Coenwulf of Mercia

Coenwulf (or Cenwulf) (died 821) was King of Mercia from 796 to 821.

The Cenwulf 'mancus'
The Cenwulf 'mancus'

Coenwulf became king after the death of Ecgfrith, the son of Offa, in December 796; Ecgfrith had ruled for only five months. Coenwulf was a descendant of Cenwalh, an obscure younger brother of the past kings Penda and Eowa, who had lived 150 years earlier; thus Coenwulf was a member of a different branch of the Mercian royal line, as descendants of Penda had ruled until 716 and descendants of Eowa until Ecgfrith's death.

Kent, which had been ruled as a Mercian territory since 785, rose in rebellion in 796. Coenwulf won the Church's backing for a reconquest of Kent, in large part due to its dissatisfaction with the exile of the pro-Mercian Archbishop of Canterbury, Aethelheard, who fled in the face of the rebellion. In 798, Coenwulf invaded Kent, deposed and captured the rebel king Eadbert Praen, and made his own brother Cuthred king of Kent some time around 800. He ruled until the time of his death in 807. Coenwulf subsequently took control of Kent in name as well as fact.

Eadbert Praen was imprisoned at Winchcombe, a religious house closely affiliated with Cenwulf's family which housed the royal archives and was presided over by Cenwulf's daughter Cwoenthryth. Royal control over religious houses in Kent - specifically Reculver and Minster - resulted in a long dispute with Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury from 805 until his death in 832. Both parties sought the support of foreign powers including the emperor Louis the Pious and the Pope: papal privileges confirming Cenwulf's monastic possessions were obtained, whilst a number of forgeries in favour of episcopal control over monasteries were produced at Canterbury. The issue of lay control over monasteries had been festering for some years, but firm statements against the practice came at synods held at Clofesho in 803 and particularly that at Chelsea in 816. Following the latter synod Wulfred was suspended from office for several years. The document written up in 825 recording the history of the debate from the - then victorious - Canterbury viewpoint claims six years, though other evidence contradicts this; four is perhaps more likely. Under Cenwulf at least, the debate was concluded in the king's favour around 820 when Wulfred was summoned to a meeting in London and agreed to cede a very large and valuable estate to Cenwulf and pay him a considerable sum in gold in exchange for gaining lordship over the two contested monasteries. Charters from subsequent years show Wulfred had some difficulty enforcing this control, and the king's power over these monasteries remained strong.

East Anglia under Cenwulf is considerably murkier. As in Kent, there was an uprising on the death of Offa in 796, who had probably ruled East Anglia directly since 794. Eadwald became king as a result of this rebellion. However, Coenwulf regained control of East Anglia by the early 800s, as can be discerned from the coinage.

Throughout his reign, Coenwulf waged war against the Welsh of Powys and Gwynedd; in 798, the ruler of Gwynedd, Caradog ap Meirion was killed, probably in battle against the Mercians. Further campaigns against the Welsh are recorded in 816 and 818, and Geoffrey Gaimar records that Cenwulf died at Clent near the Welsh border, quite probably making preparations for a campaign that took place under his brother Ceolwulf the following year.

In 799, Coenwulf entered into a peace treaty with the West Saxons under Beorhtric, who had been installed as King of Wessex by Offa in 786; Beorhtric remained friendly to Mercian interests until his death in 802, when the less submissive Egbert became king. Coenwulf may have instigated the failed raid into Wessex of Ælthelmund, earl of the Hwicce, upon the accession of Egbert. However, the major conflict that established the supremacy of Wessex at the expense of Mercia would not occur until the 820s, after Coenwulf's death.

In 801, following Cenwulf's harbouring of King Eardwulf of Northumbria's enemies (such as Saint Alcmund of Derby), Mercia was invaded by Eardwulf, but peace was soon made between the two sides.

It was during Coenwulf's reign that the archbishopric of Lichfield was abolished, probably before 803, as the Hygeberht who signed as an abbot at the council of Cloveshoe in that year was the former archbishop.

Coenwulf died in 821, and was succeeded by his brother Ceolwulf I.


Cross-and-wedges penny of Coenwulf, Canterbury, Beornferth
Cross-and-wedges penny of Coenwulf, Canterbury, Beornferth

The coinage of Cenwulf follows the broad silver penny format established under Offa and his contemporaries. His very first coins are very similar to the heavy coinage of Offa's last three years, and since the mints at Canterbury and in East Anglia were under the control of Eadbert Praen and Eadwald respectively, these earliest pennies must be the product of the London mint. Before 798 the new tribrach type was introduced, initially at London alone but soon spreading to Canterbury after it was reconquered from the rebels. It was not struck in East Anglia, but there are tribrach pennies in the name of Cuthred, sub-king of Kent. Around 805 a new portrait coinage was introduced to Canterbury and London. At London a wide variety of styles and reverse designs were used, many of relatively poor artistic standard. The issues of Canterbury, however, were numerous and well-struck, especially in the initial cross and wedges coinage of Cuthred and Cenwulf and in the earliest portrait pennies of Archbishop Wulfred (the first archiepiscopal pennies to carry a portrait). After around 810 the quality of the portrait declined slightly, and a more diverse range of reverse designs was introduced, though several were common to many or all of the moneyers.

The most dramatic development in the coinage of Cenwulf came with the discovery in 2001 of a gold coin bearing the name Coenwulf at Biggleswade in Bedfordshire, England, on a footpath beside the River Ivel. The 4.25g mancus (worth about 30 days' pay for a skilled worker) is only the eighth known Anglo-Saxon gold coin with a meaningful legend from after about 650, and is also the only one to bear any close relation to the contemporary silver coinage or to explicitly name its mint; in this case London, though the exact significance of the reverse legend DE VICO LVNDONIAE is debatable. Initially sold to American collector Allan Davisson for £230,000 at an auction held by Spink auction house in October of that year, the British Government subsequently put in place an export ban in the hope of saving it for the British public. In February 2006 the coin was bought by the British Museum for £357,832 with the help of funding from the National Heritage Memorial Fund making it the most expensive British coin ever purchased. It is now on display in the museum's money gallery.


Preceded by:
King of East Anglia Succeeded by:
Ceolwulf I
Cuthred King of Kent
Ecgfrith King of Mercia

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