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Representation of Cnut the Great.     Source: Nomad_Soul / Adobe Stock

Cnut the Great: the Myth, the Man, and the Multi-National Viking Monarch

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Cnut Sweynsson, known also as Cnut the Great (sometimes spelled as Canute), was the ruler of England, Denmark, Norway, and parts of Sweden. His realm is often referred to as the North Sea Empire, or the Anglo-Scandinavian Union and Cnut was one of the most powerful rulers in Europe during the 11 th century. Cnut was also a successful ruler and in firm control of the disparate parts of his empire. After his death, however, the North Sea Empire quickly disintegrated. It is often forgotten that the Danes ruled England, as it is overshadowed by another foreign invasion, i.e. the Norman Conquest, which occurred several decades after Cnut’s death.

Cnut the Great was born between 985 and 995 AD. His father was Sweyn Forkbeard , although the identity of his mother is not entirely clear. According to most medieval sources, Cnut’s mother was the daughter of Mieszko I of Poland. In a few of these sources, Cnut’s mother is not named, whilst in others, she is called Gunhild. There is also a claim that Cnut’s mother was Sigrid the Haughty, a former Swedish queen whom Sweyn married after the death of her husband.

King Cnut mosaic, Knutsford, England. Knutsford was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Cunetesford ("Canute's ford").  (Image: CC BY- SA 2.0)

King Cnut mosaic, Knutsford, England. Knutsford was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Cunetesford ("Canute's ford").  (Image: CC BY- SA 2.0 )

Sweyn Forkbeard, Prominent Viking and Father of Cnut The Great

In comparison to his wife, more can be said about Sweyn and his deeds. Cnut’s father was a prominent Viking warrior, and came to power in Denmark in 986 AD, following the death of his own father. In 1000, Sweyn defeated and killed Olaf I Trygvessön, the king of Norway. The kingdom was then divided between the Danes and the Swedes , who were their allies. In 1013, shortly before his death, Sweyn conquered England as well. It was Sweyn who created the North Sea Empire. Following his death, however, the empire that he built disintegrated, as Denmark, Norway, and England came under the rule of different kings. In Denmark, one of Sweyn’s sons, Harald II, inherited the throne. In Norway, Sweyn was succeeded by Olaf II, whilst Aethelred II the Unready became the king of England.

Following the death of his father, Cnut was placed in charge of the Danish troops at Gainsborough, England. Little is known about Cnut’s early life. In fact, he seems to have been an insignificant figure until 1013. In that year, Sweyn invaded England and Cnut accompanied his father on the expedition. As Sweyn continued his campaign around the country, Cnut was left at Gainsborough where he commanded the remainder of the army. When Sweyn died, the Danish army proclaimed Cnut as the new king of England. The English nobles, however, chose to restore Aethelred to the throne.

Cnut the Great illustrated in an initial of a medieval manuscript. (Public Domain)

Cnut the Great illustrated in an initial of a medieval manuscript. (Public Domain )

Aethelred’s Return and Cnut’s Plans for Revenge

After his defeat by Sweyn, Aethelred had fled to Normandy where he lived in exile. When Aethelred received news that his nobles wanted him back as king, he immediately raised an army and sailed to England. Aware that his forces were not sufficient to oppose Aethelred, Cnut abandoned England and returned to Denmark with his men. As the Danes sailed past Sandwich, Cnut killed the hostages given to his father as pledges of support from the local nobles and left them on the beach. This was meant to serve as a message to the English that oath-breakers would be severely punished. A few years after this humiliating retreat, Cnut would have his revenge on the English.

When Cnut returned to Denmark, the kingdom was under the rule of his brother, Harald. Initially, Cnut suggested that the two brothers rule Denmark jointly. Harald, unsurprisingly, did not find this proposition attractive and instead offered Cnut support for an invasion of England, on the condition that he renounced his claim to the throne of Denmark. Cnut accepted his brother’s offer. By 1015 Cnut had assembled a large army of approximately 10000 men in total and was prepared to launch his invasion. Amongst the men who joined Cnut’s expedition were Erik Hakonarson who was Cnut’s Norwegian brother-in-law, Thorkell the High, a powerful mercenary chief, and Eadric Streona, the ealdorman of Mercia. The latter two joined Cnut shortly after the Danes landed in England.

Cnut first landed in Wessex, which he easily occupied. He then attacked and seized Northumbria, executing the ealdorman, Uhtred, for breaking his oath to Sweyn after the latter’s death. The Danes continued their conquest of England in the months that followed. In April 1016, they sailed into the Thames, and besieged London. Aethelred died during the siege, and was succeeded by his son, Edmund Ironside. At the Battle of Assandun in October, the English were defeated by the Danes, and Edmund was forced to negotiate with Cnut. As a result, England was divided between them with Edmund controlling Wessex, and Cnut ruling the rest of the country. When Edmund died in January the following year, Cnut became the sole ruler of England.

Cnut Secured His Position by Marrying Aethelred’s Widow

In order to secure his position, Cnut acted swiftly and ruthlessly. As he still mistrusted the English nobles after their betrayal in 1013, Cnut seized their estates and gave them to his soldiers. This served as a reward for their participation in the expedition and ensured that the new landowners remained loyal to him. Erik, for instance, was given the earldom of Northumbria, whereas Thorkell received East Anglia . Furthermore, Cnut ordered the execution of English nobles whose loyalty he suspected such as Eadwig, the brother of Edmund. Cnut intended to kill Edmund’s infant sons, although they managed to escape and found refuge in Hungary.

Depiction of Cnut battling Edmund Ironside at the Battle of Assandun, with King Cnut on the right. 14th Century manuscript - Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College. (Public Domain)

Depiction of Cnut battling Edmund Ironside at the Battle of Assandun, with King Cnut on the right. 14 th Century manuscript - Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College. ( Public Domain )

Once Cnut’s position as king of England was assured, he turned out to be quite a capable ruler. He divided England into four great earldoms – Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. This system of territorial lordships served as the basis of English government in the centuries that followed. Cnut’s administration of England gradually came to rely less on his Scandinavian followers, and more on his native English subjects, such as the earldoms of Wessex and Mercia which were back in the hands of the English by 1018. In the same year, most of Cnut’s fleet had been paid off, and an agreement was reached between the Danes and the English at Oxford.  

Cnut also made other notable contributions to England. For instance, he issued two complementary law codes. Although these laws were based on the ones passed by Edgar the Peaceful, they were reformed. In addition, a number of new laws were added.

Under Danish rule, England prospered economically. In the decades prior to Cnut’s arrival , constant Viking raids and internal social disorder crippled the English economy. Cnut brought internal stability to England, and protected the country from Viking raids, which was not too difficult a task, considering that most of the raiders were under his command.     

The New King of Denmark and Norway

Not long after becoming the sole ruler of England, Cnut became the king of Denmark as well. Cnut’s brother, Harald, died in 1018 and left no heirs. With the help of English troops, Cnut secured his throne. Since it was impossible for Cnut to be in England and Denmark simultaneously, he appointed Ulf Jarl, his brother-in-law, as earl of Denmark, essentially the kingdom’s caretaker. Cnut believed he had a firm grip on Denmark, and even placed his son, Harthacnut, the heir to the Danish throne , in the care of Ulf. Cnut’s absence from Denmark, however, eventually encouraged the Swedes and Norwegians to attack the kingdom. At the same time, Cnut’s absence was causing growing discontent amongst the Danes. Ulf seized the opportunity to convince the Danish freemen to elect Harthacnut, who was still a child, as the new king. As regent, Ulf was the most powerful person in Denmark.

The North Sea Empire of Cnut the Great, c. 1030. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The North Sea Empire of Cnut the Great, c. 1030. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

When Cnut received news of the situation in Denmark, he left England to sort out the mess. In 1026, Cnut defeated the Swedes and Norwegians at the Battle of Helgeå. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle , however, the battle took place in 1025 and the Danes were defeated. Despite the varying truths, Cnut was supported during the battle by Ulf, who had returned to his side. Their story continues with a banquet held on Christmas Eve. Cnut was playing a game of chess with Ulf when an argument broke out between the two men. The next day, Cnut commanded one of his housecarls to murder Ulf in the Trinity Church (which later became Roskilde Cathedral). It is unclear whether Cnut had Ulf killed because of the previous night’s disagreement, or because he had never truly forgiven Ulf for his betrayal.

Cnut’s next target was Norway. He began the conquest of this kingdom from within, by fomenting discontent amongst the Norwegians against their king. By 1028, Cnut was in Norway and the Norwegian king, Olaf II Haraldsson , was unable to put up a fight, since his own people opposed him. As stated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cnut went to Norway from England with 50 ships manned by the English and succeeded in removing Olaf from his kingdom.

Cnut the Great, Christian Patron or Pagan?

Cnut left Norway in the hands of Hakon Eriksson, the son of Erik Hakonarson. Interestingly, in 1027, when Cnut was returning from Rome after attending the coronation of Conrad II, the Holy Roman Emperor, he sent a letter to his English subjects and referred to himself as king of all England, Denmark, the Norwegians and some of the Swedes.

Cnut’s journey to Rome is said to show that he was a Christian monarch , a status which he further demonstrated by being a generous patron of the Church. It is unclear, however, whether Cnut’s patronage was the result of his faith, or if it was a means for him to achieve greater political power. Perhaps both. His friendly relations with Conrad, would hardly have been unlikely if Cnut had not been a Christian.

Winchester cathedral where the remains of Cnut the Great lie buried (danieldep /Adobe Stock)

Winchester cathedral where the remains of Cnut the Great lie buried ( danieldep /Adobe Stock)

After the conquest of England, Cnut repaired all the churches and monasteries that were looted by his army. He also built new churches and monasteries and bestowed generous gifts and priceless relics on the Church in England. Cnut’s generosity not only benefitted the English Church, but also his English subjects who were travelling from England to Rome on a pilgrimage. Thanks to the arrangements made by Cnut with other Christian rulers during his stay in Rome, English pilgrims enjoyed a reduced toll tax (or no tax at all in some places) and were safeguarded on their way to Rome.

Some of Cnut’s actions, however, were not Christian, such as his open relationship with a concubine, the execution of Christian nobles after his conquest of England, and his tolerance of paganism, since many of his Vikings who fought for him still followed the Norse religion.

The ultimate example of Cnut’s Christian piety is seen in the in a well-known legend known as ‘Cnut and the Waves’. The original story is found in the 12 th century Historia Anglorum , written by Henry, the archdeacon of Huntingdon. In this tale, Cnut ordered a chair to be placed on the seashore as the tide was coming in. The king sat on his chair, claimed the title of overlord of the sea, and commanded the waves to stop invading his land. The sea paid no heed to the king, and the waves continued coming in, drenching Cnut’s legs. The king jumped back, declaring that the power of earthly kings was empty, and that only He who commanded heaven, earth, and the sea was worthy to be called a king. From that day onwards, Cnut never wore his crown, but placed it on a Crucifix. The legend has been retold many times over the centuries, sometimes with new details added. In some versions, Cnut is said to have done this in order to rebuke the flattery of his courtiers.

“Canute Reproving His Courtiers,” etching by R.E. Pine 1848 (Public Domain)

“Canute Reproving His Courtiers,” etching by R.E. Pine 1848 ( Public Domain )

Cnut is remembered today as a good ruler, thanks in part to the fact that history during the Middle Ages was mainly written by those affiliated with the Church, so Cnut’s generosity towards this institution kept him in their good books. Yet, Cnut was probably a genuinely capable ruler, especially when compared to his successors.

Following his death in 1035, the North Sea Empire that Cnut created was divided amongst his sons. None of them, however, were as formidable as their father, and failed to maintain their inheritance. As a result, England, Denmark, and Norway fell into the hands of other dynasties less than a decade after Cnut’s death.

Top image: Representation of Cnut the Great.     Source: Nomad_Soul / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

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