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King Canute

Winchester Cathedral

The ninth century Saxon king Alfred the Great had fought a long war against Danish invaders, between 870 and his death sometime around the year 900. Alfred the Great's success was both to resist the Danes, and also to find a way of living with them. He helped negotiate the division of England into Saxon territory in the west, and Danish territory, known as the Danelaw, in the east. Alfred's son and successor Edward the Elder, conquered all Danish territory south of the Humbar. His successor Athelstan defeated a coalition of Celtic and Norse people around 937 at the battle of Brunanburh. Following Brunanburh Athelstan also conquered Northumbria from Eric Bloodaxe. After all these years of struggle, Edgar the Peaceable took the throne of Wessex in 959. Then in a crucial symbolic gesture Edgar the Peaceable was rowed down the river Dee by eight regional kings as a sign of their submission to his overall power. It was in this period that England came into being. A tenth century chronicler said "Britain is now called England (Engla land)". Communities within the country still thought of themselves as separate, but there now existed the over-arching idea of one country.

Almost immediately, however, the fledgling country seemed to fall apart. A new wave of Norse offensives began, with attacks in 1003, and 1014. The early part of this period saw Ethelred the Unready struggling with these new invasions. Ethelred was not the most impressive of kings. He made many futile attempts to buy the Scandinavians off, before characteristically lashing out at his own people in frustration. Following hundreds of years of invasion, and eventual co-existence, Danes were established in England, particularly in the east. Even though the Danish community had shown no likelihood of rebellion, 1002 saw Ethelred give the desperate order that all Danes living in England were to be killed. This caused a general Danish rising, and brought retribution from Denmark. In 1003 Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark landed in the Humbar, drove Ethelred into exile, and took over the country.



The Thames, scene of Canute's election

Sweyn was only King of England for a few weeks. He died on 3rd February 1014. The Danish fleet in the Thames then elected Sweyn's son Knutr, variously spelt Cnut or Canute, as king. The English ruling council, or Witan deciding it was better to stick with the devil you know, wrote to Ethelred and implored him to return. Ethelred, characteristically, did not return himself, but instead sent his youngest son Edward back to face the dangers of the situation. Once it seemed clear that there was still support for Ethelred in England, Ethelred himself led an expedition to the east of the country. Taken by surprise Canute took to his ships and decided to head back to Denmark for reinforcements. Ethelred finding no Danes to fight took out his frustration, as usual, on his own people, ravaging the province of Lindsey which had given support to Canute.


Ethelred's eldest son Edmund now took over effective authority, while his ailing father took refuge in London. In 1016 Edward led resistance to Canute who had now returned with his additional soldiers. When Ethelred died on 23rd April 1016, Edmund was proclaimed king, but only in London. The Witan meeting in Southampton, home of the Danish fleet, now had little choice but to declare for Canute. Edmund led a vigorous resistance, earning the name "Ironside" before being defeated at Ashington in Essex on 18th October 1016. Edmund fled west and tried to continue the struggle, his doggedness reminiscent of Alfred struggling against the Scandinavians two centuries before. Edmund's continued defiance forced Canute into negotiation. The two kings met on an island in the river Severn at Athelney near Gloucester. Here England was carved up between them. Edmund was given Wessex while Canute had everything else. Since the time of Alfred things had come full circle. Once again Wessex was the last Saxon kingdom holding out against the Danes. Then, unexpectedly Edmund died, on 30th November 1016, perhaps from wounds suffered at Ashington. He was buried at Glastonbury Abbey, beside his grandfather Edgar the Peaceable. Edmund's death left Canute as ruler of all England.


Canute now went through one of those transformations you often see in soap operas. A new character comes in, bristling and fearsome, and slowly changes into a cuddly and much loved national institution. This is what happened to Canute. Initially he was certainly a feared figure. When forced to retreat following Ethelred's return in 1014, Canute paused long enough to send ashore a number of English hostages minus their ears, noses and hands. But from this unpromising beginning, Canute turned out to be a very pleasant surprise for England. As early as 1018, in only his second year as king, Canute was telling his subjects that he wanted to rule as Edgar the Peaceable did. He worked to reinstate Edgar's law codes, and turned enthusiastically to Christianity.




Canute now split England into four earldoms; Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. The famous story of Canute trying to keep back the sea was supposedly a demonstration of the limits of a king's power, and the necessity of relying on his earls to help rule the four kingdoms. Canute's reign, like that of his new hero Edgar the Peaceable, is distinguished by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle having little to say about it. No news is good news, and the lack of comment is a sign that England was peaceful at this time. Unpleasantness such as the elimination of professional traitor Eadric Streona, was dealt with promptly. In 1017 the cost of Canute's campaign of conquest was met with a final demand that England pay £72,000. This money was paid with the assurance that no more money would be asked for, and that in the future Canute would rule fairly. This he did.

The most endearing documents surviving from Canute's reign are letters he sent home to his councilors during trips abroad. They tell friends back home that he is doing well, and that he is thinking of them and their interests. This is the opening of a letter written in Denmark, around 1019 - 1020:

"King Cnut greets in friendship his archbishops and his diocesan bishops, and Earl Thorkel and all his earls, and all his people, whether men of twelve hundred wergild, or a two hundred, ecclesiastic and lay, in England." (Quoted in The Saxon Kings by Richard Humble P163- 164)


The generosity of the greeting, to rich and not so rich, to churchmen and lay people, is beguiling. A highpoint of Canute's reign was a journey to Rome in 1027 to attend the coronation of the new emperor Conrad. As usual Canute wrote one of his letters home. In it he describes how well he is received by European leaders, and what lovely gifts he has been given. He describes a conversation in which he argued for better safeguards for pilgrims travelling in Europe. But the letter is careful not to brag. It is written in the spirit of wanting England to share in his success:

"But I send ahead this letter in order that all the people of my kingdom may be gladdened at my success, because as you yourselves know, I have never spared - nor will I spare in the future - to devote myself and my toil for the need and benefit of all my people." (Quoted Humble P 171)

So, in a peaceful, un-newsworthy fashion Canute's rule passed, the king dying on 12th November 1035. A mortuary chest containing his remains can still be seen at Winchester Cathedral. Coins from Canute's reign can be seen at the British Museum.

Canute was succeeded by his two sons, Harold and then Harthacnut.




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