The supremacy of Northumbria over the English people had fallen for ever with the death of Oswiu, and its power over the tribes of the north was as completely broken by the death of Ecgfrith and the defeat of Nectansmere. To the north, the flight of Bishop Trumwine from Abercorn announced the revolt of the Picts from her rule. In the south, Mercia proved a formidable rival under aethelred, who had succeeded Wulfhere in 675. Already his kingdom reached from the Humber to the Channel; and aethelred in the first years of his reign had finally reduced Kent beneath his overlordship. All hope of national union seemed indeed at an end, for the revival of the West-Saxon power at this moment completed the parting of the land into three states of nearly equal power out of which it seemed impossible that unity could come. Since their overthrow at Faddiley, a hundred years before, the West-Saxons had been weakened by anarchy and civil war, and had been at the mercy alike of the rival English states and of the Britons. We nave seen however that in 652 a revival of power had enabled them to drive back the Britons to the Parret. A second interval of order in 682 strengthened King Centwine again to take up war with the Britons, and push his frontier as far as the Quantocks. A third rally of the West-Saxons in 685 under Ceadwalla enabled them to turn on their English enemies and conquer Sussex. Ine, the greatest of their early kings, whose reign covered the long period from 688 to 726, carried on during the whole of it the war for supremacy.
Eastward, he forced Kent, Essex and London to own his rule. On the west, he pushed his way southward round the marshes of the Parret to a more fertile territory, and guarded the frontier of his new conquests by a fortress on the banks of the Tone, which has grown into the present Taunton. The West Saxons thus became masters of the whole district which now bears the name of Somerset, the land of the Somer-sastas, where the Tor rose like an island out of a waste of flood-drowned fen that stretched westward to the Channel. At the base of this hill Ine established on the site of an older British foundation his famous monastery of Glastonbury. The little hamlet in which it stood took its English name from one of the English families, the Glaestings, who chose the spot for their settlement; but it had long been a religious shrine of the Britons, and the tradition that a second Patrick rested there drew thither the wandering scholars of Ireland. The first inhabitants of Ine's abbey found, as they alleged, " an ancient church, built by no art of man;" and beside this relic of its older Welsh owners, Ine founded his own abbey-church of stone.
[Authorities. - A few incidents of Mercian history are preserved among the meagre annals of Wessex, which form, during this period, " The English Chronicle." But for the most part we are thrown. upon later writers, especially Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury, both authors of the twelfth century, but having access to older materials now lost. The letters of Boniface and those of Alcuin, which form the most valuable contemporary materials for this period, are given by Dr. Giles in his "Patres Ecclesiae Anglicanae." They have also been carefully edited by Jaffé in his series of "Monumenta Germanica."]
The spiritual charge of his conquests he committed to his kinsman Ealdhelm, the most famous scholar of his day, who became the first bishop of the new see of Sherborne, which the king formed out of the districts west of Selwood and the Frome, to meet the needs of the new parts of his kingdom. Ine's code, the earliest collection of West-Saxon laws which remains to us, shows a wise solicitude to provide for the civil as well as the ecclesiastical needs of the mixed population over which he now ruled. His repulse of the Mercians, when they at last attacked Wessex, proved how well he could provide for its defence. aethelred's reign of thirty years was one of almost unbroken peace, and his activity mainly showed itself in the planting and endowment of monasteries, which gradually changed the face of the realm. Ceolred however, who in 709 became king of Mercia, took up the strife with Wessex for the over-lordship of the south, and in 715 he marched into the very heart of Wessex; but he was repulsed in a bloody encounter at Wanborough. Able however as Ine was to hold Mercia at bay, he was unable to hush the civil strife that was the curse of Wessex, and a wild legend tells the story of the disgust which drove him from the world.
He had feasted royally at one of his country houses, and on the morrow, as he rode from it, his queen bade him turn back thither. The king returned to find his house stripped of curtains and vessels, and foul with refuse and the dung of cattle, while in the royal bed where he had slept with aethelburh rested a sow with her farrow of pigs. The scene had no need of the queen's comment: "See, my lord, how the fashion of this world passeth away! "In 726 Ine laid down his crown, and sought peace and death in a pilgrimage to Rome.
The anarchy that had driven Ine from the throne broke out on his departure in civil strife which left Wessex an easy prey to the successor of Ceolred. Among those who sought Guthlac's retirement at Crowland came aethelbald, a son of Penda's brother, flying from Ceolred's hate. Driven off again and again by the king's pursuit, aethelbald still returned to the little hut he had built beside the hermitage, and comforted himself in hours of despair with his companion's words. "Know how to wait," said Guthlac, "and the kingdom will come to thee; not by violence or rapine, but by the hand of God." In 716 Ceolred fell frenzy-smitten at his board, and Mercia chose aethelbald for its king. For the first ten years of his reign he shrank from a conflict with the victor of Wanborough; but with Ine's withdrawal he took up again the fierce struggle with Wessex for the complete supremacy of the south. He penetrated into the very heart of the West-Saxon kingdom, and his siege and capture of the royal town of Somerton in 733 ended the war.