King Penda and the Battle of the Winwaed in 655

15 November 655, somewhere in Yorkshire, Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia met his fate at the Battle of the Winwaed.

“The brutal Saxon invaders drove the Britons westward into Wales and compelled them to become Welsh; it is now considered doubtful whether this was a Good Thing. Memorable among the Saxon warriors were Hengist and his wife (?or horse), Horsa. Hengist made himself King in the South. Thus Hengist was the first English King and his wife (or horse), Horsa, the first English Queen (or horse). The country was now almost entirely inhabited by Saxons and was therefore renamed England, and thus (naturally) soon became C. of E. This was a Good Thing, because previously the Saxons had worshipped some dreadful gods of their own called Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.“ ( W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, “1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates“)

 Replica of an Anglo-Saxon helmet from the days of the Heptarchy
found on:

Two centuries after the Romans had left Britain, or so it is told, the country later known as England was fragmented in various petty kingdoms, founded by Anglo-Saxon tribes, former mercenaries, invaders, settlers. The Ēast Engla Rīce, East Anglia, Ēast Seaxna Rīce, Essex, Cantaware Rīce, Kent, Sūþseaxna rīce, Sussex, Westseaxna rīce, Wessex, Norþhymbra rīce, the kingdom of the Northumbrians and the Miercna rīce, the kingdom of the Mercians, the border people, as the seven territories were called, if not by the people who were supposed to have actually inhabited these places, then at least by their descendants in the days of King Alfred, were obviously on each others’ throats on a regular basis. Along with the Welsh, the Cornish, the Irish and the Picts. Or so the very few sources we have from the days of the Heptarchy, the “rule of the seven”, tell us, like the venerable Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) dating back to the year 731. And during the first half of the 7th century a ruler rose among the Mercians who would turn the world of the Heptarchy upside down, or at least give it a good try. His name was Penda, son of Pybba, scion of the Iclingas, named for Icel, great-grandson of Offa of Angel, a descendant of Wotan.

Anglo-Saxon warriors from the days of the Heptarchy -
image found on

Beda Venerabilis was a Northumbrian monk and thus his sympathy for the last pagan ruler of the rival Mercians is rather limited, but he lets us know that around the year 650, Penda had established his rule in the Midlands, across the border into Wales, defeated the clan of the Gewissæ who ruled Wessex, annexed parts of East Anglia, but his main enemy was Northumbria and he had defeated them twice with the help of Welsh allies, at Hatfield Chase in 633 and at Maserfield in 642 and the 650s saw him along with the men from Powys and Gwynedd plundering the Northumbrian countryside. At least, according to Beda, he did tolerate Christianity: “Nor did King Penda obstruct the preaching of the word among his people, the Mercians, if any were willing to hear it; but, on the contrary, he hated and despised those whom he perceived not to perform the works of faith, when they had once received the faith, saying, "They were contemptible and wretched who did not obey their God, in whom they believed." This was begun two years before the death of King Penda.“ And his death was close when he invaded Bernicia, a Northumbrian client kingdom, with 30 warbands from Mercia, Gwynedd, East Anglia and renegades from Deira, another former Northumbrian client. 

Battle of the Winwaed - as imagined by an unknown modern illustrator - image found on

After initial successes that pushed the Northumbrians back into Scotland, Penda’s allies seem to have had enough, especially in terms of plunder and tributes, and left. The Mercians withdrew towards Yorkshire with King Oswiu and his Northumbrians in pursuit. Oswiu obviously caught Penda on the march somewhere along the banks of a swollen rivulet called the Winwaed, maybe a tributary of the Humber, and allegedly still outnumbered, the Northumbrian king prayed and promised to make his daughter a nun and give twelve estates to the church to found monasteries there if God would grant him victory. And then the Northumbrians attacked and drove the Mercians into the water and "many more were drowned in the flight than destroyed by the sword" as Beda lets us know. Penda was killed in battle and his Miercna rīce crumbled while Northumbria rose to power and the way was open to christianise the Midlands and the South in earnest.

And more about the Battle of the Winwaed on: