Witenagemot in United Kingdom


Witenagemot is the meeting of the witan or royal advisors in the middle ages.

Introduction to Witenagemot

Witenagemot (Old English, “meeting of the wise men”), assembly of councillors in Anglo-Saxon England that met to advise the king of judicial and administrative matters. Originally a gathering of all the freemen of a tribe, it eventually became an assembly composed of the ealdormen (Old English, “aldermen”), or local chieftains, the bishops, other high civil and ecclesiastical officials, and sometimes friends and relatives of the king. The witenagemot may have had the power to elect a king, especially if succession was disputed, and it deliberated on all new laws, made treaties, served as a supreme court of justice, authorized the levying of extraordinary taxation and the granting of land, and raised military forces. Each of the several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had its own witenagemot until the subjugation of them all by Egbert, king of Wessex, between 825 and 829. Thereafter the witenagemot of Wessex gradually developed into a single assembly for the whole country. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the witenagemot was superseded by the Great Council, an advisory body to the Anglo-Norman kings.” (1)


It was “the national council in England in Anglo-Saxon times. Its origin is obscure. There is some resemblance between it and the two assemblies mentioned by Tacitus in the Ccrmattia, a larger and a smaller one, but this analogy must not be pressed too far. In Anglo-Saxon England in the 7th and 8th centuries it seems certain that each of the larger kingdoms, Kent, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, had its separate witan, or council, but there is a difference of opinion as to whether this was identical with, or distinct from, the folkmoot, in which, theoretically at least, all freemen had the right to appear. H. R. von Gncist (History of the English Constitution) agrees that the two assemblies were identical, and a somewhat similar view is put forward by J. M. Kumble (Saxons, in England) and E. A. Freeman (History of the Norman Conquest).

Freeman advances the theory that the right of all the freemen to attend the gemdl had for practical purposes fallen into disuse, and thus the assembly had come to be confined to the wise men. In other words, the folkmoot had become the witan. Evidence in support of this view is sought for in the accounts in the Anglo-Saxon Cltronide and elsewhere, where the decisions of the witan were received with loud expressions of approval or of disapproval by an assembled crowd, tad it is argued that this is a survival from an earlier age. whea i2 the freemen attended the witan. But the attendance of the enrad can be otherwise explained. The meetings referred to vert probably those of exceptional interest, such as the election a the coronation of a king, and people from the neighbourhood were there merely as interested, and sometimes excited, spectators. The contrary opinion, that the two assembha were distinct, is held, although with characteristic caution, br Stubbs (Const. Hist. vol. L). He thinks that on the union of the kingdoms the witans were merged into one another, -m-hCe the folkmoot became the shiremoot. As the number of kitrs decreased the number of witans decreased, until early in th: 9th century there was one king and one witan in all Enghni

The power of the witan varied according to the pexsoeikr.’ of the reigning king, being considerable under a weak ruler. but inconsiderable under a strong one. Generally spealiEj. it diminished as the years went by, and from ” necessary assenters ” its members became ” merely attesting witnesses.” Its duties are shown by the preamble to the laws of Ine, tic? of Wessex, and 200 years later by the preamble to those of Alfred the Great, while several similar cases could be instanced. lac legislates ” with the counsel and with the teaching of CenrrJ my father and of Hedde my bishop, and of Eorcenwxld cy bishop, with all my ealdormen and the most distinguish^ witan of my people” (Stubbs, Sdcet Charters), and Alfred issues his code of laws ” with the counsel and consent of fcis witan.” Thus the members of the witan were primarily counsellors. With their consent the king promulgated U«. made grants of land, appointed bishops and ealdorroen. and discharged the other duties of government. The witan was six a court of justice, Earl Godwine and many other offenders receiving sentence of outlawry therein. Its members had ih; power of electing a new king, although the area of their cbd.e was strictly limited by custom and also the right of depose? a king, although this seems to have been infrequently exercised

Its members signed the charters by which the king tuutejed grants of land to churches and to individuals, and it is fraa the extant charters that we mainly derive our knowledge aboc: the composition of the witan. It consisted, in addition to the king, his sons and other relatives, of the bishops and later abbots, of some under-kings and the ealdormen of the shirts or provinces, and of a number of ministri, or king’s tfcreza. These ministri were nominees of the king; they included the important members of his household, and their number gradusIS increased until it outstripped that of all the other member* The witan appears probably to have had no fixed place of meeting, and to have assembled around the person of the king, wnererer he might be. In the later years of its existence, at least tf met three times a year, at Easter, Whitsuntide and Christmas.

The number of counsellors attending the meetings of the witza varied considerably from time to time. “In a witenagrsx* held at Luton in November A.d. 931 were the two archbishops, two Welsh princes, seventeen bishops, fifteen ealdormen. are abbots and fifty-nine ministri. In another, that of Wiscbestrr of A.d. 934, were present the two archbishops, four Welsh h-zgx seventeen bishops, four abbots, twelve ealdormen and L;trtwo ministri. These are perhaps the fullest extant lists. Of Edgar’s witcnagemots, the one of A.d. 066 contained the k-as 1 mother, two archbishops, seven bishops, five ealdormen aad fifteen ministri; and this is a fair specimen of the usual pet>* portion ” (Stubbs, Const. Hist. ch. vi.). Almost immediately after the Norman Conquest the word fell into disuse.” (2)


Notes and References

  1. Information about Witenagemot in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  2. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica entry

See also

Councils of Clovesho
Elective monarchy
Panchayati Raj

Further Reading

  • Benjamin Thorpe (1840). Ancient Laws and Institutes of England: Comprising Laws Enacted Under the Anglo-Saxon Kings from Æthelbirht to Cnut, with an English Translation of the Saxon; the Laws Called Edward the Confessor’s; the Laws of William the Conqueror, and Those Ascribed to Henry the First.
  • 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).
  • D. J. Medley, English Constitutional Histcry (Wlj H. M. Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions
  • Gomme, George L., Primitive Folkmoots; or, Open-Air Assemblies in Britain (London, 1880).
  • Hindley, Geoffrey (2006). A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons. London: Robinson.
  • Hodgkin, Thomas, The History of England from the Earliest Times to the Norman Conquest (New York, 1906; repr. New York 1969)
  • Roach, Levi (2013). Kingship and Consent in Anglo-Saxon England, 871-978: Assemblies and the State in the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hollister, C. Warren. The Making of England, 55 B.C. to 1399 (7th ed. 1995) ch 3
  • Lapidge, Michael et al, eds. (2001). The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Blackwell.
  • Liebermann, Felix, The National Assembly in the Anglo-Saxon Period (Halle, 1913; repr. New York, 1961).
  • Maddicott, J. R., (2010) The Origins of the English Parliament, Oxford University Press
  • 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.
  • Wormald, Patrick (1999). The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century. Oxford: Blackwell.






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