Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Harthacnut

Harthacnut, sometimes now referred to as Hardicanute, had a brief reign in the 11th century.

He was born in 1018, the son of Cnut and Emma of Normandy, and was designated his father's heir.

When Cnut died, however, in 1035, Harthacnut was in Denmark, and an arrangement was made that his half-brother Harold Harefoot would act as regent for the time being, with the assistance of Emma and Earl Godwin.

The situation in Denmark was more difficult than anticipated, with the country under attack by Magnus of Norway, and Harthacnut was obliged to stay there longer than he had thought.

In the meantime, Harold seized the throne in 1037, and had himself crowned in his own right, banishing his stepmother Emma.

In 1040, Harold died, very likely by poisoning. As it happened, Harthacnut was already on his way to reclaim his kingdom, and had reached Bruges, where his mother was living. He sailed to England with a large fleet of 60 ships and landed at Sandwich. He was unanimously accepted as king, by a people who were very glad to be rid of Harold, and was crowned at Canterbury Cathedral.

Harthacnut's treatment of Harold was particularly vindictive. He had Harold's body exhumed from the old Westminster Abbey, beheaded and thrown into the marshes by the River Thames.

Harthacnut is not remembered for much, but he did raise huge amounts in taxes, at four times Cnut's rates, to pay for his fleet.

This led to a rebellion at Worcester in 1041, which was put down so viciously as to almost destroy the city.

It is also the basis for the story of Lady Godiva, said to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry to convince her husband Earl Leofric to repeal taxes. The story is just a story, but Leofric and Godiva were real historical people, and Harthacnut's taxes were much hated.

Harthacnut also ordered the murder of Eadulf, Ealdorman of Northumbria, which further alienated him from the English nobility.

His only positive action was to recall his elder half-brother Edward, the son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma, to be his heir.

Harthacnut died while drinking at a wedding feast at Lambeth in London in 1042. He was said to have suffered a fit, but again there is a strong probability of poison.

If the English despised and hated Harold, they loved Harthacnut even less. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle declared that "he never did anything worthy of a king while he reigned", so the reinstatement of the English line in the person of Edward was widely welcomed.

Harthacnut, who was only 24 when he died, had never married and was childless. He was buried with his father at Winchester Cathedral.