Penda of Mercia - Descent, Beginning of Reign, and Battle With The West Saxons

Descent, Beginning of Reign, and Battle With The West Saxons

Penda was a son of Pybba and said to be a descendant of Icel, with a lineage purportedly extending back to Woden. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives his descent as follows:

Penda was Pybba's offspring, Pybba was Cryda's offspring, Cryda Cynewald's offspring, Cynewald Cnebba's offspring, Cnebba Icel's offspring, Icel Eomer's offspring, Eomer Angeltheow's offspring, Angeltheow Offa's offspring, Offa Wermund's offspring, Wermund Wihtlaeg's offspring, Wihtlaeg Woden's offspring.

The Historia Brittonum says that Pybba had 12 sons, including Penda, but that Penda and Eowa were those best known to its author. (Many of these 12 sons of Pybba may in fact merely represent later attempts to claim descent from him.) Besides Eowa, the pedigrees also give Penda a brother named Coenwalh from whom two later kings were said to descend, although this may instead represent his brother-in-law Cenwalh of Wessex.

The time at which Penda became king is uncertain, as are the circumstances. Another Mercian king, Cearl, is mentioned by Bede as ruling at the same time as the Northumbrian king Æthelfrith, in the early part of the 7th century. Whether Penda immediately succeeded Cearl is unknown, and it is also unclear whether they were related, and if so how closely; Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the 12th century, claimed that Cearl was a kinsman of Pybba. It is also possible that Cearl and Penda were dynastic rivals.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Penda became king in 626, ruled for 30 years, and was 50 years old at the time of his accession. That he ruled for 30 years should not be taken as an exact figure, since the same source says he died in 655, which would not correspond to the year given for the beginning of his reign unless he died in the thirtieth year of his reign. Furthermore, that Penda was truly 50 years old at the beginning of his reign is generally doubted by historians, mainly because of the ages of his children. The idea that Penda, at about 80 years of age, would have left behind children who were still young (his son Wulfhere was still just a youth three years after Penda's death, according to Bede) has been widely considered implausible. The possibility has been suggested that the Chronicle actually meant to say that Penda was 50 years old at the time of his death, and therefore about 20 in 626.

Bede, in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, says of Penda that he was "a most warlike man of the royal race of the Mercians" and that, following Edwin of Northumbria's defeat in 633 (see below), he ruled the Mercians for 22 years with varying fortune. The noted 20th century historian Frank Stenton was of the opinion that the language used by Bede "leaves no doubt that ... Penda, though descended from the royal family of the Mercians, only became their king after Edwin's defeat". The Historia Brittonum accords Penda a reign of only ten years, perhaps dating it from the time of the Battle of Maserfield (see below) around 642, although according to the generally accepted chronology this would still be more than ten years. Given the apparent problems with the dates given by the Chronicle and the Historia, Bede's account of the length of Penda's reign is generally considered the most plausible by historians. Nicholas Brooks noted that, since these three accounts of the length of Penda's reign come from three different sources, and none of them are Mercian (they are West Saxon, Northumbrian, and Welsh), they may merely reflect the times at which their respective peoples first had military involvement with Penda.

The question of whether or not Penda was already king during the late 620s assumes greater significance in light of the Chronicle's record of a battle between Penda and the West Saxons under their kings Cynegils and Cwichelm taking place at Cirencester in 628. If he was not yet king, then his involvement in this conflict might indicate that he was fighting as an independent warlord during this period—as Stenton put it, "a landless noble of the Mercian royal house fighting for his own hand." On the other hand, he might have been one of multiple rulers among the Mercians at the time, ruling only a part of their territory. The Chronicle says that after the battle, Penda and the West Saxons "came to an agreement." It has been speculated that this agreement marked a victory for Penda, ceding to him Cirencester and the areas along the lower River Severn. These lands, to the southwest of Mercia, had apparently been taken by the West Saxons from the British in 577, and the territory eventually became part of the subkingdom of the Hwicce. Given Penda's role in the area at this time and his apparent success there, it has been argued that the subkingdom of the Hwicce was established by him; evidence to support this is lacking, although the subkingdom is known to have existed later in the century.

Read more about this topic:  Penda Of Mercia

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