Militant Heathen or Visionary Statesman, King Penda of Mercia?

How did Penda end himself on the wrong side of history, and why should the tale of Mercia's last pagan monarch be retold?

"The defeat of Penda represented the end of militant heathenism and the emergence of civilisation in England," writes Sir Frank Stenton in his fundamental study Anglo-Saxon England, published in 1943. Historians in the twentieth century were mainly willing to ignore Penda's rule as inconsequential, or to remember him just as a pagan warrior who plagued Christian kings in 7th-century England. Historians have recently reexamined Penda of Mercia's rule and questioned the long-held unfavourable perception of his reign.

Penda's 30-year reign over Mercia laid the groundwork for succeeding Christian kings like as Wulfhere, thelred, and Offa, and it was Penda who made Mercia powerful enough to earn its place among the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy. So, how did Penda end himself on the wrong side of history, and why should the tale of Mercia's last pagan monarch be retold? A thorough examination of the historical sources indicates that Penda is more complex than previously thought.


Penda of Mercia was the last Mercian king to die a non-Christian, while most Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity. The image shows Æthelberht, who was King of Kent from 589 to 616 AD, being baptized by Augustine of Canterbury. (Public domain)

Penda of Mercia was the last Mercian king to die a non-Christian, while most Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity. The image shows Æthelberht, who was King of Kent from 589 to 616 AD, being baptized by Augustine of Canterbury. ( Public domain )

Rex Perfidus , the Traitorous King Penda of Mercia

Penda, son of Pybba and descended from the noble house of Icling, ruled the kingdom of Mercia from approximately 626 AD until his death at the battle of Winwæd in 655, when his army was defeated by the Northumbrians led by King Oswiu.Penda was the last Mercian king to die a non-Christian, and one of the few surviving Anglo-Saxon rulers to refuse to convert to Christianity during his reign. Penda's unfavorable reputation as rex perfidus, or the betraying king, appears to have stemmed from his effort to stay religiously neutral.

To this day, just a few records from Penda's reign have survived. Bede's History of the English Church and People is the principal source of information on his life, as it is the closest chronologically to Penda's actual existence. Some passages from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Tribal Hidage, as well as the Historia Brittonum, provide some insight, however some of these sources were written centuries after Penda's death. Bede's writing provides the most complete description, and it is likely where Penda's career on the wrong side of history began.

Bede recounts the conversion of the English people, whom he considered to be God's chosen people, as well as the founding of the English Church. Bede characterized Penda as an obstacle to the divinely-ordained process of Christianization, a wicked pagan warrior who slaughtered Christian monarchs in his pursuit for military dominance, since he did not fit neatly into his image of various kingdoms linked by religion. Penda was a very effective military commander in the 640s and 650s AD, and as a result, he became the dominating king in southern Britain. However, Bede mainly ignores this fact, reducing Penda and his people to little more than "idolaters and ignorant of the name of Christ."

Map of Anglo-Saxon England during the time of Penda of Mercia. (Hel-hama / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Map of Anglo-Saxon England during the time of Penda of Mercia. (Hel-hama / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Forging Penda’s Mercian Empire

While Bede decided to portray Penda's militarism in a bad light, military triumph was crucial to Penda's administration and the creation of his Mercian empire of kingdoms. In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, Mercia was not one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; it was still growing and solidifying itself, and parts of its possessions were actively contested by neighboring kingdoms. By the time Penda came to power, all of these surrounding kingdoms had either converted to Christianity or were in the process of doing so, and Mercia stood out as a heathenish island among them.

Penda's administration was not the first to use warfare. War was frequently utilized by Anglo-Saxon monarchs (and British rulers before them) to enrich themselves via loot and acquire dominance over those they destroyed. Increasing their kingdom's strength and riches also allowed kings to attract additional soldiers to their court with expensive gifts, as well as gain the loyalty of tributary rulers from weaker countries. Penda's numerous war triumphs were likely a major factor in attracting many of his friends to his court. They also served to elevate Mercia's prestige among the Midlands kingdoms, and by 655, it had become one of Britain's most powerful kingdoms. Penda, as its over-king, held imperium over most of central Britain.

Penda marched into combat at Winwd with "thirty legions of seasoned warriors headed by the most distinguished ealdormen," these "ealdormen" being his under-kings who recognized Penda as their ruler, according to Bede. Middle Anglia, Hwicce, East Anglia, Deira to the north, and the British kingdom of Gwynedd to the west were among the countries that were tributaries to Mercia in 655.

Penda’s empire has been compared to the “religious imperialism” used by other contemporary Anglo-Saxon kings to consolidate their power. The suggestion is that Penda was adapting to a changing political landscape by escalating his use of aggressive militarism to compensate for the lack of ready-made power structures that came from converting to Christianity. Nicholas Higham, a prominent historian of the period, theorized that Penda’s model of rule was based on pagan “sacral” kingship which led him to reject Christianity as “a cult designed to enforce subordination.” However, the picture painted by the historical sources is not so clear and Penda’s motives for refusing to convert to Christianity appear to be more complicated.

Anglo-Saxon kings were linked to the divine through personal kingship with the god Woden. The image shows Odin & Sons from the 12th-century Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum adventu. (Public domain)

Anglo-Saxon kings were linked to the divine through personal kingship with the god Woden. The image shows Odin & Sons from the 12th-century Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum adventu. ( Public domain )

Sacral Kingship and State Religion

Although there is little evidence of Anglo-Saxon behaviors to identify which form of kingship they followed, the "sacral kingship" idea is the most popular among historical researchers. The premise behind sacral kingship was that the king's principal job was to protect the people by maintaining a live link to the divine through his relationship with the gods. He'd do so by serving as both the head of state and a type of chief priest, performing rites and providing heavenly direction to his people.

The king’s link to the divine was inherent in his role as monarch, but many kings also claimed personal descent from divine sources. For Germanic kings such as the early Anglo-Saxons, this would mainly be done through written genealogies that detailed the ancestry of the royal family line from the god Woden. Penda was one such king - in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles , Penda’s personal genealogy traces his ancestry directly to the god Woden:

Penda was Pybba's offspring, Pybba was Cryda's offspring, Cryda Cynewald's offspring, Cynewald Cnebba's offspring, Cnebba Icel's offspring, Icel Eomer's offspring, Eomer Angeltheow's offspring, Angeltheow Offa's offspring, Offa Wermund's offspring, Wermund Wihtlaeg's offspring, Wihtlaeg Woden's offspring.”

This divine ancestry was believed to endow kings with divine wisdom and supernatural power, but an individual who aspired to rule would not be handed the crown on the basis of ancestry alone. Not all descendants of the gods were thought to inherit their divinity, and a king must first prove himself to possess divine power and wisdom before he could be made king - usually through military successes, or perhaps by demonstrating an ability for prophecy or healing. In Penda’s case, his many military successes throughout his reign would have confirmed to those under his rule that he was indeed descended from the god Woden, and was an earthly embodiment of the war-god’s divine power.

The idea of sacral kingship persisted throughout the Middle Ages, even up until the Norman Conquest , but as Christianity became the dominant religion the nature of kingship shifted in line with new religious practices. Many of Penda’s contemporaries were using Christianity as a “state religion” to unify their kingdoms. By bringing all those under their rule together under one religion, kings were able to create stability and peace in their territories, and the support of the Church would have bolstered the ruler’s hold on their throne by bringing them into a network of power that extended beyond the borders of their kingdom. Penda however, chose not to follow the example of his peers and convert to Christianity, nor did he use the paganistic Germanic religions in a similar way by enforcing them as a state religion.

Penda undoubtedly adhered to these pagan cults on some level, although there is no evidence as to how devout a follower he was. It has nevertheless been suggested that perhaps Penda’s reluctance to convert to Christianity was because he did not see Christ as a suitable divine patron for a warrior king such as himself, particularly due to his recurrent victories over Christian kings. Anglo-Saxons saw divine power as tied to political power and the successes or failures of kings were a reflection of the god to which they held allegiance, so choosing a religion was almost like choosing political allies, where a ruler must forge the most beneficial alliance to secure their reign. Penda, it seemed, did not see Christ as the most powerful ally available to him.

Detail from stained glass window depicting the death of Penda of Mercia at Worcester Cathedral. (Violetriga / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Detail from stained glass window depicting the death of Penda of Mercia at Worcester Cathedral. (Violetriga / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Penda the Brytenwalda: Inclusivity During Penda’s Reign

Penda’s defiant refusal to convert may actually have been a clever political decision, rather than a stubborn adherence to paganism and idolatry. By the latter half of his reign, Penda’s Mercian empire had expanded across vast distances and comprised of tributary kingdoms with rulers and subjects of varying religious beliefs. Many were Christian kings, but while some ascribed to the Roman Catholic version of Christianity others adhered to a slightly different Celtic version brought over from Ireland. It was not a viable option for Penda to try and unify all those over whom he ruled under the one religion, as whichever religion he chose would earn him the displeasure of at least one of his under-kings.

That is not to say that Penda rejected Christianity entirely. Quite the opposite seems to have been the case. Even Bede, who denounced Penda as an enemy of the godly, attributed a certain integrity to Penda when it came to religious matters:

King Penda did not forbid the preaching of the Word, even in his own Mercian kingdom, if any wished to hear it. But he hated and despised those who, after they had accepted the Christian faith, were clearly lacking in the works of faith. He said that they were despicable and wretched creatures who scorned to obey the God in whom they believed .”

Penda also appears not to have resisted the conversion of his son Peada, whom he had made king of the Middle Angles and whose baptism is described in detail by Bede. If Penda were truly the militant heathen that 20th century scholars believed, he would not have ruled with such an attitude of religious inclusivity and tolerance as we see here. Diversity and inclusivity actually seem to have been the cornerstone of Penda’s success as a ruler.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to an over-king such as Penda as brytenwalda, a term which meant “wide-ruler.” Penda was a “wide-ruler” in more than a territorial sense, ruling over not only a religiously diverse group of subjects, but an ethnically diverse one as well. In an era when tensions were high between the Britons and Anglo-Saxons, Penda had an unusually high number of allies among his neighboring British kings, with the king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon, being one of his staunchest allies.

Polarization between the races does not appear to have been as pronounced in Penda’s Mercia. Anglo-Saxons and Britons co-existed amicably under his rule. Relations between Mercia and the British kingdoms were largely peaceful in Penda’s time too, and Penda of Mercia was on friendlier terms with many of his British neighbors than his Anglian ones. In several Welsh poems dating from the era, Penda was even given the fond nickname of Panna ap Pyd , meaning “Penda son of Danger.” This paints a somewhat different image of Penda as a ruler than the overwhelmingly negative one presented by Bede.

Penda of Mercia seems to have had different ideas than Bede about what it meant to be English. Based on the evidence at hand, his England was more inclusive and pluralistic, less concerned with religious faith or ethnicity and more with personal integrity. Personal relationships were crucial in early Anglo-Saxon politics, when processes of government were conducted largely in person and relied upon the mutual goodwill between rulers and elites. Penda’s ability to harmoniously hold together such a large collective of small kingdoms under Mercian rule suggests he was a master of navigating this world of personal politics, earning him the support and loyalty of under-kings from all across the British Midlands.

If we look further afield than Bede’s narrow account of Penda’s rule, we can start to paint a picture of a man who was more than rex perfidus , the traitorous king who was a pagan scourge on a blossoming Christian England. Instead, the Penda we can start to evidence was the brytenwalda, who presided over a court where all were welcomed, a place where people of diverse languages, religions, ethnicities and cultures all met and mingled together.

Penda may have been a king of military ambition. In fact, his successes on the battlefield earned him a reputation for savagery that put him firmly on the wrong side of history for many centuries. However, Penda was much more than the last bastion of an uncivilized, pre-Christian England. Penda of Mercia was a king of the people, an expert politician and a tolerant, inclusive leader who was in some ways ahead of his time. The Mercian empire he built would go on to define England’s political landscape for centuries to come.

Top image: King Penda of Mercia. Source: Patheos


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