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Saxon Tamworth

The Ancient Capital of Mercia

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The Ancient Capital of Mercia The Anglo-Saxons came into Staffordshire in the late 6th century, as groups of settlers or tribes. The Mercians gradually conquered most of the other Midland tribes to become the most powerful Kingdom stretching from the Humber to the Thames. The three main powerful kingdoms were Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. Tamworth was the heartland of the Mercian Kingdom, which had a royal church at Repton, a religious centre at Lichfield and the King’s main residence at Tamworth. Certainly the Mercian Kings spent more time at Tamworth than anywhere else. There is believed to have been a royal palace at Tamworth by the end of the 7th century, on the site close to St. Editha’s Church. Originally it would have been a timber hall with chapel and somewhere for horses to be stabled. Evidence from signed charters shows that the Mercian Royal families stayed at Tamworth far more than their other palaces and were regularly here for festivals of Christmas and Easter between 751 and 857 A.D. The most well known Mercian Kings are Penda (625 –655), Wulfhere (657-674), Aethelred (674-704), Aethelbald (716-757) and Offa (757-796). Tamworth is also known to have been important within Mercia, because it had a water mill which ground grain for food for the settlement and its livestock. The mill is believed to be the earliest (post Roman) watermill found in Britain. It was powered by the River Anker and used mill stones traded to King Offa from the French King Charlemagne, in exchange for English woollen cloaks. Mercian power began to decline after the death of King Offa and by the 10th century it lost its independence, becoming part of the Kingdom of Wessex to create the Kingdom of England.

See the magnificent Staffordshire Hoard replica items on display in Tamworth Castle


The Staffordshire Hoard Today, Mercia continues to herald its importance with the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest discovery of Saxon gold ever. Found not far from the Capital of Mercia, and very close to the Old Roman Road of Watling Street a few miles to the west of Tamworth, the hoard appears to date from around 590 A.D. to 750 A.D. We may never know why it was buried or who it belonged to but it will hopefully, in time, unlock some of the secrets of the Saxon age, and Anglo-Saxon Tamworth.


Interesting Facts Mercia (Mierce) meaning boundary or ‘boundary folk’ took their name from the belt of high land connecting the hills of Cannock Chase with the Forest of Arden. One of the new Anglo-Saxon tribes became known as the Tomsaetan, from its settlement in the Tame valley. Tamworth is not likely to have been urban in form until the time of Aethelstan in the 10th century, when it had a mint and would have been considered a town, only towns were allowed to have mints. The first penny minted originated from Tamworth and was the only effective currency in England up to the 14th Century.

The Kings Ditch known as ‘Offa’s Dyke’ constructed in the late 780’s as a demonstration of Mercian power, this was not just an agreed boundary but a fortified barrier. Tamworth which was the only town in the county of Staffordshire at the time of the Danish invasions has two streets with Danish names, Aldergate (Ellergate) and Gungate (Gumpegate). A valuable item such as a sword, drinking cup or a piece of jewellery may also have an even greater symbolic value ‘maddum’. This is the stored up history of the object which gives it its power, e.g. Excalibur. The sword was the warriors most important and trusted weapon, they were sometimes asked to swear mighty oaths on their sword, they believed that if the oath was broken then so would the sword at the crucial moment. Many of the Hoard pieces are believed to be from weapons of war, especially swords. There is a Saxon tradition of the bride being given her wedding ring on a sword, which meant that the warrior was pledging his loyalty to his word. Some swords have been found with small rings incorporated into the handle. Oaths were sworn on these rings, and rings were given as gifts, a tradition which provided for the influence for Lord of the Rings trilogy by J R Tolkien, who was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon.


Tamworth’s Famous Saxon Rulers Penda King of Mercia, warlike and the last Pagan English King. He died in battle against the Northumbrians who took control of Mercia. Wulfhere son of Penda and the first Christian King of Mercia. Aethelred second son of Penda, succeeds his brother to the throne of Mercia. Offa as King of Mercia, he became the most powerful of all rulers, also known as King of all the English. He erected a palace in Tamworth so magnificent in style and furnishings, that it was declared to be ‘the wonder of the age’. He fortified the town with a huge earthwork – a wall and a ditch – resting on the rivers Tame and Anker and encircling the town. Charters were granted by Offa from the palace at Tamworth. Offa spent Christmas at Tamworth in 781 AD. He had links with the famous King Charlemagne exchanging letters and gifts and established trading connections as far as Arabia. We will never know why he murdered so many of his relatives following his victory at the Battle of Seckington. Aethelflaed, the daughter of King Alfred the Great, has been described as ‘our greatest womangeneral’, one of the most effective leaders we ever had, who commanded troops for eight years and ruled a country as well. She drove back the marauding Danes and seized Watling Street, a strategical highway as the southern boundary of the Danelagh (the border between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons). To strengthen her line of communication across England she established a chain of fortified posts, and in the early summer of 913 AD, with her Mercians, marched to Tamworth, and here, at the junction of its two rivers established a fortification. We know it today as Tamworth Castle. She became Queen of Mercia, although she never claimed to be queen for sound political and personal reasons and assumed the title ‘Lady of the Mercians’. She died at Tamworth in 920 AD, an event which resulted in Mercia being merged into Wessex.


Aethelstan nephew to Aethelaed and also taught by her the arts of war and kingship, she taught him to read and gave him a jewelled dagger as a symbol of his rank. When he succeeded to the throne of Wessex, after the death of his father, Edward the Elder, he waged ceaseless war against the Danes and again made Tamworth a royal seat. Aethelstan was one of the greatest warriors, administrators and patrons of art to occupy the English throne in the early medieval period. Aethelstan became King of all Britain by clinching victory at the battle of Brunanburh. He died in 943AD. Editha, sister of Aethelstan, married Danish leader Sihtric in 925AD. Sihtric broke his Christian vows and relapsed into paganism, deserting Editha. Sihtric died during battle and Editha retired into a convent which she founded at Tamworth, close to the palace where she had reigned as a bride.

Replica Sword Pommel

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Saxon Heritage Leaflet inside_Black-0892_Layout 1 04/05/2012 17:04 Page 1

Time Line of Saxon Tamworth Timeline 400 597 625 625-655 650-690

Roman rule ends, Anglo Saxons arrive and start to colonise Britain

Berhtwulf of Mercia issues charter at Tamworthig.

Pope sends St Augustine to Britain to spread Christianity.

Berhtwulf issues charter in Tamworthig.

King Raedwald of East Anglia buried at Sutton Hoo

Berhtwulf issues charter in Tomeuuordig

King Penda of Mercia, warlike and the last Pagan English King. He became the most powerful leader of his time and was killed in battle against the Northumbrian King Oswiu. The Northumbrians took control of the Kingdom of Mercia.

Berhtwulf issues charter at Tomepeording Burgrhed 20th King of Mercia issues a charter at Tompeordin Burgrhed issues a charter at Tomanpordigne, this is the last one recorded at Tamworth.

Signing of Medehamstede Memoranda in Tomtun which has been suggested by scholars as Tamworth. There is likely to have been a palace and/or important monastery at Tamworth by or before 699, in order for this memorandum to have been signed here. Tamworth was clearly the most important political and administrative centre in Mercia to judge the number of charters witnessed here.

2nd watermill at Tamworth constructed with lava quernstones from Neidermendig in the Rhineland.

657-674

Wulfhere, King of Mercia and first bretwalda. He was son of Penda and the first Christian King of Mercia.

Tamworth is destroyed by the Danes (Vikings)

669 672 674-704

Chad made Bishop of Mercia, moves to his See from Repton to Lichfield.

Alfred defeats the Vikings who settle to the east and north of England under Danelaw.

700 716-757 757 Late 8th 781

829

871 874 878 886 913

Bishop Hedda builds a new church to house Chad’s bones at Lichfield.

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians brings the Mercian army to Tamworth, drives out the Danes and re-fortifies the Burh (Borough). This is the town’s Kings Ditch and may be on the line of the earlier defensive enclosure constructed by Offa, the ‘worthig’.

Aethelbald, King of Mercia and Bretwalda, ‘Rex britanniae’, ruler of all England south of the Humber. He was murdered at night by his bodyguard at Seckington near Tamworth. We don’t know who murdered him but his heir Beornred succeeded him. There was a civic war and his kinsman Offa seized the throne.

Aethelflaed dies at Tamworth on the 13th June, Edward, King of Wessex, her brother, occupies the town and receives the submission of the Mercians. December, Edward again visits Tamworth and deprives Aethelflaed’s daughter Aelfwyn, of all authority among the Mercians, and takes her away to Wessex.

918

Offa becomes King of Mercia and Bretwalda, his wife is Cynethryth.

Edward dies and is succeeded by Aethelstan, who had been brought up in the household of the Lady Aethelflaed and her Lord Aethelred.

924

Aethelstan, son of Edward, brings his sister to Tamworth for her betrothal to Sihtric, Danish King of Northumbria. Around this time a Mint is set up in the Burh. Athelstan’s Laws declared that no one was to mint money except in a town, so it was considered a town by this date, rather than just a royal palace with service buildings. Athelstan and Edward were the first Anglo Saxon kings to rule a united England.

925

Aethelred, King of Mercia, second son of Penda succeeds his brother, Wulfhere. Within a year of coming to the throne he invaded Kent and destroyed the city of Rochester. He defeated the Northumbrians at the Battle of the Trent.

First watermill at Tamworth constructed. Offa, King of Mercia signs two charters in his famous palace at Tamworth.

The 8th century poem beowulf describes a royal court as ‘lofty and high gabled’ strongly braced inside and out, its high roof gilded, its mead benches decked in gold, many scholars believe this was written for Offa’s court. There would have probably been workshops for royal craftsmen, in particular goldsmiths and other metal workers.

798 808 814

9th c

Alfred takes London from the Danes, uniting the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. King Alfred begins constructing a national network of fortified settlements (Burhs).

Chad dies.

Offa was sent Coptic textiles of gold and silver thread (from Egypt) by his fellow ‘emperor’ Charlemagne. Offa was the only western monarch of the time who was treated as an equal by Charlemagne, ruler of Francia (modern France).

799

Alfred becomes King of Wessex.

840 841 845 849 855 855

Cenwulf signs a charter in ‘vicu regio’ ‘royal palace’ named Tamworthig. Sometime in the late 8th century the Mercians dug a defensive ditch with stakes on the inner face of the bank, and possibly a palisade or timber wall were dug to defend the site. This is the Kings Ditch, or Offa’s Dyke the line of which still survives in places around Tamworth and is clearly marked on 19th century maps. Vikings invade Lindisfarne Cenwulf signs a charter at Tomepordig / Tamworthig Berhtwulf of Mercia signs two charters in vico celeberimmo qui vocatur Tompordig / Tamworthig (in the ‘famous place’ which is called Tamworth). From around this time there was a permanent treasury at Tamworth for the receipt of royal dues and the royal archives may have been kept here too. King Egbert of Wessex conquers Mercia, signs charter to control Mercia and having been given refreshments on his way back along the Roman Watling Street, founds monastery at the village of Pollysworda (Polesworth) to give thanks for the water and to celebrate the signing of the charter. Editha, either his daughter or granddaughter is the first Abbess.

All information believed accurate at time of print, based on available research. We accept no responsibility for errors.

Tamworth is sacked and destroyed by the Danes, led by Olaf, son of Sihtric, which suggests it was important enough to be worth attacking. The town later recovers sufficiently to rebuild the Church and the Borough defences.

940/943

The County Boundaries are laid down by Edward the Elder, linked to the fortified Burhs created by his sister Aethelflaed. Tamworth is divided between Staffordshire and Warwickshire.

10th c

St Chad Gospels come to Lichfield Cathedral (includes some of the earliest known examples of written Welsh).

Late 10thc 1042

Edward the Confessor is crowned, he is to be the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. Battle of Hastings Domesday Book: Tamworth is not mentioned directly in the survey, but under the entry for the manor of Drayton, it is stated that eight Tamworth burgesses labour in that manor as other villains do. Tamworth Castle constructed for Robert the Despencer, one of the first English motte and bailey castles, built within 20 years of the Norman Conquest.

1066 1086 1086


Saxon Tamworth