THE BRETWALDAS – The First Kings of England?

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suppose that a great deal of people are unfamiliar with the word ‘Bretwalda’. This is hardly surprising, as it is not in use in modern English in any context, and with the creation of a single country called England in around 937 it ceased to have any purpose.

Because ‘Bretwalda’ essentially (though not literally) means ‘King of England’, but in a context in which England as we know it does not exist. It applies in the context of 6th to 10th century England, when there were several English-speaking kingdoms all over the island of Britain, from Northumbria in the north to Wessex in the south, with kingdoms such as Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Middlesex, Sussex, Kent and others in between.

Britain, 800 AD
Map of Britain in around 800 AD. The kingdoms marked in red are Anglo-Saxon

The Bretwalda was the man who could claim to have power over them all. He would, typically, be king of just one, or perhaps two, but the others would all answer to him as well, and provide him with money, ships and soldiers at his command. The word itself dates from at least the 10th century, when it appears on a charter of Aethelstan, Alfred the Great’s grandson, King of Wessex, and the man who, in 927 AD, became the first person to call himself ‘King of England’. The matter of who, precisely, the Bretwalda was at any given time, though, seems generally to have been up to later historians  – which in an Anglo-Saxon context means monks. Monks, in particular, who updated the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The Chronicle is among the most important sources for all things Anglo-Saxon. Its writing was first ordered some time in the late 9th century by Alfred the Great, and it was continually updated until at least 1134. It contained within its pages an entry on what happened in Britain for every single year from 60 BC (the date the chroniclers believed Julius Caesar invaded Britain – it was actually 55 BC), and also contained a list of kings who could, in the view of the authors, be considered to have been the ‘Bretwalda’ of their time.

The Chronicle‘s list names:

  • Aelle of Sussex – reigned 488 – 514
  • Caewlin of Wessex – reigned 560 – 592
  • Aethelberht of Kent – reigned 590 – 616
  • Raedwald of East Anglia – reigned 600 – 624
  • Edwin of Deira – reigned 616 – 633
  • Oswald of Northumbria – reigned 633 – 642
  • Oswiu of Northumbria – reigned 642 – 670
  • Egbert of Wessex – reigned 829 – 839
  • Alfred of Wessex – reigned 871 – 899

At first glance this might seem to be a list that is fairly representative of all the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Sussex, Wessex, Kent, East Anglia and Northumbria are all represented at least once. However, there is one glaring omission: Mercia.

Statue in Winchester of Alfred the Great, who ordered the Chronicle‘s writing

For almost two centuries Mercia was arguably the most powerful of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with its power peaking under King Offa, who ruled from 757 until his death in 790. Before Offa’s ascent to the throne, Mercia already controlled the other kingdoms of East Anglia and Essex. Under Offa’s 33-year rule, Mercian dominance was extended to include Kent, Sussex, Lindsey and Wessex, as well as a campaign that saw Mercian troops push deep into Wales. No other Anglo-Saxon ruler had ever controlled as much of the island of Britain as Offa had, and none would again until Alfred the Great almost 100 years later.

And yet, Offa is not mentioned in the Chronicle‘s list of Bretwaldas. No Mercian ruler is, and this exposes one of the greatest failings of the work. It has a definite, one might even say unashamed, anti-Mercian bias. The reason for this is simple: history. For much of the history of the English kingdoms in Britain, Mercia had been the dominant power, and a long-lasting resentment of Mercia seems to have lingered on to at least Alfred’s time, if not afterwards. The Wessex monks who first compiled the Chronicle, therefore, had a vested interest in denying the rulers of Mercia the mantle of ruler of all Britain that the Wessex monarchs of the time coveted for themselves. Alfred, certainly, would have accepted no one but himself as master of the English-speaking lands.

A coin of Offa of Mercia, one of only three to survive from his reign, currently at the British Museum

There were, however, several Mercian kings who could – and probably ought to be – afforded the title of Bretwalda. These were men who, in their time, held dominion over most of the other Anglo-Saxon realms, if not all of them, and could reasonably call themselves the foremost ruler in the Anglo-Saxon world.

  • Penda, reigned 626 – 655
  • Wulfhere, reigned 658 – 675
  • Aethelred, reigned 675 – 704
  • Aethelbald, reigned 716 – 757
  • Offa, reigned 757 – 796
  • Coenwulf, reigned 796 – 821

What we see from this list and the dates of each king’s reign is that, for almost two-hundred years, the kigns of Mercia could be called the most powerful rulers in Angelcynnland (the collective name for all the places where English was spoken), and quite probably in the entirety of the British Isles. And yet the Chronicle fails to mention them at all when discussing the title of Bretwalda and who might be afforded it. A great deal of store has been set by many historians in the centuries since the Chronicle’s compilation regarding this title, treated by some as a proto-King of England. I would argue, however, that the title of Bretwalda is indicative of nothing more than a propagandistic tool, and that the true measure of the kings of the period can, and should, be determined in other ways.

mercian supremacy
A series of maps showing the expansion of Mercian power (green) between 730 and 796, under Kings Aethelbald and Offa


Featured image: A photograph of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s entry listing the Bretwaldas



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s