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Title: Essay on the Life and Institutions of Offa, King of Mercia, A.D. 755-794
Author: Mackenzie, Henry
Language: English
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by the


Of Pembroke College, Oxford; Master of Bancroft’s Hospital.

    “Offa restauratus regali stirpe creatus
    Erigitur; spernit quæ degenerantia cernit--
    Armis donatur: Cato, Mars, Paris, hic reputatur.
    Quo floret tuta duce Marcia lege statuta
    Ense superborum vires reprimens, dominatur.
    Hunc Rex Francorum Carolus timet et veneratur.
    Communi voto cum clero Marcia toto
    Offæ concedit sese, cui mitis obedit,
    Ergo coronatur: ex tunc Rex jure vocatur!”

                          _V. Matth. Westm., A. D. 779._

Hamilton, Adams, & Co., Paternoster Row;
Smith, Elder, & Co., Cornhill; and H. Wix, New Bridge Street.

Printed by E. Couchman, 10, Throgmorton Street, London.


           JOSEPH BOSWORTH, D. D.



            F. R. S.,  F. S. A.,




               &c.  &c.  &c.

                IN TOKEN OF




                ESTEEM FOR THE




                 THIS ESSAY

                IS INSCRIBED.


The following Essay, hastily prepared, and--though some time has
elapsed since its composition--now hastily corrected for the press,
was successful during the year 1836 in gaining an honorary premium,
established by WILLIAM TAYLOR COPELAND, Esq., M. P., during the year of
his Mayoralty.

The writer regrets that pressing avocations prevent his devoting to
his subject that application and research which alone could make his
composition more worthy of the name of the amiable and highly esteemed
founder of the Honorary Premium, or of the approbation of the public.

The writer desires further to express his obligations to George
William Johnson, Esq., of Gray’s Inn, Barrister at Law, without whose
kind assistance he would have been unable to consult several of the
Historical works which have added materially to the information which
he has collected upon this subject.


  7th December, 1839.


 “Nobilissimus juvenis; rex strenuissimus; vir religiosus.”


The attention of the student is so universally directed in modern
days to the attainment of Classic Literature, and to the knowledge of
that period of History which has been stamped at once as the age of
the purest taste and of the highest philosophy, that the youth of our
country are too generally in entire ignorance of the early history of
their own race; and with few, with very few, exceptions know no more
than the names of those who in the “dark ages,” as they are erroneously
termed, exercised an important influence over the well-being of England.

All error is prolific in its offspring--the stigma of darkness which
has been passed upon the period that elapsed between the fourth and the
tenth centuries has caused them if not actually to be shunned, at least
to be lightly esteemed in the course of study; and the useful lessons
to be acquired from the conduct of men in all but a state of nature,
have been neglected for the sake of those to be deduced from society
as it has conventionally existed in a highly civilized state. It is not
here intended to be denied but that much may be learned by this method
of procedure; yet is it unhesitatingly advanced as a necessary axiom in
polity, that the state of nature should be _first_ regarded, and the
different improvements upon, or at least alterations from, that state
afterwards compared, for the purpose of introducing a still higher
degree of amelioration. In no condition can the natural propensities
of man be learned so readily as in a natural condition; and the more
civilization has increased in any country, so much the more difficult
will it be to lay down a Code of Laws which shall have the effect of
correcting the natural evils and vicious propensities of the natives of
the clime.

It might, perhaps, at first sight, appear that these remarks are not
peculiarly applicable to the subject of the present Essay; but this is
by no means the case. The object of History is to make the experience
of past ages subservient to the use of the present; and the object of
Education to enable the existing generation to take advantage of the
experience so afforded. But if that portion of History most rich in
traits of nature, most prolific in change, most useful in developing
the workings of unsophisticated mind, be neglected, it were absurd to
imagine that the present age could derive the benefit such period
affords from other sources, which are undeniably less adequate to
bestow it.

Circumscribed, however, as a brief composition of such a nature as the
present must necessarily be, it is not perhaps advisable to enlarge
upon a point of opinion that might admit of controversy. It may
possibly be deemed sufficient to bear out, at least partially, the
position laid down, to direct attention to the state of England at the
period of its History preceding the accession of Offa to the crown of
Mercia, and then trace briefly his mingled career of glory and of crime.

The question is not perhaps at the present day of easy solution,
whether the Jutes[1] under Hengist and Horsa came to Britain by
invitation from the natives, or whether their settlement in this
country arose from accidental circumstances: considering the numerical
insignificance of the expedition the latter is most probable. Certain,
however, it is, that their establishment in Kent and the Isle of
Wight led to subsequent descents upon the coast both by Saxons and
Angles, the former of whom established themselves between A. D. 449
and 527 in the south and south east of the country; while the latter,
between A. D. 547 and 586, became located in the northern and midland
districts. It was about the last-named date that Mercia was formed
into an independent state by Crida, comprising in its full extent
what are now the counties of Chester, Derby, Nottingham, and Lincoln
(North Mercians), Leicester (Middle Angles), Rutland, Northampton,
Huntingdon, Beds, Hertford, Bucks, Oxon, Gloucester, Warwick,
Worcester, Hereford, Salop, and Stafford (South Mercians). To these
extensive domains,[2]--extensive, that is, compared with the other
kingdoms of the Saxon Octarchy,[3]--Offa, the subject of the present
Essay, succeeded in A. D. 755, upon the nomination of the last king,
Ethelbald, who perished at Seggeswold in support of his throne against
the powerful rebel Bernred.[4]

[Footnote 1: The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons were Germanic tribes. The
first of these were from Jutland, or the Cimbric Chersonesus, in
Denmark. The Angles were a tribe of the Saxon Confederacy occupying
_Anglen_ in the south-east part of the Duchy of Sleswick in the south
of Denmark.

The Saxons were at first only a simple state, though the name was
afterwards applied to a confederacy of nations. Like all the Teutoni,
or Germans, they were of oriental origin. They were as far westward as
the Elbe in the days of Ptolemy (A. D. 90), and were, therefore, in all
probability among the first Germanic tribes that visited Europe. Their
situation between the Elbe and the Eyder, in the south of Denmark,
seems to indicate that they moved among the foremost columns of the
vast Teutonic emigration. When first settled on the Elbe they were
an inconsiderable people, but in succeeding ages increased in power
and renown. About A. D. 240, they united with the Francs (the Free
people) to oppose the progress of the Romans towards the north. By this
league and other means the Saxon influence was increased till they
possessed the vast extent of country embraced by the Elbe, the Sala,
and the Rhine, in addition to their ancient territory from the Elbe
to the Eyder. After many of the Saxons had migrated to Britain, the
parent stock on the Continent had the name of Old Saxons.--_Preface to
Bosworth’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary._]

[Footnote 2: “Dominabatur Rex Offa Magnus _in viginti tribus_
provinciis quas Angli Shiras appellant.” Norfolk and Suffolk, Essex
and Middlesex are given in addition to the above by the anonymous
biographer of Offa, whose sketch is appended to Watts’s edition of
Matt. Paris. (Cambridge appears to be omitted.)

Asser, “de Ælfredi rebus gestis,” bears this testimony to Offa’s power,
“Fuit in Mercia moderno tempore quidam strenuus atque universis circa
se regibus et regionibus finitimis formidolosus rex, nomine Offa, qui
vallum magnum inter Britaniam atque Merciam de mari usque ad mare
facere imperavit.”--_Camden’s edition, p. 3._]

[Footnote 3: “This state of Britain has been denominated, with great
impropriety, the Saxon _Heptarchy_. When all the kingdoms were settled
they formed an _Octarchy_.”--_Hist. of the Anglo-Saxons, Turner, b. 2,
ch. 4._

The eight kingdoms were the following, viz.:--

  1. West Saxons, or Wessex.
  2. South Saxons, or Sussex.
  3. Kent.
  4. East Saxons, or Essex.
  5. East-Anglia.
  6. Mercia.
  7. Deira. And
  8. Bernicia.]

[Footnote 4: It is not rendered clear from the confused statements
of the early historians, whether the latter, who attempted to seize
the crown, succeeded in holding it for any length of time; but it is
certain, from the language of the venerable Bede (Eccl. Hist. l. 5.
c. ult.) as well as from other authorities, that Offa had to contend
for the diadem before he wore it, and not without effusion of blood
possessed the regal dignity.

The author of the “Vita Offæ Secundi,” appended to Watts’s edition of
Matthew Paris, states, that Tuinfredus and his wife (the parents of
the subject of the Essay) were persecuted by Beormredus (Bernred), but
that he despised their youthful offspring who is described as “usque ad
annos adolescentiæ inutilis poplitibus contractis, et qui nec oculorum
vel aurium plenè officio naturali fungeretur.” When, however, the
designs of Bernred had so far succeeded as to induce Tuinfredus and his
wife to take refuge in some distant place of security, a miraculous
change took place in Pinefredus, their son, similar to that which had,
in former ages, occurred to Offa the son of Warmund; and from a dull
and feeble youth he suddenly sprang into full possession of all his
faculties, and appeared a highly-gifted man. “Quid plura? de contracto,
muto, et cæco, fit elegans corporis, eloquens sermone, acie perspicax
oculorum.” From this change the enraptured Mercians looked upon him as
some divine person sent to deliver them from the tyranny of Bernred,
and called him no longer Pinefredus, but “a second Offa!” Of this
anonymous historian, however, the authority is not perhaps of peculiar
weight, neither is the miraculous change stated to have taken place in
the youthful Pinefredus especially calculated to court our unhesitating
reliance; and most of his readers will be inclined, with his editor, to
quote from Horace, “Credat Judæus Apella, non ego!”

Some of the annalists of the events of that period are more brief in
their accounts of Offa’s accession. Thus,

“Cumque prædictus rex _Ethelbaldus_ XL et uno annis regnasset, juxta
prophetiam sancti patris _Guthlaci_, bello minus provide inito super
_Seggeswold_, a _Bernredo_ tyranno extitit interemtus. _Bernredus_
vero tyrannus non diu tanta tyrannide gloriatus, eodem anno periit.
_Æthelbaldusque_ rex apud _Ripadium_, id est, RIPEDUNE, tunc
temporis celeberrimum monasterium tumulatus, regnum Merciorum nepoti
patruelis sui, videlicet _Offæ_ filio _Dignferti_, filii _Ænulphi_,
filii _Osmodi_, filii _Æoppæ_, filii _Wibbæ_ patris regis _Pendæ_,
consentientibus totius Merciæ proceribus, reliquit.”--_Ingulphus 5._


“Anno 757. _Adebaldo_ rege Merciorum occiso apud SECANDUNE successit
_Beornred_, quem _Offa_ eodem anno expulit, et regnum pro eo super
Merciam XXXIX annis obtinuit.”--_Chronica de Mailros, 137._


“_Beornred_ in regnum Mercæ tanquam hæres legitimus dicto regi
_Ethelbaldo_ successit, brevi tamen tempore illud regens. Nam _Offa_
infra suum primum annum eum aufugavit, qui 39 annis regnum Mercæ et
populum postea gubernavit.”--_Bromton, 776._


“Anno 757. Ethelbald rex Merciorum _a suis tutoribus fraudulenter
interfectus est_. Eodem vero anno _Merci_ bellum inter se
civile inierunt. _Bearnred_ in fugam verso, _Offa_ rex victor
extitit.”--_Simeon Dunelm: 757._


See Matthew Westminster, who states that Ethelbald perished in battle
with Cuthred king of the West-Saxons, “in loco qui Sachêda dicitur,” to
whom _Beorred_ succeeded.

     He further states,

“Anno gratiæ DCCLVIII gens de regno Merciorum contra regem suum
Beornredum insurgens pro eo quod populum non æquis legibus sed per
tyrannidem gubernaret, convenerunt in unum omnes tam nobiles quam
ignobiles et, Offa duce, adolescente strenuissimo, ipsum a regno
expulerunt. Quo facto unanimi omnium consensu predictum Offam in regem
tam Clerus quam populus coronarunt.”

Offa is made out to be the eighteenth in descent from _Woden_, who was
the sixteenth from Noah!--_Matt. West., p. 274-5._

V. also Holinshed’s Hist., b. 6. ch. 1., A. D. 755.--Hoveden’s Annal.
in Savile’s Collection, 409.--Hen. Huntingdon, ib. 342. Ingr. Sax.
Chron., A. D. 755.]

No sooner had Offa been established, not less by the hearts of his
subjects than by the acts of his power or the will of his predecessor,
upon the throne of Mercia, than he applied himself to the duties of a
barbaric sovereign, confirming his dominions and extending the limits
of his territory. Brave and ambitious, endowed with personal vigour
and mental abilities unequalled by any of his age and country, he
gradually directed his powers against the neighbouring sovereigns.
Circumstanced as the Saxon kingdoms in Britain were, nothing could be
more easy than to find a pretext for offence; and whether we suppose,
with the Monk of St. Alban’s, that Offa was instigated in his ambitious
views by his wife Cynedritha, or believe that he simply acted on the
defensive against the confederate monarchs of Deira, East-Anglia, Kent,
Sussex, and Wessex, certain it is that his wars with these opponents
terminated to his glory and their disgrace. At Feldhard in East-Anglia,
the superiority of Offa’s forces was first made manifest. Within two
years after this engagement he won the _spolia opima_ in the decisive
conflict at Otteford, near Sevenoaks, with the troops of Kent. And not
long subsequently, he routed the combined forces of his enemies under
the command of Cynewulf--himself a celebrated warrior--at Bensington,
or Benson, (about twelve miles on the London side of Oxford,) the Villa
Regia of the West Saxons, and dismantled the fortifications which their
monarch had in vain striven to preserve.

After such specimens of prowess on the part of the Mercian king, it
is no marvel that the kings of Deira and of Sussex should seek a
distant and friendly land as the scene of their operations against
the successful Offa. They sought refuge and assistance at the court
of Marmodius, king of Wales; and against the Britons accordingly Offa
next directed his arms. Aided by their native fastnesses these new
opponents afforded protracted resistance on the western boundary of his
kingdom, and with them and their Saxon allies he had many and severe
engagements. Owing to the craft of Marmodius he met with some reverses
in his first campaign, and on one occasion narrowly escaped with his
life. Eventually, however, his good genius prevailed. He annexed
to Mercia the east of Wales as far as the Wye, planted the subject
territory with Anglo-Saxons, and built the wall known by the name of
Offa’s Dyke,[5] about one hundred miles in extent, from the æstuary of
the Dee to the mouth of the first-mentioned river.

[Footnote 5: The following is the substance of Offa’s war with the
Britons, as collected from Speed’s Chronicle. Their king at this
period was Marmodius. The West-Saxons, in their struggles with Offa,
had found in Marmodius an ally. On the discomfiture of Kenwolfe, (k.
of W. S.) Offa marched to the borders of Wales. Previous letters and
explanations had passed between the two monarchs, and the negociations
were still, by the artifice of Marmodius, prolonged. “A stratagem
(in the words of our authority) to protract time, and work upon
advantage.” In this interim of compliments the Mercian king built
a fortified dyke or ditch, commencing at Basingwark in Flintshire,
and ending near Bristow at the fall of the Wye, and forming, in its
utmost length, a barrier of about one hundred miles between the two
kingdoms. “Marmodius, who openly bare saile to this wind, and seemed
to winke at Offa’s intent, secretly called a council of state, wherein
he declared how the act there in working would soon prove the bane of
liberty unto their country, and the marke of dishonour to themselves
and posterity for ever, therefore his advice was that by some stratagem
it might be staid by time.” Accordingly, having secretly collected
their allies the Saxons “both of the South, West, and North, upon St.
Stephen’s day, at night, they suddenly brake down the banke of this
fortification, filling up again great part of the ditch, and in the
morning most furiously rushed into Offa his court, putting a great
number to the sword who were more intent and regardful to the feast
than to any defence from their cruel and merciless swords.” The effect
of this successful stratagem was a short superiority on the side of the
Britons. Offa’s army was routed, and himself in imminent danger. But
his return was speedy, and his revenge decisive. He made their hostages
his vassals and slaves, and entering Wales with a large army, conquered
Marmodius, “and all his associates in the field.”

Mr. Hutton, who examined the remains of Offa’s dyke in 1803, says “the
traveller would pass it unheeded if not pointed out. All that remains
is a small hollow which runs along the cultivated fields, perhaps not
eighteen inches deep in the centre, nor of more than twenty yards
width.”--_Travels in Wales, 221._

For fuller particulars of Offa’s conquests, see also Matth. Westm.
275-9. Chron. Mailros, 138. Sax. Chron., 61. Bromton, 770. Hen.
Huntingdon, 343. Flor. Wig., 778. Hoveden, 409. Sim. Dunelm: 107. 118.
Watts’s ed. Matth. Paris, 975. Holinshed, b. 6. ch. 4.]

In policy as in arms Offa proved himself equally successful. When he
had been about ten years on the throne he made an attempt to deprive
Iambertus, or Lambert, Archbishop of Canterbury, of his province,
and, “contrary to the customs of antiquity,” to erect Lichfield into
an Archiepiscopate. Although the clergy and natives of Kent were
naturally opposed to an innovation which so materially affected their
ecclesiastical importance, the king of Mercia succeeded in obtaining
from Pope Adrian the First permission to prosecute his design; and
the bishops of Worcester, Leicester, Chester, and Hereford, and of
the East-Angles Helmham with Norfolk, and Domuck, or Donwich, with
Suffolk, were, some years later, subjected to the Bishop of Lichfield:
London, however, Rochester, Winchester, and Sherbourn remained in the
diminished province of Canterbury.[6]

[Footnote 6: V. Matth. West. A. D. 765. Tanner’s Notitia Monastica
XVII. Staffordshire I.

Holinshed thus writes: “Eadulphus, bishop of Lichfield, was adorned
with the pall and taken for archbishop, having all those bishops within
the limits of king Offa his dominion suffragans unto him; namelie,
Denebertus, bishop of Worcester, Werebertus, bishop of Chester,
Eadulphus, bishop of Dorchester, Wilnardus, bishop of Hereford, Halard,
bishop of Eltham and Cedferth, Tedfrid, bishop of Donwich.” “But (as
saith another writer, Will. of Malmsbury,) this iniquity did not long
deform canonical institutions.” Kenulph, second in succession from
Offa, restored Athelard, or Ethelard, to the privileges of the See of
Canterbury; and the same king in a letter to Leo, the then reigning
Pope, professes his sense of the impropriety of Offa’s conduct, and
his willingness to submit in ecclesiastical matters to the example of
antiquity and of the Pope.]

A correspondence, still extant, which took place between Offa and the
emperor[7] Charlemagne, serves to throw some light on the complexion
of the times; and the fact of its existence may be deemed a valuable
compliment to the talents, the power, and the reputation of the
Anglo-Saxon. How their acquaintance commenced is uncertain: but the
fact of Alcuin, an English clergyman, having been preceptor to the
emperor is sufficient to account for his being favorably inclined to
the nation that gave his tutor birth.[8]

[Footnote 7: The following is the greeting of Charlemagne to Offa:
“Karolus gratiâ Dei rex Francorum et Longobardorum et Patricius
Romanorum, viro venerando, et fratri karissimo Offæ regi Merciorum,
salutem.” _Cont. Hist. of Bede (incerto auctore), b. 1. ch. 14._ See
also Leland’s Collectanea, vol. 1.]

[Footnote 8: The anonymous biographer of Offa, who records his
miraculous metamorphosis, states that the five kings to whom Offa soon
became formidable after his elevation to the crown of Mercia, sought
aid from Charles the Great of France (probably Carloman, the brother
and predecessor of Charlemagne is meant), who promised to protect
them, and wrote to Offa accordingly. The sovereign of Mercia, however,
spurned his threats, and proceeded to effect his conquests. Carloman in
the meanwhile dying, left his kingdom to Charlemagne, to whom the five
kings repeated their supplications for aid, which was again promised,
and Charlemagne wrote enjoining Offa to desist from attacking them.
“Quid nobis rex transmarinus?” was the lofty remark of the Mercian
king, and he proceeded undaunted in the prosecution of his designs.
Some time subsequent to these events, Offa is stated (and in this
Speeds’s Chronicle follows the Monk of St. Albans) to have written to
Charlemagne with the design of procuring his friendship and alliance;
and to this epistle he received a favourable reply, which led to a
friendship and correspondence between the two potentates. Vide also
Will. Malmesbury in Savile’s Collection, 32.]

The friendship of monarchs, however, from its intimate connexion with
political expediency, is necessarily unstable: nor was that of Offa
and Charlemagne without interruption. The Frank desired the hand of
a daughter of Offa for his natural son Charles; but this the Mercian
sovereign refused unless Bertha, the daughter of the emperor of the
west, were bestowed upon Egfrid his own son and heir. The demand
excited the anger of Charlemagne; and, in consequence, disregarding
the wise remonstrances of his council, he closed the ports of Gaul
against the merchants of Anglo-Saxon Britain.[9] In consequence of
this hasty and decisive step, Offa was apprehensive of invasion from
his indignant foe, and this anticipation of evil was increased, by the
knowledge that he afforded his powerful protection to some Anglo-Saxon
malcontents. Lambert, the Saxon Primate, was suspected of being privy
to the emperor’s designs, and this afforded a pretext (if indeed it
were not really the reason) for removing the Archiepiscopate from
Canterbury to Lichfield. After some lapse of time, however, concord
was restored between the regal friends, through the mediation of
Alcuin and the abbot Gervald[10]. The former of these (one of the
most interesting and learned characters of that age) had not escaped
the imputation of treasonable designs--an imputation which he repels
with great simplicity and apparent honesty in the words addressed to a
friend, “Vere Offæ regi nec genti Anglorum _unquam infidelis fui_!” His
embassy from the court of his adopted to that of his natural sovereign
was accompanied by gifts which were thus symbolically interpreted;

    “A Carlo dona data sunt Offæ, _mucro_, _zona_;
    Cingat ut imbelles clemens, feriatque rebelles.
    _Pallia_ donantur velut his secreta tegantur.
    Tiro mucrone sed et utens munere zonæ,
    Indomitos punit, pronos sibi nectit et unit,
    Palliat arcana,--ne signent pallia vana.”

[Footnote 9: Woollen gowns were at this time the chief articles of
exportation from Britain. Four centuries earlier than the date under
review a Gyneceum, or manufactory, existed at Winchester. V. _Gibbon,
ch. 17._

V. Mabillon’s Acta S. Ben. pars 1. p. 169, quoting the Chron.
Fontanellensis, c. 15.]

[Footnote 10: “Aliquid enim dissentionis diabolico fomento inflammante
nuper inter Carolum regem et regem Offam exortum est: ita ut utrinque
navigatio interdicta negotiantibus cesset.” Leland’s Collectanea, v.
1. p. 401. V. Opera Alcuini, 1. 6. Mabillon’s Annal: L. xxv. n. 76; L.
xxvi. n. 10. V. also Matth. West. 278.]

A brief review of the Anglo-Saxon system of government may, perhaps, be
here not inapplicably inserted, in order to convey some definite idea
of Offa’s position as the sovereign of Mercia, and enable the reader to
trace more satisfactorily the improvements which he was the means of
introducing into Britain.

The prescriptive constitution of the Anglo-Saxons was decidedly of
a liberal form, and to it may be traced the majority of our own
liberal institutions; but one most important difference exists between
the ancient and modern constitution of Britain, in the fact of the
sovereignty of the Saxon kingdoms not being positively hereditary.
“A son who inherited his father’s virtues and talents,” observes the
author of a popular History of Modern Europe, “was sure to succeed his
sway; but if he happened to be weak or profligate, or was a minor, the
next in blood, or the person of the greatest eminence in the state,
generally procured an elevation to the throne.”[11]

[Footnote 11: This practice, indeed, recognized in the laws of Offa
alluded to in a subsequent portion of the Essay, continued so late
as the Norman king, John, and the unsettled state of the doctrine of
succession has been urged in extenuation of his usurpation.]

The Anglo-Saxon annals afford an excellent commentary upon this system
of a partially elective monarchy. Scenes of strife and bloodshed,
family dissensions, party feuds, assassination, and even fratricide
were not unfrequent occurrences amid this optional “setting up and
pulling down of kings;” and the liberality and seeming justice of the
system, that appear so seductive on a first view of the THEORY, fade
before the exercise of tyranny, the right of might, and the injustice
of usurpation, that evidence themselves as its prolific offspring when
reduced to _practice_.

To aid the king and sanction measures of public administration, as
well as give consent to the enactment of laws, there existed among the
Saxons an Assembly or Parliament, termed a Wittena-Gemot, consisting
of the nobles or thanes, the dignified clergy, and freemen possessing
a given portion of land.[12] There was also a county court, termed
Shire-Gemot, where all the freeholders assembled twice in each year to
receive appeals from the inferior courts (probably the petty courts
held by each landholder for conducting the affairs of his own estate);
and over this assembly the eaorlderman (earl) and the bishop presided,
although they do not appear to have had farther authority allotted to
them than was sufficient to keep order among the freeholders, and to
offer their advice in causes of difficulty.

[Footnote 12: Five hides were at first deemed a sufficient
qualification, but the required amount rose gradually to forty.]

To obtain nobility among the Saxons required one of three
qualifications, birth, valour, or wisdom. The parents who had
distinguished themselves by either of the latter means transmitted
their honors to their children. They who were born of obscure or
moderate parentage (provided they were free) had, however, the path
of distinction open to them to pursue at will. They who gained their
nobility by valour were termed _adelingi_; they who gained it by wisdom
in peace (because generally the fruit of experience) were termed
_aldermanni_ (senators or elder men); and they who gained it by a
mixed valour and wisdom in war, being illustrious for success rather
than simple courage, were termed _heretochii_.

Beneath the nobles there were two distinct classes, each capable
of a subdivision; viz., the freemen, and the slaves or villains.
The freeborn (_frilingi_) were either _custodes pagani_, country
gentlemen, or simply _pagani_, ceorles or yeomen; while the villains
were distinguished as _lazzi_, bondmen, or _free lazzi_, freedmen or
manumitted slaves.

Of these all except the two last had a share in the representation of
their respective states, and free access to, if not the right of voting
at, the Micklemote or Wittena-Gemot when assembled.

Whether the priests formed originally a part of the Witan is difficult
to determine, but unquestionably they did so after Christianity was
received among the Saxons; for within six years after Augustin’s
arrival (A. D. 597) Ethelbert, king of Kent, having summoned a council
“tam _Cleri_, quam Populi,” distinguished himself as the promulgator
of the earliest written laws of the Anglo-Saxons which are now extant.
Of the lawgivers next following him, Hlothære and Eadric, as well
as Whitræd, little beyond their names is known; but about a century
after Ethelbert’s time, Ina promulgated a fresh and more extensive
Code of Laws, “suasu et instituto _Episcoporum_, omnium Senatorum et
natu majorum sapientium populi; in magnâ servorum Dei frequentiâ.”
After him Offa promulgated laws throughout his dominions, but these
are not now separately extant: and about a century later Alfred the
Great, “consultu sapientium,” retained and confirmed all the righteous
laws of Ethelbert, Ina, and Offa, while he reformed or rescinded those
enactments which circumstances had rendered less efficient or less
advisable to be retained.

“The laws of Offa,” remarks Sir Francis Palgrave,[13] “have not been
retained in their original form, and we cannot distinguish them in the
capitulary of the king of Wessex. But the laws of Ina are annexed to
the statute of Alfred, and perhaps we only possess them in his edition.
There was no incorporate union of the Saxon kingdoms, and it is,
therefore, probable that there were two promulgations of Alfred’s laws,
one statute for the West-Saxons, and to which the laws of Ina were
appended, and another for Mercia, since lost, to which the laws of Offa
were, in like manner, annexed.”

[Footnote 13: Rise and progress of the English constitution.--_Chap.

It is of course with diffidence that any opinion is set forth which
seems to run counter to so eminent an authority as Palgrave; but there
does appear a plausible reason (if not a sufficient one) for the laws
of Offa not being found under a separate title; viz., that the laws
termed those of Alfred, independent of Ina and Ethelbert, _were_ those
of Offa! This idea is corroborated by the circumstance, that Alfred did
not assume to himself so much credit as a _Lawmaker_ as a collector
and improver of laws; for in the preamble to his Code, he says that he
had selected some of its laws, with the approbation and advice of his
council, from those of _Offa_ and others!

The entire improvements which Offa introduced into the legislation
of his kingdom and subjected territories are, at the present day,
too difficult of discovery to be clearly elucidated, unless the
foregoing hypothesis be adopted: but there may be excepted from this
difficulty the laws passed at the legatine council in his reign, held
at Calchythe, A. D. 785, when Egfrid his son was associated with him in
the government.[14]

[Footnote 14: A. D. 785. Offa appointed Hibbert bishop, archbishop
Lambert having resigned some part of his bishopric. Everth, or Egfert,
was consecrated king. Adrian the pope sent legates to England to renew
the blessings of faith and peace, which St. Gregory sent us by the
mission of bishop Augustine.--_Ingram’s Sax. Chron._

The following is from the letter of the legates themselves:

Concilium Calchuthense. Ex Magdeburg. Cent. VIII. c. 9. p. 575.

Proœmium ad Adrianum papam 1.

Nos faventibus sanctis orationibus vestris, hilari vultu vestris
jussionibus obtemperantes pereximus; sed impedivit nos is, qui tentat,
vento contrario; ille vero qui mitificat fluctus, exaudita vestrâ
deprecatione, mitificavit cærulea freta, et transvexit nos ad portum
salutis; ac licet multis periculis afflictos, tamen illæsos Anglorum
appulit oris. Igitur suscepti primum ab archiepiscopo Iaenbarcho sanctæ
Dorovernensis ecclesiæ, quæ alio vocabulo Cantia vocitatur, ubi sanctus
Augustinus in corpore requiescit; inibi residentes admonuimus ea, quæ
necessaria erant. Inde peragrantes pervenimus ad aulam Offæ regis
Merciorum. At ille cum ingenti gaudio ob reverentiam beati Petri, et
vestri apostolatus honorem suscepit tam nos, quam sacros apices a summa
sede delatos.

Tunc convenerunt in unum concilium Offa, rex Merciorum, et Chuniulphus,
rex West Saxonum; cui etiam tradidimus vestra syngrammata sancta;
ac illi continuo promiserunt se de his vitiis corrigendos. Tunc
inito concilio cum prædictis regibus, pontificibus, et senioribus
terræ, perpendentes quod angulus ille longè latèq. protenditur;
permisimus Theophylactum venerabilem episcopum, regem Merciorum et
Britanniæ partes adire. Ego autem assumpto mecum adjutore, quem
filius vester excellentissimus rex Carolus, ob reverentiam vestri
apostolatus nobiscum misit, virum probatæ fidei, Wignodum, abbatem
presbyterum, perrexi in regionem Northanhymbrorum ad Ælfwodum regem
et archiepiscopum sanctæ ecclesiæ Eboracæ civitatis Eanbaldum. Sed
quia præfatus rex longé in borealibus commorabatur, misit jam dictus
archiepiscopus missos suos ad regem, qui continuo omni gaudio statuit
diem concilii, ad quem convenerunt omnes principes regionis tam
ecclesiastici, quam seculares. Sed audientibus nobis relatum est, quod
reliqua vitia non minima ibi necessaria erant ad corrigendum. Quia, ut
scitis, a tempore sancti Augustini pontificis, sacerdos Romanus nullus
illuc missus est, nisi nos.

Scripsimus namq. capitulare de singulis rebus, et per ordinem cuncta
disserentes, auribus illorum pertulimus; qui cum omni humilitatis
subjectione, et clara voluntate tam admonitionem vestram, quam
parvitatem nostram amplexantes, sposponderunt se in omnibus obedire.
Tunc nos epistolas vestras eis tradidimus perlegendas, contestantes eos
tam in se, quam in subditis sacrata decreta custodire. Hæc namq. sunt
capitula, quæ illis pertulimus conservanda esse.

Then follow twenty articles having reference to the clergy, to the
kings, and to the people generally.

Then come the signatures of several of the heads of the church,
bishops, abbots, &c.

His peractis et datâ benedictione perreximus, assumptis nobiscum
viris illustribus legatis regis et archiepiscopi, Maluinum videlicet
et Pyttal lectores; qui una nobiscum pergentes, et ipsa decreta
secum deferentes in concilium Merciorum, ubi gloriosus rex Offa, cum
senatoribus terræ una cum archiepiscopo Iaenberchto sanctæ ecclesiæ
Dorovernensis, et cæteris episcopis regionum convenerat, et in
conspectu concilii clara voce singula capitula perlecta sunt; et
tam Latinè quam Teutonicè, quo omnes intelligere possent, dilucidê
reserata sunt. Qui omnes consona voce, alacri animo gratias referentes,
apostolatus vestri admonitionibus promiserunt, se divino adminiculante
favore, juxta qualitatem virium promptissimâ, voluntate in omnibus
statuta hæc custodire. Quinetiam, ut supra taxavimus, tam rex, quam
principes sui, archiepiscopus cum sociis suis in manu nostra, in vice
Domini vestri, signum sanctæ crucis firmaverunt, et rursum præsentem
chartulam, sacrato signo roboraverunt.

Ego Iaenberchtus, archiepiscopus sanctæ Dorovernensis ecclesiæ supplex,
signo sanctæ crucis subscripsi.

Ego Offa, rex Merciorum, consentiens his statutis, prompta voluntate
signo crucis subscripsi.

Then follow the names of twelve bishops, four abbots, three
gentlemen, who call themselves _duces_, and of one who styles himself
_comes_.--_Wilkins Concilia Mag. Britan. 145-51._

In page 152.

  Papæ Rom.        Archiep. Cantuar.   Anno Christi.
  Adrian I. 14.      Ieambert 22.          785.

              Reg. Saxon.        Imperat.
              Egfert VIII.   Constant. VII. 6.

Lichefeldensis episcopatus in archiepiscopatum designatur ab Offa rege.
_Ex codice S. Alban. de vita Offæ regis. MS. p. 153. citante clar.

  *          *          *          *          *          *
  *          *          *          *          *          *

In illo quoq. concilio Offa, rex Merciorum potentissimus, in regem
fecit solemniter coronari filium suum primogenitum Egfredum, juvenem
strenuum et elegantem, moribusq. decenter redimitum; qui deinceps cum
patre idem militans, et in omnibus obsecundans, usq. ad finem vitæ ejus
conregnavit.--_Wilkins, p. 152._

_See also Rapin’s England, vol. 1. b. 3. A. D. 785 or 787: but Matth.
West. assigns 789 for the date of this council._

Calchythe, the _Chelsea_ of the present day, was the residence of Offa
in the latter part of his reign. It appears to have been chosen from
its proximity to London (_caput regni Merciorum. V. Will. Malmsb. de
Gest. Regum, l. 2. c. 4._), many of the municipal laws and privileges
of which may fairly be traced to this era. The Lord Mayor, the
representative of the Mercian king, is the only individual named in the
acknowledgment of a new sovereign; and his official permission must be
obtained before the proclamation can take place in the city. These,
with many other civic privileges, appear to be the shadows of ancient
royalty, standing forth amid the record of past days, the ghostlike
remnant of a once more substantial glory!]

Among these were the important enactments that no persons of
illegitimate birth should ascend the throne, or inherit private
property, and that kings should be “a sacerdotibus et senioribus populi
eligantur;” that the Nicene Creed should be adopted; that bishops
should visit their dioceses once a year; that tithes were to be paid,
but that no tributes to the church were to be larger than was provided
by the Roman law; that the rich and powerful should judge righteous
judgment; with other provisions of minor importance.

Brief as is this notice of the Anglo-Saxon government, it is sufficient
to show, that it was indebted to Offa for alterations and improvements,
which, from the security and length of his reign, and their subsequent
adoption by the great Alfred, may be fairly conceived to have been
dictated by judgment, and enforced by a prudent exercise of power.

The first irruption of the Danes into Britain is said to have taken
place during Offa’s reign, and to have been by him, for a time at
least, successfully repressed.[15] But there is one event to which no
allusion has yet been made, which has had greater effect in inducing
posterity to form a judgment on his character than even the repulse of
the early attacks of the _Vikingr_. An event that, if unrecorded, would
have left him an almost stainless glory, but which, when fairly stated,
leaves the painful impression that the blot of homicide darkens his
otherwise fair escutcheon.

[Footnote 15: It was in this reign that the Danes first made their
appearance on the British coast. “The reve (sheriff of the county) then
rode thereto, and would drive them to the king’s town; for he knew not
what they were; and there was he slain. These were the first ships of
the Danish men, that sought the nation of the English.”--_Ingr. Sax.

After Brithric, king of Wessex, and Æthelred of Deira had, with the
hands of his daughters Eadburga and Ælfleda, received their kingdoms
once again in subjection to themselves, Albert, or Ethelbert, king
of the East-Angles, came with a lordly train to sue for the hand of
Alfreda, the remaining daughter.[16] Brave, yet pious; elegant, yet
modest; exalted in station, yet humble in soul; the amiable and
interesting Ethelbert was publicly welcomed to the court of Offa. The
festal hall was decked for his reception, the spousal banquet spread,
the goblet graced the board. The hospitable meal in seeming friendly
confidence passed over; the prince retired to his sumptuous couch to
rest; and the morrow brought the accession of a kingdom’s wealth to
Mercia clogged by the weight of treacherous and inhospitable murder![17]

[Footnote 16: A. D. 791. Eadburga married Brithric king of Wessex.--_M.
West. 282. Chr. Mailros, 139; but 787 is the date assigned to this
event in Ingr. Sax. Chron._

792. “This year Offa, king of Mercia, commanded that king Ethelbert
should be beheaded; and Osred who had been king of the Northumbrians
(Deira), returning home after his exile, was apprehended, and slain
on the eighteenth day before the calends of October. His body is
deposited at Tinemouth. Ethelred this year, on the third day before
the calends of October, took unto himself a new wife, whose name was
Elfleda.”--_Ingr. Sax. Chron. p. 79. Chron. Mailr._

The following couplet describes the person and character of the
unfortunate Ethelbert.

    “Albertus juvenis fuerat rex, fortis in armis,
    Pace pius, pulcher corpore, mente sagax.”

  _Vita Offæ Secundi._

_For fuller particulars see an interesting chapter in Holinshed’s
History, b. 6. ch. 5._]

[Footnote 17: The Monk of St. Albans agrees with Matth. Westr. in
recording that Cynedritha proposed to Offa the murder of their guest,
but that he indignantly refused; and that subsequently she prepared
a device of a sinking platform in Ethelbert’s chamber, so that when
he threw himself on his couch it sank with his weight, and he was
immediately suffocated by assassins who were on the watch in the
chamber below. The difference however in the latter part of their
narratives is as follows: M. Westr. states that Offa secluded himself
from public and refused to taste food for three days,--but that,
notwithstanding, as Ethelbert had died without heirs he despatched a
powerful force to East Anglia to take possession of the kingdom. The
Monk of St. Alban’s, in the most approved style of legendary lore,
proceeds with the history of Ethelbert’s body after his murder. He
states that his head was cut off, after suffocation, and the body and
head being put into a sack were carried away: being dark, the head
rolled out unseen and unobserved, and a blind man chancing to come that
way kicked against it--he took it up, and anointed his eyes with the
_sacred blood_, and immediately his sight was restored! Poetic justice
is also dispensed to Cynedritha by this writer: he affirms that Offa
had her shut up in punishment and seclusion for ever: that some years
afterwards her place of retirement was broken in upon by robbers for
the sake of her gold and silver, and that she was precipitated down her
own well where her wretched existence was terminated. The archbishop of
Lichfield is further stated to have begged the body of Ethelbert and
buried it at Hereford, where miracles were performed by it! _Matth.
West. A. D. 792.--Vita Offæ Secundi._

In _Leland’s Collectanea, vol. 1. p. 210, the following marvellous
record is also to be found_: “Ethelbertus (after death) cuidam
Brithfrid prædiviti viso apparuit, jubens, ut ejus corpus efferret
ad locum nomine stratus waye, et juxta monaster: eodem loco situm
sepeliret. Brithfrid adjuncto socio Egmundo quod jussit fecerunt, et
corpus una cum capite in loco qui Fernlega, id est saltus filicis,
dicebatur, nunc vero Hereford, sepeliverunt.”]

It has been the effort of several historians to cast the blame of this
foul transaction upon Offa’s queen Cynedritha; but as all concur in
stating the welcome given to the youthful monarch, and the subsequent
and immediate assumption of dominion over his realms by his intended
father-in-law, no inference can be drawn but that Offa was himself a
_particeps criminis_: and when viewed even in the most lenient possible
light an _accessory after the fact_.

Brief was the monarch’s career posterior to this inhuman deed. Ere two
years had passed he sank overwhelmed with remorse and sorrow into the
cold embraces of the tomb. Within five months his promising successor,
Egfrid, followed him to the grave--his abandoned queen soon closed her
vicious career--the betrothed bride of the murdered Ethelbert wasted
her widowed beauty in the monasterial walls of Croyland--Eadburga, the
profligate and homicidal widow of Brithric perished miserably--and the
race of Offa no more existed in the land![18]

[Footnote 18: A. D. 794. “This year died pope Adrian; and also Offa,
king of Mercia, on the fourth day before the ides of August, after he
had reigned forty winters. Everth (Egfrid) took to the government and
died the same year.”--_Ingr. Sax. Chr., p. 65. 80._ V. also Speed’s
Chron., p. 345, A. D. 794. Chron. Mailros, A. D. 796. M. West., 797.
Ethelward’s Chron., 840. Bromton, 748-52. Leland’s Collectanea, vol. 1.
p. 210. Ingulphus by Gale, p. 7. Hoveden, 410. Huntingdon, 344. Flor.
Wig., 281. Higden, 251. Radulf. de Dicet., 446. Asseri Annal., 154.
Malmsbury by Savile, 88. Spelman’s Concilia, 308. Holinshed, book 6.
ch. 4.

The following is the dreadful character of Eadburga as given by Asser
“de Ælfredi rebus gestis.”--_p. 3._

“Cujus (viz. Offæ) filiam nomine Eadburgh Beorhtric occidentalium
Saxonum rex sibi in conjugium accepit: quæ confestim accepta regis
amicitia, et totius pene regni potestate, _more paterno_ tyrannice
vivere incœpit, et omnem hominem execrari, quem Beorhtric diligeret, et
omnia odibilia Deo et hominibus facere: et omnes quos posset, ad regem
accusare, et ita aut vita aut potestate per insidias privare: et si a
rege impetrare non posset, veneno eos necabat: sicut de adolescente
quodam regi dilectissimo hoc factum compertum habetur: quem cum ad
regem accusare non posset, veneno eum necavit. De quo veneno etiam
præfatus ille Beorhtric rex inscienter gustasse aliquid refertur.
Neque enim illa venenum dare regi proposuerat, sed puero, sed rex
præoccupavit: inde ambo periere.”

According to the same authority (p. 4) this wretched woman died a
beggar in Pavia.

I have not succeeded in ascertaining what became of Ælfleda, but her
husband “Ethelred, king of the Northumbrians, was slain by his own
people on the thirteenth day before the calends of May,” in the same
year that Offa died.--_V. Ingr. Sax. Chr. p. 80._]

The mind of the philosopher, the historian, and the poet, must alike
reflect with pain, that there was one gigantic genius who might lay
claim to the laurels of all, and could yet allow his opinions to be so
biassed by prejudice as to declare the records of the times to which
we have been alluding to be worthless as a history of the contests of
kites and crows![19] The intellect that controlled the infancy of a
mighty nation was spurned, because it did not chance to be in existence
when that nation had advanced to maturity--but it surely needs no new
observation to pronounce that the germs of originality will develop
themselves at all times and under all circumstances. Events may
doubtless occur to evolve them with a peculiar force, and education
and early habit may deck them with characteristic colouring; but where
the spirit of originality--the essence of causation--exists, it _will_
find a vent for its exhibition, whether it rise in the breast of an
Offa amid an age of comparative barbarism, or burst from the mind of
a Napoléon, to stalk with the grandeur of a son of Anak superior to
a host of petty minds, narrowed by the extreme polish of that very
civilization upon which they chiefly pride themselves.

[Footnote 19: Milton.]

Had not the genius of Offa led the way by subjecting so large a portion
of England to his control, it is scarcely probable that Egbert would
have succeeded so early as within a few years from his decease in
uniting the divided kingdoms under his government. Nor should it be
forgotten that the future monarch of all England took his early lessons
in the rude chivalry of the times at the court of Offa, by whom he
was protected from the persecution of Brithric:[20] thence passing in
safety by the connivance of his friend to the dominions of Charlemagne,
he was entertained by that illustrious emperor till the death of
Brithric left the kingdom of Wessex open to his claims. And on his
return to his native land, he showed plainly that the ambitious designs
of his early protector yet lived in his bosom, and but a transient
period intervened ere the divided House of the Octarchy owned him as
their common Lord.

[Footnote 20: V. Holinshed, b. 6.]

To Offa then, as the preserver, and to a certain extent the instructor,
of the first sole monarch of England, the present age must look back
with gratitude as the founder of the limited monarchy of the land;
but as he is said by one of his historians[21] to have been a man in
whom virtue and vice were so mingled, as to render it difficult to say
whether of the twain were predominant--so in the legacy of spiritual
slavery which he bequeathed to his kingdom, it is a question whether
the advantages arising from unity in political government were not more
than counterbalanced.

[Footnote 21: “Offa was a man of great mind, and who would endeavour
to bring to effect what he had preconceived. He reigned thirty-nine
years. When I consider the deeds of this man I am doubtful whether I
should commend or censure. At one time, in the same character, vices
were so palliated by virtues, and at another virtues came in such
quick succession upon vices, that it is difficult to determine how to
characterize the changing Proteus.”--_William of Malmsbury._

It must be remembered, however, that William of Malmsbury was an
interested party; and therefore his testimony as to Offa’s character
must be regarded as coming from a source somewhat prejudiced against
him.--_V. note 23._]

Not only did Offa, by his application to the Pope for permission to
transfer the province of Canterbury to Lichfield, recognize the
principle of interference in the ecclesiastical government of this
country on the part of the bishop of Rome, but he is expressly stated
to have made his whole realm tributary to that See. And it is certain
that in paying Romescot[22] he followed the example of Ina, who in the
year 697 “was the first that caused the monie called Peter Pence to be
paid unto the bishop of Rome, which was for everie houshold within his
dominion a penie.”

[Footnote 22: The alms of “Romescot,” “Heord (hearth) penny,” or
“Peter-pence,” “arose by degrees and parcels: for first Ina, the
Saxon king, granted a penny out of every house in his kingdom. After,
Offa granted it out of every dwelling house that had ground thereto,
occupied to the yearly value of thirty pence, _excepting the lands
which he had purposed for the monastery of St. Albans_. This Offa had
a much larger dominion than Ina, and was king over three and twenty
shires. After whom Æthelwolf passed a new grant thereof out of his
whole kingdom, which was well nigh all that part which was called
Saxony, with this proviso, nevertheless, that where a man had divers
dwelling houses he was only to pay for that house wherein he dwelt
at the time of payment. Afterwards Edward the Confessor confirmed
that donation out of such tenements as had thirty pence, ‘_vivæ
pecuniæ_.’”--_Bacon, chap. 11th. V. also Holinshed, b. 6. ch. 1._

The particulars of Offa’s visit to Rome, at which city the arrangements
alluded to in the text took place, are recorded by the monk of St.
Albans as follows, viz.:--_Matth. Paris, Vita Offæ Secundi, 18._

Offa igitur rex piissimus, suorum magnatum sano adquiescens consilio,
divino ductus spiritu, transalpinum valdè laboriosum et sumptuosum
iter arripit, sine moræ dispendio. Nec eum cura rei familiaris, vel
regni custodiendi necessitas, vel comminantis senii gravitas, nec
laboris immanitas, vel pecuniæ inæstimabiliter effusio ipsum poterant
retardare, stabilem retinens in proposito cordis intentionem, ut sicut
beatus Albanus protomartyr refulsit Angligenis, ita et monasterium
ejus omnibus regni Cænobiis, possessionibus similiter et libertatibus,
necnon et privilegiis, præfulgeat et præponatur.

Præparatis igitur edicto regio navibus, cum navium armamentis, rex
puppes ascendit, et sinuatis velis, prospero cursu in quodam portu
maris in Flandria applicuit, desiderato. Veniensq. ad quoddam oppidum,
ubi quoddam erat monasteriolum, hospitandi gratia illuc divertit. Ubi
jumentis suis pabula non inveniens, miratur valdè, quum locus ille
pratorum copia conspicitur abundare. Quærit ergo rex, cujus sint prata
illa? Responsum accipit, quod Dominos plures haberent qui jubentur
omnes, ante regem comparere. Convenit igitur eos, de venditione
pratorum illorum. At ipsi responderunt, dicentes, se nolle prata sua
vendere, cum auro et argento satis abundassent, nec habebant propter
egestatem necesse, alicui, præcipuè transeunti, sua vel prata vel
rura vendere. Quos cum audisset rex divitiis omnimodis abundare, ait
rex magnificus et munificus: “Credo quòd non sic abundetis, quin non
possitis ampliùs abundare. Nos prata vestra comparabimus, non secundum
eorum æstimationem, sed juxta vestram. Nec erit ulla difficultas
de pretio, licèt nulla sit propriatio in contrahendo.” Ipsi verò
considerantes regis licèt piissimi potentiam, et quòd si vellet,
parvo nutu posset eos obruisse, responderunt, se velle voluntati suæ
obsecundare, si tot nùllia ipsis vellet numerare. Et nominaverunt tot
millia, quot credebant regem nùllo modo, licèt prodigalissimus esset et
inæstimabiliter abundaret, illis velle numerare, quia prata sua vendere
non curabant.

Dinumerata deniq. pro distractione pratorum pecunia a loco rex
progreditur, et Romam tandem perveniens, optata Apostolorum limina
contingit, et diversorum loca Sanctorum percurrit: demum Adriano summo
Pontifici, sub causam adventus explicans, et de loco, simul et beato
Albano canonizando, et magnificando, Cænobioq. constituendo, devotè
preces porrigens petitioni suæ Romanam de facili curiam inclinavit:
Præsertim cùm Martyris inventio cælitus mortalibus sit declarata.
Adaugebat quoq. omnium devotionem, qùod non cuilibet de populo, sed
tanto taliq. Regi, tam magni Martyris sui pignora Dominus revelavit. De
monasterio igitur conventuali, videlicet cænobiali, dignè ac celeriter
constituendo, et ab omni Episcoporum subjectione emancipando, Papam et
totam curiam consulit cum effectu.

Cumq. inclytus rex Offa eleganter perorasset, Romanus Pontifex
humiliter ac favorabiliter inclinato capite, sic respondit. “O
regum christianissimè, fili Offa, devotionem tuam circa regni tui
protomartyrem, non mediocriter commendamus.” Nec nos quamvis, remotos,
latet vestra strenuitas vel sincera sanctitas. Verè Cælibem vitam
agentibus, meritò mittendus fuit angelus, cum castitati cognita sit
puritas angelica, et cum favorabilis sit persona tua, favorabilior est
causa quam proponis in medio, et labor tuæ peregrinationis acceptus
est altissimo. De monasterio verò construendo et priviligiando
petitioni tuæ assensum præbemus gratissimum; _Injungentes tibi in
tuorum remissionem peccatorum_, ut prosperè ac feliciter rediens, cum
Dei et mea benedictione in terram ac regnum tuum, consilio Episcoporum
et optimatum tuorum, quas volueris possessiones sive libertates beati
Albani Anglorum protomartyris cænobio conferas. Et tuo privilegio inde
facto, Nos originale tuum privilegio nostro inviolabili gratanter
roborabimus et confirmabimus consequenter; et monasterium illud in
specialem Romanæ Ecclesiæ filiam adoptabimus, et nostro tantum illud
Apostolatui subjicientes, ab omni nocivo cujuslibet mortalium impetu,
specialiter mediante Episcopo sive Archiepiscopo, protegemus.

His igitur auditis rex, quid dignê tantæ benignitati compenset secū
studiosè pertractat. Tandem divina inspirante gratia consiliū invenit
salubre, et in die crastina, Scholam Anglorum qui tunc Romæ floruit,
ingressus, dedit ibi ex regali munificentia ad sustentationem gentis
regni sui illuc venientis, singulos argenteos, de familiis singulis,
omnibus in posterum diebus, singulis annis. Quibus videlicet, sors
tantum contulit extra domos in pascuis, ut triginta argenteorum
pretium excederet. Hoc autem per totum suam ditionem teneri in
perpetuum constituit. Excepta tota terra Sancti Albani, suo monasterio
conferenda, prout postea collata privilegia protestantur. Ut illo
denario, à generali cōtributione sic excepto, et dicto monasterio sic
collato, memoria donatoris indelibiliter perpetuetur. Et hoc tali
largitate obtinuit, et conditione, ut de regno Angliæ nullus publicè
pænitens, pro executione sibi injunctæ pænitentiæ, subiret exilium.

Celebrata igitur donatione prædicta, et de peccatis omnibus (præcipuê
tamen de præliorum multorum commissione) facta confessione, et pro
prædicta Cænobii fundatione accepta pænitentia; Cum benedictione devota
summi Pontificis, rex ad propria prosperê remeavit.

_Matt. Westmonast._ relates this in almost the same words, and adds,
_p. 288._

“Tunc congregato apud Verolamium episcoporum et optimatum suorum
concilio, unanimi omnium consensu, et voluntate beato Albano amplas
contulit terras, et possessiones innumeras, quas multiplici libertatum
privilegio insignivit. Monachorum verò conventum, ex domibus benê
religiosis ad tumbā martyris congregavit, et abbatum eis nomine
VVillegodum præfecit cui cum ipso monasterio, omnia jura regalia

It is scarcely less disgusting than instructive to trace throughout the
middle ages the growing foliage of superstition, that cast its dim and
lengthening shadow over the lovely temple of religion. And when it was
the received creed of the time, that donations to the church, of which
the bishop of Rome was falsely regarded as the head, were sufficient
to compensate for the most heinous crimes, it cannot be surprising
that the regal homicide should pay his court to the prevailing idol,
or that the wide domains of the wealthy and noble sensualist should
in his dying hour (no longer, then, of service to pander to his
appetites,) be transferred to the service of that all-powerful agency
which professed itself alike enabled to quench the fires of purgatory
and unbar the portals of the mansions of eternal bliss! Offa, the
proud and conquering king, stripped of its vested rights the ancient
province of Canterbury to aggrandize with spiritual supremacy his own
domains[23]--Offa, the daring and ambitious prince, yielded to the evil
suggestions of tempting opportunity, and with a bold and bloody hand
seized the broad lands of the sainted martyr Ethelbert. But Offa the
pilgrim, the penitent, the failing and remorseful monarch, over whom
the feeble halo of an earthly fame had passed and left no bright and
pleasing memory behind--Offa, who felt his time at hand and looked
through the hazy superstition of a corrupted church upon a vision of
purchasable happiness in heaven “in testimony of repentance for the
blood that he had spilled, bestowed a tenth of all his goods on the
churchmen and on the poor,”[24] built churches, founded abbeys, and
endowed monasteries,[25] to bribe the God whose laws he had infringed,
and bargain at a price for the salvation which had been freely offered!

[Footnote 23: In addition to this (viz., the transference of the
primacy from Canterbury to Lichfield) he committed other arbitrary
depredations on the church. “He seizeth on churches and other religious
houses,” says Holinshed. “A downright pilferer,” says William of
Malmsbury, “he converted to his own use the lands of many churches,
of which Malmsbury was one.” Everth (Egfrid), however, on his coming
to the throne, restored to the monasteries the possessions which had
been misapplied in former reigns: and gave Malmsbury into the hands of
Cuthbert, then abbot of that place.]

[Footnote 24: Speed’s Chronicle, p. 345.]

[Footnote 25: There is considerable difficulty as to the dates of
some of Offa’s endowments and foundations. His endowment of the
English college at Rome (_Matth. West. A. D. 794_), his making Mercia
tributary to the See of Rome (_Holinshed, ch. 4, b. 6, vol. 2._), and
his erection and endowment of St. Albans over the body of the English
protomartyr, were all subsequent to the murder of Ethelbert. Some of
his other donations to the church were as follows: viz.--

He made large gifts of land near Sandwich “monachis ecclesiæ
Christi Doroberniæ” at the request of archbishop Iambertus, A. D.
773, Canterbury (_Cant-wara-burh_) having been burned a few years
before.--_Dugd. Mon. Angl._

He freed the abbey of Woking A. D. 775. “In the days of this same Offa
was an alderman of the name of Brorda who requested the king for his
sake to free his own monastery, called Woking, because he would give
it to Medhamsted and St. Peter, and the abbot that then was, whose
name was Pusa. Pusa succeeded Beonna; and the king loved him much. And
the king freed the monastery of Woking against king, against bishop,
against earl, and against all men: so that no man should have any claim
there except St. Peter and the abbot. This was done at the king’s town
called Free-Richburn.”--_Ingr. Sax. Chron. p. 75._

After _Bath_ had been devastated by the Danes Offa rebuilt the _church
of St. Peter_ about A. D. 775.--_Tanner’s Notitia Monastica. V.
Somersetshire I._

At _Bredon_ or _Breordun_ he founded or endowed a monastery A. D.
780.--_Tanner’s Not. Mon. III. Worcestershire 5._--_Dugd. Mon. Angl._

He also appears to have granted some endowment or privilege to the
cathedral and benedictine priory of Worcester.--_Not. Mon. XXI.
Worcestersh. I._

He was also a liberal donor to (some imagine the founder of)
Westminster Abbey. A. D. 785 “Offa granted ten plough-lands at Aldenham
in Herts to St. Peter’s church, ‘et plebi Domini degenti in Torneia’
(Thorney Isle, on which the Minster was built). He also ‘collected
a parcel of monks here’ and ‘repaired and enlarged the church,’
and ‘having a great reverence for St. Peter,’ continues Sulcardus,
‘_he in a particular manner honoured it by depositing there the
coronation robes and regalia_.’ He also exempted it from the payment of
Romescot.”--_Neale’s Westminster Abbey, vol. 1. p. 13. Dugd. Mon. by
Ellis, I. 266._

He resettled the see of Dorchester (Oxon), which had experienced some
interruption in the succession of its bishops.--_Flor. Wig. 785.
Kennett’s Paroch. Antiq. p. 33._

He built a nunnery at Winchelcombe (called Winchcumb by Dugdale), A. D.
787.--_Not. Mon. XXXIII. Gloucestershire I._

He gave “between the years 791 and 794 to Athelard, archbishop of
Canterbury thirty tributaries of land on the north side of the Thames,
at a place called Twittenham.”--_Lyson’s Twickenham._

But the most important of Offa’s foundations was that of St. Alban’s
abbey. I have followed the date of Ingram’s Saxon Chronicle, Speed,
and others, in assigning 794 as the period of his death, and therefore
cannot suppose the foundation of St. Alban’s to have been later than
that year, though it may have been the year previous. (V. _Storr’s
Chron._) From _Tanner’s Not. Mon. (I. Hertfordshire, I.)_ we learn
that A. D. 793 a noble abbey for one hundred Benedictine monks was
founded by Offa. The Chronicler Speed says that in A. D. 795 “Offa in
honour of St. Albane, and in repentance of his sins, built a magnificke
monastery (over against Verolamium in the place then called Holmehurst,
where that protomartyr of Britaine for the constant profession of the
Faith lost his head), indowing it with lands and rich revenewes for the
maintenance of an hundred monks. Upon the first gate of entrance in
stone standeth cut a salteir argent in a field azure, and is assigned
by the judicious in Heraldry to bee the armes that he bare.”--_Book 7.
ch. 28._

Matthew of Westminster and others assign different dates varying from
A. D. 793 to 797 to this foundation, and the Monk of St. Albans agrees
with Matth. West. in recording the vision of an angel which occurred
to Offa at Bath, wherein he was instructed by the heavenly visitant to
exhume and place in a tomb worthy of him the body of St. Alban. This
design he subsequently named to the Pope, for which the Holy Pontiff
commended him, and promised to take the projected abbey of St. Alban
under his especial protection “nullo episcopo sive archiepiscopo

Speed further states, that Offa built a church in Warwickshire after
his return from Rome, “where the adjoining town from it and him beareth
the name of _Off-Church_:” and that at Bath he built “_another_
monastery.” Perhaps it is to this last, and not to St. Peter’s church
which was rebuilt by him (see _ante_), to which Dugdale refers in his
_Mon. Angl._ when he says, “Monasterium Batoniense rex Offa construxit,
quod post rex Edgarus, sicut alia monasteria reparavit.”

To the above Holinshed adds the church of Hereford, which he states
that he “indowed with great revenues.” _Hist. Engl. b. 6. ch. 4._]

But with all his faults and failings, Offa was a great, an illustrious
character! The stain, the indelible stain of the pure and high-minded
Ethelbert’s blood must remain to deface his memory; yet cannot it
annihilate the brilliant talents that the Mercian king displayed in
war--the nobleness and independence of spirit that could not, for
an instant, brook an alien interference--the humanity he showed in
bestowing burial on the bodies of his enemies slain in battle[26]--his
personal humility when in the height of prosperity[27]--his judgment
and affection in associating with himself in the government of the
kingdom his noble and pious son--his admirable policy in restoring to
the conquered kings of Wessex and of Deira their respective realms,
and of binding them to his interests by giving them his daughters
in marriage--his systematic enforcement of the majesty of the
law[28]--his knowledge of human nature in ordaining regular insignia
of royalty[29]--or his early patriotism and unflinching valour that
wrested from the tyrant rebel the empurpled crown, and wreathed for the
diadem a garland of victory to grace his own commanding brow![30]

[Footnote 26: V. Vita Offæ Secundi.]

[Footnote 27: “As a conqueror over all his enemies triumphantly after
ten years’ wars abroad returned he to his own kingdome, neither puffed
with pride, nor suffering his title to be enlarged according to his
conquests.”--_Speed’s Chronicle._]

[Footnote 28: Alcuin bears this testimony to Offa’s laws not long after
his death: “Vos quoque omnem gentem Merciorum admoneatis ut _mores
bonos et modestos et castros_ diligenter observent, quos beatæ memoriæ
Offa illis instituit.”

_Ex Epist. Albini ad quendam Anglum patritii ord. virum. Leland’s
Collect. vol. 1. p. 402._]

[Footnote 29: “He was not neglectiue of regall state,” by the report
of the Ligger booke of St. Alban’s, which saith, “that in regard of
his great prerogatiue, and not of any pride, _he first_ instituted
and commanded, that even in times of peace also, himselfe and his
successors in the crowne should, as he passed through any cities, have
trumpetters going and sounding before them, to shew that the person of
the king should breed both feare and honor in all which either see him
or heare him.” _Speed’s Chronicle, p. 345._]

[Footnote 30: The death of Offa took place at Offa-leia, or Off-ley.
_Speed says 29th July, 794. Ingr. Sax. Chron. A. D. 794. Mailros. 796.
Matth. West. 797._]

In bold relief he stands amid a crowd of inferior souls--and if cruelty
did occasionally embrue his sword in needless blood--if a weak yielding
to an artful woman’s wiles does stain his memory--if a blind and
superstitious following of blind and superstitious as well as artful
guides lead posterity to doubt the healthy vigour of his intellect--let
it be remembered, that for his faults he was mainly indebted to the
unlettered days in which he lived--his virtues and his talents were
such as could not fail to render him illustrious, had he lived in a far
more advanced and highly civilized age than that which he adorned.


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Transcriber’s note:

Variant spellings and original punctuation are retained.

Footnotes have been moved to the end of paragraphs.

Other changes that have been made are listed below.

In Footnote 16, “_Vita Offæ_ 2” superscript “di.” has been transcribed
as “_Vita Offæ Secundi._”

Footnote 4, from “Nam _Offa_ infra suum primum annum eum anfugavit,”
            to   “Nam _Offa_ infra suum primum annum eum aufugavit,”

Footnote 14, from “... solemniter coronari filum suum ...”
             to   “... solemniter coronari filium suum ...”

Footnote 17, from “... Brithfrid prædiviti viso apparuit, jubeus,”
             to   “... Brithfrid prædiviti viso apparuit, jubens,”

Footnote 22, from “... non secundum corum æstimationem,”
             to   “... non secundum eorum æstimationem,”

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