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Witenagemot

From Academic Kids

The Witenagemot (or Witan) was a political institution in Anglo-Saxon England which operated between approximately the 7th century and 11th century. The name witenagemot derives from the Old English for "meeting of wise men" (witan, wise man or counsellor; gemot, assembly). It was a convocation of the land's most powerful and important people including senior clergy, ealdormen and the leading thegns.

The witan had its origins in the Germanic assemblies summoned to witness royal grants of land. Before the unification of England in the 9th century, separate witans were convened by the Kings of Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex. Even after Wessex became the dominant power in England, supplanting the other kingdoms, local witans continued to meet until as late as 1065.

Summoned by the king (and later by regional earls), witans would advise on the administration and organisation of the kingdom, dealing with issues such as taxation, jurisprudence and both internal and external security. The witan was also needed to approve the succession of each monarch. The new king could be whoever the witan decided would best lead the country, not necessarily the offspring of the previous monarch. Kings and earls could also be deposed by witans; Sigeberht of Wessex was deposed this way in 755, Ethelwald of Northumbria in 765.

The witan was in some respects a predecessor to Parliament, but had substantially different powers and some major limitations, such as a lack of a fixed procedure, schedule or meeting place. The king, in those days, had a role which included some of the qualities of a president. The witan was thus a valuable check on royal power, preventing autocracy and carrying on government during interregnums.

Witans met at least once a year and commonly more often. There was no single seat of the national witan; it is known to have met in at least 116 locations, including Amesbury, Cheddar, Gloucester, London and Winchester. The meeting places were often on royal estates, but some witans were convened in the open at prominent rocks, hills, meadows and famous trees.

The best-known sitting of the English witan was that which on January 5 1066 approved the succession to the kingship of Harold Godwinson following the death of Edward the Confessor.

This arrangement ended when the Normans invaded in 1066, replacing the witan with the curia regis, or King's court. However, in a sign of the witan's enduring legacy, the curia regis continued to be dubbed a "witan" by chroniclers until as late as the 12th century.

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