1,000 years ago, a young Viking warrior became King of England. No one at the time can have expected how remarkable his reign would be…
Most famous now for his futile efforts to turn back the encroaching tide on the seashore, the life of Cnut was extraordinary. As well as being a strong, reliable supporter of the Church, he was also an archetypal Viking raider. Forming part of a dynamic marital alliance with his wife, Emma, he was also accused of the murder of his brother-in-law, Ulf. As well as ruling England and Denmark, he was also for a short time King of Norway. His government of what has been called an ‘Empire of the North’ was a unique achievement, setting Cnut apart as a remarkable man and an outstanding ruler.
Cnut’s roots were in Denmark. His great-grandfather, Gorm the Old, was the founder-figure of the Jelling Dynasty in Jutland. Gorm was a formidable pagan warrior, but his son, Harald Bluetooth, became an enthusiastic Christian ruler. Harald was involved in a bitter civil war with his own son, the renowned Sweyn Forkbeard, a conflict that ended with him fleeing the country and dying shortly afterwards in exile. Sweyn took over and won a reputation as a ruthless and ferocious Viking raider, frequently launching attacks on Britain and Ireland and elsewhere.
Cnut, the son of Sweyn Forkbeard, was probably born in around 995, though no one knows that for sure. The chronicles of the time are equally silent about the first 18 years of Cnut’s life and it is not until 1013 that we find him first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But in that year he accompanied Sweyn on what was supposed to be the climactic campaign in the battle to conquer England. After several decades of raiding, increasing in scale all the time and often only ended by the payment of what later became known as ‘Danegeld’, Sweyn sensed that England was fatally wounded and, like a hungry predator, moved in for the kill.
He found support for his ambitions from the region of the Danelaw (around the East Midlands of modern England), and Northumbria also soon submitted to him. Moving into southern England, the defence against his forces quickly collapsed. The English king, Æthelred II (‘the Unready’) soon after fled the country with his wife Emma and their children, Edward and Alfred. England, it seemed, had fallen. King Æthelred would later be painted as something of a pantomime villain, incompetent and cowardly in equal measure. It was a very harsh assessment given the enormous challenges that he had faced,but it could not be doubted that his reign had apparently ended in spectacular failure.
But just then, as if by a miracle, Sweyn died before he had been made king. Cnut was not with him at the time, having stayed in the Danelaw while Sweyn had moved into southern England. Shortly after, Cnut was badly caught out by a surprise attack on his camp launched by English forces. Æthelred returned from exile and Cnut, barely escaping with his life, fled to Denmark. Before departing, he left behind him a group of hostages minus their ears and noses. This was Cnut the Viking in action.
England’s respite, though, was short-lived. In 1015, Cnut was back with 200 ships sailing via the ‘mouth of the Frome’ into Dorset. This saw the beginning of a brutal war for the control of England between Cnut and Edmund Ironside, the son of the now-dying King Æthelred. Both were very young warriors, in their early 20s, and the fighting that followed through several battles at Penselwood, Sherston and Otford was bloody and violent. Cnut also laid siege to London and it was a brutal contest that was fought out over a period of a year and more.
The last decisive battle took place at Ashingdon (or Assandun), Essex, in October 1016. It ended in a crushing victory for Cnut. Edmund survived the battle and a deal was struck that left him with Wessex but Cnut with the rest of England. The deal did not survive for long because on 30 November 1016 Edmund very conveniently died, leaving Cnut as the undisputed King of all England.
At the time, it was likely that the people of England were filled with trepidation at these developments. Given the ruthless nature of Viking raids on the country, there was a real chance that the new King would milk England for all it was worth, and early signs did little to dispel that impression. Within a year, Cnut was ruthlessly removing those who he felt were plotting against him including Eadric Streona, Earl of Mercia, whose treachery to the old regime had become a byword for duplicity and untrustworthiness.
Then in 1018 he raised the highest Danegeld payment yet; £10,500 from London and £72,000 from the rest of England, massive amounts in the context of the times. But there was a sub-text to this move. Cnut’s intention was to use the money to pay off Viking raiders that he no longer had a use for now that the war had been won. This would allow him to govern as he wanted to.
The first sign that there was something to this young man other than the attributes of a rip-roaring Viking raider occurred at around the same time. At a Parliament at Oxford, Cnut adopted the laws of the late King Edgar, seen as one of the greatest of all English monarchs. Edgar’s reign was perceived as a Golden Age, a time of peace and prosperity. This was a canny move by Cnut.
It followed another notable step when he married Emma, widow of the late king Æthelred. Emma had two children from her first marriage; Edward (later King Edward the Confessor) and Alfred. Cnut also had two children from a previous relationship with Ælfgifu of Northampton, named Sweyn and Harold (later Harold Harefoot, King of England). Emma soon after her marriage to Cnut gave birth to another son, Harthacnut.
The death, soon after, of Cnut’s childless elder brother, Harald, left Denmark open and Cnut soon installed himself as king there, seemingly with little opposition. Cnut, at around the same time, strengthened his hold on England by the judicious appointment of strong supporters in positions of authority in the country. Most prominent among these was Earl Godwin, who Cnut appointed as his representative in the crucial sub-kingdom of Wessex. Godwin would marry the sister of Cnut’s brother-in-law. They would have a number of children, including Harold, who would himself become King of England and end his life, allegedly, with an arrow in his eye, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Norway too had once been part of the empire of Sweyn Forkbeard, Cnut’s father. However, it had not remained so for long before a rebellion there threw off Danish rule. The beneficiary of that uprising and the current King of Norway was a man named Olaf Haraldsson. Olaf allied himself with the King of Sweden and together they raised an army with a view to attacking Denmark. Cnut got together an army of his own to face up to the threat. The two forces clashed in southern Sweden at the Battle of Holy River. It was an indecisive confrontation, but Cnut succeeded in hanging on to Denmark.
Shortly after the ruthless elimination of his brother-in-law, Ulf, in Roskilde Cathedral, which followed on soon after, Cnut undertook perhaps the greatest mission of his life when he journeyed to Rome to be present at the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II. To be in attendance at this ceremony was a great mark of recognition for a man who was effectively a Viking king. It made a great impression on many European statesmen as well as Cnut’s own people.
Perhaps the most significant part of Cnut’s reign was the way in which he built close relationships with the church. He was a generous patron of a number of religious establishments in both England and Denmark. He also appointed allies into key positions of influence in the church, such as when Æthelnoth was made archbishop of Canterbury in 1020. This helped to build his influence and his reputation and further strengthen his position.
However, the question of Norway was unfinished business as far as Cnut was concerned. Following his return from the indecisive battle at Holy River, King Olaf’s position had become increasingly fragile back in Norway. It was then a very fragmented country with a number of regions, especially those positioned in the wild north that were virtually ungovernable. Cnut took advantage of the significant wealth of England to make gifts to disaffected nobles in Norway. When he arrived with a massive army, the position of Olaf quickly collapsed totally.
Olaf was forced to flee for his life. He returned soon after in a vain attempt to reclaim the country. At his side was his half-brother Harald, who later – as Harald Hardrada (‘the Ruthless’) – was to become one of the most famous of all Vikings and would meet his end in a cataclysmic encounter at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire in 1066. Olaf lost his life in the battle at Stiklestad. Olaf was a staunch Christian ruler and soon after his death was canonised. Saint Olaf would prove much more successful in death than King Olaf ever was in life.
But Cnut did not prove a success as King of Norway. He appointed his first wife, Ælfgifu, as his regent in the country along with their son, Sweyn. However, a disastrous famine undermined their position; this was a time of great suffering across much of the continent and not just in Scandinavia. Their rule was allegedly very harsh and there were a number of revolts that led to the collapse of Cnut’s regime there. Olaf’s son, Magnus, soon became king in his stead.
Norway was only ever a temporary part of Cnut’s ‘empire’. Perhaps the dispersed nature of the territories that Cnut ruled made them inherently hard to govern. Certainly the diversity of his subjects, and the relative ‘newness’ of all three core countries in it – England, Denmark and Norway – presented him with great challenges. It was a tough act for anyone to pull off and certainly there were indications that some of those around him, especially the sons who would have to run his territories after his death – and to a significant extent would be expected to do so when he was alive – were not up to the task, though there were as yet but young.
Cnut certainly had imperial pretensions. His visit to Rome made a great impact on him. He was so impressed at the grandeur and magnificence of the great Imperial Crown that Conrad II wore at his coronation that he had a replica made for himself. Letters back to England soon afterwards included several implicit imperial references, for example when Cnut ostentatiously described himself as ‘King of England, Denmark, Norway [not at the time conquered] and part of Sweden’. There was little doubt that Cnut had seen something of the magnificence and associated power that came from being an Emperor that he took to modelling himself on one to a certain extent.
Yet, paradoxically, Cnut also became renowned for his humility. His great generosity to the Christian church has already been mentioned but his actions also won respect. On a visit to the north of England late in his reign he walked five miles barefoot to visit the tomb of the revered St Cuthbert in Durham. Chroniclers of the time wrote of a man who was more monk than king. Although these attributes may have been exaggerated, as was common with the chroniclers of the time, this suggests a man who wanted to make a strong impression for his Christian acts.
This was an approach that was perhaps based as much on the political advantages that came from it as from any deeply-held personal convictions. It made Cnut a ‘modern’ ruler, one who could sit at the high table of European politics as an equal rather than be regarded with suspicion by his fellow rulers as a potential raider. This brought him great political benefits. Perhaps the most significant was his alliance with Conrad II. Denmark and the Holy Roman Empire shared a border – one which had been porous and problematic – but the alliance brought stability, enabling Cnut to concentrate his efforts on his unfinished business in Norway. Conrad’s son married Cnut’s daughter, Gunhilda, a sign of the great importance of Cnut in European affairs.
Alongside this, Cnut appeared to retain other more ‘Viking’ characteristics. From what we know, he was a lover of the sagas every bit as much as more traditional Scandinavian rulers had been before him. He himself appears in Viking sagas though reflecting these extraordinary changing times the heroes here were now typically Christian rather than followers of Odin or Thor. This was a sure sign that the world was changing rapidly, though some parts of Scandinavia would stay stubbornly pagan well beyond the period covered by Cnut’s reign. For example, Uppsala in Sweden was long a centre of worship for the old gods and half a century after Cnut’s death the Christian writer Adam of Hamburg-Bremen was writing of the horrific rites of animal and human sacrifice that were still practised there.
However, Cnut lived a very active life and it seems to have taken its toll. There are a few hints that he was suffering from some illness that was wearing him down. On 12 November 1035 Cnut breathed his last at Shaftesbury in Dorset. The place of his death is symbolically interesting as the tomb of the martyred English king and saint, Edward resided there. Throughout his life, Cnut had acted with great respect towards the English royal family that he had replaced. He, as we have seen, emphasised his appreciation of the late, great Edgar by adopting his laws. He even visited the tomb of Edmund Ironside at Glastonbury Abbey where he left behind a splendid gift of cloak adorned with peacock feathers, a symbol of both Imperial Byzantine grandeur and also Christian resurrection.
His magnanimity marked him out as a wise man, able to build bridges with the people that he had conquered. Although he taxed his people heavily, they, for their part, seem to have accepted his right to rule them; he did at least give them peace and security, a welcome contrast to the four decades that preceded his reign. He was generally regarded by them with respect rather than love. But it was a welcome breathing space after the trauma of the reign of Æthelred ‘the Unready’.
Cnut was buried in the great Anglo-Saxon royal mausoleum in Winchester. Here he metaphorically rubbed shoulders with other English kings and saints. In its own way it was another sign of a king who wished to assimilate rather than dictate to his English subjects. Ironically Cnut’s bones were not to find peace in death. In the 16th century, his remains, and those of his wife Emma, were packed together into a mortuary chest and placed high in the presbytery of Winchester Cathedral.
When Winchester Cathedral was entered by Parliamentarian forces in the great Civil War of the 17th century, anti-monarchist soldiers broke open the chests and used the leg-bones to break the splendid stained glass of the West Window. Following the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the bones were gathered together and placed in the mortuary chests once more, but by this time they were hopelessly jumbled up; no one knew who went where. At the time of writing, a temporary laboratory has been set up in Winchester Cathedral to try and match the right bones with the right mortuary chests so that Cnut and Emma can once more rest side by side in peace.
The greatness of Cnut’s achievements in building an extended kingdom that encompassed both England and Scandinavia can perhaps best be demonstrated by how quickly his ‘empire’ began to fall apart after his death. Without his great energy and vision and drive his successors were incapable of keeping it intact. Harold Harefoot, his son from his union with Ælfgifu of Northampton, and Harthacnut, from his marriage with Emma, both became king in due course. But neither lasted for very long, nor gave any indication that, had they lived, they would have been very successful monarchs.
Harold became sole King of England after Cnut’s death but died himself soon after. Harthacnut then became king. He too did not survive very long, dying after over-indulging at a wedding feast. With none of Cnut’s sons now living, in 1042 the throne reverted back to the Anglo-Saxon bloodline when Edward ‘the Confessor’ became king. He traced his ancestry back to the line of Cerdic of Wessex, a 6th Century ruler who claimed descent from both Adam of biblical fame and the Germanic/Norse god Woden/Odin. In a somewhat diluted form, after several diversions across the centuries, traces of that bloodline still remain in the British royal family.
Cnut was the only king to ever rule both England and Denmark (if we were to exclude the short reign of Harthacnut). He capably governed both, dextrously managing England’s great wealth to full advantage and emulating some of the most significant elements of her government to build a strong nation-state in Denmark. He used English churchmen to help build the young church in Denmark as well as using more practical tools such as the employment of English moneyers to develop Danish coinage.
It would be true to say that the practical results of King Cnut’s reign were more deeply-felt in the long-run in Denmark rather than England but his reign was nonetheless a fascinating period in English and European history and a remarkable achievement in its own right.