witenagemot [Old Eng.,=meeting of counselors], a session of the counselors (the witan) of a king in Anglo-Saxon England. Such a body existed in each of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Composed of the higher churchmen, the earls, and other members of the nobility, it was aristocratic, and its membership at any one time was dependent upon the appointments of the ruling king or his immediate predecessors. These facts discredit the old argument that the witenagemot was similar to the later representative Parliament and make it clear that the witan were more analogous to the later Curia Regis. On the other hand, the witenagemot had considerable powers. Although the number of members and the functions varied with each realm and each king, the counsel and assent of the group were usually sought by the king in matters of laws, taxes, foreign negotiations, national defense, and the bestowal of privileged estates. Probably only rarely would the witan directly oppose the king, but their potential independence must have served as a check on the monarch. Furthermore, although records are rather scarce, it appears probable that the witan, especially in Wessex, had the power to elect the king. Since the kingship was largely hereditary, such a ceremony was usually perfunctory, but upon occasion the witan actually selected the king.

See F. Liebermann, The National Assembly in the Anglo-Saxon Period (1913, repr. 1961); Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3d ed. 1971).

The Witenagemot or the Witena gemot (ˈwɪtənəgɪˌməʊt), also known as the Witan (more properly the title of its members) was a political institution in Anglo-Saxon England which operated from before the 7th century until the 11th century. The name derives from the Old English ƿitena ȝemōt, or witena gemōt, for "meeting of wise men." The Witenagemot functioned as a national assembly whose primary function was advisory to the king and whose membership was composed of the most important noblemen in England, both ecclesiastic and secular. The institution is thought to represent an aristocratic evolution of the ancient Germanic general assemblies, or folkmoots. In England, by the 7th century, these ancient folkmoots had developed into convocations of the land's most powerful and important people, including ealdormen, thegns, and senior clergy, to discuss matters of both national and local importance.

Constitution and limitations

Despite historians' best efforts to find in it some permanence of character, the exact nature of the witenagemot remains "essentially vague, fluctuating, and incoherent. Nevertheless, there is much direct evidence of the witan's various activities. Knowledge about who made up the witan and who was present at their meetings is provided mainly by lists of witnesses to charters, or grants of land, which were concocted at the witenagemots. Reference to the witan's acta or official decisions are also preserved in law codes. The first recorded act of a witenagemot was the law code issued by king Æthelberht of Kent ca. 600 CE, the earliest document which survives in sustained Old English prose; however, the witan was certainly in existence long before this time. Altogether, about 2000 charters and 40 law codes survive which attest to the workings of the various meetings of the witan, of which there are around 300 recorded. These documents clearly indicate that the witan was composed of the nation's highest echelon of both ecclesiastical and secular officers. Present on the ecclesiastical side were archbishops, bishops, and abbots, and occasionally also abbesses and priests; on the secular side ealdormen (or eorls in the latter centuries) and thegns. Members of the royal family were also present, and the king presided over the entire body.

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.

Function and legacy

Witans would advise on the administration and organization of the kingdom, dealing with issues such as taxation, jurisprudence and both internal and external security. The witenagemot was in some respects a predecessor to Parliament, but had substantially different powers and some major limitations, such as a lack of a fixed procedure, schedule, or meeting place. The witan could prevent autocracy and carry on government during interregnums. But while the king must answer to the Parliament, the witenagemot answered to the king. It only assembled when he summoned it, and its assembling without his approval could be considered treason. The witenagemot was more an advisory council. In some cases, weak kings (such as Ethelred the Unready) were dependent on the witenagemot, while others used it as simply a group of advisers.

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.


It is generally accepted that the English witenagemot had its origins in ancient Germanic assemblies summoned to witness royal grants of land. Yet whatever their status in the fifth and fourth centuries, the nature of these assemblies in England was irrevocably changed when Christianity was introduced ca. 600. Hereafter, church and state were "inseparably intertwined" and this was reflected in the strong ecclesiastical element in the witan's membership as well as its concerns; records of decisions made by witan encompass ecclesiastical and secular jurisdictions alike.

References In literature



  • Chadwick, H. M., Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (Cambridge, 1905).
  • Garmonsway, G. N. (ed. & trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 2nd edition (London, 1954; repr. 1965).
  • Gomme, George L., Primitive Folkmoots; or, Open-Air Assemblies in Britain (London, 1880).
  • Hodgkin, Thomas, The History of England from the Earliest Times to the Norman Conquest (New York, 1906; repr. New York 1969).
  • Liebermann, Felix, The National Assembly in the Anglo-Saxon Period (Halle, 1913; repr. New York, 1961).
  • Whitelock, Dorothy, Review of The Witenagemot in the Reign of Edward the Confessor by Tryggvi J. Oleson, The English Historical Review 71 (1956): 640-42.
  • Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York, "Incipit de synodo", in K. Jost (ed.), Die "Institutes of Polity, Civil and Ecclesiastical": ein Werk Erzbischof Wulfstans von York (Bern, 1959).

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