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King Canute (also known as Cnut or Knut) is quite possibly one of the most important pre-conquest English monarchs you have never heard of…

The second son of Viking warlord, King of Denmark, and later ruler of England, Swyen Forkbeard, Canute was not destined to sit on any throne of his father’s, yet through his determination and skill in battle he was able to take control of both the English and Danish crown and acquire Norway and parts of Sweden, laying the foundations of a North Sea empire.

Not so Humble Beginnings

Little is known about Canute’s mother, there are contradictory reports that she was a Polish princess or even Queen of Sweden. What we do know is that Canute was the second son of the powerful Viking warrior Sweyn Forkbeard, himself the son of Harald Bluetooth, the first Christian ruler of Denmark.

Canute’s elder brother. Harald. the Crown Prince of Denmark was their father’s heir, Canute, as the second son of the King was not expected to rule but was expected to lead troops and fight. According to sources the young Canute was trained by the legendary Thorkell the Tall of the Jomsviking in the art of combat. It is thought that Canute joined his father in battle at the invasion of Norwich in 1003/4 in response to the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, as the Skald, Óttarr svarti, describes a campaign similar to Norwich and states that Canute was ‘of no great age’ at the time.

Who is Canute?

“Canute was exceptionally tall and strong, and the handsomest of men, all except for his nose, that was thin, high-set, and rather hooked. He had a fair complexion none-the-less, and a fine, thick head of hair. His eyes were better than those of other men, both the handsomer and the keener of their sight.”

Knytlinga Saga

Little is known about Canute until the year 1013, when he again joins his father to invade England. This campaign was the climax of decades of renewed Viking raids on the English coast and the fragile Anglo-Saxon state crumbled against the Danish onslaught. King Æthelred, now forever known as ‘The Unready’ fled to Normandy leaving Sweyn to seize the throne and rule England.

Whilst his father was consolidating his reign, Canute was tasked with guarding the Viking encampment at Gainsborough, North Lincolnshire. In 1014 Sweyn died, causing another dynastic drama on who should succeed to the English throne. The Viking-supporting Anglo-Scandinavians of the Danelaw (Northern and Central England) elected Canute as King, however the Anglo-Saxons of the Witenagemot (the parliament or assembly) recalled Æthelred. Once back in England the restored King took no time in raising an army and forcing Canute’s retreat back to Denmark. Canute responded during his withdrawal by leaving the mutilated bodies of hostages across the beaches near Sandwich.

Plotting his Return

Harald had succeeded his father to the throne of Denmark, so on his return Canute went to pay homage to his new king and suggest a joint invasion of England. From what we know Harald was not keen on Canute’s proposal but did promise arms and ships, on the condition that Canute would not pursue his claim to the Danish throne.

Canute was able to amass a large fleet of 200 longships that would carry an army of 10,000 men, made up of Danes and Swedes. The armada set sail in summer 1015 and engaged the Anglo-Saxons, led by Edmund Ironside, Æthelred’s son, in grisly combat. Canute looks to take power right from under the feet of the Anglo-Saxons by targeting Wessex, the ancient home of English kings, land of Alfred the Great and one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Heading North

Wessex capitulates in late 1015, allowing Canute to head north, cross the Thames and attack London. It seems that Ironside did not put up much of a fight for the city. From accounts it seems the citizens of London and even the Anglo-Saxon army itself were experiencing low morale, as they felt betrayed by their King,  Æthelred, for not joining his son in battle to repel the Danish invaders. Edmund responded to this by retreating further north to Northumbria, to join Earl Uhtred.

Canute followed and quickly quelled the North, it looks as if Uhtred looked to submit to Canute but the Viking leader had other ideas and instructed the Earl’s enemy Thurbrand the Hold to kill Uthred and his retinue.

London Calling

By 23rd April 1016 Æthelred had died and Edmund Ironside crowned King of England. Canute responded by splitting his army, half besieging London and the other attacking Wessex. Many battles were fought across southern England, all leading to a major confrontation between the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings at the Battle of Assandun (located in Essex but lost to history) when Edmund’s forces attacked Canute as he was retiring to the coast.

The battle was the beginning of the end for Ironside; one of his supporters, Eadric Steona (who had also supported Canute as well) withdrew leading to a major loss for the English. Edmund’s response was to flee west, with the Viking forces in pursuit and a further battle (possibly) in the Forest of Dean. Edmund and Canute met to negotiate terms on an island off Deerhurst.

The Agreement:

  • England, North of the Thames would be ruled by the Danes
  • England, South of the Thames, including London would be ruled by Anglo-Saxons
  • Edmund would remain King of England but Canute would be heir-apparent and succeed Ironside on his death.

Edmund died 30th November 1016, just a few weeks after the agreement was signed. It has been suggested that Edmund Ironside was murdered but there is no evidence that confirms how the King died. In any event, on Edmund’s death, Canute, the Viking invader, was proclaimed King of England and crowned at Christmas 1016 in Winchester.

King of England

Canute ruled England for 19 years, in this time the economy was vastly improved. Helped, in part, by the fact that Canute curtailed all the Viking raids along the coast.

With the economy improving Canute was able to spend the first of his reign consolidating his power and removing potential enemies. He was ruthless in this pursuit, marrying Æthelred’s wife Emma of Normandy whilst at the same time having one of Æthelred’s son killed as he fled the country.

Canute’s marriage to Emma of Normandy was a shrewd political move, however it wasn’t popular with his handfast wife, Ælfgui of Northampton, of whom he had already given him two sons, Svein Knutsson and Harald Harefoot. These two heirs were usurped by Canute’s new son with Emma, Hathacanute. There would be much dynastic maneuvering through his reign, with both women vying for power for their children.

Canute re-distributed power in England, grouping multiple shires into single four Earldoms, 3 were shared with favourites, with the final, Wessex, being controlled directly by Canute. 2 of the Earls were Viking Lords, the other an Anglo-Saxon. Like most early medieval kingdoms there were political wranglings with the nobility; one of the Earls was executed and another outlawed. During his reign Canute’s sister, Estrid became involved in Northumbrian politics, helped by her marriage to the Earl.

In 1030 Canute gave up his personal rule of Wessex in favour to court favourite, and Anglo-Saxon, Godwin, the Grandfather of Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.

And of Denmark, Norway and Parts of Sweden

Canute also held the crowns of the Scandinavian kingdoms during his lifetime. First, he became King of Denmark on the death of his brother in 1018 by 1027 he refers to himself as King of the Norwegians and some Swedes as well.

This ‘North Sea Empire’ needed maintaining, as Canute could not personally rule from each kingdom he sent his sons to administer the other realms in his name, whilst he stayed in England, the wealthiest of his possessions.

Hathacanute, now Crown Prince of Denmark was sent across the sea to rule the Danes under the protection of his uncle, Jarl Ulf. Ælfgui of Northampton’s children were not completely forgotten either; Svein Knutsson, along with his mother were sent to rule Norway in Canute’s name. Unfortunately they were not welcomed in the kingdom, due to their policy of high taxation and in 1030 fled when rebellion erupted.

Canute the Statesman

Canute’s reign in England is seen as one of the most successful of the pre-conquest period. He was a great patron of the church, repairing all ecclesiastical buildings damaged during the Viking raids and bestowed great gifts. He even made a pilgrimage to Rome and had an audience with the Pope.

The economies and England and Denmark were much improved by his merging of the crowns, this ‘North Sea Empire’ created profitable trade links for the kingdom and his taxation of the English filled his coffers even more.

The End of Empire

Canute died on 12th November 1035 and was succeeded by Hathacanute in Denmark and Harald Harefoot in England. The English initially refused Hathacanute’s accession as he was seen as ‘foreign’ – Harefoot only reigned for 5 years and on his death his half brother, the King of Denmark succeeded him. Unfortunately his reign was shorter than his predecessor and by 1042 Canute’s North Sea Empire had disintegrated.