Home > History > Before Parliament: The Witenagemot

Before Parliament: The Witenagemot

A Witenagemot, image 11th Century

A Witenagemot, image 11th Century

“No man can make himself king, but the people has the choice to choose as king whom they please; but after he is consecrated as king, he then has dominion over the people, and they cannot shake his yoke off their necks.” – Ælfric of Eynsham

Pre-Conquest England gathered together ‘meetings of wise men’ – Witenagemots – which were essentially extensions of the ancient Germanic ‘folkmoots’, or general assemblies of tribes.

From the coming of the English after the fall of Rome to the Norman Conquest, English kings used these meetings to address urgent problems and to raise money for wars, representing nobility and the early English Church.  A Witenagemot ratified England’s first ever written constitution, that for the Kingdom of Kent, around 600.

It seems that the powers of the Witenagemots were never really properly defined, but generally they had elective powers for the early Anglo-Saxon kings. The modern ceremony for the coronation of the British monarch echoes this practice, whereby the newly crowned monarch is presented to the people of the kingdom on all sides of Westminster Abbey.

Interestingly, the Witenagemot’s members could not be dismissed by the king, and the Witenagemot could, in some circumstances, impeach the King, and indeed did. Nonetheless, Witenagemots were not democratic or national legislatures, and many tended to be composed on a regional basis until the Conquest of 1066, as the Anglo-Saxon nobles possessed strong regional power bases.

The last Witanegamot proclaimed Edgar Ætheling Harold Godwinson’s successor after his defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings. Within days, however, the Witan, knowing that William of Normandy’s advance on London was unstoppable, parlied and proclaimed him king instead. Edgar fled to the continent and attempted to foster popular revolts against William, which never succeeded.

Thus ended the Royal line of Wessex. William’s conquest of England was absolute, and within a few short years he and his Norman benefactors all but liquidated and superseded the resident Anglo-Saxon nobility.  William secured the Crown for himself from rival nobles by parcelling out these lands piecemeal to his Norman allies, ensuring that rebellions would be difficult to sustain as their lands would be scattered throughout the country.

William ruled with an absolutism and a tyranny which was not repeated nor attempted until Charles I. He had no need of Witans to control his power, but he did on occasion summon advisory councils.

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