Bretwalda: Anglo-Saxon Overlord

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One name given to rulers of large parts of territory in Anglo-Saxon England was bretwalda. The term was commonly used to describe an overlord, or someone who ruled not just his own kingdom but others as well.

Various sources list various leaders as being bretwalda. One list appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle listing for 829 describes Egbert of Wessex as "the eighth king that was bretwalda." (In fact, Egbert is the only bretwalda listed in the Chronicle, despite what a reder might infer from the entry.)

Another list appears in the writings of the Venerable Bede, who is said by many to be the "father of English History." He is most well-known for his book An Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

One of the first names to appear on several lists is Ælle of Sussex, a powerful 5th-Century warrior who is known, among other things, to have seized a Saxon Shore fort near Pevensey.

Other famous leaders who have been named bretwalda include these:

Historians do not agree on the origin or the strict meaning of the word. In fact, the words with different spellings in different sources (a not uncommon occurrence in medieval times). The other three spellings are these: bretenanwealda, brytenwalda, and brytenweald. "Bret" and "bryt" are thought to refer to Britain, although "bryt" also means king and "bryten" means wide. It's not too far of an etymological jump from "brytenweald" to "wide ruler," or ruler of a wide area, or overlord, or something similar. The idea was that this was a powerful ruler who effectively controlled a large amount of territory.

Historians generaly think that the role was largely ceremonial; in other words, the leader serving as bretwalda did not wear a special crown or otherwise behave like a high king.

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