For the year 827 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes the following statement;
And the same year king Ecgberht conquered the kingdom of Mercia and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king to be bretwalda; and the first who had so great a rule was Aelle king of the South Saxons; the one after was Caewlin king of West Saxons; the third was Aethelberht, king of the inhabitants of Kent; the fourth was Raedwald king of East Anglia; fifth was Edwin king of Northumbria; sixth was Oswald who ruled after him; seventh was Oswiu, Oswald's brother; eighth was Ecgberht king of West Saxons.
The reference to bretwalda, which means something like 'ruler of Britain' appears only in Manuscript A, the Winchester version of the Chronicle, whilst the other manuscripts refer to brytenwalda, or variants thereof, which means something like 'wide-ruler'.
This list is a straight lift from Book two of the Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum where Bede lists the names of the seven kings who he viewed as exercising some kind of hegemony over all the territories of the English south of the river Humber. In Book Five he was to add a further name in that of Aethelbald of Mercia who he also claims was then currently exercising dominion over the kingdoms south of the Humber.
However it should be noted that Bede never made any reference to any of these kings bearing any kind of title to represent this hegemony, still less the specific title of 'bretwalda', and the hegemony that he referred to was restricted to England south of the river Humber. And he was in any event, only putting forward his interpretation of history, based frequently on evidence that is far less comprehensive than that available today.
This list of bretwaldas has since been often misinterpreted as evidence of the existence of some kind of English 'high-king'. Some enthusiasts have even sought to remedy what they see as the deficiencies in the Chronicles list of Bretwaldas; in particular to fill in the gap that arises between the death of Oswiu in 670 and the rise to power of Ecgberht in 827; hence the names of Aethelbald, Offa, etc are often inserted. The name of the seventh century Mercian warlord Penda is also often placed in the list somewhere, his omission being explained by Bede's undoubted anti-pagan and anti Mercian bias.
As Roger Collins writes with reference to the list of bretwaldas; "it has long been recognised that there are some historical impossibilities here". As far as Aelle and Caewlin are concerned it is evident "that neither of these exercised much control over anybody beyond the area of their immediate activities" and it is only really with the three Northumbrian kings that we have any clear indication of rulers exercising some kind of overlordship over their neighbours and then only in a fitful and temporary fashion.
Whereas it is clear that attempts were made by various Anglo-Saxon kings to exercise some kind of hegemony over their neighbours, there is no historical evidence to suggest that was in any way institutionalised.
As Nicholas Higham has explained, there is no evidence that an official position of bretwalda ever existed but that it was retrospectively applied to kings who exercised the greatest hegemony over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Although some historians such as Frank Stenton have seen within the list the 'origins of English unity', suggesting that it represented in some way the aspiration towards a single English ruler, others as Michael Swanton suggest that the list should be interpreted as "perhaps a poetic rather than a political assertion".
This list of bretwaldas should be more properly be understood, as indeed should much of Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as originally conceived, as political propaganda issued on behalf of the rulers of Wessex; expressing their desire to be regarded as the legitimate rulers of a united England.
Webster 1913's opinion that bretwalda represents an "official title applied to that one of the Anglo-Saxon chieftains who was chosen by the other chiefs" etc is, quite frankly, complete nonsense.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swanton (Phoenix Press, 2000)
- Ann Williams Kingship and Government in Pre-conquest England (Macmillan, 1999)
- Roger Collins Early Medieval Europe (Macmillan, 1999)
- N. J. Higham An English Empire: Bede and the Early Anglo-Saxon Kings (Manchester University Press, 1995)