King Offa

Offa, King of the Mercians, is best remembered for his Dyke but perhaps he could also be known as the ‘father-in-law from Hell’…

Offa, his Dyke and his legendary hospitality!

Offa was King of the Mercians, a warrior tribe from central England, from 757 – 796, and is best remembered for his Dyke, which he had built to act as a defence against the Welsh.

It was constructed at the end of the eighth century and consisted of a great defensive earthwork, with a ditch on the Welsh side, and it ran for 140 miles from the mouth of the River Dee in the north to that of the Wye in the south.

Offa's Dyke WKPD

Parts of Offa’s Dyke can still be seen in many places. The town of Knighton in Radnorshire has stretches of the Dyke on both sides of the town, and at Kington in Herefordshire, there is a well-preserved section of this earthwork.

Offa is not only remembered for his great Dyke, but also as the ‘father-in-law from Hell’!

Ethelred, King Offa and Alfrida (HUK)
King Ethelbert of East Anglia, Offa and Alfrida

In A.D. 794 Offa had promised his daughter Alfrida in marriage to Ethelbert, who was the king of East Anglia. Legend says that Ethelbert and Elfrida met and fell in love, and became engaged to be married.

Alfrida’s mother, Queen Cynethryth, became so jealous of her daughter’s happiness that she persuaded Offa to murder Ethelbert before the wedding could take place.

When Ethelbert started his journey to Offa’s palace at Sutton Walls near Marden, it is said that the sun became dark and the earth shook, and before arriving at the palace, Ethelbert had a dream in which he saw his bridal bed destroyed, while his mother watched, weeping tears of blood.

The omens were proved to be well founded!

Ethelbert arrived at Offa’s palace on the eve of his wedding, and was shown into the hall where the king was waiting.

He stepped into the hall and the doors were immediately locked behind him, and one of Offa’s nobles, Winebert, stepped forward at Offa’s command, and struck-off Ethelbert’s head with his sword.

This was not the welcome poor Ethelbert had expected!!

The disposal of Ethelbert’s body proved troublesome, for wherever it was buried, miraculous lights appeared over the grave.

Death of Ethelbert (HUK)
Murder of Ethelred

His body was finally taken to Hereford for re-burial, and where his body had rested momentarily, a spring gushed up at the spot. This spring became known as St. Ethelbert’s Well and the site is marked near the entrance to Castle Green.

Ethelbert became the patron saint of Hereford Cathedral, which stands on the site of a shrine, ‘erected to his memory’ by Offa in 795!

How hypocritical can you get!

Offa is not everyone’s idea of a decent father-in-law, but apparently one of his daughters married Brihtric, King of Wessex with no fuss at all.

Offa’s wife must have been told to keep her opinions to herself on that occasion.

Next article

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

By Ben Johnson

The story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and one of the most powerful women to have lived during the Dark Ages. We also look at the role she played in uniting England.

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