Bretwalda 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 it was actually used at that time or is a ninth century invention.

Contemporary use

The word Bretwalda is perhaps derived from the Anglo-Saxon Bretanwealda, "Lord of Britain". The first record of it comes from a West Saxon Chronicle of the late 9th century applying the term to Ecgberht, who was King of Wessex from 802-839. The chronicler also wrote down the names of seven kings Bede had listed in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731.

There is no evidence that the term Bretwalda was a title that had any practical use, or even 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 his 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. Problems arise when historians take the term and infer from it something that was not there.

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 unity 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.

Historical use

For some time the existence of the word Bretwalda in the Anglo-Saxon Chroncile, which was based in part on the list given by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, led historians to think that there was perhaps a "title" held by overlords on 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. 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. By 1995 Simon Keynes was writing '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.

Thus, more recent interpretations tend not to view the term Bretwalda in simplistic terms. It is now recognised 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, in to 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.

Listed by Bede

Listed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle


Sources and references

  • Simon Keynes, 'Bretwalda', in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge et al, (Oxford, 1999)
  • D.P. Kirby, The Making of Early England, (London, 1967)
  • P. Wormald, 'Bede, the Bretwaldas and the Origins of the Gens Anglorum', Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society, ed. P. Wormald et al, (Oxford, 1983)
  • Simon Keynes, 'England, 700-900' in The New Cambridge Medieval History, II, c.700-c.900. ed. R. McKitterick, (Cambridge: University Press, 1995)
  • F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edition, (Oxford: University Press, 1971)

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