Witenagemot

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The Witenagemot (Old English witena gemōt [ˈwitənə jeˈmoːt] "meeting of wise men"), 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 Witenagemot functioned as an assembly of the elite 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.

Contents

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."[1] 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.[2] 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, the earliest document which survives in sustained Old English prose; however, the witan was certainly in existence long before this time.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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