The Witenagemot was an advisory council from the Anglo-Saxon ruling class whose duty was to counsel their kingdoms monarch, in which contained mostly kings. They only assembled when summoned and answered to the monarch directly. It was considered treason if the Witenagemot assembled without the approval of the monarch. There was no official fixed location where the Witenagemot would convene, unlike the world governments of today. For example, the UK parliament assembly is held at Westminster; whereas the Witenagemot usually convened wherever their monarch resided – there are, at present, 116 known locations, including Amesbury, Calne, 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 sacred groves. Witenagemot is Old English but was spelt witena ġemōt, which can mean “man of knowledge” or “meeting of wise men”.
The members of the Witenagemot were more commonly titled as a Witan and would advise on matters regarding the administration and organization of its kingdom, which included dealing with issues such as taxation, jurisprudence, diplomacy, and the security of internal and external affairs. Though they had a substantial variety of powers, they also had some major limitations as well, such as a lack of fixed procedure, schedule, or meeting place. In an event of interregnum, the Witenagemot would prevent autocracy and held unique powers in which they could elect their next king, known as ceosan to cyninge, ‘to choose the king’ from amongst the (extended) royal family. However, once their king was elected the Witenagemot ultimately was answerable to the king. Historian Felix Liebermann quoted a testimony from abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (born c. 955 AD)from his research in ‘The National Assembly in the Anglo-Saxon Period’:
“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.”
The royal line of succession generally followed the system of primogeniture (first born son to inherit), the Witan’s role in the election of monarchs derive from the ancient tradition and laws of their Germanic ancestors, which varied from tribe to tribe and later evolved into kingdoms. They believed in following strength and if the tribal leader or king failed to show strong leadership, then the tribe had the authority to dispose and elect a new leader. These ancient Germanic general assemblies were the forerunner of the Witenagemots and were known as folkmoot or folkmote (Old English: folk meeting). Although the Witans were answerable to the king, just like their predecessors, they also had the powers to depose an unpopular or weak king. Segeberht of Wessex in 757 AD and Alhred of Northampton in 744 AD are prime examples of this.
The Witans were comprised of the kingdom’s most important noblemen, both ecclesiastic and secular. In England, by the 7thcentury, 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 and to witness royal grants of lands. However, the nature of these assemblies irrevocably changed when Christianity was introduced, circa 600 AD. The conversion to Christianity resulted in a unique relationship between church and state and for the most part was indissolubly intertwined. This strong ecclesiastical element from members of the Witenagemots reflected in the records and decisions made by Witans encompassing ecclesiastical and secular jurisdiction alike.
The first recorded act of a Witenagemot was the law code issued by King Æthelberht of Kent c. 600 AD, 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.
Artist: William Henry Margetson
Source: From the book “The Church of England” – A History For The People
Author: Rev Henry Donald Maurice Spence (private book collection)
These documents clearly indicate that the Witan was comprised of the nation’s highest echelon of both ecclesiastical and secular society, as previously stated above. Present on the ecclesiastical side were archbishops, bishops, and abbots, and occasionally also included 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 some cases, weak kings such as Æthelred the Unreadywere dependent on the witenagemot, while others used it as simply a group of advisers. The powers that the Witans possessed are illustrated in the events surrounding Æthelredthe Unready. In the year 1013 AD, Æthelred fled England from Sweyn Forkbeard, who then had the Witan proclaim him king. However, Sweyn died shortly after which led the Witenagemot to call Æthelred back to England. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Witenagemot would only receive him back under the condition that he promise to rule better than he had. Æthelred did so, and was reinstated as King of England. His nickname of the ‘Unræd‘ or ‘Unready’ means ill-advised, indicating that contemporaries regarded those who sat in the Witenagemot were in part responsible for the failure of his reign.
Until the unification of England from the 10th century by the Kingdom of Wessex, each kingdom had their own Witenagemot. Although in general the Witans were recognized as the king’s closest advisors and policy-makers, various Witans 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(appointed in 1002 AD), 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.” The Witenagemot ended when the Normans invaded in 1066 AD and replaced the assemblies with the curia regis, or king’s court. However, the local Witans continued to meet until as late as 1067 AD with the curia regis continuing to be dubbed a “Witan” by chroniclers until as late as the 12th century.
Author: Jimmer of Wessex