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Mercian Hegemony Essay

History Notes > Anglo-Saxon History (Britain c. AD400-1100) Notes

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What did the Mercian hegemony involve for other kingdoms?
It is perhaps a temptation of every historian - for history is a literary art - to attempt to define periods of the past in straightforward and striking terms. Historians of AngloSaxon England have thus been content to speak of the seventh century as being characterised by Northumbrian dominance, the eighth, Mercian supremacy and the ninth, West Saxon ascendancy. There is certainly merit to these very general labels, but in their boldness they sacrifice nuance: the political landscape in Britain was never as simple as they might suggest. The pre-eminence of any kingdom in the period did not necessarily lead to its overlordship of all others, while the hegemonies that did exist were neither uniform nor particularly stable. Above all, it would be anachronistic to think of England as developing a unified political or cultural identity in the period in question, or to suppose that powerful kings would have wanted to impose one. While it may be convenient to talk about a 'Mercian hegemony' existing in the eighth century, then, it would be a mistake to think of such an order in monolithic terms. By exploring the effect of the great power of Mercia on different kingdoms at different times, and demonstrating that this was rarely the same, we can hope to avoid the trap that we ourselves have set. It is worth mentioning that there are significant evidential challenges to be overcome in the study of the rise of Mercia. The unhappy fate of the wealthiest religious houses of the Midlands in the wake of Scandinavian invasion and settlement has left us with very few Mercian charters, no Mercian law codes and no Mercian document comparable to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or the Northumbrian or Welsh set of annals. We are thus in the precarious position of having to rely for much of our understanding of political developments within Mercia and of Mercian relationships with other powers on written sources created within neighbouring kingdoms, many of which were the targets of Mercian aggression. We are left, too, with comparatively little evidence relating to Mercian activity in the neighbouring Anglian kingdoms, whose churches were as susceptible to destruction as were Mercia's own. It is from Bede's Ecclesiastical History that we receive the fullest narrative of the Mercian King Aethelbald's reign up until 731. The Northumbrian Bede's apparent hostility towards Mercia has often been noted, and his reticence on Mercian power in the later seventh century is certainly striking. However, his statement in the last chapter of his work that 'all English kingdoms south of the Humber' were subject to Aethelbald is potentially equally misleading, it suiting the ecclesiastic's didactic purpose to present an image of England unified under a succession of powerful Christian kings, reflecting a degree of unity and probity within the Church that was probably Bede's main concern. Royal charters provide an insight into the activities of Mercian kings throughout the period, but the majority of those that survive have been preserved in the churches of other kingdoms. While these can be an invaluable indication of the scope and nature of Mercian influence, Keynes points out that the ecclesiastics drafting the documents also had an interest in presenting kings as operating in a deceptively uniform way. In a similar vein, the grandiose styles sometimes attributed to the kings of Mercia in such charters could be an attempt by the beneficiaries to reinforce their claims as easily as they could reflect on the self-perception of the rulers in question. West Saxon sources in general, including several charters and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tend to present Mercian power as unjust and violently imposed, particularly compared to the West
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