Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Cnut

Cnut, or to give him the name by which he is usually known in England, Canute, was King of England during the 11th century.

He is the only Dane to have been actually crowned as King of England, and also one of only two Kings of England to be known as "the Great".

Cnut was born in Denmark in 995, the son of the adventurer Sweyn Forkbeard.

He accompanied his father on his expedition to England in 1013, and when Sweyn became king after Ethelred the Unready had fled to Normandy, he was put in charge of the Danish fleet in the North.

During this period, Ethelred's elder sons, notably Edmund Ironside, remained in England and carried on guerilla warfare on behalf of the English. In 1014, Cnut strengthened his position by marrying Elfgiva, the daughter of Alfhelm, Ealdorman of Northampton until his murder some years before.

When Sweyn died suddenly in 1014, the Danish army acclaimed Cnut as the new king, but the English Witan asked Ethelred to return. Cnut retreated to the North, but was anyway more concerned with the succession in Denmark, which of course he still regarded as his homeland.

He returned to Denmark, but by this time his elder brother Harald had already established himself there as king.

Cnut came back to England, attempting to win back what his father had briefly gained. He fought against the usually ineffective forces of Ethelred and the more disciplined army of Edmund, without notable success.

Ethelred died in 1016, and was succeeded by Edmund, who strongly wished to rid England of the Danes. A series of battles, including Penselwood in Kent and Sherstone near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, were largely inconclusive.

Then at Ashingdon, near Rochford in Essex, Cnut won a decisive victory, largely due to the treachery of the notorious Edric Streona, whose great talent was for changing sides at critical moments.

After a half hearted battle at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, Cnut and Edmund met and agreed to divide the country. Under the Treaty of Olney, Edmund kept Wessex and Cnut was to rule the rest.

Within weeks, Edmund, who had been badly injured at Ashingdon, died at Oxford. The story at the time, probably true, was that he had been disembowelled from below, by Edric Streona, while on the toilet.

Cnut was now King of all England, and was crowned in 1017 at Old St. Pauls Cathedral in London.

His reign started with a certain amount of executions and banishments, as might be expected of an insecure young king barely out of his teens.

Edric Streona visited the new king, to assure him of his loyalty, and confident of receiving a reward for his help in getting rid of Edmund.

Cnut, though young and inexperienced, was no fool, and was thoroughly aware of Edric's record. He promised to raise Edric higher than any man in the land - and hanged him from a tower on London Wall.

One of his first acts was to divide England into four, giving the administration of three of the territories to Earls. Initially, he ruled Wessex directly, but in 1018 appointed Godwin as Earl. This was the start of the rise to power of the Godwin family, who even provided a later King of England, the ill-fated Harold II.

He realised that he needed to be on good terms with influential Englishmen, and cultivated friendships with Wulfstan, Archbishop of York and Lysing, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The other major political act was to marry Emma, the widow of the former king Ethelred, who seems to have been pleased to have a new

vigorous young husband. But this move, designed to cement relationships with the English and its Royal house, was not universally approved of, as Cnut was still married to Elfgiva. The arrangement seems to have worked though, with Elfgiva being his "handfast" or common-law wife, under Scandinavian custom, and Emma his formal, official one.

Under this agreement, the children of Elfgiva would be heirs to the crown of Denmark, while any children of Emma would succeed in England.

In 1018, Cnut returned to Denmark, where his brother Harald had died, and was accepted as king there.

He stayed in Denmark for a while, consolidating his position, but was obliged to return to England in 1020, as there had been a certain amount of unrest.

He held a council at Cirencester, at which he banished Ethelweard, who had been Ealdorman of the Devon area. Ethelweard had been plotting to restore the House of Wessex to the throne in the shape of Ethelred's son Edwy. Shortly afterwards, Cnut had Edwy murdered.

The following year he had an altercation with Thorkell the Tall, another Danish adventurer who had gone over to Ethelred but had accepted Cnut's rule and been made Earl of East Anglia. They argued because Thorkell felt that Cnut was being too severe on the English, and he was banished. A reconciliation in 1023, however, led to Thorkell being appointed Regent in Denmark.

After a few years, Cnut showed himself to have mellowed from a savage conqueror to a decent, pious monarch, who treated all his subjects fairly.

With Wulfstan's help, he issued a code of laws based on those of Edgar and other Saxon kings, and was able to use these same laws in Denmark.

He transferred the relics of St. Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had been murdered some years before by drunken Danish soldiers, to a new shrine at Canterbury.

He visited Edmund's tomb at Glastonbury, in an act of reconciliation. He built a new church on the site of Edmund's camp at Ashingdon, in memory of the dead of both sides.

He personally paid the expenses of English pilgrims travelling to Rome, and became a lover of music. When he visited Ely, he heard the monks singing while he was being rowed along the River Great Ouse, and composed a song for them to sing in memory of him.

The most famous story about Cnut, that of him commanding the waves to retreat, is probably true. But far from showing a foolish and arrogant king over-reaching himself, it shows an intelligent man demonstrating to sycophantic courtiers that he had no such power, and that they should live in the real world.

The site of this event is not known, but the likeliest candidates are Bosham (where the Godwin family had estates); Southampton; London; and Leigh on the estuary of the River Thames, a few miles from his great success at Ashingdon.

Cnut visited Rome twice, in 1027 and 1031. On the earlier visit, by this time a respected European monarch, he attended the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II.

From 1028, he waged a campaign to conquer Norway, and installed his eldest son Sweyn, now aged about 16, as King of Norway, with his mother Elfgiva as Regent.

In 1031, Cnut visited Malcolm II of Scotland, to form a peace alliance. Part of the agreement was that Malcolm returned Bernicia, which he had annexed during Ethelred's time, to England. This led to the borders between England and Scotland being set at roughly their position today.

At this time, three kings submitted to Cnut. They were Macbeth; Margad Ragnallson, King of Dublin, Man and the Western Isles; and Thorfinn the Mighty, Earl of Orkney.

Rhydderch ap Iestyn of Wales also swore formal allegiance at around the same time.

Cnut died in 1035. He was only 40, but seems to have been aware for several months that he was dying. He was by this time a popular ruler, and was much missed. He was buried at Winchester Cathedral, with the Saxon kings.

His son Harthacnut should have succeeded him, but was away in Denmark when his father died, so was unable to secure the succession. This allowed his half brother Harold Harefoot to usurp the throne.

Cnut had two sons by Elfgiva. Sweyn was set up by his father as King of Norway, while Harold succeeded Cnut in England. Scurrilous stories at the time suggested that Cnut was not in fact the father of either Sweyn or Harold.

There were three children from his marriage to Emma. Harthacnut eventually became King of England; Gunnhilda married the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III; and there was a daughter, whose name is not known, who died aged about 8 and was buried at Bosham.

Cnut was an excellent king, but after his death, as so often happens, misrule and anarchy set in for several years.