Changing Faces: Offa, King of Mercia

England's answer to Charlemagne, or merely a ruthless king of Mercia? Simon Keynes sifts the evidence for a verdict on the man best known today as the builder of a dyke.

It greatly pleases me that you are so intent on education, that the light of wisdom, which is now extinguished in many places, may shine in your kingdom. You are the glory of Britain, the trumpet of proclamation, the sword against foes, the shield against enemies.

Thus wrote the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin, in a letter written from Frankia in the late 780s or early 790s, addressed to Offa, King of Mercia. Of course the hyperbole must be taken with a pinch of salt, but there is no mistaking Alcuin's warm approval of a king whose worldly power made him a friend to be cultivated, as much as a force to be respected. Yet within months of Offa's death, on July 29th, 796, Alcuin's tone was noticeably different. He could still refer, as the need arose, to the 'good, moderate, and chaste customs which Offa of blessed memory established', but only now was he prepared to admit what he must have known before; that Offa's hands were stained with the blood of a good many rivals.

Alcuin was not the first to express T one view during the lifetime of a dictator, and another after the dictator's death; nor would he prove to be the last. But perhaps there was more to his change of heart than the difference between an encomium of the living and an indictment of the safely dead. The surviving corpus of Alcuin's correspondence, comprising over three hundred letters (of which about seventy are addressed to recipients in England – mainly in Northumbria, Mercia and Kent), affords a remarkable view of how one interested observer responded to developments in his homeland in the late eighth and early ninth centuries; and these letters should reveal what Alcuin found to praise in Offa, and why he was prepared to overlook evidence of Offa's tyranny while the king still lived.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email if you have any problems.



Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week