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bretwalda

bretwalda. It would be a venial sin, but sinful all the same, to regard the term ‘bretwalda’ as having caused more trouble than it is worth. It first appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's annal for 829. The A version says Egbert of Wessex was the eighth king who was bretwalda (ruler of Britain). The other versions use ‘brytenwalda’ (wide ruler). There is dispute as to which term is ‘right’. It is not helped by a questioned charter of Athelstan (934) which in its English version uses ‘brytenwalda’, but in its Latin uses ‘King and ruler of this whole island of Britain’ as the equivalent. More significant is the relationship of the term to Bede's statement that there were seven rulers who had imperium over much or all of our island: the earliest Ælle of Sussex (late 5th cent.), the latest Oswiu of Northumbria (d. 670). The 9th-cent. annalist plainly had this passage in mind. Historians have long employed the term ‘bretwalda’ in relation to Bede's crucial statement. Thus, independently of the question ‘which is the ”right” form?’, the use of ‘bretwalda’, ‘bretwaldaship’ as terms of historical art is the focus of dispute on the organization of power in early England.

If, as is likely, ‘bretwalda’ is an early term, it is of a poetically glorifying kind, not relating to any position which could or can be specifically defined. By a related argument Bede's observation on imperium, and who held it, derives from some topos of grouping rulers in sevens (to be found later in ‘Nennius's’ idea of seven Roman emperors who ruled in Britain). Two questions arise. First, whence did Bede get his information, or ‘information’? Why, for example, dig up the exceedingly obscure Ælle? Second, granted the almost infinite obscurity of early political arrangements, may not Bede (who could have known more about these matters than we do) be transmitting traditions which derive from something which lay between the poetically rhetorical and the institutionally defined? Historians' discussion of what they call ‘bretwaldaship’ also involves discussion of elements in early ‘overlordship’, such as the right to tribute and to participation in land grants.

James Campbell

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Bretwalda

Bretwalda lord of the Britons, lord of Britain; in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a title given to King Egbert, and (retrospectively) to some earlier Anglo-Saxon kings, and occasionally assumed by later ones.

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