King Canute: How England’s greatest Viking King set the board for 1066

Zoe Durrant-Walker, Interactive Team Leader at the Jorvik Viking Centre, explains why Cnut the Great was worthy of a closer look at this year’s Jorvik VIking Festival.

Let’s debunk a myth once and for all. Did King Canute try and order back the waves?
It all depends on your viewpoint. You could look at the story literally and find a man who thought himself so powerful that he could do anything – and ultimately failing – or you could interpret it as a cautionary tale about the trappings of power. We know that Canute was a pious man and maybe he wanted to show his advisers, who put him on a pedestal and treated him as if he was omnipotent himself, that he was just a man who couldn’t hold back waves and that they should only worship God.

As for whether this event actually took place, we cannot be completely certain, but there is every possibility that some version of events took place.

Why was King Canute such a powerful king? What major events happened under his reign?

Canute’s power came from his effective leadership – he has been described as one of the best monarchs of pre-Conquest England. On his accession to the throne he was able to stabilise the faltering economy by ending the long-standing Viking raids on the coasts – though this was an easy undertaking as he commanded the leaders of these raiding parties already and didn’t want them plundering his new dominion.

He was also a stabilising influence on England politically – as a Dane he was very popular with the peoples of Northern England living in the area of the Danelaw (covering the majority of the East Coast), where the Vikings had settled since the 9th century. With the normally rebellious north under control, Canute was able to unite the realm in a way that previous monarchs had been unable to do.

You can also see the rise of Norman influence in England during Canute’s reign, as he made the shrewd political move to marry the daughter of the Duke of Normandy, Emma. This event wasn’t hugely popular at home, as Canute already had a handfast wife, Ælfgui of Northampton, and Emma had been queen to the former King Æthelred the Unready – who had fathered another future monarch, Edward the Confessor, whose death would cause the events of 1066 and the Norman Conquest. A very complicated family tree, indeed!

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

Why did he give up his rule of Wessex?

Canute had made the conscious decision to take personal control of Wessex on his accession to the throne. As a foreign king, and a Dane at that, ruling the spiritual home of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England – the land of Alfred the Great and his defiance to the marauding Vikings – he was asserting himself as king.

By the time he hands control over to the Earl Godwin, Canute is already king of England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden, and his time would have been split between his dominions.

It is interesting again that the seeds of 1066 are sown during Canute’s reign, as Godwinson is the grandfather of Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England.

Why did he not have a strong heir?

Unfortunately both of his sons, Harald Harefoot (born to his second wife, Emma of Normandy) and Hathacanute, (whose mother was Ælfgui of Northampton), just didn’t survive long enough to really embed the dynasty. These half-brothers both died of mysterious illnesses at a relatively young age and as such did not produce heirs. This meant that on the death of Hathacanute, the crown passed to another half-brother, the Anglo-Saxon Edward (later Edward the Confessor), ending the Viking kings of England.

How was his North Sea Empire built up and administered? What were his major centres of power?

Canute was able to build a vast empire through invasion and luck. Although Canute himself had no claim to any throne in his youth, his elder brother, Harald, was crown prince of Denmark, heir to their father Sweyn Forkbeard, who had also taken the English crown shortly before his death. When the English responded to this by inviting back the former king (Æthelred), Canute saw his opportunity to take the crown back for the Danes. His brother, now king of Denmark, offered Canute money, ships and men to invade England on the promise that he would not make a claim on his crown. Canute obliged; unfortunately for Harald, he died just two years after his younger brother’s coronation in England, passing on the crown of Denmark to Canute.

By the year 1027, Canute is referred to as king of England, Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden. We know that he kept his capital at Winchester and installed his children from both wives in the other dominions to rule in his stead. So England become the major trading and political hub of this North Sea Empire.

Jorvik Viking Festival 2016
Canute’s North Sea Empire

How is Canute remembered? Is the king’s negative image just down to Norman propaganda?

What we’ve found is that Canute can be seen as one of the most effective pre-conquest monarchs that people have never really heard of – he has been overshadowed by the events of the Norman Conquest (themselves descendants of Vikings) and what has survived does not tell the full story.

That’s why we are excited to showcase the life of this important Viking King during JORVIK Viking Festival. We want to make Canute great again and show people how effective a Viking King could be, on and off the battlefield.

Who was the strongest at their peak – Alfred the Great, Canute, or William the Conqueror?

An interesting question. They were all strong in their own ways. In terms of the amount of land and people that he ruled over, his political dealings across his dominions and the foundations of the English state I would have to plump for Canute. He may not be the most well known of these other kings but his influence is just as important and the legacy of his North Sea Empire shouldn’t be forgotten.

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