In 605, Pybaa of Mercia, who claimed to have descended from Woden himself, died and left behind an infant son who would rise to become the High King and last pagan King of England. Penda, a Mercian who rose to the throne in the 620’s, united much of England and fought against the Northumbrian kingdom for dominance. Bede, who wrote the Christian Ecclesiastical History of the English People, painted Penda as a murderer and a villain, and the truth of this is subjective. Bede was not only a Christian writing about a powerful pagan long after Christianity had been introduced to England, but was also Northumbrian, so naturally he didn’t see Penda as a shining example of kingship, and refused to ever acknowledge him as the Bretwalda, or High King, of England.
A brief overview of major events in Penda’s life include:
- 628: Penda defeated the Hwicce at the Battle of Cerincester.
- 632: Penda, along with King Cadwallon of Gwynedd, defeated Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase. Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom at the time, and it was shortly after this that Penda was said to have ascended to the throne.
- 633: The overlordship of Northumbria was accepted by Mercia.
- 641: Penda’s army killed King Oswald of Northumbria and gained independence. From here Penda extended the rule of Merica over (modern-day) Cheshire, Shropshire, Hereford, and Worcester. Mercia was now the most powerful kingdom in England.
- 645: East Anglia was subjugated by Penda, and he drove King Cenwalh out of Wessex for three years.
- 653: Peada, the son of Penda, was made subking of Middle Anglia. Although pagan his entire life, Penda allowed Peada to bring Christianity to Middle Anglia.
- 655: After rallying forces from many kingdoms, Penda once again invaded Northumbria, and was slain by King Oswin at the Battle of the Winwaed on November 15th.
Today King Penda is honored in the place names of Pinbury, Peddimore, and Pinvin. It’s also interesting to note that the name ‘Penda’ seems to be of Celtic origin, even though his lineage can be traced back to Offa of Angel, a legendary figure from the Migration Period. This is a wonderful example of how ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or ‘Saxon’ is not a race, but a culture blended together in England from many sources. This is especially relevant to the Seax-Wica, who use the Celtic names for some of their Sabbats.
It’s also of interest to know that Penda was not the last pagan king in England (that was technically Arwald, King of the Isle of Wight), but was the last one who could be considered the last pagan king of England.
Why should we honor King Penda today?
Let’s not view history through rose-colored glasses: Penda was a ruthless warrior-king who executed his enemies in spectacular, gruesome ways. However, he had many admirable traits as well.
King Penda was an excellent statesman who took a small, down-trodden kingdom and took it to the heights of power within England. He also took the lineage of the Iclings, once proud rulers who were said to have descended from Woden, and returned them to glory. Even though his children converted to Christianity, they ruled for generations afterwards.
Another reason to honor Penda is more relevant to today, and that’s his tolerance of religions other than his own. This was a time when Christianity was beginning to dominate the world, and kings could gain powerful allies by converting but Penda remained a devote Pagan. Despite this, he allowed his son to convert not only himself, but the entire kingdom of Middle Anglia, and allowed those in Mercia to convert if they wished. This not only demonstrates exceptional tolerance but also devotion: his family and many of his people took up another religion, but Penda remained faithful to the Old Gods. This is not always easy to do, and the temptation to adopt a new faith out of peer pressure or simply because it’s no longer popular is still relevant to today.
A good day to honor King Penda could be November 15th, the day of his death in battle. If you have any ideas on how to honor him, please let us now in the comments!
Britannica Biography of Penda
David Nash Ford’s Early British Kingdoms