By Damian Tyler
Midland History, Vol. 30 (2005)
Introduction: The overthrow of Penda meant the end of militant heathenism and the development of civilization in England.
The words cited above refer to the death in 655 of Penda, the last king of the Mercians to die a non-Christian. Today Stenton’s judgement of Penda seems both anachronistic and loaded with questionable value judgements. Few if any contemporary scholars would consciously endorse the agenda implicit in his words, yet arguably a modified form of Stenton’s vision of Penda still underpins much of the literature on Mercian hegemony, and indeed on overkingship in general. Overkingship is an aspect of early Anglo-Saxon society which has traditionally attracted much scholarly attention. The mechanisms of these systems – how they were built up, the methods used to maintain them, the reasons for their collapse – have frequently been discussed. One reason for this interest is that English historians historically have been preoccupied with the creation in the tenth century of a single English kingdom, and have looked for its antecedents in the overkingships of the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries. Despite this extensive consideration, Penda has received comparatively little attention. Even scholars writing about Mercian dominance have had little to say about him. Typically, his career is given cursory attention, and writers quickly move on to later, Christian Mercian rulers. While his power is generally acknowledged, he is not treated as an overking of the same order as the Northumbrians Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu.
Overall, the impression one gets is that Penda’s career was somehow less significant than those of later kings, and that the important aspects of Mercian history begin with his sons Wulfhere and Æthelred. Perhaps more significantly, insofar as Penda is considered, it tends to be in terms of his impact on others: to date little attempt has been made to look in any detail at his rule from the inside. This article endeavors to do so. After an exploration of the sources available for Penda’s kingship the central section of the piece consists of a consideration of the extent of Penda’s hegemony, followed by a detailed analysis of the mechanisms sustaining it. In the conclusion it will be argued that Penda’s style of overkingship represented a flexible but essentially conservative reaction to the new strategies of power which Christian ideology and Christian churchmen were providing for other seventh-century kings.