Cnut the Great

Cnut, or Canute, 1000 years on

For many people, knowledge of British history is an awareness of the Romans, the Norman invasion and its aftermath, and then more recent history from the War of the Roses and the Tudors onward. There are surprisingly few English monarchs who are household names from before the Norman Invasion – perhaps Alfred the Great, Æthelred the Unready and Edward the Confessor – and the three Edwards who were kings of England before 1066 do not get postnominals; Edward I was actually the fourth King Edward to rule England.

However, among the household names is Canute, or Cnut, who was king of not just England, but of Denmark and Norway too. Æthelred the Unready’s reign had been interrupted by the King of Norway – Sweyn Forkbeard – the son and heir of Harald Bluetooth, the man after whom the modern technology was named, and Sweyn briefly ruled England. Sweyn had died two years before, and his son, Cnut, became king of Denmark. Cnut continued his father’s attempt to conqueror England, and with the aid of Bolesław I the Brave, Duke of Poland, who provided some Polish troops, Cnut set sail for England in 1015 in 200 longships. Wessex fell in 1015, and Cnut continued across England. When Æthelred died on St George’s Day 1016 – 600 years to the day before the death of Shakespeare – his son, Edmund II, known as Edmund Ironside, became king. Cnut had besieged London, and his peace agreement was that Cnut would rule the north of England and Edmund the south until Edmund’s death. Edmund’s reign was only to last until November. He was king from St George’s Day until St Andrew’s Day. Cnut inherited the remainder of England, and a thousand years ago, on 6th January 1017, he was crowned king.

Cnut married Emma of Normandy, widow of Æthelred. Emma’s sons by Æthelred, Edward the Confessor and Alfred Atheling, went in to exile. In 1018, Cnut became king of Denmark in addition to being king of England. In 1028, Cnut sailed for Norway and arrived in Trondheim with 50 ships. There was no fight, and Cnut was crowned king of England, Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden.

Cnut’s reign is remembered as a successful time for England, with the rule of law being imposed and the currency becoming stronger, with new coins being introduced. He ruled England for 19 years before his death in 1035, a long reign in the eleventh century. On his death, his son Harthacnut became king. However, Harthacnut could not leave Denmark as he was fighting Magnus of Norway, and his brother, Harald I, or Harald Harefoot, became king of England in his absence. It was an uneasy situation with Harald initially ruling the north, and his mother, Emma, ruling the south with Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Harald through force took control of all of England, and ruled until his death in 1040. His brother, Harthacnut, took up the kingship and returned to England, but died in June 1042. Edward the Confessor, his half brother, had been at least helping with ruling the Kingdom for the year before Harthacnut’s death and became king in 1042. Harald II, or Harald Godwinson, famous for succeeding Edward and losing the Battle of Hastings, was the son of Godwin of Wessex, and Edward had married Godwin’s daughter.

As well as being famous for being a successful king of England, Denmark and Norway, Cnut is also remembered – normally as Canute – as unsuccessfully commanding the tide to turn back. The story was made famous by Henry of Huntingdon, who wrote about it in the twelfth century. In his tale, Canute set his throne on the beach and commanded the tide to turn back and not to wet his feet or robes. The tide, of course, kept coming. Cnut commented that even the power of the king was inferior to the power of God. The phrase “to hold back the tide” or similar versions is still in use. The story even made it as far as the 1972 Genesis album, Foxtrot, in the song Can-Utility and the Coastliners.

1000 years after his coronation, Cnut, or Canute, is still a household name. A remarkable feat.