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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Offa and the Mercian Wars
This is another in the great Pen and Swords historical series, publications which focus largely on military, as well as ancient history.

The name Offa is probably most well known as being related to Offa's Dyke, the earthwork running along the border with Wales. Offa was just one of the rulers of the kingdom of Mercia, and this book covers very engagingly the...
Published 15 months ago by Keen Reader

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected
It starts well but deteriorates into a non committal discussion about the old subject of how the Roman Empire fell and its effect on Britain.
The author discusses the deployment of the small elite armies, leaving the peasants to provide the food from their farms.
We progress through Penda and Oswald/Oswiu and doubts about Mercia even existing as a kingdom during...
Published 9 months ago by 5 string bassist


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected, 21 Dec 2013
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It starts well but deteriorates into a non committal discussion about the old subject of how the Roman Empire fell and its effect on Britain.
The author discusses the deployment of the small elite armies, leaving the peasants to provide the food from their farms.
We progress through Penda and Oswald/Oswiu and doubts about Mercia even existing as a kingdom during this period.
Half way through the book we get to the Sutton Hoo Treasures and the Staffordshire Hoard (which the author provides little evidence of actually having seen)and we begin to wonder where Offa and the Mercian Wars have got to.
The actual text of the book is 186 pages long. Page 88 marks Penda's successors and the rise of Offa, Page 149 Offa's successors and the Danish Invasions. Where was Offa? What of the Mercian Armies? Has this guy been to Seckington, Tamworth, Hereford or even Mercia?
Somewhere in between, Offa has got to subdue the majority of the surrounding English Kingdoms, form diplomatic and trading ties with Charlemagne and dig huge ditches around Tamworth and along the Welsh border, write a good number of charters and travel the country collecting his revenue to pay for it all.
In Mercia there ruled a mighty king who struck all around him with terror.
That alone should make him an interesting character.
The author has interestingly covered the post Offa period in more detail, especially the Danish "Great Army" campaigns, offering a few insights into the activities of he Mercians during what has largely been recorded in history, as the sole efforts of the army of Wessex.
Did the Northern Mercians (geographically close to the Nortumbrians)conspire with the Danish mercenaries, to become the central powerhouse of Britain.
Suggesting to them how to capture Alfred in Chippenham at Christmas.
The South & West Mercians, (dominated by the Hwicce) were beginning to move closer with Wessex in the necessity to create an English rather than Norse kingdom of Britain. Using Winchcombe and Gloucester as their centres rather than Tamworth and Derby.
Throughout its history Mercia has indications of friction between these dynasties. Tamworth often on the dividing line. Penda allied to the Welsh, which side did Eowa fight on. Were the so called "B" dynasties northern and the "C" dynasties South/West. Lots of questions for debate.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Offa and the Mercian Wars, 25 Jun 2013
By 
Keen Reader "lhendry4" (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
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This is another in the great Pen and Swords historical series, publications which focus largely on military, as well as ancient history.

The name Offa is probably most well known as being related to Offa's Dyke, the earthwork running along the border with Wales. Offa was just one of the rulers of the kingdom of Mercia, and this book covers very engagingly the rise of the rulers, their accomplishments and the peak under Offa, then the succession to the arrival of the Vikings and the climb to power based largely on Wessex.

Clearly a lot of any such reconstruction is just that; based on insufficient and sometimes conflicting sources, the author must balance the writings of such as Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and later writings such as those of Gildas, as well as archaeological evidence such as the finds at Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. This book is a good attempt to recreate a coherent historical narrative, which also features chapters with insights on the warrior's arms and armour, and the theory of war in the seventh to ninth centuries.

This is an extremely interesting book, which I would recommend to anyone interested in finding out more about the period, particularly the Mercian kingdom itself. The author has included brief chronological histories of the kingdom under the rule of such as can be identified, from Cearl and Penda in the early seventh century through to Ceolwulf II in 874. A great read, and one which will capture the imagination of anyone. No prior knowledge of the period or the people is required to enjoy this book to its fullest. There is also a good bibliography to encourage further reading.
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3.0 out of 5 stars very easy to consume, gives pleasure but has very little nutritional value, 23 Aug 2014
This is a well written book, the prologue sets the scene beautifully of a band of "dust stained" warriors riding into town. The sophisticates of Kent being subdued by the hard men from Mercia. As well as being graphic, this makes an important point; the area we now think of as the leafy shires was to the people of Kent somewhere rough and dangerous. This is our first impression of the Mercians, later in the book Peers uses equally good descriptive writing to show another side (or perhaps another interpretation) of the Mercians, highlighting some of the wealth and artwork the Midlanders accrued in the latter part of the 1st millennium. It is all very beautiful and makes for an enjoyable read

My problems with this book are not with the style but rather with the content. Getting upset about inaccuracies in a book about events from over a thousand years ago makes me sound very geeky... and I have to admit I am guilty as charged. However, beyond my geeky outrage at minor mistakes and over sights, I also feel a more justified sadness that an author who should be capable of some novel insights has satisfied himself with paraphrasing other authors with little sign that he truly understands the points they were trying to make.

Early on in his book Chris Peers makes a very convincing case that the history of Mercia, in particular the history of its wars cannot be separated from its geography. It is a convincing argument and was a convincing argument the first time I read it. In particular (as Mr Peers points out) the rivers determine the direction of campaigns. You would imagine that anyone making such a point would at the very least buy a map and find out how and where the important rivers flowed.

Perhaps Mr Peers was not motivated to go to that extra effort because the arguments were not his arguments. If he had bought or borrowed a map (or perhaps even if he had simply used Google Earth) he would notice that the river Severn flows east from its source, it then turns and for a substantial distance flows north forming the border between what was the Kingdom of Powys and Mercia. It then turns to head east again before heading south and eventually west. This means a substantial chunk of Mercia has the river Severn to its east, north and west. This is a territory once controlled by the Hwicce. Despite discussing these people at some length in his book, Mr Peers draws the river on his map running from north to south with hardly a curve.

Like I said above, I am a geek and this may not seem important, but Chris Peers dedicated an entire chapter to `Offa's country' suggesting rivers and hills can be used to explain semi-lost history. Later he mentions 3 major battles which by his own arguments can only really be understood in the context of the way the Severn almost encircles Mercian territory. He inexplicably fails to mention an arguably more important battle that is even more closely defined by the way this river flows. He also entirely misses its implication with regard to Offa's dyke (an important topic in this book).

The first of these battles was Maserfield, which almost the entire world accepts was near the town of Oswestry. Chris Peers spends a few lines reporting that this has been questioned by some; failing to really address why anyone would bother to question the accepted dogma. The reason is easy to understand from the perspective of the 19th and 20th century authors who raised this issue. To them it seemed strange that Northumbrians based in the northeast of what is now England would have met their Mercian enemies near a town on Mercia's western border with Powys. The answer is very probably that when Oswald was leading his Northumbrians south to meet Penda he would have quite naturally followed the southern bank of the Mersey, then to the east of the Dee towards the Severn - passing Oswestry.

The second battle mentioned in the book was Bridgnorth, this time Danes striking from the North along the east bank of the Severn as it runs from North to South in the centre of Mercian territory. The third battle was Buttington. This time the Vikings sailed up the Severn, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle having first sailed up the Thames. If you believe Mr Peers' map, the Thames rises somewhere to the east of Birmingham. Given this it would seem impossible that anyone would take ships up the Thames and then overland to the Severn. To be fair, in a rare (unique?) example of logical progression Chris Peer's questions this possibility, suggesting instead they would have risked the perilous journey through the English Channel and around Cornwall. If on the other hand you look at a real map of the Thames valley you would notice it runs almost directly west-east far to the south of Birmingham and coming surprisingly close to the Severn estuary. I'm not saying Peers is wrong when he suggests the Vikings would have taken the sea route, I am just saying he should look carefully at the evidence he is using.

More unfortunate is that Chris Peers places Buttington on his map approximately at the site of Bridgnorth (bizarrely on his map this is still north of the position he chooses for Tettenhall). This is unfortunate because Buttington does not lie on the Severn as it runs north to south, it is far to the west on the stretch of the Severn running south to north. An important consideration because it means the Viking invaders were not heading north towards the Danelaw when they made their base at Buttington. They had passed up the river beyond Bridgnorth and far from heading home had continued through Mercian territory they were at that point heading back south. This was in other words not a retreating let alone beaten army.

The significant battle on the Severn that Peers misses completely is Cefn Digoll (to the Welsh) or the Battle of the Long Mountain (in English). This is a very strange omission and Peers explicitly states that Hatfield Chase was where Penda and Edwin first met in battle. It simply wasn't and that is important politically. If Hatfield Chase was the first military encounter of Edwin with Penda and his British allies, then clearly Penda was attacking deep into Northumbria in an a act of aggressive bravado. In reality we know Edwin was first met in battle near the Beacon Ring (Cefn Digoll), a mile or so from the later battle site of Buttington, within an hour or so walk of the battle of Maserfield.

I've already mentioned why this little stretch of the River Severn is such an obvious place for an aggressor to encounter Mercian's defending their territory, to reiterate this is where someone coming from the north east following the line of the Mersey and then Dee would be looking to cross from west to east across the Severn. Edwin's defeat at Cefn Digoll explains his later defeat and death at Hatfield Chase and why Penda was allied with Cadwallon (against an aggressor).

As with virtually everyone writing about Offa, Chris Peers discusses the incongruities of Offa's dyke as a defensive line. He regurgitates several of the old arguments without ever really offering his own opinion. He even mentions the old chestnut of Offa's dyke as a form of pest control (keeping Welsh wolves off Mercian sheep), this argument is surprisingly convincing if presented properly, Peers simply mentions it with no real explanation at all. Another observation that Peers quotes is that some of the Dyke look likes it is designed to defend from enemies coming from the east while most looks like it was made to defend from a western attacker. Having mentioned the issue Peers fails to progress further with the discussion, presumably again because of his disinterest in geography: an explanation (not necessarily a convincing explanation) is that it was designed exactly to do what it appears to be designed to do. It was almost certainly not intended to be manned permanently; if it was defensive then it was probably meant to be used by hurriedly raised forces responding to a larger force of invaders from whichever side. To the north of the Severn this was likely to be from the east (as at Maserfield) to the south from the west as an enemy wheels round to cross the river.

The entire book is very derivative, arguments quoted rather than made. Is it still worth reading? If you want to know about the basic historical context why not simply read Stenton (Anglo Saxon England: Oxford History of England)? Peers is obviously writing much later and Stenton could not have written about the Staffordshire hoard, but to be honest you could get much more about the hoard from Wikipedia than from Peers' book. Peers does excel when discussing weapons and tactics, but I'd like to recommend Penda: Heathen King of Mercia by Pete Jennings in this respect (cheaper, but admittedly less good production quality). In conclusion, this book is intellectual junk food because it is very easy to consume, gives pleasure but has very little nutritional value.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great read and a good and clear summary, 12 Aug 2012
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JPS - See all my reviews
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"Offa and the Mercian wars" is one of the better volumes on the Pen and Sword collection. The book is well structured, with maps and a genealogical table listing the Mercian Kings. The introduction and the three first chapters, which lay the scene and provide the context, are impressive.

The introduction presents the main sources for the period, the chronicles and a few charters, but also the archaeological findings. This presentation is short, to the point, but nevertheless quite comprehensive with the main points being made without any of the endless discussions on the reliability of the respective sources (or lack of it) that I had feared and which can be somewhat tedious for a general reader.

The other three contextual chapters deal, respectively, with the geography and the land, presenting what were the strategic issues that the Kings of Mercia had to deal with, the coming of the Angles and the Kingdoms and armies that ruled over the central part of what is now England. The author embraces the current and modern thesis that the "real" Angles - that is does that had come from overseas and their descendants - were probably a minority among the total population (some 10-15%), although they constituted the upper class. This thesis, which has become common among authors and historians working on the Dark Ages across what made up the old Provinces of the Western Roman Empire, is more likely than what we used to be taught at school about the huge hordes of Barbarians that sweep over the borders as tidal waves.

The fourth chapter examines the reigns of the first Kings of Mercia, the ones who came to progressively dominate a couple of dozen of other kingdoms and, at least to some extent, integrate them into the kingdom. Here again, the author presents a rather good summary of the extant of current research, showing for instance that the population of the eastern part of Mercia was Breton, with perhaps a sprinkling of Angles.

He then examines the reign of Penda, the first of the most well-known of the Mercian Kings (chapter 4) and then moves to examine his successors, and Offa in particular. This is where I was a bit disappointed: these two chapters read mostly as a collection of names of places, people, battles and dates, though this is not the fault of the author but rather reflects the paucity of the written sources. This is where the period might still deserve his traditional name of "Dark Ages". Here again, however, archaeology can help, with chapter 4 being devoted to the two major finds of Sutton Hoo and of the Staffordshire hoard. There is more, however, on Offa, as the next chapter presents "The Warrior in the Age of the Mercian Kings" and the one after that focuses on the main features of Offa's long reign (AD 757-796) and Kingdom.

The last two chapters focus on the decline of Mercia (and the rise of Wessex) after the death of Offa, but also on the coming of Vikings and the wars against them. This includes the reigns of Alfred and his predecessors and successors, with a special piece on the Lady of Mercia (Alfred's daughter who ruled Mercia rather effectively). This is where I somewhat felt that the book lost a bit of the focus on Mercia, as the author summarizes the Viking wars. He also assumes that the Vikings' initial lack of interest for Mercia would have been because of its relative strength, which I did not find entirely convincing.

Interestingly, for those who are fans of Cornwell's series on Uthred, you will meet the historical Aethelred (who seems to have been a good deal better than Cornwell has made him to be) and his wife Aethelflaed (the Lady of Mercia).

This was a very interesting summary on a period on which I previously knew not very much and it is worth a solid four stars.
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Offa and the Mecian Wars, 4 Nov 2012
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Good easy to read detail on how Mercia became great.Looses plot at the end failing to mention Athelston and later Kings brought up and declared king of England in Mercia independantly of Wessex and before recognition in Wessex
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where is Offa buried?, 3 Sep 2013
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I was surprised by the amount of information available about what has been called the "dark ages". The author is well informed about the pursuit of power and illuminates the connections between various places in the Midlands in particular.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars, 13 Aug 2014
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P. Stretton (england) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Offa and the Mercian Wars: The Rise and Fall of the First Great English Kingdom (Kindle Edition)
A ggod read
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