to Rome, was received by Pope Hadrian, obtained from him a privilege for the monastery that he was about to build in honour of the saint, and granted the Roman see St. Peter's pence, to be paid by every family for ever to the English school at Rome, which was then flourishing or which he then founded (Chronica Majora, i. 358–60; Gesta Abbatum S. Albani, i. 45; Vitæ duorum Offarum, pp. 984, 985; Hen. Hunt. p. 124). This belief, which was mistaken, was no doubt derived from the king's actual yearly grant to the pope begun in 787. Offa is further said to have been buried in a chapel on the Ouse, near Bedford. The place of his burial was not known, and the St. Albans historian comforts himself, when writing of this calamity, with the reflection that it was not otherwise with Moses. A German legend connects Offa with the town of Offenburg, in the grand-duchy of Baden.

[Anglo-Sax. Chron. ann. 777, 792, 794, 796, Sym. Dunelm. i. 353, ii. 41, 44, 48, Henry of Huntingdon, pp. 123, 124, 126, 128–31, Will. of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum, i. 84–6, 91, 95, 105, 109, and Gesta Pontiff. pp. 66, 194, 305, 388; Hist. de Abingdon, i. 14, 18, Matt. Paris's Chron. Maj. i. 342, 354–63, Gesta Abb. S. Albani, i. 4–9 (all in the Rolls Ser.); Flor. Wig. i. 56, 59, 62, 63, 266 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Ann. Camb. ann. 778, 784, 795 (Mon. Hist. Brit. p. 835); Jaffé's Monumenta Carolina, pp. 279–82, 351, 352, 357, and Mon. Alcuin. p. 167; Gesta Abb. Fontanell. c. 16, ed. Pertz; Kemble's Codex Dipl. Nos. 105–67 passim (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Haddan and Stubbs's Eccl. Documents, iii. 440–7, 462, 478–88, 496–9; Dugdale's Monast. i. 266, ii. 214; Thorpe's Ancient Laws and Institutes, i. 58 (8vo edit.); Vitæ duorum Offarum, ap. Matt. Paris, pp. 969 seq. (ed. Wats); Dict. Chr. Biogr. iv. 68–71, art. ‘Offa’ (4) by Bishop Stubbs; Green's Making of England, pp. 418–22, 424; Rhys's Celtic Britain, p. 141; Parker's Early Hist. of Oxford, p. 109, Oxford Hist. Soc.]

W. H.