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Title: Bretwalda  
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Subject: Rædwald of East Anglia, Ceawlin of Wessex, Wessex, Egbert of Wessex, Edwin of Northumbria
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The entry for 827 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which lists the eight bretwaldas

Bretwalda (also brytenwalda and bretenanwealda) is an Old English word, the first record of which comes from the late 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is given to some of the rulers of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms 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 charter of Æthelstan.

The rulers of Mercia were generally the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kings from the mid-7th to the early 9th centuries, but are not accorded the title of bretwalda by the Chronicle, which is generally thought to be because of the anti-Mercian bias of the Chroniclers. 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.


The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

Listed by Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

An imaginary depiction of Edwin of Northumbria, from John Speed's Saxon Heptarchy (1611)

Mercian rulers with similar or greater authority

Listed only by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Other claimants


The first syllable of the term bretwalda may be related to 'Briton' or 'Britain' and would thus mean 'sovereign of Britain' or 'wielder of Britain'.[1][2] The word may be a compound containing the Old English adjective brytten (from the verb breotan meaning 'to break' or 'to disperse'),[3] 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'.[4]

The latter etymology was first suggested by John Mitchell Kemble[5] 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,[5] 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".[5]

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 from 802 to 839.[6] The chronicler also wrote down the names of seven kings that Bede listed in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum in 731.[7] 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 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, 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.

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 charters 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 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 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".[8] 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 interpreted it as "less an objectively realized office than a subjectively perceived status" and emphasised the partiality of its usage in favour of Southumbrian rulers.[9] 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".[10]:24 The fact that Bede never mentioned a special title for the kings in his list implies that he was unaware of one.[10]:23 In 1995, Simon Keynes 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".[11]

Modern interpretations view the concept of bretwaldaship 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.


A complex array of dominance and subservience existed during the Anglo-Saxon period. A king who used charters to grant land in another kingdom indicated such a relationship. If a king held sway over a large kingdom, such 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, which was a comparatively small kingdom. Mercia was arguably the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom for much of the late 7th and 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.


  1. ^ .
  2. ^ .
  3. ^ .
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c
  6. ^ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MS A, 827 for 829.
  7. ^ From Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum 2.5.
  8. ^ .
  9. ^ .
  10. ^ a b .
  11. ^ .


  • 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

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