witenagemot (wĭtˌənəgĭmōtˈ) [key] [Old Eng., = meeting of counselors], a session of the counselors (the witan) of a king in Anglo-Saxon England. Such a body existed in each of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Composed of the higher churchmen, the earls, and other members of the nobility, it was aristocratic, and its membership at any one time was dependent upon the appointments of the ruling king or his immediate predecessors. These facts discredit the old argument that the witenagemot was similar to the later representative Parliament and make it clear that the witan were more analogous to the later Curia Regis. On the other hand, the witenagemot had considerable powers. Although the number of members and the functions varied with each realm and each king, the counsel and assent of the group were usually sought by the king in matters of laws, taxes, foreign negotiations, national defense, and the bestowal of privileged estates. Probably only rarely would the witan directly oppose the king, but their potential independence must have served as a check on the monarch. Furthermore, although records are rather scarce, it appears probable that the witan, especially in Wessex, had the power to elect the king. Since the kingship was largely hereditary, such a ceremony was usually perfunctory, but upon occasion the witan actually selected the king.
See F. Liebermann, The National Assembly in the Anglo-Saxon Period (1913, repr. 1961); F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3d ed. 1971).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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