See F. Liebermann, The National Assembly in the Anglo-Saxon Period (1913, repr. 1961); Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3d ed. 1971).
In his investigation into Anglo-Saxon institutions, H. M. Chadwick wrote:
I have not thought it necessary to discuss at length the nature of the powers possessed by the council [i.e. the witenagemot], for ... there can be little hope of arriving at any definite conclusions on this subject. Indeed it seems at least doubtful whether the functions of the council were ever properly defined.Similarly, in his study of the witenagemots, Felix Liebermann stated that "its functions and power differ ... considerably at various times. Still, he was able to give a relatively detailed description of its constitution:
From the time of Ine the Witan belonged to the aristocratic élite created by monarchy. The king, generally indeed advised by the existing nobility, conferred prelatures and ealdormanries, with both of which a seat in the national assembly [i.e. the witenagemot] was legally or practically connected. Members of the royal family, ladies not excepted, were present at many gemots. The king alone raised a man to the position of a gesith, a thane, a provincial or local reeve, a court officer or a royal chaplain, one of which titles seems to have been the indespensable qualification for a vote. ... as no periodicity of the assembly was fixed, the king determined when and where it was to meet, for the most part choosing places under his immediate control; he presided, spoke first, put his questions, proposed his bills, and finally dismissed the witan.Yet, although ostensibly under the thumb of the king, the witan is noted by contemporary sources as having the singular power to ceosan to cyninge, 'to choose the king'. Nevertheless, at least until the eleventh century, royal succession generally followed the "ordinary system of primogeniture." Chadwick interpreted these facts as proof that the so-called election of the king by the witan merely amounted to formal recognition of the deceased king's natural predecessor. But Liebermann was generally less willing than Chadwick to see the witan's significance as buried under the weight of the royal prerogative:
The influence of the king, or at least of kingship, on the constitution of the assembly seems, therefore, to have been immense. But on the other hand he [the king] was elected by the witan ... He could not depose the prelates or ealdormen, who held their office for life, nor indeed the hereditary thanes. ... At any rate, the king had to get on with the highest statesmen appointed by his predecessor, though possibly disliked by him, until death made a post vacant that he could fill with a relation or a favourite, not, however, without having a certain regard to the wishes of the aristocracy.Liebermann's more subtle position seems to be vindicated by testimony from abbot Ælfric of Eynsham, one of the most well-known and learned English churchman in the eleventh century, who wrote:
No man can make himself king, but the people has the choice to choose as king whom they please; but after he is consecrated as king, he then has dominion over the people, and they cannot shake his yoke off their necks.In addition to having a role in the 'election' of English kings, it is often held that the witenagemots had the power to depose an unpopular king. However, there are only two occasions where this likely happened, in 757 and 774 with the depositions of kings Sigeberht of Wessex and Alhred of Northumbria respectively. The witan's powers are illustrated by the following event. In the year 1013 King Ethelred the Unready fled the country from Sweyn Forkbeard, who proclaimed himself king. Within a year, Sweyn died and Ethelred was called back to England by the witan. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the witan would only receive him back under the condition that he promise to rule better than he had. Ethelred did so, and was reinstated as king of England.
Though in general the witan were recognized as the king's closest advisors and policy-makers, various witan also operated in other capacities; there are mentions of þeodwitan, 'people's witan', Angolcynnes witan, 'England's witan', and an Anglo-Saxon archbishop of York, Wulfstan II, wrote that "it is incumbent on bishops, that venerable witan always travel with them, and dwell with them, at least of the priesthood; and that they may consult with them ... and who may be their counsellors at every time." Even when summoned explicitly by kings, the witenagemots did not always represent the political will of all England: before the unification of England in the 9th century, separate witenagemots were convened by the Kings of Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. Indeed, even after Wessex became the dominant power in England, supplanting the other kingdoms, local witans continued to meet until as late as 1067.
Though no set date was ever in use, witenagemots met at least once a year, and commonly more often. There was no single seat of the national witenagemot. Generally, it followed the king, who typically had no single fixed court either. The witenagemot is known to have met in at least 116 locations, including Amesbury, Cheddar, Gloucester, London and Winchester. The meeting places were often on royal estates, but some witenagemots were convened in the open at prominent rocks, hills, meadows and famous trees.
The best-known sitting of the English witanagemot was that which on January 5 1066 approved the succession to the kingship of Harold Godwinson (Harold Godwin) following the death of Edward the Confessor. Fifty years earlier, in 1016, it had approved the splitting of the kingdom between the Saxon Edmund II and the Danish king Canute.
This arrangement ended when the Normans invaded in 1066, replacing the witenagemot with the curia regis, or King's court. However, in a sign of the witanagemot's enduring legacy, the curia regis continued to be dubbed a "witan" by chroniclers until as late as the 12th century.