Penda: The last great Anglo-Saxon Pagan King

This article looks at a bit of English History, where we go back to 7th century, to the era known as the Dark Ages, to find the last Pagan Anglo-Saxon King, by the name of Penda. He was the and son of Pybba of Mercia, with an ancestry supposedly extending back to the Pagan Germanic All-Father God himself, Wōden. It was the time before even the famous story of Beowulf was written, and the common tongue throughout the lands controlled by the Anglo-Saxons was Old English. This was a language brought to England in the early 5th century by Anglo-Saxon settlers who came to the island of Great Britain and who were originally the Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Penda was a great warrior-king from Mercia, who fought many battles, which led to the omnipotence of that particular kingdom in the English Midlands. Mercia repelled the impingement of Christianity for a long time, compared to some of the other seven Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in England during that period (Sussex and the Isle of Wight held out a little bit longer).

Penda ruled Mercia from about 626AD until 655AD. He took over the Severn Valley in 628, following the Battle of Cirencester, and then defeated the great Northumbrian King Edwin at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633. Nine years later, Penda defeated and killed King Oswald (Edwin’s successor) at the Battle of Maserfield. After his victory at Maserfield, Penda was probably the most dominant of the Anglo-Saxon rulers of the time. Oswald’s death meant that Northumbria divided back into the two previous kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira making Mercia the dominant Anglo-Saxon Kingdom. Penda repeatedly defeated the East Angles and forced Cenwalh, the king of Wessex, into three years of exile. Sometime after 633 the two East Anglian kings, Sigebert and Egric, were both killed in battle by Penda. Throughout Penda’s reign war was waged continuously between the Mercians and the Bernicians of Northumbria.

Examples of what Anglo-Saxon warriors wore

Under Penda’s leadership and fighting prowess the Kingdom of Mercia was respected, hated, and feared by its enemies. Detailed accounts of Penda’s exploits can be found in Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ and (in the early 9th century) ‘Historia Brittonum’. Penda was known as the “most warlike man of the royal race of the Mercians” according to Bede. However, it should be mentioned that there would likely be a strong hint of bias against Penda in Bede’s writings, due to the long-standing Northumbrian animosity towards Mercia. It is theorised that Penda is mentioned, under the name of Panna ap Pyd, in the 7th century Welsh praise-poem ‘Marwnad Cynddylan’ with the line “when the son of Pyd requested, he was so ready!”

It is interesting to note, from a literary viewpoint, that J. R. R. Tolkien is one of many scholars who have studied and promoted the Mercian dialect of Old English. Tolkien included various Mercian terms in his legendarium, thus familiarising his readers with the Mercian language; this was principally in relation to the Kingdom of Rohan, which featured in his famous fantasy book series ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Not only is the language of Rohan actually derived from the Mercian dialect of Old English, but a number of its kings are given the same names as monarchs who appear in the Mercian royal lineage, such as Fréawine, Fréaláf and Éomer. Quite fittingly, just as in Tolkien’s wonderful fantasy stories of the Riders of Rohan in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, it would be easy to imagine a saga of Penda’s triumphs being told in Old English amongst the Mercian peoples throughout the Dark Ages.

Thirteen years after his glorious victory at Maserfield, and at the peak of his powers, Penda suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Oswald’s successor and brother, Oswiu, the king of Northumbria. It was here at the Battle of Winwaed in 655, that Penda was finally killed. Overall, Penda ruled the Mercians for 22 years with varying fortunes during his reign. Penda had his name given to a number of places in the West Midlands, including Pinbury, Peddimore, and Pinvin. Penda’s legacy not only lives on with place names and being known as the last great Pagan warrior-king among the Anglo-Saxons, but also his contribution to England endured linguistically through the Mercian dialect of Old English flourishing through the 8th to the 13th centuries, and more recently in the 20th Century, being preserved and endorsed by Tolkien. Penda was also portrayed in several movie/TV productions, including ‘Penda’s Fen’ (1974), ‘The Coming of the Cross’ (1975; an episode of ‘Churchill’s People’), and ‘Whiteblade’ (2016). The Mercian dialect of Old English was a vital cornerstone of our language. It was Penda’s expansion of the kingdom of Mercia, and the Mercian cultural influence that accompanied it, which provided one of the most important foundations for the eventual creation of the modern English language.

Penda’s death at the Battle of the Winwaed depicted in a stained glass window at Worcester Cathedral

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