A thousand years is a pretty momentous anniversary, but in this year of historical celebration and remembrance -The Somme (100 years), The Football World Cup (50 years) The Great Fire (350 years) Shakespeare’s death (400 years) The Battle of Hastings (950 years) and Revolver by The Beatles (50 years) - a thousand year anniversary is likely to be overlooked by press and glitterati.
Only two monarchs in British History have earned the nickname ‘Great’. Alfred, the saviour of Wessex in the Ninth Century, is feted in books and novels, even lavish TV productions that have built his legend beyond burning the cakes and hiding in a swamp. The other - Cnut the Great - has been reduced to a character of ridicule, getting a dunking whilst trying to hold back the tide, and otherwise largely ignored in our island story. So, before everybody goes gaga over the Normans, I’ll get a blow in first for the Danes.
Now, a confession, I have been fascinated by Cnut since my childhood: I played his father Sweyn Forkbeard in the Children’s Pageant of Wales at the National Eisteddfod in Swansea as an eleven year old (Sweyn is the legendary founder of Swansea). I only had a few lines but still remember the opening:
Buom yn hir yn rhwyfo.
Ar mae criw si wedi blino.
(We’ve been rowing a long time, and the crew is knackered)
As an undergraduate the fascination with Cnut continued; I even wrote a dissertation on his reign for my degree (there were at least two regrettable typos in that piece of work) so, yeah, I am biased. William the Conqueror? Meh.
Cnut’s father Sweyn Forkbeard was the King of Denmark, and his grandfather was Harald Bluetooth ( yep, the guy who inspired the phone software). During the reign of Aethelred the Unready, Sweyn and his father re-ignited the Viking invasions that Alfred the Great had beaten off a century before. They first spent a decade extorting danegeld from the hapless Aethelred, before Sweyn started a full blown war of invasion. Aethelred was hardly blameless in this, breaking a truce and ordering the massacre of all the Danes in England - including Sweyn’s sister and her husband - on St Brice’s Day 1002, and his policy of paying off the Danes was counterproductive: merely encouraging further attacks and providing the coin to fund them.
Cnut was only a child when the war began - at most he was seven when his aunt was murdered - but in 1013 he accompanied Sweyn on campaign and was present at his father’s victory. Aethelred fled to Normandy as Sweyn was proclaimed King of England. It was a short-lived reign, Sweyn died only a few months later in February 1014, and Aethelred returned from Normandy. Whilst Cnut was elected King by the Danes in England, his brother Harald became King of Denmark. Faced with the resurgent English under Aethelred’s son Edmund Ironside, and lacking support from Denmark, Cnut and his army returned home.
They were back the following summer. Ten thousand men in two hundred ships harried the south east of England, and by Christmas 1015 had conquered Wessex, and attacked Northumbria and Mercia. In April 1016, Aethelred died and Ironside was elected King in London, but support was seeping away from him, and he was unable to win a decisive victory against the Danes. After a summer of inconclusive, but very bitter fighting, Ironside and Cnut called a truce and made a treaty dividing England between them. Edmund, suffering from a severe wound from the fighting, was dead only weeks after the treaty was agreed. Cnut seized London and was proclaimed King of all England. He was twenty one at most.
He spent the next couple of years consolidating his position, marrying Aethelred’s young widow, Emma of Normandy ( one of the most remarkable women in history, Emma deserves a blog post all of her own) and driving any survivors from the House off Wessex into exile. Aethelred’s sons by Emma went to their kinsman in Normandy, starting Edward the Confessor’s relationship with the Duchy that would lead to such tragedy for the English a half century later. Cnut meanwhile paid off most of his army, reorganised the English administration and tax system to pay for the rest, and looked back hungrily to his Danish homeland.
Cnut’s brother Harald died at some point in 1018, and Cnut claimed the Danish throne. There was certainly some resistance to his accession as chroniclers and Cnut himself refer to fighting and troubles, but he was ultimately successful. Aiding him in gaining his brother’s throne was the young Godwin, father of Harold II, who began his meteoric rise after leading a night-time raid on the enemy. By 1020, Cnut’s hold on Denmark was secured and he returned to England. He had already started to go native according to the chroniclers, becoming more English than Danish.
With the subjugation of the Norwegians by 1026, Cnut had established a Scandinavian empire encompassing the North Sea in only a decade. He travelled in triumph to Rome, meeting with both the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor. In 1027, he declared himself King of Norway - although his rule was never secure - and the overlord of the Dublin Vikings, as well as receiving the homage of Malcolm II of Scotland. In Malcolm’s entourage was Macbeth - described as a minor king - who would go on to murder Malcolm’s grandson Duncan, and sieze the Scottish throne in Shakespeare’s play. The bard fudged things somewhat, rather than being an old man, the real Duncan was little more than a child.
Cnut’s death at only forty in 1035, saw his empire unravel. His son’s succeeded to the thrones of Denmark and England - and were briefly reunited under the sole rule of Cnut’s son Harthacnut - but their untimely deaths saw the restoration of the Wessex dynasty in 1042, when Edward the Confessor returned from Normandy. Had Canute lived but another decade, 1066 and all that would never have happened, and a Scandinavian Empire would have been established in the North Sea.
After the Norman Conquest, the chroniclers were not about to remind people about the Danish claim to the English throne, and it certainly didn’t fit later historians Anglo-Saxon preconceptions - particularly in the Nineteenth Century. On top of that his reign was often regarded as a blip, an historical anomaly. So Canute, perhaps England’s greatest monarch, became largely ignored other than the apocryphal story of holding back the tides. Initially even that tale was supposed to demonstrate both Canute’s wisdom and his naval supremacy, but a couple of contortions later, and he is the King who got his feet wet.
Cnut was buried in Winchester, his bones placed in a reliquary, but, to get back to the English Civil War, Roundhead soldiers - on one of their regular bouts of iconoclastic vandalism - smashed the containers and scattered the bones of the Anglo Saxon kings, Cnut included. After the restoration, what could be found was gathered together - all mixed up - and remain in that state to this day.
A millenium on from his coronation, maybe it’s time he gets the credit he deserves
The Last Roundhead is available at Amazon and all other retailers.
All images in the public domain.
Canute holding back the waves from the Child's Book of England (1922).