1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Canute

CANUTE (Cnut), known as “the Great” (c. 995–1035), king of Denmark and England, second son of King Sweyn Forkbeard and his first wife, the daughter of the Polish prince, Mieszko, was born c. 995. On the death of his father he was compelled to quit England by a general rising of the Anglo-Saxons, on which occasion in a fit of rage, for he was not naturally cruel, he abandoned his hostages after cutting off their hands, ears and noses. In the following year, 1015, he returned with a great fleet manned by a picked host, “not a thrall or a freedman among them.” He speedily succeeded in subduing all England except London, now the last refuge of King Æthelred and his heroic son, Edmund Ironside. On the death of Æthelred (23rd of April 1016) Canute was elected king by an assembly of notables at Southampton; but London clung loyally to Edmund, who more than once succeeded in raising the western shires against Canute. Edmund indeed approved himself the better general of the two, and would doubtless have prevailed, but for the treachery of his own ealdormen. This was notably the case at the great battle of Assandun, in which by the desertion of Eadric an incipient Anglo-Saxon victory was converted into a crushing defeat. Nevertheless, the antagonists were so evenly matched that the great men on both sides, fearing that the interminable war would utterly ruin the land, arranged a conference between Canute and Edmund on an island in the Severn, when they agreed to divide England between them, Canute retaining Mercia and the north, while Edmund’s territory comprised East Anglia and Wessex with London. On the death of Edmund, a few months later (November 1016), Canute was unanimously elected king of all England at the beginning of 1017. The young monarch at once showed himself equal to his responsibilities. He did his utmost to deserve the confidence of his Anglo-Saxon subjects, and the eighteen years of his reign were of unspeakable benefit to his adopted country. He identified himself with the past history of England and its native dynasty by wedding Emma, or Ælgifu, to give her her Saxon name (the Northmen called her Alfifa), who came over from Normandy at his bidding, Canute previously repudiating his first wife, another Ælgifu, the daughter of the ealdorman Ælfhem of Deira, who, with her sons, was banished to Denmark. In 1018 Canute inherited the Danish throne, his elder brother Harold having died without issue. He now withdrew most of his army from England, so as to spare as much as possible the susceptibilities of the Anglo-Saxons. For the same reason he had previously dispersed all his warships but forty. On his return from Denmark he went a step farther. In a remarkable letter, addressed to the prelates, ealdormen and people, he declared his intention of ruling England by the English, and of upholding the laws of King Edgar, at the same time threatening with his vengeance all those who did not judge righteous judgment or who let malefactors go free. The tone of this document, which is not merely Christian but sacerdotal, shows that he had wisely resolved, in the interests of law and order, to form a close alliance with the native clergy. Those of his own fellow-countrymen who refused to co-operate with him were summarily dismissed. Thus, in 1021, the stiffnecked jarl Thorkil was banished the land, and his place taken by an Anglo-Saxon, the subsequently famous Godwin, who became one of Canute’s chief counsellors. The humane and conciliatory character of his government is also shown in his earnest efforts to atone for Danish barbarities in the past. Thus he rebuilt the church of St Edmundsbury in memory of the saintly king who had perished there at the hands of the earlier Vikings, and with great ceremony transferred the relics of St Alphege from St Paul’s church at London to a worthier resting-place at Canterbury. His work of reform and reconciliation was interrupted in 1026 by the attempt of Olaf Haraldson, king of Norway, in conjunction with Anund Jakob, king of Sweden, to conquer Denmark. Canute defeated the Swedish fleet at Stangebjerg, and so seriously injured the combined squadrons at the mouth of the Helgeaa in East Scania, that in 1028 he was able to subdue the greater part of Norway “without hurling a dart or swinging a sword.” But the conquest was not permanent, the Norwegians ultimately rising successfully against the tyranny of Alfifa, who misruled the country in the name of her infant son Sweyn. Canute also succeeded in establishing the dominion of Denmark over the southern shores of the Baltic, in Witland and Samland, now forming part of the coast of Prussia. Of the details of Canute’s government in Denmark proper we know but little. His most remarkable institution was the Tinglid, a military brotherhood, originally 3000 in number, composed of members of the richest and noblest families, who not only formed the royal bodyguard, but did garrison duty and defended the marches or borders. They were subject to strict discipline, embodied in written rules called the Viderlog or Vederlag, and were the nucleus not only of a standing army but of a royal council. Canute is also said to have endeavoured to found monasteries in Denmark, with but indifferent success, and he was certainly the first Danish king who coined money, with the assistance of Anglo-Saxon mint-masters. Of his alliance with the clergy we have already spoken. Like the other great contemporary kingdom-builder, Stephen of Hungary, he clearly recognized that the church was the one civilizing element in a world of anarchic barbarism, and his submission to her guidance is a striking proof of his perspicacity. But it was no slavish submission. When, in 1027, he went to Rome, with Rudolf III. of Burgundy, to be present at the coronation of the emperor Conrad II., it was quite as much to benefit his subjects as to receive absolution for the sins of his youth. He persuaded the pope to remit the excessive fees for granting the pallium, which the English and Danish bishops had found such a grievous burden, substituting therefor a moderate amount of Peter’s pence. He also induced the emperor and other German princes to grant safe-conducts to those of his subjects who desired to make the pilgrimage to Rome.

Canute died at Shaftesbury on the 12th of November 1035 in his 40th year, and was buried at Winchester. He was cut off before he had had the opportunity of developing most of his great plans; yet he lived long enough to obtain the title of “Canute the Wealthy” (i.e. “Mighty”), and posterity, still more appreciative, has well surnamed him “the Great.” A violent, irritable temper was his most salient defect, and more than one homicide must be laid to his charge. But the fierce Viking nature was gradually and completely subdued; for Canute was a Christian by conviction and sincerely religious. His humility is finely illustrated by the old Norman poem which describes how he commanded the rising tide of the Thames at Westminster to go back. The homily he preached to his courtiers on that occasion was to prepare them for his subsequent journey to Rome and his submission to the Holy See. Like his father Sweyn, Canute loved poetry, and the great Icelandic skalder, Thorar Lovtunge and Thormod Kolbrunarskjöld, were as welcome visitors at his court as the learned bishops. As an administrator Canute was excelled only by Alfred. He possessed in an eminent degree the royal gift of recognizing greatness, and the still more useful faculty of conciliating enemies. No English king before him had levied such heavy taxes, yet never were taxes more cheerfully paid; because the people felt that every penny of the money was used for the benefit of the country. According to the Knytlinga Saga King Canute was huge of limb, of great strength, and a very goodly man to look upon, save for his nose, which was narrow, lofty and hooked; he had also long fair hair, and eyes brighter and keener than those of any man living.

See Danmarks Riges Historie. Old Tiden og den aeldre Middelalder, pp. 382-406 (Copenhagen, 1897–1905); Freeman, Norman Conquest (Oxford, 1870–1875); Steenstrup, Normannerne (Copenhagen, 1876–1882).  (R. N. B.)