- Canute the Great
Infobox British Royalty|Monarch
name=Canute the Great
title=King of England, Denmark, Norway and the Swedes
reign=England: 1016 - 1035 Denmark: 1018 - 1035 Norway: 1028 - 1035
Harold Harefoot(England) Harthacanute(Denmark) Magnus Olafsson(Norway)
Harald II (Denmark)
date of birth=c.985 - c.995
place of birth=
date of death= 12 November 1035
place of death=
England( Shaftesbury, Dorset)
place of burial=
Old Minster, Winchester. Bones now in Winchester Cathedral
Aelgifu of Northampton Emma of Normandy
Sweyn Knutsson Harold Harefoot Harthacanute Gunhilda of Denmark
mother=Saum-Aesa, also known as Gunnhilda
Canute the Great, 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", Polish: "Kanut Wielki") (died 12 November 1035) was a Vikingking of Englandand Denmark, and Norway, and of some of Sweden[Lawson, "Cnut", pp. 95–98.] (such as the Sigtuna[Graslund, B.,'Knut den store och sveariket: Slaget vid Helgea i ny belysning', "Scandia", vol. 52 (1986), pp. 211–238.] Swedes). His successes as a statesman, politically and militarily, and the high status he enjoyed among medieval Europe's magnates, winning a number of concessions for his people in diplomacy with the Popeand the Holy Roman Emperor, often cause modern historians to call him "Emperor of the North", [Trow, "Cnut", pp. 0-260] although this is an unofficial title.
In a letter written on a journey to Rome, after his victory over the kings of Norway and Sweden, Canute proclaims himself "king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes". [Lawson, "Cnut, p. 97.] His kingship of England, and the concomitant struggles of the kings of Denmark for preeminence within
Scandinavia, though, meant Canute held a considerable overlordship across other areas of the British Islestoo, in line with his Anglo-Saxonpredecessors,  and the leader of the strongest Vikingregime in history. Uncertain though the extent of this dominance is, we can say Canute's rule was felt by the Gall Gaidel sea-kingdoms of the Isles (possibly soon after his English conquest),  in the Sea of the Hebrides, the Kingdom of Dublin,  in Ireland, and the Ui Imhairsea-kingdom in the Irish Sea . At the height of his reign, certain Gaelickingdoms  were in clientagewith Canute too. His main aim here was to secure the western seaways, and check the might of the Earls of Orkney. [Forte, et al., "Viking Empires", pp.196-197, 201-202 & 272]
Birth and kingship
Canute was a son of the Danish king
Sweyn Forkbeard, and an heir to a line of Scandinavian rulers central to the unification of Denmark, [Trow, "Cnut", pp. 30–31.] with its origins in the shadowy figure of Harthacnut, founder of the royal house, and the father to Gorm the Old, its official progenitor. His mother's name is unknown, although the Slavic princess, Saum-Aesa, daughter to Mieszko I of Poland(in accord with the Monkof St Omer's, " Encomium Emmae" [Encomiast, "Encomium Emmae", ii. 2, pg. 18] and Thietmar of Merseburg's contemporary "Chronicon" [Thietmar, "Chronicon", vii. 39, pgs. 446-447] ), is a possibility. [Trow, "Cnut", p. 40.] Some hint at his childhood can be found in the " Flateyjarbók", a 13th century source, with a statement Canute was taught his soldiery by the chieftain Thorkell the Tall, [Trow, "Cnut", p. 44.] brother to Sigurd, Jarlof mythical Jomsborg, and the legendary Joms, at their Vikingstronghold; now thought to be a Slav(as well as Scandinavian) fortress on the Island of Wollin, off the coast of Pomerania.
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 Blackthere is a statement that Canute was 'of no great age' when he first went to war. [Douglas, "English Historical Documents", pp. 335-336] 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 massacreof 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 conquest of England in 1013/14, it may even suggest a birth date nearer 1000. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 160.] 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 says all the Vikings were of 'complete manhood' under Canute 'the king'.
A description of Canute can be found within the 13th century "
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
Vikingraids 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 the base of the army at Gainsborough, the capital of Forkbeard's regime.Fact|date=July 2008 At a turn of fortune, though, with Sweyn's sudden death, in February 1014, Canute was held to be king [Sawyer, "History of the Vikings", pp. 171] . This was not to be a simple succession though, for the Viking forces, since the use of mercenaries was common in Scandinavia, were probably short of some of their combatants, likely sent home for winter once their payments had been made. And the English nobility were loath to accept Canute's sovereignty over the kingdom.
Witan, an Anglo-Saxon high-council, there was a vote for the former king, [Sawyer, "History of the Vikings", pp. 171] Ethelred the Unready, an Anglo-Saxon of the Wessexroyal 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 Normansin 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. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 27]
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 [Sawyer, "History of the Vikings", pp. 171] . 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. [Sawyer, "History of the Vikings", pp. 171] 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. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 27]
Conquest of England
In the summer of 1015, Canute's fleet set sail for England with a Danish army of maybe 10,000, in 200 longships. [Trow, "Cnut", p. ???.] 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 Slavtroops, [Lawson, "Cnut", p. ???.] 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. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. ???.] Olof Skötkonung, son of Sigrid the Haughtyby 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 co-ruler of Norway, with his brother Svein Hakonarson, 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 son Hakon, was left to rule Norway with Svein when he went to support Canute, although at the Battle of Nesjar, in 1016, Olaf Haraldssonwon the Kingdom for himself, Hakon went to support Canute's conquest of England, and Sveinn to Sweden, in hopes to return to Norway, yet he died shortly after. 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, [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 27.] 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, with a man known as Henninge among their casualties, a brother of Thorkell's. [Trow, "Cnut", p. 57.] If this man was Canute's childhood mentor, it explains his acceptance of this ally. It seems Canute and the Jomsviking, ultimately in the service of Jomsborg, were in a very difficult relationship with each other.
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.
According to the Peterborough version of the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, early in September 1015 Canute 'came into Sandwich, and straightway sailed round Kentto Wessex, until he came to the mouth of the Frome, and harried in Dorsetand Wiltshireand Somerset'. [Garmonsway, G.N. (ed. & trans.), "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", Dent Dutton, 1972 & 1975, Peterborough (E) text, s.a. 1015, p. 146.] A passage from Emma's Encomium describes a scene when Canute made landfall in England:
Upon their disembarkment the Vikings had soon made the weight of their arm felt in Wessex, [G. Jones, "Vikings", p. 370] and stood their ground until mid-winter, with the English king in London. At this point [G. Jones, "Vikings", p. 370]
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, thought it prudent to join in with Canute and the Vikings, along with forty ships, although these were probably of the Danelawanyway. [Trow, "Cnut", p. 57.] 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.
Canute went across the Thames, at mid-winter, with no pause in bleak weather, northwards, to confront Uhtred, the
Earl of Northumbria. Like Wessex, the heartland of the Anglo-Saxon regime, Northumbriafell quickly. Its lands without their main garrisons, as Uhtred was away in Mercia with Edmund Ironside, now ruler of the Five Borough's [G. Jones, "Vikings", p. 370] , to countermand the lands of Eadric. Uhtred, with his own lands now in the hands of his enemies, thought it wise to sue for peace. He was nevertheless executed for breaking oaths of allegiance to Sweyn Forkbeard. Eiríkr Hákonarson, most likely with another force of Scandinavians, came to support Canute at this point. [Trow, "Cnut", p. 59.] He strategically left the Norwegian in control of Northumbria before his southward advance.
Ironside was effectively swept towards London, his last stronghold, and the death of Ethelred II within its walls, on 23 April, meant he was chosen as king by the populace. Canute brought his ship to London in May, and over the next few months the Vikings made their camps on the fringes of the city. He saw to the construction of dikes on the northern and southern flanks; a channel was even dug across the southern banks of the Thames for the longships to cut London off up-river. England's king, though, broke out of London before Canute's encirclement was complete, [G. Jones, "Vikings", p. 371] to gather his men, 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 Forestas 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 did actually manage to break the siege of London. With the losses on the English side too heavy though, Canute brought his forces back together, and the besiegers again lay their attentions on the steadfast walls. [G. Jones, "Vikings", p. 371] London was still held by the English though, and the escape of their king from the siege meant Canute's strategy was under threat. He apparently had to make it a priority to search for supplies, nominally amongst his allies in Mercia. At this point Eadric thought it wise to ally himself with Edmund again, now the Vikings were set to pillage his lands. Canute's men were subsequently put under attack in Mercia, with Eadric's, as well as Edmund's men now against them. At the
Battle of Brentford, Edmund fought the besiegers off their dikes on the outskirts of London, and back to their ships, on the Isle of Sheppey, in Kent. Englishmen wanton for loot went too far ahead of the main army in pursuit of the Vikings, and many lost their lives. [G. Jones, "Vikings", p. 371] The invasion force went across the estuary of the river Thames with its disembarkment in Essex.
In October the two armies came together for a final confrontation at the
Battle of Assandun, the site of which may have been either Ashingdonor Ashdon, both in Essex. Canute won this decisively. Eadric Streona betrayed his countrymen, with he and his men retreating in the heat of battle. His army beaten, Edmund, 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 manoeuvre negotiations, with a rendezvous on an island in the Severn.
Accepting defeat, the English king came to an agreement with Canute on the island of Alney, near
Gloucester, in which all of England north of the Thames was to be the domain of the Danish prince. [Williams, A., "Æthelred the Unready The Ill-Counselled King", Hambledon & London, 2003, pp. 146–7.] 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 Ironside's death on 30 November, possibly at the hands of the traitor Eadric Streona's men, yet probably as a result of his wounds after Assandun, Canute was his successor. His coronation was at Christmas, with recognition by the nobility in January the next year.
Viking, was to be one of England's most successful kings. His statesmanship, with a sure protection against raiders, 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 Islestoo. [Forte, Oram & Pedersen, "Viking Empires", pp. 198]
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. With this marriage he was able to elevate his line above the heirs of England's overthrown dynasty, in the eyes of the Normans, as well as protect himself against his enemies, with Emma and Ethelred's sons Edward the Confessorand Alfred Athelingin exile amongst their relatives. His wife held the keys to a secure English court in several ways. Canute put forward their son Harthacanuteto be his heir; his two sons from his marriage 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.
England's division amongst the four great
Earldomswas 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 might of the great Earls. Even under Canute these men were a real threat. Edmund Ironside's, as well as Canute's betrayer, Eadric Streona, was not Earl of Mercia for long. His execution, in 1017, was only a year after Canute's coronation, at Christmas, in London. [Lawson, "Cnut", p.86] Mercia went to a noble family of the Hwicce, probably to Leofwine, a survivor from Ethelred's reign, and by the 1030s, to his son Leofric, [Lawson, "cnut", p.162] whose wife was one Lady Godiva, a figure of English folklore.
The very last
Danegeldever 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 at Canute's coronation, in 1016, maybe even for the conquest, with his return to Denmark, as its king, with part of the fleet, at some point thereafter.It is only certain, though, there was an entry of his name, alongside Canute's, in a confraternity with Christ Church, Canterbury, [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 89.] 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
codexmay 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. There is evidence Canute was in battle with "pirates" in 1018, with his destruction of the crews of thirty ships, [Thietmar, "Chronicon", vii. 7, pp.502-03] although it is unknown if this was off the English or Danish shores. He himself mentions troubles in his 1019 letter (to England, from Denmark), written as the King of England and Denmark. These events can be seen, with plausibility, to be in connection with the death of Harald. Canute says he dealt with dissenters to ensure Denmark was free to assist England. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 90.] His words tell us some of what it is that the situation was:
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 affairs 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. [Forte, et al., "Viking Empires", pp. 198] 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 Inheritancein 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
sinfulrelationship, with two wives, and the harsh treatment of his fellow Christian opponents. Canute was ruler across a domain beyond any monarchs of England, until the adventures of the imperialEuropean colonies, and the empireof 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
Wendsof 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, Harthacanutewas left in his care.
When the Swedish king
Anund Jakoband 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 chessand 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.
King of Norway and part of Sweden
Eiríkr Hákonarsonwas 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 Norwegian king, and the difficulties Canute found in Denmark, as well as with Thorkell, may perhaps be best seen in relation to Norwegian pressure on the Danish lands. By the time of Olof Skötkonung's death in 1022, and the succession to the Swedish throne of his son, Anund Jacob, another opponent of Canute, there was cause for a demonstration of Danish strength in the Baltic. Jomsborg, the legendary stronghold of the Jomsvikings, thought to be on an island off the coast of Pomerania, was probably the target of Canute's expedition. [Jones, "Vikings", p.373] After his banishment from England in 1021, and the clear display of the intentions of the king of England and Denmark to dominate Scandinavian affairs, it seems Thorkell was want to reconcile himself with Canute in 1023. The alliance between the kings of Norway and Sweden, against Canute, though, meant there was soon to be war.
In a battle known as the Holy River, Canute and his men fought the Swedes and Norwegians led by the kings Olaf Haraldsson and Anund Olafsson at 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 accept an invitation to
Romefor the coronation of Conrad II as Holy Roman Emperor on 26 March 1027. In his Letter, written on the journey, he considers himself “King of all England and Denmark, and the Norwegians, and some of the Swedes” [Lawson, "Cnut", pp. 95–98.] (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, for the secureing of a peace between the kingdoms of Scandinavia.
In 1028, after his return from Rome, through Denmark, Canute set off from England with a fleet of fifty ships, [Trow, "Cnut", p.197.] 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. [Adam of Bremen, "Gesta Daenorum", ii.61, p. 120.] 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) [Lawson, "Cnut", p. ???.] . He entrusted the Earldom of Lade to the former line of earls, in Håkon Eiriksson, with Earl Eiríkr Hákonarson probably dead at this date. [Lawson, Cnut, pp. ??] Hakon was possibly the Earl of Northumbria after Erik too. [Trow, "Cnut", pp. 197.]
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 Seaand Hebrides, led to Orkneyand 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 Orkneysand the Scottish mainland, either late 1029 or early 1030. [Forte, et al., "Viking Empires", pp. 196-197]
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 Saint Olaf's illegitimate son Magnus the Good.
Journey to Rome
On the death in 1024 of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II, the
Ottonian dynastywas at an end, and with Conrad II the Salian dynastywas begun. Canute left his affairs in the north, and went to the coronation of the King of the Romans, at Easter 1027, in Rome.
On the return journey his letter of 1027, like his letter of 1019, was written to inform his subjects in England of his intentions. [Lawson, "Cnut", pp. 65-66.] It is in this letter he proclaims himself "‘king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes’". [Lawson, "Cnut, p. 97.] We must assume his enemies in Scandinavia were now at his leisure, if he was able to say this, as well as do the pilgrimage of considerable prestiege for rulers of Europe in the
Middle-Agesto the heart of Christendom.
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
palliumfor English archbishops, [Lawson, "Cnut", pp. 124-125.] 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:
'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'. [Trow, "Cnut", p. 193.] This suggests it was before the ceremonies were at an end. [Trow, "Cnut", p. 193.] It is without doubt he threw himself into his role with zest. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 125] 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 Burgundywent alongside the emperor in the imperial procession, [Forte, et al., "Viking Empires", pp. 198.] and stood shoulder to shoulder with him on the same pedestal. [Trow, "Cnut", p. 189.] Canute and the successor of Charlemagne, in accord with various sources, [Trow, "Cnut", p. 189.] 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. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 104.] Conflict in this area over past centuries was the cause for the construction of the Danevirke, from Schleswig, on the Schlei, and the Baltic Seacoast, to the marches of west Jutland, on the North Seacoast.
His visit to Rome was a triumph. In the verse of Sighvat's "Knutsdrapa" he praises Canute, his king, to be 'dear to the Emperor, close to Peter'. [Trow, "Cnut", p. 191.] In the days of Christendom, a king seen to be in favour with God could expect to be ruler over a happy kingdom. [Trow, "Cnut", p. 191.] 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:
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.
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 Haraldssonin the past tense, with his death at the Battle of Stiklestad, in 1030. It was therefore at some point after this, and the consolidation of Norway, Canute went to Scotland, with an army, [Forte, et al., "Viking Empires", pp.197-198.] and the navy in the Irish Sea, [Lawson, "Cnut". pp. 102.] in 1031, to receive, without bloodshed, the submission of three Scottish kings; Maelcolm, Maelbeth, and Iehmarc [Trow, "Cnut", pp. 197-198.] . One of these kings, Iehmarc, is Echmarcach mac Ragnaill, an Ui Imhairchieftain, and the ruler of a sea-kingdom thought to extend throughout the Irish Sea, [Forte, et al., "Viking Empires", pp. 198.] with Gallowayand the Isle of Manamong his domains. In 1036 he was to be king of Dublin. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 102.]
There is reason to believe Vikings of
Irelandwere in relations with Canute already, as they were with Sweyn Forkbeard. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 103.] A Lausavísaattributable to the skaldOttar the Black, suggests these relations were on the level of overlordship, when he greets the ruler of the Danes, Irish, English and Island-dwellers. ["Lausavisur", ed. Johson Al, pgs. 269-270] It is a possibility, though, his use of "Irish" here was meant to mean the Gall Ghaedil kingdoms, rather than the Gaelic kingdoms too. After Brian Boru's victories over Sigtrygg Silkbeard, and the Battle of Clontarf, in 1014, the Vikings were want to opt for a commercial life in Ireland, rather than one of conquest. [Ranelagh, "A Short History of Ireland", p.31] Still, when the misinformation prone Encomiast names among Canute's domains, not only England, Denmark and Norway, but also " Scotia" and " Britannia", [Encomiast, "Encomium Emmae", ii. 19, pg 34] there may be just enough evidence to suggest there is no exaggeration, here, of his lordship over the British Isles. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 103.]
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 emergent ideals of Christendom we now know as romance at court, and chivalrybetween the nobles.
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.
Canute died in 1035, at
Shaftesbury, in Dorset. He was buried in Old Minster, at Winchester. After the Norman Conquestthe new regime was keen to signal its arrival by an ambitious programme of grandiose cathedrals and castles in England. Winchester Cathedralwas built on the old Anglo-Saxonsite. Canute's bones, along with Emma of Normandy's and Harthacanute's, were set in mortuary chests. During the English Civil War, in the 17th century, plundering soldiers scattered the bones on the floor, and they were spread amongst the various chests thereafter, 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. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 98 & pp. 104-105.]
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 again in Edward the Confessor, whom Harthacanute had brought out of exile in Normandy and made treaty 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 should be remembered that the Normans themselves were of Viking descent.
Marriages and issue
Aelgifu of Northampton
Sweyn Knutsson, Viceroy of Norway
Harold Harefoot, King of England
Emma of Normandy
Harthacanute, King of Denmark and England
Gunhilda of Denmark, wed Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor.
Ruler of the waves
Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th century chronicler, tells how Canute set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes; but the tide failed to stop. According to Henry, Canute leapt backwards and said 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws'. He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again. [Forester, T. (ed. & trans.), "The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon", Bohn, 1853 (reprinted Llanerch, 1991), p. 199.]
This story may be apocryphal. While the contemporary "
Encomium Emmae" has no mention of it, it would seem that so pious a dedication might have been recorded there, since the same source gives an 'eye-witness account of his lavish gifts to the monasteries and poor of St Omer when on the way to Rome, and of the tears and breast-beating which accompanied them'. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 133.] Goscelin, writing later in the 11th century, instead has Canute place his crown on a crucifix at Winchester one Easter, with no mention of the sea, and 'with the explanation that the king of kings was more worthy of it than he'. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 134.] However there may be a 'basis of fact, in a planned act of piety,' behind this story, and Henry of Huntingdon cites it as an example of the king's 'nobleness and greatness of mind'. [Lawson, "Cnut", p. 133; Forester, , pp. 198-9.] Later historians repeated the story, most of them adjusting it to have Canute more clearly aware that the tides would not obey him, and staging the scene to rebuke the flattery of his courtiers; and there are earlier Celtic parallels in stories of men who commanded the tides, namely Saint Illtud, Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd, and Tuirbe, of Tuirbe's Strand, in Brittany. [Lord Raglan: " [http://www.jstor.org/stable/2797899 Canute and the Waves] ": "Man", Vol. 60, (Jan., 1960), pp. 7-8.]
Notes on the text
* Campbell (ed), "Encomium"
* Thietmar, "Chronicon"
* [http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/vikings_2.htm Canute the Great]
* [http://www.viking.no/e/people/e-knud.htm Canute (Knud) The Great - From Viking warrior to English king]
* [http://www.vikingworld.dk/jellinge49.htm Vikingworld (Danish) - Canute the Great (Knud den Store)]
* [http://members.aol.com/bakken1/angsax/cnutaut.htm Cnut the Great: Emperor of the North]
* [http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/T/timeteam/snapshot_cnut.html Time Team - Who was King Cnut?]
* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=8722 Canute the Great At Find A Grave]
* [http://www.northvegr.org/main.php Northvegr (Scanidinavian) - A History of the Vikings (Search)]
* [http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/Cambridge/entries/048/Canute-or-Cnut.html Canute Or Cnut from the Online Encyclopedia]
* [http://www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/danish_kings.html#svein Monarchies of Britain: Danish Kings of England]
* [http://www.imagesonline.bl.uk/britishlibrary/controller/subjectidsearch?height=3&width=1&startid=0&image.y=12&image.y=17&id=8444&image.x=26&image.x=24&image.x=12&image.y=11 Images out of the British Library]
NAME = 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
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