(Son of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark 1018-35, King of England 1016-35, King of Norway 1028-35 and King of part of Sweden.)
A man known more in England for commanding the sea to turn back was in fact a powerful unifying force and great commander of men, his father's son.
Cnut was a son of the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, and an heir to a line of Scandinavian rulers central to the unification of Denmark. There are conflicting reports for whom his mother may have been - the most likely would be Sweyn's first wife, Gunild.
His date of birth, like his mother's name, is debated.
There is some reference that Cnut was "of no great age" when he first went to war. With his older brother, Harold (later Harold II), left to oversee Denmark there is evidence Cnut accompanied his father's invasion of England, and attack on the city of Norwich, in 1003/04. If it is the case then his birthdate may be near 990.
A later source states at one point that Cnut was taught his soldiery by the chieftain Thorkell the Tall, brother to Sigurd, Jarl of mythical Jomsborg, and the legendary Joms, at their Viking stronghold on the Island of Wollin.
Hardly anything is known for sure of Cnut's life until the invasion of England in summer 1013. It was the climax to a succession of Viking raids spread over a number of decades. With their landing in the Humber the kingdom fell to the Vikings quickly, and near the end of the year King Aethelred fled to Normandy, leaving Sweyn in possession of England. In the winter, Forkbeard was in the process of consolidating his kingship, with Cnut left in charge of the fleet, and the base of the army at Gainsborough.
On the death of Sweyn Forkbeard after a few months as king, Harald succeeded him as King of Denmark, while Cnut was immediately elected king by the English Vikings, and the people of the Danelaw.
However, some English nobility took a different view and recalled Aethelred from Normandy. The restored king swiftly led an army against Cnut, who fled with his forces to Denmark, along the way mutilating the hostages they had taken and abandoning them on the beach at Sandwich.
Cnut went to Harald and supposedly made the suggestion they might have a joint kingship, although this found no favour with his brother. Harald is thought to have offered Cnut command of his forces for another invasion of England; on the condition he did not continue to press his claim. In any case, Cnut was able to assemble a large fleet with which to launch another invasion.
According to parts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, early in September 1015 "Cnut came into Sandwich, and straightway sailed round Kent to Wessex, until he came to the mouth of the Frome, and harried in Dorset and Wiltshire and Somerset".
Wessex submitted to Cnut late in 1015, as it had to his father two years earlier.
At this point Eadric Streona, the Ealdorman of Mercia, deserted Aethelred together with 40 ships and their crews and joined forces with Cnut. Another defector was Thorkell the Tall, a Jomsviking chief who had fought against the Viking invasion of Sweyn Forkbeard, with a pledge of allegiance to the English in 1012.
It is likely that the deep suspicion upon Aethelred for his own inheritance of the crown and subsequent mismanaging of the Danish invasions caused many English parties (especially those south of the Thames) to side with Cnut at this time. Certainly Aethelreds second reign as king was not very secure.
Cnut began a winter campaign to stamp out resistance and force Aethelred to capitulate. Eventually the north of England was subdued and Aethelred, and his son Edmond, contained within London.
Here Aethelred died, Edmond succeeded him and was able to win respite for London and extricate his force westwards. Months of fighting followed, some English theigns changing sides more than once.
Eventually, through intermediaries, Cnut and Edmund agreed to come to a negotiated settlement, and on an island near Deerhurst they made peace, dividing the kingdom between them. All of England north of the Thames was to be the domain of the Danish prince, while all to the south was kept by the English king, along with London.
Edmund died on 30 November, within weeks of the agreement. The circumstances of his death are unknown.
In accord with his treaty with Edmund, Cnut was left as king of all England. His coronation was in London, at Christmas, with recognition by the nobility in January the next year at Oxford.
In July 1017, Cnut wed Emma of Normandy, the widow of Aethelred, and daughter of Richard the Fearless, the first Duke of Normandy. With Edmund dead, Cnut was quick to eliminate any prospective challenge from the survivors of the legitimate dynasty. The first year of his reign was marked by the executions of a number of English noblemen whom he considered suspect. Aethelred's son Eadwig fled from England but was killed on Cnut's orders. Edmund's sons Edward and Edmund likewise fled abroad, Edward eventually to Hungary. Emma's sons by Aethelred, Edward (the Confessor) and Alfred Atheling went into exile among their relatives in Normandy.
Cnut put forward Harthacnut, his son by Emma, to be his heir; Svein Knutsson and Harold Harefoot, his two sons from his marriage to Ælfgifu of Northampton, his handfast wife, were kept on the side-lines.
In 1018, having collected a Danegeld amounting to the colossal sum of £72,000 levied nationwide, with an additional £10,500 extracted from London, Cnut paid off his army and sent most of them home. He retained 40 ships and their crews as a standing force in England. An annual tax called heregeld (army payment) was collected through the same system Aethelred had instituted in 1012 to reward Scandinavians in his service.
In 1018, Harald II died and Cnut went to Denmark to affirm his succession to the Danish crown as Cnut II.
Cnut was able to accept an invitation to witness the accession of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. He left his affairs in the north, and went from Denmark to the coronation of the King of the Romans, at Easter 1027, in Rome – a pilgrimage of considerable prestige for rulers of Europe in the Middle-Ages, to the heart of Christendom.
On the return journey his letter of 1027, like his letter of 1019, was written to inform his subjects in England of his intentions from abroad. It is in this letter he proclaims himself ‘king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes’.
Consistent with his role as a Christian king, Cnut proclaimed he went to Rome to repent for his sins, pray for redemption and the security of his subjects, and negotiate with the Pope for a reduction in the costs of the pallium for English archbishops, and for a resolution to the competition of the archdioceses of Canterbury, and Hamburg-Bremen, for superiority over the Danish dioceses. He also sought to improve the conditions for pilgrims, as well as merchants, on the road to Rome.
There was more fighting in Norway and Sweden for Cnut to consolidate his rule in the years that followed but eventually he returned to England a he had proclaimed ‘king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes’.
Cnut died in 1035, at the Abbey in Shaftesbury, Dorset. His burial was in Winchester, the English capital of the time, and stronghold of the royal house of Wessex, whom the Danes had overthrown more or less two decades before.
Cnut was generally remembered as a wise and successful king of England, although this view may in part be attributable to his good treatment of the Church, keeper of the historic record. The medieval Church was drawn to success, and put itself at the back of any strong and efficient sovereign, if the circumstances were right for it. Accordingly, we hear of him, even today, as a religious man, despite the fact that he was in an arguably sinful relationship, with two wives, and the harsh treatment he dealt his fellow Christian opponents.
King Canute is best remembered, in England, for the story of how he commanded the waves to go back in Bosham.
According to oral tradition, he grew tired of flattery by the locals. "You are the greatest man that ever lived," one would say. "O king, there can never be another as mighty as you," another would say. "Great Canute, you are the monarch of all, nothing in this world would dare to disobey you." When one such flatterer said the king could command the obedience of the sea, the King proved him wrong by practical demonstration on the foreshore.
"Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey".
So spoke the King, seated on his throne with the waves lapping around his feet. "Go back, sea!" he commanded time and again, but the tide continued as expected. Canute put it to his courtiers that the sea was not obeying him and insisted they stay there until they admitted it.