Finding Mercia

The Anglo-Saxons can feel very remote. It’s nearly 1000 years since that period ended with Harold’s defeat at Hastings, and the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others had first made their mark on England some 600 years before that. Luckily we have some written sources for the period – Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for example – and we have archaeological evidence. And there is certainly a wealth of it, including famously the Staffordshire Hoard and the Sutton Hoo burial. So many of the buildings though, because they were made of wood, perished, just like the ship at Sutton Hoo. Archaeologists often only find post holes, from which, admittedly, they are able to reconstruct the great halls and smaller buildings.

Deerhurst Priory Church showing the Anglo-Saxon architecture.
Deerhurst Priory Church interior

So it’s a rare bonus when we find stone buildings from the period. They are almost always churches rather than secular dwellings, but they can still link us to individuals. And in Deerhurst, Gloucestershire, you get a ‘two-fer’(two-for-one): St Mary’s Priory Church and Odda’s Chapel.

These are especially significant for me because I mainly write about the Mercians, and Gloucestershire was in Mercia. Deerhurst, though, was originally in the kingdom of the Hwicce, a people whose origins are obscure. Indeed, we are not even entirely sure where the Mercians came from, or what their name means.

It derives from Myrcna, meaning people of the march, or border. But it might be a name used by others to describe them and we’re not even sure whether it means the border between England and Wales, or between Mercia and the northern kingdom of Northumbria. What is certain is that aside from their core lands, north and south of the River Trent, they expanded by absorbing smaller kingdoms and tribes, such as the Hwicce.

From the outset, the Mercians were different. Not because they absorbed other kingdoms (although they may have done it less forcefully than others), but because they continued to recognise these tribes and erstwhile monarchies; in the seventh century, Osric of the Hwicce was styled ‘sub-king’. In the later period, Mercian ealdormen tended to be leaders of local areas, rather than appointed by the king. One of the most famous Mercians, King Penda, remained resolutely pagan when all about him were converting to Christianity, although he was religiously tolerant, allowing Christian preachers to spread the Word in Mercia. Mercians retained a sense of national identity, despite their tribal make-up, and even after Mercia had been absorbed into the greater kingdom of Wessex and no longer had kings, they still had a voice; in three succession disputes, the Mercians voted for the winning candidate.

Perhaps the most famous Mercian leader was Æthelflæd. She had Mercian blood through her mother, and her father was Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, but her husband was a Mercian, a mysterious man named Æthelred, and it is thought that he might have had links with the Hwicce.

St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester, where Aethelflaed was buried

Although they were both buried at St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester, Deerhurst Priory Church was in the very heart of Hwicce lands, and it’s perfectly possible that Æthelflæd and her husband worshipped in this church, which is still used today. To sit in that ancient building, where people have worshipped for over 1000 years, is really to feel a connection to the past. Æthelflæd was never a queen, but after her husband’s death she continued to work alongside her brother the king of Wessex, to fight back against the invading ‘Vikings’ and limit their expansion.

After her death, her daughter was deposed and Mercia was absorbed into Wessex. But many Mercians were wielders of great power. Eadric Streona was one such, although he changed sides so much during the wars between Edmund Ironside of Wessex and Cnut that he is notorious rather than famous. Lady Godiva was a Mercian, too, although whether you believe the story of her naked horseback ride is up to you. (I don’t!)

There had been earlier powerful women in Mercia. The wife of King Offa (he who famously built the dyke) was Cynethryth, the only known woman to have coins minted in her name. Another was King Cenwulf’s daughter, a powerful abbess who took on the might of Canterbury and Rome and fought to keep control of her abbeys. She lost the abbeys in Kent, but held onto Winchcombe, in her family’s heartlands. Yet she paid a price; it was said that she arranged the killing of her brother. It’s a rather unbelievable tale, involving a dove dropping a message on the altar of St Peter’s in Rome, saying where the body was hidden, and of her eyes falling out when she tried to cast a spell, but it’s a good tale nonetheless.

Odda’s Chapel


A very short walk from the priory church is Odda’s Chapel. In 1675 a tree fell down in the orchard outside a half-timbered manor house, revealing an inscription stone embedded in its roots. The stone recorded – in Latin – the founding of a chapel by Odda in remembrance of his brother, Ælfric, who had died in 1053. In the nineteenth century renovations to the house revealed the chapel, which had been incorporated into the later building.

Odda’s Chapel -replica inscription stone

It was thought by some that Odda was related to another influential ealdorman of Mercia, whose name was Ælfhere, and that Odda was his grandson. I’ve researched the life of Ælfhere, who was named as one of the three leading noblemen during King Edgar’s reign, for fiction and nonfiction and he seems to have died childless. Odda was more likely to have been related to Æthelweard the Chronicler, ealdorman of the Western shires, who was descended from King Æthelred I, Alfred the Great’s brother.

From the seventh to the eleventh centuries, Mercia and its inhabitants played a key role in the history and politics of what came to be known as England. Sitting in the priory church, or visiting Odda’s chapel, it is possible to feel a very strong connection to these people who lived so long ago, but left behind something tangible, to remind us that they were there.

Photos: ©Annie-Whitehead

Author: Annie-Whitehead

Annie is an author and historian, a member of the Royal Historical Society and of the Historical Writers’ Association. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, chronicles the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and her second, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of Earl Alvar (Ælfhere), who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready, who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, Cometh the Hour, charts the life of King Penda. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, is the recipient of various awards for her novels and has also won awards for her nonfiction essays. She won the inaugural Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Competition. Her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was published by Amberley Books in Sep 2018 and a new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, will be published by Pen & Sword Books in May 2020. 


Blog: Casting Light upon the Shadow

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