James R. Neal, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus - Morrison University
Independent Scholar

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare;
it is because we do not dare that things are difficult ––– Seneca
Defining Power in the Mercian Supremacy:
An Examination of the Dynamics of Power in the Kingdom of the Borderers

Most scholars of early Anglo-Saxon England take the Mercian Supremacy as fact. However, they seldom discuss the institu­tions, policies, and strategies developed by Mercian monarchs aimed at estab­lishing and maintaining that supremacy over the course of several centu­ries, which also laid important institutional foundations for later Anglo-Saxon England. These included a new paradigm of power in which suc­cessive Mercian monarchs sought the annexation and incorporation of neighboring polities rather than their mere sub­mission, as well as a stable method of power transfer based on frater­nal succession. In order to maintain their power, Mercian monarchs implemented several unique and successful strategies specifically aimed at political, military, and economic innovations. The political paradigm of power on which Mer­cian monarchs dominated South­umbria was significantly different from that of their peers who sought mere recognition as “overkings,” when the situation permitted. Mer­cia, however, aimed at the creation of a true Empire based on the in­corporation of its sub-polities within a greater whole. To this end, Mercian monarchs utilized distinct and important political, military, and economic strategies to ensure their position and ultimately treat with the major European powers as equals. This thesis explores the dynamics of power and many of the strategies employed by Mercian kings to maintain and expand their suzerainty.

In this thesis, I tackle the mysterious interior of England during the Dark Ages. While extant contemporary sources are scant for the entire period, the midlands of England are particularly sparse due to the violence of Viking raids during the ninth and tenth cen­turies, which destroyed the vast ma­jority of documents that the Mercians held in churches and mo­nasteries. Though few sources survive from within the Mercian heartlands, I argue that there are sufficient sources from within, combined with a careful reading of external sources, to achieve an insightful understanding of the early Mercian state. Further, I argue that Dark Ages Mer­cia achieved true, hegemonic, and imperial dominance over most of Eng­land, and created the basis for a uni­fied England. Disrupted by Viking conquests in the eighth century, this goal did not become a reality until the resurgence of Anglo-Saxon power under the West Saxon kings. However, more importantly, I explore the mechanisms of power and kingdom building in the midst of Dark Ages England.

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