Coenwulf of Mercia

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Coenwulf (or Cenwulf) (died 821) was King of Mercia from December 796 to 821. He was a descendant of a brother of King Penda, who had ruled Mercia in the middle of the 7th century. He succeeded Ecgfrith, the son of Offa; Ecgfrith only reigned for five months, with Coenwulf coming to the throne in the same year that Offa died. In the early years of Coenwulf's reign he had to deal with a revolt in Kent, which had been under Offa's control. Eadberht Præn returned from exile in Francia to claim the Kentish throne and Coenwulf was forced to wait for papal support before he could intervene. When Pope Leo agreed to anathematize Eadberht, Coenwulf invaded and retook the kingdom; Eadberht was taken prisoner, and was blinded and had his hands cut off. Coenwulf also appears to have lost control of the kingdom of East Anglia during the early part of his reign, as an independent coinage appears under King Eadwald. Coenwulf's coinage reappears in 805 indicating that the kingdom was again under Mercian control. Several campaigns of Coenwulf's against the Welsh are recorded, but only one conflict with Northumbria, in 801, though it is likely that Coenwulf continued to support the opponents of the Northumbrian king Eardwulf.

Coenwulf came into conflict with Archbishop Wulfred of Canterbury over the issue of whether laypeople could control religious houses such as monasteries. The breakdown in the relationship between the two eventually reached the point where the archbishop was unable to exercise his duties for at least four years. A partial resolution was reached in 822 with Coenwulf's successor, King Ceolwulf, but it was not until about 826 that a final settlement was reached between Wulfred and Coenwulf's daughter, Cwoenthryth, who had been the main beneficiary of Coenwulf's grants of religious property.

He was succeeded by his brother, Ceolwulf; a post-Conquest legend claims that his son Cynehelm was murdered to gain the succession. Within two years Ceolwulf had been deposed and the kingship passed permanently out of Coenwulf's family. Coenwulf was the last king of Mercia to exercise substantial dominance over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Within a decade of his death, the rise of Wessex had begun, under King Egbert, and Mercia never recovered its former position of power.


Background and sources

For most of the eighth century, Mercia was dominant among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the river Humber. Æthelbald, who came to the throne in 716, had established himself as the overlord of the southern Anglo-Saxons by 731.[1] He was assassinated in 757, and was briefly succeeded by Beornred, but within a year Offa ousted Beornred and took the throne for himself. Offa's daughter Eadburh married Beorhtric of Wessex in 789, and Beorhtric became an ally thereafter.[2] In Kent, Offa intervened decisively in the 780s,[3] and at some point became the overlord of East Anglia, whose king, Æthelred, was beheaded at Offa's orders in 794.[4]

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