1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bretwalda

BRETWALDA, a word used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the date 827, and also in a charter of Æthelstan, king of the English. It appears in several variant forms (brytenwalda, bretenanwealda, &c.), and means most probably “lord of the Britons” or “lord of Britain”; for although the derivation of the word is uncertain, its earlier syllable seems to be cognate with the words Briton and Britannia. In the Chronicle the title is given to Ecgbert, king of the English, “the eighth king that was Bretwalda,” and retrospectively to seven kings who ruled over one or other of the English kingdoms. The seven names are copied from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, and it is interesting to note that the last king named, Oswiu of Northumbria, lived 150 years before Ecgbert. It has been assumed that these seven kings exercised a certain superiority over a large part of England, but if such superiority existed it is certain that it was extremely vague and was unaccompanied by any unity of organization. Another theory is that Bretwalda refers to a war-leadership, or imperium, over the English south of the Humber, and has nothing to do with Britons or Britannia. In support of this explanation it is urged that the title is given in the Chronicle to Ecgbert in the year in which he “conquered the kingdom of the Mercians and all that was south of the Humber.” Less likely is the theory of Palgrave that the Bretwaldas were the successors of the pseudo-emperors, Maximus and Carausius, and claimed to share the imperial dignity of Rome; or that of Kemble, who derives Bretwalda from the British word breotan, to distribute, and translates it “widely ruling.” With regard to Ecgbert the word is doubtless given as a title in imitation of its earlier use, and the same remark applies to its use in Æthelstan’s charter.

See E. A. Freeman, History of the Norman Conquest, vol. i. (Oxford, 1877); W. Stubbs, Constitutional History, vol. i. (Oxford, 1897); J. R. Green, The Making of England, vol. ii. (London, 1897); F. Palgrave, The Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth (London, 1832); J. M. Kemble, The Saxons in England (London, 1876); J. Rhys, Celtic Britain (London, 1884).