Offa is a lost and forgotten English hero, who presided over a golden age of Anglo Saxon England. The History of England podcast covers the rise of Mercian supremacy, culminating in the reign of Offa.
Penda, the last pagan warrior king (died 655)
Penda of Mercia resisted the spread of Christianity, and fought to establish the supremacy of the Mercian kingdom. To an extent he suceeded in the second, defeating the Northumbrians and Wessex. His eventual defeat at Winwaed did not undermine his real achievement - which was to draw together all the peoples of the midlands into one Mercian kingdom. It laid the foundation for its later supremacy.
Wulfhere (K. Mercia 655-675), Aethelred (K. Mercia 675 - 704), and Aethelbald (K. Mercia 716-757)
Penda's sons Wulfhere and Aethelred extended Mercia's control over the Anglo Saxon nations, defeating Northumbria and Kent. By the time we get to Aethelbald, Mercia is therefore the leading power in England, capable, for example of making sure that his favourite candidate, Cyneheard, became king of Wessex. Cyneheard's reign was almost as long as Aethelbald's and is marked by the first surviving example of Old English narrative prose in the description of his death. Aethelbald lived life in the fast lane, to the disgust of the church, but it caught up with him when in 757 he was murdered by his own bodyguard.
Offa of Mercia (K. Mercia, 757 - 796)
Offa had to fight for his throne, but within a year had seen off his rival Boernred. Offa's long reign is a golden age of Anglo Saxon England. The 8th century saw the flowering of English writing, and a cultural vitality that was the equal of anything in Europe. Offa established a hegemony over all of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms south of the Humber. He was a man who could speak to Charlemagne as an equal, and did so.
Like all Anglo Saxon Kings, Offa was deeply involved in the affairs of the Church, and briefly established an Archbishopric at Lichfield to rival Canterbury. He ran an organised and efficient state, able to build his 80 mile dyke along the border with Wales. He even at one stage styles himself Rex Anglorum; but generally referred to himself as King of the Mercians. But it was an early signal of the ambition to create a united English state.
Offa died before the great challenge of the Viking Age. But the earliest signs of trouble were there. Below is the 789 entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle:
‘ . . . came the first three ships of the northmen from Horthaland. The Reeve rode there, and meant to force them to the King’s dwelling, because he did not know what they were; and then he was killed. Those were the first ships of the Danish to seek out the lands of the English. ‘