WITAN, or WITENAGEMOT (from O. Eng. wita, pi. witan, a wise man, and gemdl, a meeting, from O. Eng. metan, to meet), the national council in England in Anglo-Saxon times. Its origin is obscure. There is some resemblance between it and the two assemblies mentioned by Tacitus in the Germania, a larger and a smaller one, but this analogy must not be pressed too far. In Anglo-Saxon England in the 7th and 8th centuries it seems certain that each of the larger kingdoms, Kent, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, had its separate witan, or council, but there is a difference of opinion as to whether this was identical with, or distinct from, the folkmoot, in which, theoretically at least, all freemen had the right to appear. H. R. von Gneist (History of the English Constitution) agrees that the two assemblies were identical, and a somewhat similar view is put forward by J. M. Kemble (Saxons in England) and E. A. Freeman (History of the Norman Conquest). Freeman advances the theory that the right of all the freemen to attend the gemdt had for practical purposes fallen into disuse, and thus the assembly had come to be confined to the wise men. In other words, the folkmoot had become the witan. Evidence in support of this view is sought for in the accounts in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and elsewhere, where the decisions of the witan were received with loud expressions of approval or of disapproval by an assembled crowd, and it is argued that this is a survival from an earlier age, when all the freemen attended the witan. But the attendance of the crowd can be otherwise explained. The meetings referred to were probably those of exceptional interest, such as the election or the coronation of a king, and people from the neighbourhood were there merely as interested, and sometimes excited, spectators. The contrary opinion, that the two assemblies were distinct, is held, although with characteristic caution, by Stubbs (Const. Hist. vol. i.). He thinks that on the union of the kingdoms the witans were merged into one another, while the folkmoot became the shiremoot. As the number of kings decreased the number of witans decreased, until early in the 9th century there was one king and one witan in all England.
The power of the witan varied according to the personality of the reigning king, being considerable under a weak ruler, but inconsiderable under a strong one. Generally speaking, it diminished as the years went by, and from " necessary assenters " its members became " merely attesting witnesses." Its duties are shown by the preamble to the laws of Ine, king of Wessex, and 200 years later by the preamble to those of Alfred the Great, while several similar cases could be instanced. Ine legislates " with the counsel and with the teaching of Cenred my father and of Hedde my bishop, and of Eorcenwald my bishop, with all my ealdormen and the most distinguished witan of my people " (Stubbs, Select Charters), and Alfred issues his code of laws " with the counsel and consent of his witan." Thus the members of the witan were primarily counsellors. With their consent the king promulgated laws, made grants of land, appointed bishops and ealdormen, and discharged the other duties of government. The witan was also a court of justice, Earl Godwine and many other offenders receiving sentence of outlawry therein. Its members had the power of electing a new king, although the area of their choice was strictly limited by custom and also the right of deposing a king, although this seems to have been infrequently exercised.
Its members signed the charters by which the king conveyed grants of land to churches and to individuals, and it is from the extant charters that we mainly derive our knowledge about the composition of the witan. It consisted, in addition to the king, his sons and other relatives, of the bishops and later some abbots, of some under-kings and the ealdormen of the shires or provinces, and of a number of ministri, or king's thegns. These ministri were nominees of the king; they included the important members of his household, and their number gradually increased until it outstripped that of all the other members. The witan appears probably to have had no fixed place of meeting, and to have assembled around the person of the king, wherever he might be. In the later years of its existence, at least, it met three times a year, at Easter, Whitsuntide and Christmas. The number of counsellors attending the meetings of the witan varied considerably from time to time. " In a witenagemot held at Luton in November A.D. 931 were the two archbishops, two Welsh princes, seventeen bishops, fifteen ealdormen, five abbots and fifty-nine ministri. In another, that of Winchester of A.D. 934, were present the two archbishops, four Welsh kings, seventeen bishops, four abbots, twelve ealdormen and fiftytwo ministri. These are perhaps the fullest extant lists. Of Edgar's witenagemots, the one of A.D. 966 contained the king's mother, two archbishops, seven bishops, five ealdormen and fifteen ministri; and this is a fair specimen of the usual proportion " (Stubbs, Const. Hist. ch. vi.). Almost immediately after the Norman Conquest the word fell into disuse.
See also D. J. Medley, English Constitutional History (1907): H. M. Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (1905); and the article PARLIAMENT. (A. W. H.*)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)