The terms 'Witan' and 'Witenagemot' are increasingly avoided by modern historians, although few would go as far as Geoffrey Hindley, who described 'witenagemot' as an "essentially Victorian" coinage. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England prefers 'King's Council', but adds that it was known in Old English as the 'witan'. John Maddicott regarded the word witan with suspicion, even though it is used in sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
But the word carries with it, however unjustifiably, a fustian air of decayed scholarship, and, in addition, its use may seem to prejudge the answer to an important question: do we have here an institution, a capitalized 'Witan', as it were, or merely a lower-case ad hoc gathering of the wise men who were the king's councillors?
For these reasons, in his study of the origins of the English parliament, he generally preferred the more neutral word 'assembly'. He described 'witena gemot' as a rare eleventh century usage, with only nine pre-Conquest examples, mainly in the crisis of 1051-52. Patrick Wormald was also sceptical, describing 'witena-gemot' as "a word always rare and unattested before 1035".
The exact nature of the witenagemot remains "essentially vague, fluctuating, and incoherent." Nevertheless, there is much direct evidence of the witan's various activities. Knowledge about who made up the witan and who was present at their meetings is provided mainly by lists of witnesses to charters, or grants of land, which were concocted at the witenagemots. Reference to the witan's acta or official decisions are also preserved in law codes.
The first recorded act of a witenagemot was the law code issued by King Æthelberht of Kent ca. 600, the earliest document which survives in sustained Old English prose; however, the witan was certainly in existence long before this time. Altogether, about 2000 charters and 40 law codes survive which attest to the workings of the various meetings of the witan, of which there are around 300 recorded.
These documents clearly indicate that the witan was composed of the nation's highest echelon of both ecclesiastical and secular officers. Present on the ecclesiastical side were archbishops, bishops, and abbots, and occasionally also abbesses and priests; on the secular side ealdormen (or eorls in the latter centuries) and thegns. Members of the royal family were also present, and the king presided over the entire body.
In his investigation into Anglo-Saxon institutions, H. M. Chadwick wrote: