"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.