The two best early sources of information on Penda of Mercia are The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede and the History of the Britons, written by Nennius. The latter author wrote in more detail about Penda, yet, in his own way, Bede clearly characterized the man’s bloody reign.
Even though King Penda was never a major focal point of any of Bede’s chapters, readers cannot help but notice that the man’s name had a habit of appearing whenever Bede described the death of other 7th-century kings. To set the scene, imagine Bede writing about a saintly Christian king of Northumbria—then, seemingly out of nowhere, Penda arrives with an army and slaughters the opposing king in a bloody battle. That is the general way King Penda’s name appears in Bede’s History. Even so, Bede had to write down Penda’s name quite often. After all, Penda’s military campaigns led to the deaths of at least five separate kings.
Penda became the ruler of Mercia (English midlands) in the 620s or early 630s, after the death of King Ceorl (or Cearl) of Mercia. When he ascended to the Mercian throne, not all was to his liking. Although Penda was the ruler of Mercia, Northumbria was technically in control of the region. Despite being subservient to the Kingdom of Northumbria and not yet officially holding the title “king,” Penda did not give up on his own ambitions.
Upon becoming ruler of Mercia, Penda immediately moved for independence. He began by making strong alliances while also attacking weak targets. In this way, Penda seized Hwicce (approximately Gloucestershire) from the Kingdom of Wessex and formulated a powerful alliance with Cadwallon, the king of Gwynedd. In 633 CE, the combined forces of Cadwallon and Penda faced King Edwin of Northumbria in the Battle of Hatfield Chase. During the battle, King Edwin was killed, throwing Northumbria into instability. With the Northumbrians in chaos, Cadwallon proceeded to ravage the Northumbrian countryside, and Penda succeeded in asserting himself as the independent king of Mercia.
Next, in the 630s or possibly the 640s, King Penda set his sights on East Anglia. There, King Ecgric and the retired (but respected) King Sigebert of East Anglia defended against the Mercian advance. Nevertheless, Penda’s campaign was a great success, and both Ecgric and Sigebert were slain, bringing Penda’s monarch kill-count to at least three.
Around this time, a new ruler in Northumbria was quickly bringing his kingdom back to order. Oswald, a nephew of the slain King Edwin, had returned from exile and claimed the throne of Northumbria. In 634, he killed Penda’s ally, Cadwallon of Gwynedd, and brought the Kingdom of Northumbria back to normalcy. After the initial threats to his kingdom were defeated, King Oswald eventually set out for revenge against Mercia. In 642, King Oswald and the Northumbrians met Penda and his allies in a battle near Owestry, in Shropshire. King Oswald died in the battle, with Penda killing his fourth known king. Following the battle, Penda seized even more Northumbrian land, including the regions of modern Elmet and Lindsey.
With Northumbria momentarily put back in its place, King Penda sought out opportunities in the various kingdoms that bordered his realm. He attacked Wessex and East Anglia, again, and in his campaign against the latter kingdom, he killed his fifth king, this time it was the East Anglian King Anna, who met his end around 654.
Riding upon this wave of successive victories, King Penda likely was feeling invincible. After all, in his military campaigns Penda had killed a minimum of five kings, with two from Northumbria and three from East Anglia. Nevertheless, King Penda wanted even more and decided to launch another military campaign against his greatest rival, the Kingdom of Northumbria. As the proverb goes, those who live by the sword, die by the sword. This saying applied perfectly to King Penda. Spending almost his entire reign in perpetual war, King Penda ultimately died on the battlefield. In 655, King Penda led his army against King Oswiu of Northumbria, brother of the slain King Oswald. The two forces finally clashed at the Battle of the Winwaed River. After asserting Mercia’s independence and making his kingdom a major power in Britain, King Penda died in battle somewhere near Leeds.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Anglo-Saxon helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, c. 7th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer (Penguin Classics, 2003).