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Sunday, 15 December 2013

Cnut the Great

Cnut the Great or Canute (c. 985 or 995 – 1035) was the son of sea-king Sweyn Forkbeard, also reputed to be a member of the Jomsburg Vikings, a military outfit of mercenary warriors with a fortress based in today's Poland. There is still some dispute among historians over the existence of the Jomsvikings.

Canute's mother was Gunhild of Poland. Her own mother had been abducted from a religious house and married to the first Duke of Poland, Prince Mieszko I, who christianized Poland. Canute's father remained pagan all his life.

As a youth he accompanied his father on his invasion of England. Canute was left in charge of his fleet at Gainsborough, Lincolnshire.

Cnut invaded England in 1015 with 200 longboats and an army of 20,000 men and battled with Edmund Ironside. Over the next few months, Canute conquered most of England, and Edmund joined King Æthelred to defend London, but Æthelred died in April 1016, making Edmund King. It

Canute was offered the English throne in 1016 after defeating Edmund Ironside at Ashingdon in Essex. He was crowned King of England on January 6, 1017.

Medieval impression depicting Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut (right)

Canute travelled round the country with his staff of secretaries, scribes and legal advisors. He was the first king to do.

In 1018, Camute succeeded his brother, Harold, as King of Denmark. He was known by the Danes as King Cnut,  Canute continued to reside in England even after he inherited the crown of Denmark

Canute landed in Norway unopposed in 1028 to claim the throne, and when the Norwegian King Olaf tried to claim it back, he was defeated and killed at the 1030 Battle of Stiklestad.  (Today King Harald V of Norway is 70th in line to the English throne.)

In 1031 he turned the tide against his enemies by conquering Scotland and forcing King Malcolm to recognise his overlordship. Amongst those who did homage to Canute was a certain Maelboethe later immortalised by Shakespeare as Macbeth.

According to a 13th century Icelandic saga, Canute was “exceptionally tall and strong, and the handsomest of men, all except for his nose”.

King Canute Canute the Great illustrated in an Initial of a medieval manuscript

Ælfgifu of Northampton, the daughter of an ealdorman (chief officer) of southern Northumbria, was Canute's  “handfast” wife, a medieval term roughly equivalent to fiancée.

He had two sons by Ælfgifu of Northampton. They were Harold Harefoot (who was only interested in hunting and succeeded him to the English throne) and Alfivason Sweyn of Norway (who became king of Norway)

Canute repudiated Queen Ælfgifu, and married in 1017 the beautiful Norman, Emma, the widow of a previous King, Ethelred the Unready. He hoped this would improve his relationship with her brother, the Duke of Normandy and promote his claim to the English throne. She was older than him but had retained her beauty.

He had two sons by Emma, Hardicanute, who succeeded him to the Danish throne and Cunutsson, plus one daughter, Gunhilda.

Canute tidied over the difficulty of fixing Denmark's border with Germany by marrying his daughter, Gunhild to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor.

The story about Canute rebuking his courtiers who assured him he was so great that he could even rule the waves may or may not be true. A chronicle, Henry of Huntingdon, recounted the tale 100 years later. Canute decided to put the thing to a practical test and had a chair placed on the waters edge before the incoming tide. He challenged the sea to soak his feet. The sea accepted the challenge and proceeded to dampen the royal tootsies. Thus the King proclaimed "Behold how feeble is the power of Kings of men for the waves will not hear my voice. Honour the Lord only, and serve him, for to him all things give obedience."

When the incoming tide proved the futility of human commands, Canute never wore his crown again but hung it upon the statue of the crucified Christ.

Bought up as a pagan who worshipped Woden, Canute became a first generation Christian whose conception of the monarch as a trust from God resulted in an authoritarian manner.

Baptised before 1013, Canute gave rich gifts to monasteries, founded  abbeys, made laws for the payment of tithes to churches and the observance of the Sabbath.

The very last Danegeld ever to be paid, a sum of £82,500, was paid to Canute in 1018. He felt secure enough to send the invasion fleet back to Denmark with a payment of £72,000 that same year.

Canute was said to have ordered an earl killed after a disagreement about a chess game. By one account, the king made an illegal move that angered Earl Ulf, who knocked over the board and stormed off, after which the king sent someone to kill him.                      

Canute was the first English king to issue passports when he issued documents to pilgrims on their pilgrimage to Rome. The purpose of this was to secure their safe passage through the many countries they had to traverse before reaching their destination.

Canute died at Shaftesbury on November 12, 1035 and buried in Winchester Cathedral where some remains are in chests above the choir. The norseman's choice of Winchester as a final resting place confirmed his sense of identity with the country whose monarchy he had replaced.  His body was immersed in alcohol, inserted with herbs and wrapped in waxed sheets. His bones were scattered after the English Civil War. 

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