The Life Canute the Great
Also known as Cnut Sweynson, Canute the Great was born in 985 and ruled England from 1016 until his death in 1035.
As a Danish prince, Canute won the English throne after centuries of Viking activity in the British Isles. In 1018, he also claimed the Danish crown and, in doing so, brought about the unification of England and Denmark based on wealth and their shared culture and customs. Canute also extended his influence into the Irish Sea, keeping the smaller kingdoms along the Irish coast in check, as well as combating the power of the Earl of Orkney.
Canute was a consumate statesman. He was able to gain concessions on the tolls that Danish pilgrims had to pay to the Vatican, in addition to reducing the price of clerical vestments for Danish bishops.
Canute was born to King Sweyn Forkbeard sometime between 985 and 995. The name of Canute’s mother is not known for certain, but he is believed to have been born to Sweyn Forkbeard and a Polish princess named Saum Aesa. Canute also had an older brother, Harald, who was the Crown Prince of Denmark.
What few hints that exist regarding Canute’s childhood can be found in the 13th Century book, the Flateyjarbok, which suggests that Canute was taught the arts of war by the Viking chieftain Thorkell the Tall. The primary sources also claim that Canute took an active role in Sweyn Forkbeard’s initial invasion of England following the St. Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002.
Very little is known about Canute’s life before Sweyn Forkbeard’s second invasion of England in 1013.
Following the death of Sweyn Forkbeard, early in 1014, Canute’s older brother Harald became King of Denmark. At the same time, the Danish invasion force proclaimed Canute King of England. In response to this, the Anglo-Saxon nobles, recalled Ethelred the Unready from his exile in Normandy. Canute was forced to return to Denmark and left his hostages mutilated on a beach near Sandwich.
Canute returned in 1015 with an army of 10,000 men and a fleet of 200 ships. According to the Peterborough Manuscript, Canute began attacking Kent, Wessex and Dorset with an intensity not seen since the reign of Alfred the Great. Wessex, traditionally the seat of the English monarchy, quickly submitted to Canute’s rule. Meanwhile, the Ealdorman of Mercia broke from Ethelred and formed an alliance with the Danes.
In 1016, the Vikings crossed the River Thames and began attacking Warwickshire, which they took entirely uncontested. The primary sources state that the English army disbanded at this time because the King was not present. Meanwhile, Canute’s mid-winter assault caused devastation in eastern Mercia. Ethelred gathered an army in response and attempted to fight Canute head-on, while his son, Edmund Ironside, joined forces with the Earl of Northumbria and attacked Stafforshire and Shropsire. Canute attacked Northumbria in response, forcing the Earl of Northumbria to submit to Canute’s rule.
Following this, Canute headed south, where Edmund had staged a breakout from London before the city was completely encircled. Following a pair of indecisive battles in Somerset and Wiltshire, Edmund was able to temporarily relieve London, which had been besieged, after defeating Canute at Brentford. Edmund suffered heavy losses, however, and withdrew to Kent to regroup. Canute’s army returned to its ships and sailed for Essex, at which point Canute attacked Mercia.
On October 18, 1016, the Danes were attacked as they prepared to board their ships. The Ealdorman of Mercia, who had rejoined Edmund, broke ranks again, withdrawing his forces from the battle, which resulted in a decisive Danish victory. Through intermediaries, Edmund and Canute agreed to divide England between them. Edmund died shortly after this agreement was reached, which left Canute as the King of England. He was crowned on Christmas Day.
Even though he was a Viking, Canute was one of England’s most successful kings. He ensured protection from Viking raids and helped to restore England’s prosperity, which had been eroded during the previous century. In addition, he restored the overlordship of English kings in much of the British Isles.
In 1017, Canute married Ethelred’s widow. Following the death of Edmund, Canute ordered the assassination of a number of nobles with suspect loyalties.
In 1018, Canute sent the army back to Denmark, keeping only 40 ships and their crews as an occupying force.
He also oversaw the reorganization of how the kingdom was administrated by dividing England into four geographical areas based on the largest kingdoms that had existed before the unification of England.
Canute is generally remembered as a wise and popular king, mainly as a result of his support of the Church. During his reign, England saw relief from Viking attacks and Denmark enjoyed a position of dominance in Scandinavia.
Following his death in 1035, Canute was buried in the Old Minster in Winchester. He was succeeded by Harald Harefoot.
Forte, A. (2005), Viking Empires (1st ed.), Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, Godsell, Andrew “King Canute and the Advancing Tide”, History For All magazine 2002, republished in Legends of British History 2008
Jones, G (1984), A History of the Vikings (2nd ed.), Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, Lawson, M. K. (2004), Cnut: England’s Viking King (2nd ed.), Stroud: Tempus
About this entry
You’re currently reading “The Life Canute the Great,” an entry on Wordsmith
- January 9, 2010 / 1:11 am
- Suite 101 Feature Stories