Bretwalda
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''Bretwalda'' (also ''brytenwalda'' and ''bretenanwealda'', sometimes capitalised) is an
Old English Old English (, ), or Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest recorded form of the English language English is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language of the Indo-European language family, with its earliest forms spoken by the inhabita ...
word. The first record comes from the late 9th-century ''
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle The ''Anglo-Saxon Chronicle'' is a collection of annals in Old English Old English (, ), or Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest recorded form of the English language English is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language of the ...
''. It is given to some of the rulers of
Anglo-Saxon kingdoms The Heptarchy were the seven petty kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England that flourished from the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the 5th century until they were consolidated in the 8th century into the four kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, Wess ...
from the 5th century onwards who had achieved overlordship of some or all of the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It is unclear whether the word dates back to the 5th century and was used by the kings themselves or whether it is a later, 9th-century, invention. The term ''bretwalda'' also appears in a 10th-century charter of Æthelstan. The literal meaning of the word is disputed and may translate to either 'wide-ruler' or 'Britain-ruler'. The rulers of
Mercia la, Merciorum regnum , conventional_long_name=Kingdom of Mercia , common_name=Mercia , status=Kingdom , status_text=Independent kingdom (527–879)Client state of Wessex () , life_span=527–918 , era=Heptarchy , event_start= , date_start= , ye ...
were generally the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kings from the mid 7th century to the early 9th century but are not accorded the title of ''bretwalda'' by the ''Chronicle'', which had an anti-Mercian bias. The '' Annals of Wales'' continued to recognise the kings of Northumbria as "Kings of the Saxons" until the death of Osred I of Northumbria in 716.


Bretwaldas


Listed by Bede and the ''Anglo-Saxon Chronicle''

* Ælle of Sussex (488– 514) * Ceawlin of Wessex (560–592, died 593) *
Æthelberht of Kent Æthelberht (; also Æthelbert, Aethelberht, Aethelbert or Ethelbert; ang, Æðelberht ; 550 – 24 February 616) was King King is the title given to a male monarch in a variety of contexts. The female equivalent is queen regn ...
(590–616) * Rædwald of East Anglia (c. 600–around 624) * Edwin of Deira (616–633) *
Oswald of Northumbria Oswald (; c 604 – 5 August 641/642Bede gives the year of Oswald's death as 642, however there is some question as to whether what Bede considered 642 is the same as what would now be considered 642. R. L. Poole (''Studies in Chronology an ...
(633–642) *
Oswiu of Northumbria Oswiu, also known as Oswy or Oswig ( ang, Ōswīg; c. 612 – 15 February 670), was King of Bernicia from 642 and of Northumbria from 654 until his death. He is notable for his role at the Synod of Whitby in 664, which ultimately brought the c ...
(642–670)


Mercian rulers with similar or greater authority

*
Penda of Mercia Penda (died 15 November 655)Manuscript A of the '' Anglo-Saxon Chronicle'' gives the year as 655. Bede also gives the year as 655 and specifies a date, 15 November. R. L. Poole (''Studies in Chronology and History'', 1934) put forward the theo ...
(626/633–655) *
Wulfhere of Mercia Wulfhere or Wulfar (died 675) was King of Mercia from 658 until 675 AD. He was the first Christian king of all of Mercia, though it is not known when or how he converted from Anglo-Saxon paganism. His accession marked the end of Oswiu of North ...
(658–675) *
Æthelred of Mercia Æthelred (; died after 704) was king of Mercia The Kingdom of Mercia was a state in the English Midlands The Midlands (also referred to as Central England) are a part of England that broadly correspond to the Mercia, Kingdom of Mercia ...
(675–704, died 716) *
Æthelbald of Mercia Æthelbald (also spelled Ethelbald or Aethelbald; died 757) was the King of Mercia The Kingdom of Mercia was a state in the English Midlands The Midlands (also referred to as Central England) are a part of England that broadly correspon ...
(716–757) *
Offa of Mercia Offa (died 29 July 796 AD) was List of monarchs of Mercia, King of Mercia, a kingdom of History of Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon England, from 757 until his death. The son of Thingfrith and a descendant of Eowa of Mercia, Eowa, Offa came to ...
(757–796) * Cœnwulf of Mercia (796–821)


Listed only by the ''Anglo-Saxon Chronicle''

*
Egbert of Wessex Ecgberht (770/775 – 839), also spelled Egbert, Ecgbert, Ecgbriht, Ecgbeorht, and Ecbert, was King of Wessex from 802 until his death in 839. His father was King Ealhmund of Kent. In the 780s, Ecgberht was forced into exile to Charlema ...
(829–839) *
Alfred of Wessex Alfred the Great (alt. Ælfred 848/849 – 26 October 899) was King of the West Saxons from 871 to 886, and King of the Anglo-Saxons from 886 until his death in 899. He was the youngest son of King Æthelwulf and his first wife Osburh, who ...
(871–899)


Other claimants

* Æthelstan of Wessex (927–939)


Etymology

The first syllable of the term ''bretwalda'' may be related to ''Briton'' or ''Britain''. The second element is taken to mean 'ruler' or '
sovereign ''Sovereign'' is a title which can be applied to the highest leader in various categories. The word is borrowed from Old French , which is ultimately derived from the Latin , meaning 'above'. The roles of a sovereign vary from monarch, ruler or ...
', though is more literally 'wielder'. Thus, this interpretation would mean 'sovereign of Britain' or 'wielder of Britain'. The word may be a compound containing the
Old English Old English (, ), or Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest recorded form of the English language English is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language of the Indo-European language family, with its earliest forms spoken by the inhabita ...
adjective ''brytten'' (from the verb ''breotan'' meaning 'to break' or 'to disperse'), an element also found in the terms ''bryten rice'' ('kingdom'), ''bryten-grund'' ('the wide expanse of the earth') and ''bryten cyning'' ('king whose authority was widely extended'). Though the origin is ambiguous, the draughtsman of the charter issued by Æthelstan used the term in a way that can only mean 'wide-ruler'. The latter etymology was first suggested by John Mitchell Kemble who alluded that "of six manuscripts in which this passage occurs, one only reads ''Bretwalda'': of the remaining five, four have ''Bryten-walda'' or ''-wealda'', and one ''Breten-anweald'', which is precisely synonymous with Brytenwealda"; that Æthelstan was called ''brytenwealda ealles ðyses ealondes'', which Kemble translates as 'ruler of all these islands'; and that ''bryten-'' is a common prefix to words meaning 'wide or general dispersion' and that the similarity to the word ''bretwealh'' ('Briton') is "merely accidental".


Contemporary use

The first recorded use of the term ''Bretwalda'' comes from a West Saxon chronicle of the late 9th century that applied the term to Ecgberht, who ruled Wessex from 802 to 839. The chronicler also wrote down the names of seven kings that
Bede Bede ( ; ang, Bǣda , ; 672/326 May 735), also known as Saint Bede, The Venerable Bede, and Bede the Venerable ( la, Beda Venerabilis), was an English monk at the monastery of St Peter and its companion monastery of St Paul in the Kingdom o ...
listed in his ''
Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum The ''Ecclesiastical History of the English People'' ( la, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum), written by Bede in about AD 731, is a history of the Christian Churches in England, and of England generally; its main focus is on the conflict be ...
'' in 731. All subsequent manuscripts of the ''Chronicle'' use the term ''Brytenwalda'', which may have represented the original term or derived from a common error. There is no evidence that the term was a title that had any practical use, with implications of formal rights, powers and office, or even that it had any existence before the 9th-century. Bede wrote in
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) around present-day Rome, but through ...
and never used the term and his list of kings holding ''imperium'' should be treated with caution, not least in that he overlooks kings such as
Penda of Mercia Penda (died 15 November 655)Manuscript A of the '' Anglo-Saxon Chronicle'' gives the year as 655. Bede also gives the year as 655 and specifies a date, 15 November. R. L. Poole (''Studies in Chronology and History'', 1934) put forward the theo ...
, who clearly held some kind of dominance during his reign. Similarly, in his list of bretwaldas, the West Saxon chronicler ignored such Mercian kings as
Offa Offa (died 29 July 796 AD) was List of monarchs of Mercia, King of Mercia, a kingdom of History of Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Saxon England, from 757 until his death. The son of Thingfrith and a descendant of Eowa of Mercia, Eowa, Offa came to ...
. The use of the term ''Bretwalda'' was the attempt by a West Saxon chronicler to make some claim of West Saxon kings to the whole of Great Britain. The concept of the overlordship of the whole of Britain was at least recognised in the period, whatever was meant by the term. Quite possibly it was a survival of a Roman concept of "Britain": it is significant that, while the hyperbolic inscriptions on coins and titles in
charter A charter is the grant of authority or rights, stating that the granter formally recognizes the prerogative of the recipient to exercise the rights specified. It is implicit that the granter retains superiority (or sovereignty), and that the rec ...
s often included the title ''rex Britanniae'', when England was unified the title used was ''rex Angulsaxonum'', ('king of the Anglo-Saxons'.)


Modern interpretation by historians

For some time, the existence of the word ''bretwalda'' in the ''Anglo-Saxon Chronicle'', which was based in part on the list given by
Bede Bede ( ; ang, Bǣda , ; 672/326 May 735), also known as Saint Bede, The Venerable Bede, and Bede the Venerable ( la, Beda Venerabilis), was an English monk at the monastery of St Peter and its companion monastery of St Paul in the Kingdom o ...
in his ''Historia Ecclesiastica'', led historians to think that there was perhaps a "title" held by Anglo-Saxon overlords. This was particularly attractive as it would lay the foundations for the establishment of an English monarchy. The 20th-century historian
Frank Stenton Sir Frank Merry Stenton, FBA (17 May 1880 – 15 September 1967) was an English historian of Anglo-Saxon England Anglo-Saxon England or Early Medieval England, existing from the 5th to the 11th centuries from the end of Roman Britain until ...
said of the Anglo-Saxon chronicler that "his inaccuracy is more than compensated by his preservation of the English title applied to these outstanding kings". He argued that the term ''bretwalda'' "falls into line with the other evidence which points to the Germanic origin of the earliest English institutions". Over the later 20th century, this assumption was increasingly challenged.
Patrick Wormald Charles Patrick Wormald (9 July 1947 – 29 September 2004) was a British historian born in Neston, Cheshire, son of historian Brian Wormald. He attended Eton College as a King's Scholar. From 1966 to 1969 he read modern history at Balliol Colleg ...
interpreted it as "less an objectively realized office than a subjectively perceived status" and emphasised the partiality of its usage in favour of
Southumbrian The Southumbrians or 'Suðanhymbre' were the Anglo-Saxon people occupying northern Mercia. The term might not have been used by the Mercians and was instead possibly coined by the Deira, Deiran or Bernicia, Bernician people as a territorial respon ...
rulers. In 1991, Steven Fanning argued that "it is unlikely that the term ever existed as a title or was in common usage in Anglo-Saxon England".. The fact that Bede never mentioned a special title for the kings in his list implies that he was unaware of one. In 1995,
Simon Keynes Simon Douglas Keynes, ( ; born 23 September 1952) is a British author who is Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon emeritus in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, ...
observed that "if Bede's concept of the Southumbrian overlord, and the chronicler's concept of the 'Bretwalda', are to be regarded as artificial constructs, which have no validity outside the context of the literary works in which they appear, we are released from the assumptions about political development which they seem to involve... we might ask whether kings in the eighth and ninth centuries were quite so obsessed with the establishment of a pan-Southumbrian state".. Modern interpretations view the concept of ''bretwalda'' overlordship as complex and an important indicator of how a 9th-century chronicler interpreted history and attempted to insert the increasingly powerful Saxon kings into that history.


Overlordship

A complex array of dominance and subservience existed during the
Anglo-Saxon period Anglo-Saxon England or Early Medieval England, existing from the 5th to the 11th centuries from the end of Roman Britain Roman Britain was the period in classical antiquity when large parts of the island of Great Britain were under occu ...
. A king who used charters to grant land in another kingdom indicated such a relationship. If the other kingdom were fairly large, as when the Mercians dominated the East Anglians, the relationship would have been more equal than in the case of the Mercian dominance of the
Hwicce Hwicce () was a tribal kingdom in Anglo-Saxons, Anglo-Saxon England. According to the ''Anglo-Saxon Chronicle'', the kingdom was established in 577, after the Battle of Deorham. After 628, the kingdom became a client or sub-kingdom of Mercia as a ...
, which was a comparatively small kingdom. Mercia was arguably the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom for much of the late 7th though 8th centuries, though Mercian kings are missing from the two main "lists". For Bede, Mercia was a traditional enemy of his native Northumbria and he regarded powerful kings such as the pagan Penda as standing in the way of the Christian conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. Bede omits them from his list, even though it is evident that Penda held a considerable degree of power. Similarly powerful Mercia kings such as Offa are missed out of the West Saxon ''Anglo-Saxon Chronicle'', which sought to demonstrate the legitimacy of their kings to rule over other Anglo-Saxon peoples.


See also

* List of monarchs of East Anglia * List of monarchs of Essex *
List of monarchs of Kent This is a list of the kings of the Anglo-Saxon The Anglo-Saxons were a Cultural identity, cultural group who inhabited England in the Early Middle Ages. They traced their origins to settlers who came to Britain from mainland Europe in the 5t ...
*
List of monarchs of Sussex The list of monarchs of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Sussex (or South Saxons) contains substantial gaps, as the chronological details relating to Sussex during the heptarchy is generally poorly documented. No authentic South Saxon king list or gene ...
*
List of monarchs of Wessex This is a list of monarchs of Wessex la, Regnum Occidentalium Saxonum , conventional_long_name = Kingdom of the West Saxons , common_name = Wessex , image_map = Southern British Isles 9th centu ...
*
List of monarchs of Mercia The Kingdom of Mercia was a state in the English Midlands from the 6th century to the 10th century. For some two hundred years from the mid-7th century onwards it was the dominant member of the Heptarchy and consequently the most powerful of the ...
*
List of monarchs of Northumbria Northumbria, a kingdom of Angles, in what is now northern England and Lothian, south-east Scotland, was initially divided into two kingdoms: Bernicia and Deira. The two were first united by king Æthelfrith around the year 604, and except for occ ...
*
List of English monarchs This list of kings and reigning queens of the Kingdom of England begins with Alfred the Great, who initially ruled Kingdom of Wessex, Wessex, one of the heptarchy, seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which later made up modern England. Alfred styled ...
(to 1707) *
List of legendary kings of Britain The following list of legendary kings of Britain derives predominantly from Geoffrey of Monmouth's circa 1136 work ''Historia Regum Britanniae'' ("the History of the Kings of Britain"). Geoffrey constructed a largely fictional history for the C ...
* Kings of the Britons (contemporaries with Anglo-Saxon kings) * High King *
Emperor An emperor (from la, imperator, via fro, empereor) is a monarch, and usually the sovereignty, sovereign ruler of an empire or another type of imperial realm. Empress, the female equivalent, may indicate an emperor's wife (empress consort), ...


Notes


References

* Fanning, Steven. "Bede, ''Imperium'', and the Bretwaldas." ''Speculum'' 66 (1991): 1–26. * Wormald, Patrick. "Bede, the ''Bretwaldas'' and the Origins of the ''Gens Anglorum''." In ''Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society'', ed. P. Wormald et al. Oxford, 1983. 99–129.


Further reading

* Charles-Edwards, T. M. "''The continuation of Bede'', s.a. 750. High-kings, kings of Tara and ''Bretwaldas''." In ''Seanchas. Studies in early and medieval Irish archaeology, history and literature in honour of Francis J. Byrne'', ed. Alfred P. Smyth. Dublin: Four Courts, 2000. 137–45. * Dumville, David "The Terminology of Overkingship in Early Anglo-Saxon England." In ''The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration period to the Eighth Century. An Ethnographic Perspective'', ed. J. Hines (1997): 345–65 * Keynes, Simon. "Bretwalda." In ''The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England'', ed. Michael Lapidge et al. Oxford, 1999. * Kirby, D. P. ''The Making of Early England''. London, 1967. * Wormald, Patrick. "Bede, ''Beowulf'' and the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy." In ''Bede and Anglo-Saxon England. Papers in honour of the 1300th anniversary of the birth of Bede'', ed. R. T. Farrell. BAR, British series 46. 1978. 32–95. * Yorke, Barbara. "The vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon overlordship." ''Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History'' 2 (1981): 171–200. {{Bretwalda Anglo-Saxon monarchs English monarchs Feudalism in England Royal titles