Bretanwealda: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


(Redirected to Bretwalda article)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bretwalda, also Brytenwalda, Bretenanwealda, is an Anglo-Saxon term, the first record of which comes from the late ninth century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is applied in that chronicle to some of the rulers of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the fifth century onwards who had achieved overlordship over some or all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It is unclear if the word really dates back to the fifth century, or is a ninth century invention.

The rulers of Mercia were generally the most powerful of the English kings from the mid-seventh to the early-ninth centuries. However they are not accorded the title of Bretwalda by the chronicle—which fact is usually assigned to anti-Mercian bias by its authors. Whether they used it themselves is again uncertain, though in many cases their power was even greater than those listed by the chronicle. It is notable that the Annals of Wales also continued to recognize Northumbrian rulers as King of the Saxons (i.e. English) until the death of Osred in 716.

The term Bretwalda also appears in a charter of Æthelstan, king of the English. It appears in several variant forms (brytenwalda, bretenanwealda, &c.), and means most probably "lord of the Britons", "lord of Britain" or, more literally, Britain-wielder/wielder of Britain[1][2] for although the derivation of the word is uncertain, its earlier syllable seems to be cognate with the words Briton and Britannia. However Kemble derives Bretwalda from the Old English word breotan, to distribute, and translates it "widely ruling."[3]




Listed by Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The entry for 827 in the [C] manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, listing the eight bretwaldas
Imaginary depiction of Edwin from John Speed's 1611 "Saxon Heptarchy"

Mercian rulers with similar or greater authority

Listed only by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Contemporary use

The first recorded use of the term Bretwalda comes from a West Saxon Chronicle of the late 9th century applying the term to Ecgberht, who was King of Wessex from 802-839.[4] The chronicler also wrote down the names of seven kings Bede had listed in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum in 731.[5] All subsequent manuscripts of the Chronicle use Brytenwalda, whether it represents the original term or derives from a common error.

There is no evidence that the term Bretwalda 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 ninth-century chronicler. Bede wrote in Latin and never used the term, and his list of kings holding imperium should be treated with great caution, not least in that he overlooks kings such as Penda of Mercia who clearly held some kind of dominance in their time. Similarly, in his list of Bretwaldas, the West Saxon chronicler ignores Mercian kings such as Offa. It is unlikely that there was a succession and defined duties, and it is doubtful whether the term Bretwalda is anything more than a later simplification of a complex structure of kingship.

Bretwalda is, therefore, a highly problematic term, and one which, if anything, was merely the attempt by a West Saxon chronicler to make some claim of West Saxon kings to the whole of Great Britain. This shows that 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 only a survival of a Roman concept of "Britain"; it is significant that, while the hyperbolic inscriptions on coins and titles in charters often include the title rex Britanniae, when England was actually 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 in his Historia Ecclesiastica, led historians to think that there was perhaps a "title" held by overlords of Great Britain. This was particularly attractive as it would lay the foundations for the establishment of an English monarchy. The twentieth-century historian Frank Stenton says of the Anglo-Saxon chronicler that "his inaccuracy is more than compensated by his preservation of the English title applied to these outstanding kings."[6] He goes on to argue 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 twentieth century this assumption was increasingly challenged. Patrick Wormald interprets it as "less an objectively realized office than a subjectively perceived status" and emphasizes the partiality of its usage in favour of Southumbrian rulers.[7] In 1991, Steven Fanning argues, "It is unlikely that the term ever existed as a title or was in common usage in Anglo-Saxon England."[8] The fact that Bede never mentioned a special title for the kings in his list implies that he was unaware of one.[9] In 1995 Simon Keynes wrote, "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."[10]

Thus, more recent interpretations view the bretwaldaship as a complex concept. It is now recognized as an important indicator of how a ninth-century chronicler interpreted history and tried to insert the West Saxon kings, who were rapidly expanding their power at the time, into that history.


What did exist was a complex array of dominance and subservience. Examples such as a king granting land with charters in another kingdom, are a sure sign of such a relationship. When a king held sway over a larger kingdom, such as a Mercian ruler over East Anglia, the relationship would have been more equal than in the case of a larger kingdom exercising overlordship over a smaller one, as in the case of Mercia and Hwicce. Mercia was arguably the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom for much of the late seventh and eighth centuries, though Mercian kings are missed out of the two main "lists". For Bede, Mercia was a traditional enemy of his native Northumbria, and he saw powerful Mercian kings such as Penda (a pagan) as standing in the way of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, and so does not include them in 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 the West Saxon kings to rule over other Anglo-Saxon peoples.


  1. ^
  2. ^;
  3. ^ Kemble, John Mitchell (1876). The Saxons in England. A History of the English Commonwealth till the Period of the Norman Conquest. London: Bernard Quaritch.  
  4. ^ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MS A, 827 for 829.
  5. ^ From Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum 2.5.
  6. ^ F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edition, (Oxford: University Press, 1971), pp.34–5.
  7. ^ Patrick Wormald, "Bede, Bretwaldas and the Origins of the Gens Anglorum. p. 118-9."
  8. ^ Fanning, Steven (1991) “Bede, Imperium, and the Bretwaldas,” Speculum 66, no. 1 (1991): 24.
  9. ^ Steven Fanning, "Bede, Imperium, and the Bretwaldas." 23.
  10. ^ Simon Keynes, 'England, 700–900' in The New Cambridge Medieval History, II, c.700-c.900. ed. R. McKitterick, (Cambridge: University Press, 1995), p.39


  • 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.

Other sources

  • 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.

See also


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address