Canute, England’s Viking King

Coin of Cnut the Great from the British Museum

With Aethelred’s death in 1016, two men stepped forward to claim the throne: Aethelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, and Sweyn Forkbeard’s (King of Denmark) son, Canute. The two fought for control (The Saxons favored Edmund and the Danes chose Canute) of England, but when Edmund died, Canute became King.

Cnut the Great (Old Norse: Knútr inn ríki; c. 985 or 995 – 12 November 1035), also known as Canute, was a king of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden. Though after the death of his heirs within a decade of his own and the Norman conquest of England in 1066, his legacy was largely lost to history, historian Norman F. Cantor has made the paradoxical statement that he was “the most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history.”

According to the Peterborough manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, early in September 1015 “[Cnut] came into Sandwich, and straightway sailed around Kent to Wessex, until he came to the mouth of the Frome, and harried in Dorset and Wiltshire and Somerset”, beginning a campaign of an intensity not seen since the days of Alfred the Great.

From 1016 to 1035, Canute was the King of England, the King of Denmark, and the King of Norway.True, he was a Viking, but despite that fact, he led the way in the development of municipal government and the encouragement of the arts. He was known for his strong sense of justice – treating Dane and Saxon alike. He appointed many Englishmen to the Court.

A 13th century portrait of Cnut the Great. It shows him as a king of Christendom.

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.

In Denmark he was succeeded by Harthacnut, reigning as Cnut III, although with a war in Scandinavia against Magnus I of Norway, Harthacnut was “forsaken (by the English) because he was too long in Denmark”, and his mother Queen Emma, previously resident at Winchester with some of her son’s housecarls, was made to flee to Bruges, in Flanders; under pressure from supporters of Cnut’s other son – after Svein – by Ælfgifu of Northampton. Harold Harefoot – regent in England 1035–37 – succeeded to claim the throne, in 1037, reigning until his death in 1040. Eventual peace in Scandinavia left Harthacnut free to claim the throne himself, in 1040, and regain his mother her place. He brought the crowns of Denmark and England together again, until his death, in 1042. Denmark fell into a period of disorder with the power struggle between the pretender to the throne Sweyn Estridsson, son of Ulf, and the Norwegian king, until Magnus’ death in 1047 and restoration of the Danish sovereignty. And the inheritance of England was briefly to return to its Anglo-Saxon lineage.
The house of Wessex was to reign again in Edward the Confessor, whom Harthacnut had brought out of exile in Normandy and made a treaty with. Like in his treaty with Magnus, it was decreed the throne was to go to Edward if Harthacnut died with no legitimate male heir. In 1042, Harthacnut died, and Edward was king. His reign meant Norman influence at Court was on the rise thereafter, and the ambitions of its dukes finally found fruition in 1066, with William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, and crowning, fifty years after Cnut was crowned in 1016.

Had the sons of Cnut not died within a decade of him, and his (only known) daughter Cunigund – set to marry Conrad II’s son Henry III eight months after his death – not died in Italy before she became empress, Cnut’s reign may well have been the foundation for a complete political union between England and Scandinavia.

With Canute’s death in 1035, his two sons (Harold and Harthacanute) assumed the throne. Eventually, it passed to Edward the Confessor (1042), who reigned until 1066.

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2 Responses to Canute, England’s Viking King

  1. Regina – Are you planning to make a series about English Kings? I recently read “Katherine” by Anya Seton and found Katherine Swynford and the times she lived in very fascinating. I’ve read quite a bit (both fiction and non-fiction) about the War of the Roses period in English history. I had to draw a family tree for the Yorks and Lancasters starting with Edward III’s children to refer to because no one family tree in the books or on line made all the connections clear. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Fascinating! Thanks!

    • My initial interest came from an ancestry search that I began after my grandson’s birth. I knew I was related to Thomas Jefferson, but I’ve discovered several other connections. I’ve been thinking of adding bits about the kings/queens through the ages to this blog.
      I’ve spent so much time in the Regency period over the years that I find all this drama fascinating.

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