Book 2, Chapter 3, 827 AD to 857 AD – The Witenagemot – Continued
The general councils were held, in fine weather, in the open air, or, if occasion required, in houses devoted to the purpose. The ecclesiastics and the magnates, for so we may call them, sat apart from the multitude, but even they had separate chambers, in which the clergy could deliberate upon matters purely ecclesiastical, the magnates upon matters purely civil, but when the object of their inquiry was of a mixed character, they were called together. Before these chambers the questions were brought which had been prepared at the preceding meeting, or arose from altered circumstances, the opinion of the members was taken upon them, and when agreed to they were presented to the king, who agreed or disagreed in turn, as the case might be.
While the new laws or administrative regulations were under discussion, the king, unless especially invited to be present at the deliberations, occupied himself in mixing with the remaining multitude, receiving their presents, welcoming their leaders, conversing with the new corners, sympathizing with the old, congratulating the young, and in similar employments, both in spirituals and temporals, says Hincmar. When the prepared business had been disposed of, the king propounded detailed interrogatories to the chambers, respecting the state of the country in the different districts, or what was known of the intentions and actions of neighbouring countries, and these having been answered, or reserved for consideration, the assembly broke up. When any new chapters, hence called Capitula, had been added to the ancient law of folk right, special messengers (missi) were dispatched to obtain the assent and signatures of the free men, and the chapters thus ratified became thenceforth the law of the land.
It can scarcely be said that this was the crude idea out of which Parliaments grew, that in the Saxon Witan there was nothing corresponding to representation in the House of Commons. The primary form was simple and definite, and its power gradually increased with circumstances, but it is not safe to make analogies between it and the Parliaments of after times. The general functions of Witenagemot may be thus summarized: They possessed a consultative voice, and right to consider every public act, which could be autoionized by the king. They deliberated upon the making of new laws, which were then promulgated by their own and the king’s authority. They had the power of making alliances and treaties of peace, and of settling the terms. They had the power of electing the king, and of deposing him if his government was not con-ducted for the benefit of the people. The king and the witan appointed prelates to vacant sees, they also had power to regulate ecclesiastical matters, appoint fasts and festivals, and decide upon the levy and expenditure of ecclesiastical revenue. They had the power to levy taxes for the public service, and to raise land and sea forces. They possessed the power of adjudging the lands of offenders and intestates to be forfeit to the king. They acted as a supreme court of justice both in civil and criminal causes.
Illustrations of all these points may be found, almost without number, in the Codex Diplomaticus AEvi Saxonici, and in the Saxon Chronicle, showing that from A.D. 595 to 1006 the power of the Witenagemot was increased and consolidated. That the Witeuagemot had the power to depose the king, if his government was not conducted for the benefit of the people is obvious from an account given by Henry of Huntingdon (Hist. Ang. lib. iv) of the deposition of Sigeberht, in 755, by the witan of Wessex. These are his words, Sigeberht held the kingdom for a short time only, for being swelled up and insolent through the successes of his predecessor, he became intolerable even unto his own people.
But when he continued to ill use them in every way, and .either twisted the laws to his own advantage, or turned them aside for his advantage, Cumbra, the noblest of his ealdormen, at the petition of the whole people, brought their complaints before the savage king. Whom, for attempting to persuade him to rule his people more mercifully, and setting his humanity aside to show himself an object of love to God £(9.d man, he shortly after commanded to be put to an impious death: and becoming still more fierce and intolerable to his people, he aggravated his tyranny. In the beginning of the second year of his reign Sigeberht the king continuing incorrigible in his pride and iniquity, the princes and people of the whole realm collected together, and by provident deliberation and unanimous consent of all he was expelled from the throne.
But Cynewulf, an excellent young prince, of the royal race, was elected to be king.” This dignity among the Anglo Saxons was partly hereditary, partly elective, that is to say, the kings were usually taken from certain qualified families, but the witan claimed the right of choosing the person whom they would have to reign. Their history is filled with instances of occasions when the sons or direct descendants of the last king have been set aside in favour of his brother or some other prince whom the nation believed more capable of ruling, and the very rare occurrence of discontent on such occasions both proves the authority which the decision of the witan carried with it, and the great discretion with which their power was exercised.
Chapter 3, Egbert
Chapter 3, The Clergy and The Monasteries
Chapter 3, The Witenagemot
Nature of the kingly Dignity
Categories: Book 2