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Canute the Great

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Please improve this articleif you can. (November 2006) Canute the Great. King of England, Denmark, Norway and the Swedes Reign England: 1016- 1035
Denmark: 1018- 1035
Norway: 1028- 1035Predecessor Edmund Ironside(England)
Harald II(Denmark)
Olaf Haraldsson(Norway} Successor Harold Harefoot(England)
Magnus Olafsson(Norway) Spouse Aelgifu of Northampton
Emma of NormandyIssue Sweyn Knutsson
Harold Harefoot
Gunhilda of DenmarkFather Sweyn ForkbeardMother Saum-Aesa, also known as Gunnhilda Born c.985- c.995
DenmarkDied November 12, 1035
England(Shaftesbury, Dorset) Burial Old Minster, Winchester. Bones now in Winchester Cathedral

Canute the Great, or Canute I, also known as Cnut in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, or Knut (Old Norse: Knútr inn ríki, Norwegian: Knut den mektige, Swedish: Knut den Store, Danish: Knud den Store) (died November 12, 1035) was a Viking king of England and Denmark, and Norway, and of some of Sweden[1] (such as the Sigtuna[2] Swedes). His successes as a statesman, politically and militarily, and his status among medieval Europe's magnates, shown by the concessions he won in diplomacy with the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, often lead modern historians to call him the 'Emperor of the North',[3] although this is an unofficial title.

In a letter written after his defeat of the kings of Norway and Sweden, on a journey to Rome, Canute proclaims himself 'king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes'.[4] His kingship of England, and the concomitant struggles of the kings of Denmark for dominion within Scandinavia, though, meant Canute held overlordship across other areas of the British Isles too, in line with his Anglo-Saxon predecessors,[5] as well as the leader of the strongest Viking regime in history. Although the extent of this is uncertain, his rule was felt by the Gall Gaidel sea-kingdoms, with the Isles (possibly within Canute's overlordship since his English conquest),[6] in the Sea of the Hebrides, and with Dublin,[7] in the Irish Sea. At the height of his reign, certain Gaelic kingdoms,[8] and the Isle of Man,[9] were in clientage with Canute.


Birth and kingship

Canute was a son of the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard. His mother's name is unknown although the Slavic princess, Saum-Aesa, daughter to Mieszko I of Poland (in accord with the Monk of St Omer's, Encomium Emmae[10] and Thietmar of Merseburg's contemporary Chronicon[11]), is a possibility.[12] Canute, was an heir to a line of Scandinavian rulers central to the unification of Denmark,[13] with origins in the shadowy figure of Harthacnut, founder of the royal house, and the father to Gorm the Old, its official progenitor. The Flateyjarbók, a thirteenth century source, states Canute was taught his soldiery by the mercenary leader known as Thorkell the Tall,[14] brother to Sigurd, Jarl of mythical Jomsborg, and the legendary Joms at their Viking stronghold; now thought to be a Slav (as well as Scandinavian) fortress on the Island of Wollin. He was born for a life of conflict, and the successes of his reign prove his skill at leading and commanding men, on the field, and off it.

Canute's date of birth, like his mother's name, is unknown. Contemporary works such as the Chronicon and the Encomium Emmae, do not mention it. Still, in a Knutsdrapa by the skald Ottar the Black there is a statement that Canute was 'of no great age' when he first went to war.[15] It also mentions a battle identifiable with Forkbeard's invasion of England, and attack on the city of Norwich, in 1003/04, after the St. Brice's Day massacre of Danes by the English, in 1002. If it is the case that Canute was part of this, his birthdate may be near 990, or even 980. If not, and the skald's poetic verse envisages another assault, with Forkbeard's English conquest in 1013/14, it may even suggest a birth date nearer 1000.[16] There is a passage of the Encomiast's (as the author of the Encomium Emmae is known) with a reference to the force Canute lead in his English conquest of 1015/16. Here (see below) it is says all the Vikings were of 'complete manhood' under Canute 'the king'.

Cnut 'Quatrefoil' type penny with the legend CNUT REX ANGLORU (Cnut, King of England)

A description of Canute is to be found within the thirteenth century Knýtlinga saga:

Knutr was exceptionally tall and strong, and the handsomest of men, all except for his nose, that was thin, high-set, and rather hooked. He had a fair complexion none-the-less, and a fine, thick head of hair. His eyes were better than those of other men, both the handsomer and the keener of their sight.

—Knytlinga Saga[17][18]

Hardly anything is known for sure of Canute's life until the year he was part of a Scandinavian force under his father, the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard; with his invasion of England in summer 1013. It was the climax to a succession of Viking raids spread over a number of decades. The kingdom fell quickly. In the months after, Forkbeard was in the process of consolidating his kingship, with Canute left in charge of the fleet, and army base, at Gainsborough, a city of the Five Boroughs. These forces were probably short of some of their combatants, likely sent home for winter once their payments had been made, with the use of mercenaries common in Scandinavia. At a turn of fortune, with Sweyn's sudden death, in February 1014, Canute was held to be king [19].

At the Witan, England's nobility were loath to accept this. There was a vote for the former king,[20] Ethelred the Unready, an Anglo-Saxon of the Wessex royal house, to return from exile with his in-laws in Normandy. It was a move which meant Canute had to abandon England and set sail for Denmark, while the nobility of England, possibly with Normans in their forces, made the kingdom theirs once again. On the beaches of Sandwich the Vikings put to shore to mutilate their hostages, taken from the English as pledges of allegiance given to Canute's father.

On the death of Sweyn Forkbeard his eldest son, Harald, was to be King of Denmark. Canute, supposedly, made the suggestion they might have a joint kingship, although this found no ground with his brother [21]. Harald is thought to have made an offer to Canute to command the Vikings for another invasion of England, on the condition he did not continue to press his claim. Canute, if we accept this is true, did not, and had his men make the ships ready for another invasion. This one was to be final, and the forces were even greater.

Conquest of England

This runestone, U 194, in memory of a Viking known as Alli, says he won Knútr's payment in England.

In the summer of 1015, Canute's fleet set sail for England with a Danish army of 10,000 in 200 longships.[22] Among the allies of Denmark was Boleslaw the Brave. He was the Duke of Poland, and a relative to the Danish royals. He lent some token Slav troops,[23] likely to have been a pledge made to Canute and Harald when, in the winter, they "went amongst the Wends" to fetch their mother back to the Danish court after she was sent away by their father, who its seems wed another woman, to seal an alliance with the Swedish king.[24] Olof Skötkonung, son of Sigrid the Haughty by her first husband, the Swedish king Eric the Victorious, and an in-law to the royals of Denmark by Sigrid's second husband, Sweyn Forkbeard, was an ally. Eiríkr Hákonarson, was an in-law to Canute and Harald too, and Trondejarl, the Earl of Lade, and the king of Norway under Danish sovereignty. Norway was won by the Danes, with the Swedes in alliance, as well as Norwegians, at the Battle of Svolder, in 999. Erik's brother, Svein Hakonarson, was left to rule Norway when he went to support Canute, although he died at the Battle of Nesjar, in 1016, when Olaf Haraldsson won the kingdom for himself.

Thorkell the Tall, a Jomsviking chief who had fought against the Viking invasion of Canute's father, with a pledge of allegiance to the English in 1012,[25] was among Canute's retinue. Some explanation for this shift of allegiance may be found in a stanza of the Jómsvíkinga saga which mentions two attacks against Jomsborg's mercenaries while they were in England. Also, as if to add insult to injury, amongst their casualties was a man known as Henninge, who was a brother to Thorkell the Tall.[26] It is possible this man was Canute's childhood mentor, which may explain his support, as well as his acceptance. It seems Canute and the Jomsviking, ultimately in the service of Jomsborg, were in a very difficult relationship with each other.

Eadric Streona, a nobleman risen far under his king Ethelred the Unready to be the wealthy Earl of Mercia, perhaps even the richest of the English nobility, also thought it prudent to join in with Canute and the Vikings, along with forty ships, although these were probably of the Danelaw anyway.[27] England's king was under pressure, and the distresses which were a fact of his reign, given his ascension to England's throne by the ruse of assassination, were apparently too much for many of his vassals to take. In spite of his faults, the Mercian Earl was a useful ally, pivotal to any successes either side might expect, and he most definitely knew it. His, though, was a dangerous game to play in an era with such cut and thrust politics.

Canute was at the head of an array of Vikings, from all over Scandinavia. Altogether, the invasion force was to be in often close and grisly warfare with the English for the next fourteen months. Practically all of the battles were fought against Ethelred the Unready's son, and the staunchest opponent of Canute, Edmund Ironside.

Canute, as shown on the coin (see main image) with the legend CNUT REX DÆANOR (Cnut, King of Danes)

In September 1015, Canute was seen off the shore of Sandwich. The fleet went around the coast about Kent and the south of England, on the English Channel, past Cornwall, and up the Avon, on the Bristol Channel, until it got to the mouth of the Frome. There, at Bristol, the army disembarked, and the ravaging of Wessex began.[28] Canute's attack had the advantages of surprise and speed, and the Vikings made a base of the English heartland. A passage from the Encomium Emmae paints a picture of the scene which was to confront the English when they had made their landfall:

There were so many kinds of shields, that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present… Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed… who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, (who?), without feeling any fear for the king of such a force. Moreover, in the whole force there could be found no serf, no freedman, none of ignoble birth, none weak with old age. All were nobles, all vigorous with the strength of complete manhood, fit for all manner of battle, and so swift of foot that they despised the speed of cavalry.

—Encomium Emmae[29][30]

Until mid-winter the Vikings stood their ground, with the English king in London. Canute's invaders then went across the Thames, with no pause in bleak weather, through the Mercian lands, northwards, to confront Uhtred, the Earl of Northumbria, and Edmund Ironside, commander of England's army. Canute, like Wessex, the heartland of the Anglo-Saxon regime, found the Northumbrian lands without their main garrisons, as Uhtred was away with the English prince in Mercia, to countermand the lands of Eadric Streona, the Earl of Mercia. Uhtred, with his lands now in the hands of his enemies, thought it wise to sue for peace. He was though executed for breaking oaths of allegiance to Sweyn Forkbeard. Canute now brought over Eiríkr Hákonarson and strategically left the Norwegian in control of Northumbria[31]. With him were probably any mercenaries still in line to fight against the English.

In April 1016, Canute went southward with his army through the western shires to gain as much support from the English as possible, already confident in the eastern Danelaw. The fleet set sail for the Thames to lay London under siege. Edmund Ironside was effectively swept before this movement, which left London as his last stronghold. Ethelred the Unready met his death on April 23, coincidentally, leaving the now beleaguered prince as king. Over the next few months the Vikings made their camps on the city's fringes, and Canute had a canal dug through which to pull the longships and cut off the river on the far side of London. Encirclement was complete by the construction of dikes on the city's northern and southern sides.

In the summer, Edmund Ironside broke out of London to raise an army, in Wessex, and the Vikings broke off a portion of their siege in pursuit. The English were able to rally at Penselwood, in Somerset; with a hill in Selwood Forest as the likely location of their stand. The battle that was fought there did not leave any clear victor. A subsequent battle at Sherston in Wiltshire was fought over two days and again left neither side victorious.

Edmund Ironside did eventually break the siege of London. With the invaders in disarray, Canute brought the forces back together, and the besiegers again lay their attentions on the steadfast city. However, with London still held by the English, the Vikings had to make it their priority to search for supplies, nominally amongst their allies in Mercia. At this point Eadric Streona thought it wise to ally himself with his countrymen again. Canute's men were subsequently put under attack in Mercia, and with the Battle of Brentford, Edmund Ironside fought the besiegers off their dikes on the outskirts of London and back to their ships on the Isle of Sheppey, in Kent. The fleet went across the estuary, and the invasion force brought itself together again, in Essex.

In October 1016, at Assandun, on the hill of ash trees, its namesake, the two armies came together for a final confrontation; the Battle of Ashingdon. Canute won this decisively. Eadric Streona betrayed his countrymen, with he and his men retreating in the heat of battle. His army beaten, Edmund Ironside, likely to have been a casualty himself, made his escape; to be caught near the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, where there was likely to have been a final struggle made in an attempt by the English to protect their king. Canute was ultimately able to maneuver negotiations, with a rendezvous on an island in the Severn.

Accepting defeat, the king signed the Treaty of Olney with the Viking, in which all of England except for Wessex was to be the domain of the Danish prince. Its key clause was that by the death of one of the two, the other should be the one and only King of England, his sons being the heirs. It was a move of astute political sense on the part of Canute. After Edmund Ironiside's death on November 30, possibly at the hands of the traitor Eadric Streona's men, yet probably as a result of his wounds after Assandun, Canute was sole ruler. His coronation was at Christmas, with recognition by the nobility in January the next year.

Canute, a Viking, was to be one of England's most successful kings. His statesmanship brought in a prosperous era of stability. The reign of this wealthy nation, and the pedigree of his Danish heritage, meant he was eventually able to maneuver an overlordship within Scandinavia, and substantial parts of the British Isles.[32]

King of England

In July 1017, Canute married Emma of Normandy, the widow of Ethelred, and daughter of Richard the Fearless, the first Duke of Normandy. This was a move to elevate his line above the heirs of England's overthrown dynasty, as well as to protect himself against his enemies in Normandy, where Emma and Ethelred's sons Edward the Confessor and Alfred Atheling were exiles. His wife held the keys to a secure English court in several ways. Canute put forward their son Harthacanute as his heir; his two sons from his wedding to Aelgifu of Northampton, his handfast wife, were left on the sidelines. He sent Harthacanut to Denmark when he was still a boy, and the heir to the throne was brought up, as Canute was himself, a Viking.

The English shires of the 10th century

England's division amongst the four great Earldoms was a decree of Canute's kingship. These were Wessex, his personal fief, Mercia, for Eadric, East Anglia, for Thorkel, and Northumbria, for Erik. This was the basis for the system of feudal baronies, which underlay sovereignty of English rulers for centuries, while the formation of the Norman counties - stronger, yet synonymous versions of the Anglo-Saxon shires - came to countermand the political might of the great Earls. Even under Canute these men were a real threat. Edmund Ironside's, as well as Canute's betrayer, Streona, was not Earl of Mercia for long. He was executed in 1017, with a beheading; his body was left on the ground for the crows, and the head was stuck on a pole for all to see. Mercia went to a noble family of Hwicce, probably to Leofwine, and by the 1030s, to his son Leofric, who's wife was one Lady Godiva, a figure of English folklore, renown for her protest against the heavy taxes of her husband.

The very last Danegeld ever paid, a sum of 82,500 pounds, went to Canute in 1018. After their staunch resistance, as well as the fact of their mercantile wealth, 10,500 pounds was levied from the citizenry of London alone. Canute felt secure enough to allow his Vikings to return to their lands in Scandinavia with 72,000 pounds in payment for services the same year. He, with his huscarls, and the no doubt grateful earls, were left to control England.

Canute's brother Harald was possibly in England for Canute's coronation, maybe even for the conquest, with his return to Denmark, as its king, at some point thereafter. It is only certain, though, there was an entry of his name in a confraternity with Christ Church, Canterbury,[33] in 1018. This, though, is not conclusive, for the entry may have been made in Harald's absence, by the hand of Canute himself even, which means, while it is usually thought that Harald died in 1018, it is unsure if he was even alive to do this. Entry of his brother's name in the Canterbury codex may have been Canute's attempt to make his vengeance for Harald's murder good with the Church. Of course, this was maybe just a gesture for a soul to be under God's protection.

Canute mentions troubles in his 1019 letter (to England, from Denmark), written as the King of England and Denmark. These can be seen, with plausibility, to be in connection with the death of Harald. Canute says he dealt with dissentors to ensure Denmark was free to assist England.[34] The wars he fought to secure his kingship were an opportunity for some of his English subjects to prove their worth. Godwin was one notable figure; by the lengths he went to for his king in battle with his enemies, Canute thought it good to award him the earldom of Wessex, and the role of he and his family was prominent in English politics until the Norman Conquest. One of his sons was Harold Godwinson.

Through his reign, Canute brought together the English and Danish kingdoms, and the people saw a golden age of dominance across Scandinavia, as well as within the British Isles.[35] His mutilation of the hostages at Sandwich is ultimately seen to be uncharacteristic of his rule. He reinstated the Laws of King Edgar to allow for the constitution of a Danelaw, and the activity of Scandinavians at large. He also reinstituted the extant laws with a series of proclamations to assuage common grievances brought to his attention. Two significant ones were: On Inheritance in case of Intestacy, and, On Heriots and Reliefs. He strengthened the currency, initiating a series of coins of equal weight to those being used in Denmark and other parts of Scandinavia. This meant the markets grew, and the economy of England was able to spread itself, as well as widen the scope of goods to be bought and sold.

Canute was generally thought to be a wise and successful king of England, although this view may in part be attributable to his good treatment of the Church, keeper of the historic record. Either way, he brought decades of peace and prosperity to England. His numerous campaigns abroad meant the tables of Viking supremacy were stacked in favour of the English, turning the prows of the longships towards Scandinavia. The medieval Church was adept to success, and put itself at the back of any strong and efficient sovereign, if the circumstances were right for it. Thus we hear of him, even today, as a religious man, despite the fact that he was in an effectively sinful relationship, with two wives, and the executions of his fellow Christian political opponents. Canute was ruler across a domain beyond any monarchs of England, until the adventures of the imperial European colonies, and the empire of the English.

King of Denmark

Upon Sweyn Forkbeard's death, Canute's brother Harald was King of Denmark. It is thought Canute went to Harald to ask for his assistance in the conquest of England, and the division of the Danish kingdom. His plea for division of kingship was denied, though, and the Danish kingdom remained wholly in the hands of his brother, although, Harald lent to Canute the command of the Danes in any attempt he was of a mind to lead on the English throne. Harald probably saw it was out of his hands anyway. It was a vendetta that held his brother, Canute, and the Vikings driven away in spite of their conquest with Forkbeard. They were bound to fight again, on the basis of vengeance for their slight.

It is possible Harald was at the siege of London, and the King of Denmark was content with Canute in control of the army. His name was to enter the fraternity of Christ Church, Canterbury, at some point, in 1018, although it is unsure if it was before or after he was back in Denmark.

In 1018, Harold II died and Canute went to Denmark to affirm his succession to the Danish crown. With a letter written in 1019 he states his intentions to avert troubles to be done against England. It seems Danes were set against him, while an attack on the Wends of Pomerania, in which Godwin apparently earned the king's trust with a raid he led himself at night, was possibly in relation with this. In 1020 he was back in England, his hold on the Danish throne presumably stable. Ulf Jarl, his brother-in-law, was his appointee as the Earl of Denmark. Canute's son, Harthacanute was left in his care.

When the Swedish king Anund Jakob and the Norwegian king Olaf Haraldsson took advantage of Canute's absence and began to launch attacks against Denmark, Ulf gave the discontent freemen cause to take Harthacanute, still a child, as king. This was a ruse of Ulf's, since the role he had as the caretaker of Harthacanute subsequently made him the ruler of the kingdom.

When news of these events came to Canute, in 1026, he brought together his forces, and, with Ulf in line again, won Denmark supremacy in Scandinavia, at the Battle of Helgeå. This service, did not, though, earn the usurper the forgiveness of Canute for his coup. At a banquet in Roskilde, the brothers-in-law were sat at a game of chess and an argument arose between them, and the next day, Christmas of 1026, one of Canute's housecarls, with his blessing, killed Ulf Jarl, in the Church of Trinity. Contradictory evidences of Ulf's death gather doubt to these circumstances though. Evidence for the years of Canutes reign in Denmark, with his mainstay in England, is generally scanty.

Journey to Rome

On the death in 1024 of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II, the Ottonian dynasty was at an end, and with Conrad II the Salian dynasty was begun. Canute left his affairs in the north, with them in hand, and went to the coronation of the King of the Romans, at Easter 1027, in Rome. On the return journey he sent his letter of 1027, like his letter of 1019, to his subjects in England.[36] It is in this letter he proclaims himself ‘king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes’.[37] We must assume his enemies in Scandinavia were now at his leisure, if he was able to say this, as well as do the almost customary pilgrimage for rulers of Europe to the heart of Christianity, even if it was one at the invitation of the Holy Roman Empire, rather than divine inspiration.

In his letter Canute says he went to Rome to repent for his sins, pray for redemption, and the security of his subjects, as well as negotiate with the Pope for a reduction in the costs of the pallium for English archbishops,[38] and for a resolution to the competition of the archdioceses of Canterbury, and Hamburg-Bremen, for superiority over the Danish dioceses. He also sought to improve the conditions for pilgrims, as well as merchants, on the road to Rome. In his own words:

... I spoke with the Emperor himself and the Lord Pope and the princes there about the needs of all people of my entire realm, both English and Danes, that a juster law and securer peace might be granted to them on the road to Rome and that they should not be straitened by so many barriers along the road, and harassed by unjust tolls; and the Emperor agreed and likewise King Robert who governs most of these same toll gates. And all the merchants confirmed by edict that my people, both merchants, and the others who travel to make their devotions, might go to Rome and return without being afflicted by barriers and toll collectors, in firm peace and secure in a just law.

—Cnut's letter of 1027[39]

'Robert' in Canute's text is probably a clerical error for Rudolph, the last ruler of an independent Kingdom of Burgundy. Hence, the solemn word of the Pope, the Emperor, and Rudolph, was by the witness of four archbishops, twenty bishops, and 'innumerable multitutes of dukes and nobles'.[40] This suggests it was before the ceremonies were at an end.[41] It is without doubt he threw himself into his role with zest.[42] His image as the just Christian king, statesman and diplomat, and crusader against unjustness, seems to be one with its roots in reality, as well as one he sought to project.

A good illustration of his status within Europe is the fact Canute, and the King of Burgundy went alongside the emperor in the imperial procession,[43] and stood shoulder to shoulder with him on the same pedestal.[44] Canute and the successor of Charlemagne, in accord with various sources,[45] took one another's company like brothers, for they were of a similar age. Conrad gave his guest the sovereignty to lands in the Mark of Schleswig - the land-bridge between the Scandinavian kingdoms and the continent - as a token of their treaty of friendship.[46] Conflict in this area over past centuries was the cause for the construction of the Danevirke, from Schleswig, on the Schlei, and the eastern Baltic Sea coast, to the marches of west Jutland, on the North Sea coast.

His visit to Rome was a triumph. In the verse of Sighvat's Knutsdrapa he praises Canute, his king, 'dear to the Emperor, close to Peter'.[47] In the middle-ages, or even today in fact, a king seen to be in favour with God could expect to rule over a happy kingdom.[48] He was surely in a stronger position, not only with the Church, and the people, but with the alliance of his southern rivals he was able to conclude his conflicts with his rivals in the north. His letter not only tells his countrymen of his achievements in Rome, but also of his ambitions within the Scandinavian world at his arrival home:

... I, as I wish to be made known to you, returning by the same route that I took out, am going to Denmark to arrange peace and a firm treaty, in the counsel of all the Danes, with those races and people who would have deprived us of life and rule if they could, but they could not, God destroying their strength. May he preserve us by his bounteous compassion in rule and honour and henceforth scatter and bring to nothing the power and might of all our enemies! And finally, when peace has been arranged with our surrounding peoples and all our kingdom here in the east has been properly ordered and pacified, so that we have no war to fear on any side or the hostility of individuals, I intend to come to England as early this summer as I can to attend to the equipping of a fleet.

—Cnut's letter of 1027[49]

Canute was to return to Denmark from Rome, by the road he had set out, make arrangements for some kind of pact with the peoples of Scandinavia - though it is not known precisely what it is that this was, his 1019 letter says he went to Denmark to secure support for his English kingdom, and this was probably the purpose of the endeavours he alludes to through his 1027 letter - and return to England. We can only be sure there were important events on the horizon, and the fleet was probably the one he went to Norway with, to stake his claim on the throne.

King of Norway and part of Sweden

Canute the Great's domains, a northern empire of a Viking king

Earl Eiríkr Hákonarson was ruler of Norway under Canute's father, Forkbeard, and Norwegians under Erik had assisted in the invasion of England in 1015-16. Canute showed his appreciation, awarding Eiríkr the office to the Earldom of Northumbria. Sveinn, Eiríkr's brother, was left in control of Norway, but he was beaten at the Battle of Nesjar, in 1015 or 1016, and Eiríkr's son, Håkon, fled to his father. Olaf Haraldsson, of the line of Fairhair, then became King of Norway, and the Danes lost their control.

Thorkell the Tall, said to be a chieftain of the Jomsvikings, was a former associate of the new King Olav of Norway, and the difficulties Canute found in Denmark, as well as with Thurkel, were perhaps related to Norwegian pressure on the Danish lands. Jomsborg, the legendary stronghold of the Jomvikings, was possibly on the south coast of the Baltic Sea, and this may account for the attack on the Wends of Pomerania, if the Joms were on the side of Olaf, as Jomsbourg would then have been at the heart of this territory. King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden was an ally of Canute's, as well as his stepbrother. His death in 1022, though, and the succession of his son, Anund Jacob, meant the Danish domains were now threatened by the Swedes too.

In a battle known as the Holy River, Canute and his navy attacked the Swedes and Norwegians led by the allied kings Olaf Haraldsson and Anund Olafsson in the mouth of the river Helgea. 1026 is the likely date, and the apparent victory left Canute in control of Scandinavia, confident enough with his dominance to make the journey to Rome for the coronation of Conrad II as Holy Roman Emperor on March 26, 1027. In his Letter, written in Rome, he considers himself “King of all England and Denmark, and the Norwegians, and some of the Swedes”[50] (victory over Swedes suggests Helgea to be a river near Sigtuna, while Sweden's king appears to have been made a renegade, with a hold on the parts of Sweden which were too remote to threaten Canute, or even for Canute to threaten him). He also stated his intention to return to Denmark, to secure peace between the kingdoms of Scandinavia.

In 1028, after his return from Rome, through Denmark, for the arrangement of a peace treaty, Canute set off from England with a fleet of fifty ships,[51] to Norway, and the city of Trondheim. Olaf Haraldsson stood down, unable to put up any fight, as his nobles were against him, with offers of gold from Canute, and the apparent resentment for their king's tendency to flay their wives for sorcery.[52] Canute was crowned king, his was now King of England and Denmark, and Norway (he was not King of Sweden, only some of the Swedes)[53]. He entrusted the Earldom of Lade to the former line of earls, in Håkon Eiriksson, with Earl Eiríkr Hákonarson probably dead at this date.[54] Hakon was possibly the Earl of Northumbria after Erik too.[55]

Hakon, a member of a family with a long tradition of hostility towards the independent Norwegian kings, and a relative of Canute's, was already in lordship over the Isles, with the earldom of Worcester, possibly from 1016-17. The sea-lanes through the Irish Sea and Hebrides, led to Orkney and Norway, and were central to Canute's ambitions for dominance of Scandinavia, as well as the British Isles. Hakon was meant to be Canute's lieutenant of this strategic chain. And the final component was his installation as the king's deputy in Norway, after the expulsion of Olaf Haraldsson in 1028. Hakon, though, died in a shipwreck in the Pentland Firth, between the Orkneys and the Scottish mainland, either late 1029 or early 1030.[56]

Upon the death of Hakon, Olaf Haraldsson was to return to Norway, with Swedes in his army. He, though, was to meet his death at the hands of his own people, at the Battle of Stiklestad, in 1030. Canute's subsequent attempt to rule Norway without the key support of the Trondejarls, through Aelgifu of Northampton, and his eldest son by her, Sweyn Knutsson, was not a success. It is known as Aelfgifu's Time in Norway, with heavy taxation, a rebellion, and the restoration of the former Norwegian dynasty under the postumously St Olaf's son Magnus the Good.

Overlordship outside His Kingdoms

A verse from court poet, Sigvat Thordarson, recounts that famous princes brought their heads to Canute and bought peace. This verse mentions Olaf Haraldsson in the past tense, with his death at the Battle of Stiklestad, in 1030. It was therefore at some point after this, and the subsequent consolidation of Norway, Canute went to Scotland, with an army,[57] and the navy in the Irish Sea,[58] in 1031, to receive, without bloodshed, the submission of three Scottish kings; Maelcolm, Maelbeth, and Iehmarc[59]. One of these kings, Iehmarc, is Echmarcach mac Ragnaill, an Ui Imhair chieftain, and the ruler of a sea-kingdom thought to extend throughout the Irish Sea,[60] with Galloway and the Isle of Man among his domains. In 1036 he was to be king of Dublin.[61]

There is reason to believe Vikings of Ireland, were in relations with Canute already, as they were with Sweyn Forkbeard.[62] A Lausavísa attributable to the skald Ottar the Black, suggests these relations were on the level of overlordship, when he greets the ruler of the Danes, Irish, English and Island-dwellers.[63] It is a possibility, though, while the Island-dwellers were nominally Viking, this was meant to mean the Gall Ghaedil of Ireland, rather than the Gaelic kingdoms too. After Brian Boru's victories over Sigtrygg Silkbeard, and the Battle of Clontarf, in 1014, the Viking kingdoms were want to opt for a commercial life in Ireland, rather than one of conquest.[64] Still, when the misinformation prone Encomiast names among Canute's domains, not only England, Denmark and Norway, but also Scotia and Britannia,[65] there may be just enough evidence to suggest there is no exaggeration, here, of his lordship over the British Isles.[66]

Relations with the Church

Canute's actions as a Viking conqueror had made him uneasy with the Church. His ruthless treatment of the overthrown dynasty in England, as well as his open relationship with a concubine - Aelgifu of Northampton, his handfast wife, whom he kept as his northern queen when he wed Emma of Normandy, kept in the south, with an estate in Exeter - did not fit with the emergeant ideals of Christendom we now know as romance at court, and chivalry between the nobles.

Angels crown Canute as he and Emma present the Winchester Cross to the Church

It is hard to conclude if Canute's devotion to the Church came out of deep religious devotion, or merely as a means to proliferate his regime's hold on the people. It was probably a bit of a mix, with a respect for the Viking religion, especially in his personal life, as well as the desire for a respectable nationhood. Canute surely saw he was in a potentially useful state of affairs, as far as the Church could be held, with its status as the keeper of the people's health, and the state's general welfare.

His treatment of the Church could not have been kinder. Canute not only repaired all the churches and monasteries that were victims of the Viking love for plunder, and refilled their coffers, but he also built new churches, and was a patron of monastic communities. This was popular with the ecclesiastical and secular population alike.

Canute’s pilgrimage to Rome in 1027 was another sign of his dedication to the Christian faith. It is still debated whether he went to repent his sins, or to attend Emperor Conrad II’s coronation in order to improve relations between the two powers. While in Rome, Canute obtained the agreement from the Pope to reduce the fees paid by the English archbishops to receive their pallium. He also arranged with other Christian leaders that the English pilgrims should pay reduced or no toll tax on their way, and that they would be safeguarded on their way to Rome. Some evidence exists for a second pilgrimage. This one surely could be seen as an act of devotion, as well as cause for payment of respects to the Pope, after their previous discussions.

Emperor of the North

Maybe the best illustration for the use of this title is when, at the coronation of the ruler of Holy Roman Empire, Canute stood beside the emperor, as an equal, and went alongside him in the imperial procession. Canute is also known to have made an effort to emulate the styles of his southern neighbour. A now lost seal of his is thought to have been made alike to ones of the Holy Roman Emperors. It may be it was Canute's intention to rule under simlilar auspices. If his legacy did not end as abrubtly as it did, maybe the Emperors of the North, could be an appropriate reflection of the kind of title such a dynasty may have made for itself.


A thirteenth century portrait of Canute the Great. It shows him as a king of Christendom, rather than as the Viking he was. The facts of his life, at the end of an era, were forgotten by the Europe of feudalism.

Canute died in 1035, at Shaftesbury, Dorset. He was buried in the Old Minster in Winchester. After the Norman Conquest the new regime was keen to signal its arrival by an ambitious programme of grandiose cathedrals in England. Winchester Cathedral was built on an old Anglo-Saxon site. Canute's bones, along with Emma of Normandy's and Harthacanute's, were set in a mortuary chest. In the English Civil War, in the 17th century, plundering soldiers scattered the bones in the various chests along with those of other English kings and queens, such as king Edwy and his queen Elgiva, and William Rufus.

His daughter was set to marry Conrad II's son Henry III eight months after his death. [67]

On his death Canute was succeeded in Denmark by Harthacanute, reigning as Canute III. Harold Harefoot laid claim to the throne in England until his death in 1040. Harthacanute was to reunite the two crowns of Denmark and England until his death in 1042. Canute's line came to an end, although his legacy did not. The house of Wessex was to reign once more through Edward the Confessor, who Harthacanute had brought out of exile in Normandy and made peace with. It meant the throne was Edward's if he died with no legitimate male heir. Edward was crowned King, and the Norman influence at Court was on the rise: pure Viking and Anglo-Saxon influence in England was past, although it must be remembered that the Normans themselves were of Viking descent.

Marriages and issue

Family tree

Harald Bluetooth    Mieszko  Dubrawka  William  Sprota                                                             Sweyn  Gunhilda      Gunnora  Richard                                                                                            Aelgifu of Northampton  Canute   Emma of Normandy  Ethelred the Unready  Aelflaed, 1st wife       Richard  Judith                                                                                                                    Sweyn Knutsson  Harold Harefoot    Gunhilda of Denmark    Alfred Aetheling  Edmund II  Ealdgyth   Robert  Herleva                                                                                      Gytha Thorkelsdóttir+   Godwin, Earl of Wessex  Harthacanute                    Edward  Agatha  William  Matilda                                                                                                                                                          Sweyn  Harold II  Tostig    Edith  Edward the Confessor  Edgar Ætheling          Cristina                                                                                              Gyrth, Gunnhilda, Aelfgifu, Leofwine& Wulfnoth            Malcolm  Margaret                                                                                                                                      Other children   Edith of Scotland  Henry 

+Said to have been a great-granddaughter of Canute's grandfather Harald Bluetooth, but this was probably a fiction intended to give her a royal bloodline.

Popular culture

Man sanding the street in celebration of May Day 1920.
  • There is a peculiar custom of "sanding the streets" in the British town of Knutsford that is generally thought to have made its appearance in Canute's reign and continues to this day. Tradition has it that King Canute threw sand from his shoes into the path of a wedding party upon fording the River Lily. Followers of this custom continue to decorate the streets with coloured sands in patterns and pictures. The custom can be traced to the late 1600s; Queen Victoria, in her journal of 1832 recorded: "we arrived at Knutsford, where we were most civilly received, the streets being sanded in shapes, which is peculiar to this town". Today the custom generally celebrates May Day.
  • Helen Hollick. The Hollow Crown. (August 2004) William Heinemann, Random House. ISBN 0-434-00491-X; Arrow paperback ISBN 0-09-927234-2. This is a historical novel about Queen Emma of Normandy, including her second marriage to Canute.
  • Canute is referenced in the filk music song "Song of the Shield-Wall," by Ladies Malkin Grey and Peregrynne Windrider of the Society for Creative Anachronism, in which "Harald Hadrada" (see Harald III of Norway) is described as invading England "to claim Canute's crown."[68]
  • In modern days, he is perhaps most famous as the subject of a legend concerning an attempt either to turn the tide, or demonstrate the impossibility of doing so, for the benefit of fawning courtiers.
  • The famous legend of Canute commanding the tide is the subject of a song by progressive rock band Genesis. "Can-Utility and the Coastliners" is found on their 1972 studio album "Foxtrot"
  • Canute is depicted on the album cover on Thom Yorke's debut single album "The Eraser". In the picture Canute is commanding the tides but he fails.
  • Canute is played by Sting for the music video for Sting's "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You", showing the king seated on a throne in the seawater and attempting to fight the incoming waves with a sword.
  • A young Canute appears as a supporting character in the ongoing manga Vinland Saga by Yukimura Makoto. The current storyline is set in the year 1013 and focuses on Sweyn Forkbeard's invasion of England.

See also

Notes on the text

  1. ^ Lawson, Cnut, pp. 95–98.
  2. ^ Graslund, B.,'Knut den store och sveariket: Slaget vid Helgea i ny belysning', Scandia, vol. 52 (1986), pp. 211–238.
  3. ^ Trow, Cnut, pp. 0-260
  4. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 97.
  5. ^ Forte, et al., Viking Empires, p. 196.
  6. ^ Forte, et al., Viking Empires, pp. 197-198
  7. ^ Forte, et al., Viking Empires, pp. 202 & 206.
  8. ^ Forte, et al., Viking Empires, pp. 197-198 & 202.
  9. ^ Forte, et al., Viking Empires, pp. 197-198 & 202.
  10. ^ Encomiast, Encomium Emmae, ii. 2, pg. 18
  11. ^ Thietmar, Chronicon, vii. 39, pgs. 446-447
  12. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 40.
  13. ^ Trow, Cnut, pp. 30–31.
  14. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 44.
  15. ^ Douglas, English Historical Documents, pp. 335-336
  16. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 160.
  17. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 92.
  18. ^ John, H., The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, Penguin (1995), p. 122.
  19. ^ Sawyer, History of the Vikings, pp. 171
  20. ^ Sawyer, History of the Vikings, pp. 171
  21. ^ Sawyer, History of the Vikings, pp. 171
  22. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. ???.
  23. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. ???.
  24. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. ???.
  25. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 27.
  26. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 57.
  27. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 57.
  28. ^ Swanton, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Peterborough (E) text, s.a. 1015, pp. 143–144.
  29. ^ Trow, Cnut, pp. 55–56.
  30. ^ Campbell (tr.), Encomium Reginae, ii 4, p. 21.
  31. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 59.
  32. ^ Forte, Oram & Pedersen, Viking Empires, pp. 198
  33. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 89.
  34. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 90.
  35. ^ Forte, et al., Viking Empires, pp. 198
  36. ^ Lawson, Cnut, pp. 65-66.
  37. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 97.
  38. ^ Lawson, Cnut, pp. 124-125.
  39. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 193.
  40. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 193.
  41. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 193.
  42. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 125
  43. ^ Forte, et al., Viking Empires, pp. 198.
  44. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 189.
  45. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 189.
  46. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 104.
  47. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 191.
  48. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 191.
  49. ^ Trow, Cnut, p. 193.
  50. ^ Lawson, Cnut, pp. 95–98.
  51. ^ Trow, Cnut, p.197.
  52. ^ Adam of Bremen, Gesta Daenorum, ii.61, p. 120.
  53. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. ???.
  54. ^ Lawson, Cnut, pp. ??
  55. ^ Trow, Cnut, pp. 197.
  56. ^ Forte, et al., Viking Empires, pp. 196-197
  57. ^ Forte, et al., Viking Empires, pp.197-198.
  58. ^ Lawson, Cnut. pp. 102.
  59. ^ Trow, Cnut, pp. 197-198.
  60. ^ Forte, et al., Viking Empires, pp. 198.
  61. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 102.
  62. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 103.
  63. ^ Lausavisur, ed. Johson Al, pgs. 269-270
  64. ^ Ranelagh, John O'Beirne (2001). A Short History of Ireland. Cambridge University Press, 31. ISBN 0521469449
  65. ^ Encomiast, Encomium Emmae, ii. 19, pg 34
  66. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 103.
  67. ^ Lawson, Cnut, p. 98 & pp. 104-105.
  68. ^ Wychwood Warriors' Wiki, song lyric


  • Campbell (ed), Encomium
  • Forte, A. (2005), Viking Empires (1st ed.), Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-82992-5 
  • Lawson, M. K. (2004), Cnut: England's Viking King (2nd ed.), Stroud: Tempus, ISBN 0-7524-2964-7 
  • Sawyer, P. (1997), The Oxford Ils. History of the Vikings (1st ed.), Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-820526-0 
  • Swanton, Michael, ed. (1996), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, New York: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-92129-5 
  • Thietmar
  • Trow, M. J. (2005), Cnut: Emperor of the North, Stroud: Sutton, ISBN 0-7509-3387-2 

External links

Canute the Great Born: c. 995Died: 1035Regnal titles Preceded by
Edmund IronsideKing of England
1016-1035Succeeded by
Harold HarefootPreceded by
Harald IIKing of Denmark
1018-1035Succeeded by
HarthacanutePreceded by
Olaf the SaintKing of Norway
with Hákon Eiríksson(1028-1029)
Sveinn Alfífuson(1030-1035) Succeeded by
Magnus the Good
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(except *) Harald Fairhair · Eric Bloodaxe · Haakon the Good · Harald Greycloak · Haakon Sigurdsson* · Olaf Tryggvason · Eiríkr Hákonarson(R)* & Sveinn Hákonarson(R)* & Hákon Eiríksson(R)* · Sweyn Forkbeard*†§ · Olaf the Saint · Hákon Eiríksson(R)* · Canute the Great*†§ · Sveinn Álfífuson · Magnus the Good† · Harald Hardrada · Magnus Haraldsson · Olaf Kyrre · Haakon Magnusson& Magnus Barefoot · Olaf Magnusson · Eystein Magnusson · Sigurd the Crusader · Magnus the Blind · Harald Gille · Sigurd Munn · Eystein Haraldsson · Inge Haraldsson · Haakon Herdebrei · Magnus Erlingsson · Sverre Sigurdsson · Haakon Sverresson · Guttorm Sigurdsson · Inge Bårdsson · Haakon Haakonsson · Magnus the Law-mender · Eric Magnusson · Haakon V MagnussonHouse of BjelboMagnus Ericsson‡ · Haakon VI Magnusson‡ · Olaf IV Haakonsson† The Kalmar unionMargaret†‡ · Eric of Pomerania†‡ · Christopher of Bavaria†‡ · Charles IHouse of Oldenburg
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PersondataNAME Canute the Great ALTERNATIVE NAMES Canute I; Cnut SHORT DESCRIPTION English monarch DATE OF BIRTH circa 995 PLACE OF BIRTH Denmark DATE OF DEATH 1035 PLACE OF DEATH England
Categories: Danish monarchs | English monarchs | Norwegian monarchs | Viking Age monarchs | Anglo-Norse monarchs | 995 births | 1035 deaths | British people of Polish descentHidden categories: Cleanup from November 2006 | All pages needing cleanup

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