Penda Falls

Today is the anniversary of the battle of Winwæd near Leeds (15 Nov 655), where Penda of Mercia, the last great pagan Anglo-Saxon king, fell. It is a great tale that deserved to be told in heroic verse, but it wasn’t. The only clues to heroic legends on Penda’s last campaign come from the Welsh Historia Brittonum.

King and Kingdom Inseparable

Penda of Mercia was the ethnogenic figure for Mercia. In him, the origins and history of Mercia begin. Yes, Bede does record one previous Mercian king, Edwin’s father in law Ceorl, but the Mercians themselves considered their history to begin with Penda about a generation later. It is with Penda that all Mercian king lists begin. His lineage is the oldest Mercian royal geneaology. Most striking of all, the Historia Brittonum declares that Penda was the first to separate Mercia from northern English control.

In Penda all three ethnogenesis criteria are met, though not in the usual order or manner. Penda’s hegemony and family provide the Mercians with a common history and royal ancestry. All later Mercian territory could look back to a period when they were under Penda’s hegemony if not direct conquest. His victory at the battle of Maserfelth on 5 August 642 where Oswald of Northumbria was slain separated Mercia from northern English rule. He gave them their first real independence and was the first Mercian to have hegemonic power. It was the first recorded Mercian defeat of a traditional enemy. His death in the battle of Winwæd brought on Mercian conversion under the power of his slayer King Oswiu of Northumbria. Converting under the domination of a foreign power prevented the Mercians from having conversion as part of their national story. Mercian support of veneration for St. Oswald at Bardney, slain by Penda at Maserfelth, provided the Mercians with a royal saint and role model for their conversion, even if he was Northumbrian. Offa of Mercia was particularly generous to Oswald’s shrine at Bardney.

Penda the Man

Can we say anything about Penda the man? Yes, actually we can because Bede inadvertently tells us quite a bit about his character, and as do British sources.

“Now King Penda did not forbid the preaching of the Word, even in his own Mercian kingdom, if any wished to hear it. But he hated and despised those who, after they had accepted the Christian faith, were clearly lacking in works of faith. He said that they were despicable and wretched creatures who scorned to obey the God in whom they believed. All this started two years before Penda’s death.” (HE III:21, McClure & Collins, 1994:145)

So we know that Penda was a man of his convictions and hated hypocrites. Of course, Penda may have been giving his people specifically unsavory challenges to their faith. This also may indicate that there were missionaries in Mercia before those who accompanied his son Peada back to Middle Anglia. It is quite possible that some of those missionaries were British.

This brings us to the second facet of Penda’s character. He was willing and successful at making multi-ethnic, specifically British-English relationships. This also speaks to his toleration of Christianity because the Britons were overwhelmingly Christian. The first time Bede mentions Penda he is the junior partner of Cadwallon, King of Britons, where…

“A fierce battle was fought on the plain of Hatfield Chase on 12 October in the year of our Lord 633…In this war too, one of the sons, Osfrith, a warlike youth, fell before him while the other, Eadfrith, was compelled to desert to King Penda; the latter, in spite of an oath, afterwards murdered him, during the reign of Oswald.” (HE II:20, McClure & Collins, 1994:105)

We don’t know under what conditions the “deserter” Eadfrith was executed under but we can imagine that shortly after the death of Cadwallon and the rise of Oswald son of Aethelfrith that the Eadfrith was on the loosing end of a cost-benefit analysis. Regardless of what happened to Eadfrith, grandson of Coerl of Mercia, Penda’s close relationship with the Britons continues throughout his reign.

Bede tells us that for his final campaign into Northumbria Penda raised an army of 30 royal ealdormen including King Aethelhere, brother and successor of Anna, King of East Anglia, the cause of the war. He also had at least the men of Gwynedd [North Wales] and according to poetry some of the warlords of Powys.

“[64.] He[Oswiu] slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu [Iudeu/Stirling], were slain.

[65.] Then Oswy restored all the wealth, which was with him in the city, to Penda; who distributed it among the kings of the Britons, that is, Atbert Judeu. [Redistribution of Iudeu/Stirling] But Catgabail alone, king of Guenedot[Gwynedd], rising up in the night, escaped together with his army, wherefore he was called Catgabail Catguommed [Battle Shirker].” (Historia Brittonum, Chapters 64b & 65a)

The translation of the online version of the HB used here leaves much to be desired but it is a rather confused passage. I believe that chapters 64 and 65 (here only shown in part) are each included in this very choppy history to make different points and the author didn’t really care about reconciling them. Nevertheless, it is explicit that Britons were slain fighting beside Penda and Cadafael (Catgabail), King of Gwynedd (probably Cadwallon’s successor) was ridiculed for leaving Penda before the battle of Winwaed/Campus Gai. In short, the Britons supported Penda and he respected them enough for Cadafael to leave his army without a fight, ie. Cadafael was not compelled by threat to be there. I think that it is possible that some parts of western Mercia became part of Penda’s kingdom peacefully. There are no battles recorded between Penda or his sons and the Britons. The Magonsæte and Wreconsæte may have come peacefully. Penda’s son Merewealh and his sons may have been instrumental in the Magonsæte’s gradual, peaceful annexation into Mercia. Of course, that doesn’t mean that later Welsh kings didn’t try to take it back.

Penda’s views on the British and Christianity have to be balanced with his reputation as a warrior king. He is also credited with killing more kings than any other in his age. He killed or took part in the deaths of Edwin of Deira in 633, (Osric and Eanfrith in 634?), Oswald of Bernicia/Northumbria in 642, Sigibert and Ecgric of East Anglia in c. 640-2, and Anna of East Anglia in c. 654. In addition to the execution of Eadfrith of Deira and driving Cenwealh of Wessex into exile. Cenwealh’s father and Oswald’s father in law, Cyngisl of Wessex dies in 642 as well, but we don’t know of what cause. Bede’s History and the ‘Nevelles Supplement to the Vita Fursei concerning Follian’ (written c. 650) both make it clear that Penda was willing to destroy Christian churches and monasteries during his campaigns against their kingdoms. The display he makes of Oswald’s corpse suggests that Penda may have been offering these dead Christian kings to his gods.

In Penda, we have a much more complicated figure than Bede’s History portrays. He also deserves much more scholarly attention.

Further reading:

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, McClure and Collins eds, Colgrave trans, 1994, Oxford UP.

Ziegler, Michelle (2006) “Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St Oswald in the Historia Brittonum.” The Heroic Age, Issue 9.

Pretty, Kate (1989) ‘Defining the Magonsæte’ p. 171-183; In: The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. S. Bassett editor.

Gelling, Margaret. ( 1989) ‘The Early History of Western Mercia’ p. 184-201; In: The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. S. Bassett editor.

Hart, Cyril. (1977) ‘The Kingdom of Mercia’, p. 43-62; In: Mercian Studies Ed. Ann Dornier, Leicaster University Press.

Paul Fouracre and Richard Gerberding, eds. (1996) Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography 640-720. Manchester UP. (for translation of Follian Addendum)


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