So the days rolled on to Ascensiontide, and still master and pupils toiled at their work, for Baeda longed to bring to an end his version of St. John's Gospel into the English tongue, and his extracts from Bishop Isidore. " I don't want my boys to read a lie," he answered those who would have had him rest, "or to work to no purpose after I am gone." A few days before Asoension-tide his sickness grew upon him, but he spent the whole day in teaching, only saying cheerfully to his scholars, "Learn with what speed you may; I know not how long I may last." The dawn broke on another sleepless night, and again the old man called his scholars round him and bade them write. " There is still a chapter wanting," said the scribe, as the morning drew on, " and it is hard for thee to question thyself any longer." "It is easily done," said Baeda; "take thy pen and write quickly." Amid tears and farewells the day wore away to eventide. "There is yet one sentence unwritten, dear master," said the boy. "Write it quickly," bade the dying man. "It is finished now," said the little scribe at last. "You speak truth," said the master; "all is finished now." Placed upon the pavement, his head supported in his scholars' arms, his face turned to the spot where he was wont to pray, Baeda chanted the solemn "Glory to God." As his voice reached the close of his song he passed quietly away.
First among English scholars, first among English theologians, first among English historians, it is in the monk of Jarrow that English literature strikes its roots. In the six hundred scholars who gathered round him for instruction he is the father of our national education. In his physical treatises he is the first figure to which our science looks back. Baeda was a statesman as well as a scholar, and the letter which in the last year of his life he addressed to Ecgberht of York shows how vigorously he proposed to battle against the growing anarchy of Northumbria. But his plans of reform came too late, though a king like Eadberht, with his brother Ecgberht, the first Archbishop of York, might for a time revive the fading glories of his kingdom. Eadberht repelled an attack of aethelbald on his southern border; while at the same time he carried on a successful war against the Picts. Ten years later he penetrated into Ayrshire, and finally made an alliance with the Picts, which enabled him in 756 to conquer Strathclyde and take its capital Alcluyd, or Dumbarton. But at the moment when his triumph seemed complete, his army was utterly destroyed as it withdrew homewards, and so crushing was the calamity that even Eadberht could only fling down his sceptre and withdraw with his brother the Archbishop to a monastery.
From this time the history of Northumbria is only a wild story of lawlessness and bloodshed. King after king was swept away by treason and revolt, the country fell into the hands of its turbulent nobles, the very fields lay waste, and the land was scourged by famine and plague. Isolated from the rest of the country during fifty years of anarchy, the northern realm hardly seemed to form part of the English people.
The work in fact of national consolidation among the English seemed to be fatally arrested. The battle of Burford had finally settled the division of Britain into three equal powers. Wessex was now as firmly planted south of the Thames as Northumbria north of the Humber. But this crushing defeat was far from having broken the Mercian power; and under Offa, whose reign from 758 to 796 covers with that of aethelbald nearly the whole of the eighth century, it rose to a height unknown since the days of Wulfhere. Years however had to pass before the new king could set about the recovery of Kent; and it was only after a war of three years that in 775 a victory at Otford gave it back to the Mercian realm. With Kent Offa doubtless recovered Sussex and Surrey, as well as Essex and London; and four years later a victory at Bensington completed the conquest of the district that now forms the shires of Oxford and Buckingham. For the nine years that followed however Mercia ventured on no further attempt to extend her power over her English neighbours.
Like her rivals, she turned on the Welsh. Pushing after 779 over the Severn, whose upper course had served till now as the frontier between Briton and Englishman, Offa drove the King of Powys from his capital, which changed its old name of Pengwyrn for the significant English title of the Town in the Scrub or bush, Scrobsbyryg, or Shrewsbury. The border-line he drew after his inroad is marked by a huge earthwork which runs from the mouth of Wye to that of Dee, and is still called Offa's Dyke. A settlement of Englishmen on the land between this dyke and the Severn served as a military frontier for the Mercian realm. Here, as in the later conquests of the Northumbrians and the West-Saxons, the older plan of driving off the conquered from the soil was definitely abandoned. The Welsh who chose to remain dwelt undisturbed among their English conquerors; and it was probably to regulate the mutual relations of the two races that Offa drew up the code of laws which bore his name. In Mercia as in Northumbria attacks on the Britons marked the close of all dreams of supremacy over the English themselves. Under Offa Mercia sank into virtual isolation.
The anarchy into which Northumbria sank after Eadberht's death never tempted him to cross the Humber; nor was he shaken from his inaction by as tempting an opportunity which presented itself across the Thames. It must have been in the years that followed the battle of Burford that the West-Saxons made themselves masters of the shrunken realm of Dyvnaint, which still retains its old name in the form of Devon, and pushed their frontier westward to the Tamar. But in 786 their progress was stayed by a fresh outbreak of anarchy. The strife between the rivals that disputed the throne was ended by the defeat of Ecgberht, the heir of Ceawlin's line, and his flight to Offa's court. The Mercian king however used his presence not so much for schemes of aggrandizement as to bring about a peaceful alliance; and in 789 Ecgberht was driven from Mercia, while Offa wedded his daughter to the West-Saxon king Beorhtric. The true aim of Offa indeed was to unite firmly the whole of Mid-Britain, with Kent as its outlet towards Europe, under the Mercian crown, and to mark its ecclesiastical as well as its political independence by the formation in 787 of an archbishopric of Lichfield, as a check to the see of Canterbury in the south, and a rival to the see of York in the north.