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Canute the Great

Canute the Great
Rank (England): 18th
Ruled (England): November 30, 1016-November 12, 1035
Predecessor (England): Edmund II
Date of Birth: 995
Place of Birth: Denmark
Wives: Ælgifu (marriage in Danish manner;
not approved by the Church), Emma
Buried: Winchester Cathedral
Date of Death: November 12, 1035
Parents: Sweyn and Gunhilda

Canute (or Cnut) I, or Canute the Great (Danish Knud den Store) (994/995-1035) was king of England, Denmark and Norway and governor of Schleswig and Pomerania. He was the son of sea-king Sweyn Forkbeard, also reputed to be a member of the Jomsburg Vikings, a military outfit of mercenary warriors with a fortress based in today's Poland. There is still some dispute among historians over the existence of the Jomsvikings. Canute's mother was Gunhild (formerly Swiatoslawa, daughter of Mieszko I of Poland). While his father, Sweyn, remained pagan to the end of his life, Canute was reared by a mother whose own mother had been abducted from a religious house and married to the first Duke of Poland, Mieszko (or Miraslav), who later adopted Christianity for political reasons.

Accompanying his father on his successful invasion of England in August 1013, Canute was proclaimed king by the Danish fleet on Sweyn's death the following February, but returned to Denmark (April 1014) on the restoration of the defeated king Ethelred the Unready by the Witenagemot of English nobles.

Invading England once more (August 1015), Canute fought a series of inconclusive conflicts with the English led by Ethelred and (from April 1016) by Ethelred's son, Edmund II of England until his crushing victory (October 1016) at Assandun (Ashingdon, Essex, England). Meeting on an island in the river Severn, Canute and Edmund agreed to divide the kingdom, but Edmund's death (November 1016) left Canute as sole ruler, leading to his acclamation as king by the Witenagemot in January 1017. Canute solidified his new position as supreme ruler by marrying Ethelred's widow, Emma of Normandy, daughter of Richard the Fearless, duke of Normandy. In doing so, he strengthened political and commercial ties between England and Normandy while establishing his intentions to rule in a Christian fashion, as Emma was very devout.

As king of England, Canute combined English and Danish institutions and personnel. His mutilation in April 1014 of the hostages taken by his father in pledge of English loyalty is remembered above all as being uncharacteristic of his rule. His codification (c.1020) of England's laws overlaid an element of uniformity on Saxon tradition.

By dividing the country (1017) after the Danish fashion into the four great earldoms of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, he instituted the system of territorial lordships which would underlie English government for centuries. In 1018 he felt secure enough to send the invasion fleet back to Denmark with a payment of 72,000.

In order to associate his line with the overthrown English dynasty and to insure himself against attack from Normandy (place of exile of Ethelred's sons Edward and Alfred), Canute married (July 1017) Ethelred's widow Emma of Normandy, later designating their son Harthacanute as heir in preference to Harold, his illegitimate son by Aelgifu of Northampton (earlier Ethelred's first wife).

In 1018 (or 1019) Canute succeeded his elder brother Harold II as king of Denmark, and in 1028 he conquered Norway with a fleet of fifty ships from England: his attempt to govern Norway through Aelgifu and Harold ended, however, in rebellion and the restoration of the former Norwegian dynasty under Magnus I.

Conrad II, Holy Roman Emperor was friendly with Canute and had his young son Henry married to Canute's daughter Cunigunde or Gunhilda. The emperor gave Canute the Mark of Schleswig and Pomerania to govern. The later was probably the fief of Canute, since Boleslaw Chrobry send his army helping Canute to conquer England.

Canute is generally regarded as a wise and successful king of England, although this view may in part be attributable to his good treatment of the church, which controlled the history writers of the day. Thus we see him described even today as a religious man, despite the fact that he lived openly in what was effectively a bigamous relationship, and despite his responsibility for many political murders.

He is perhaps best remembered for the legend of how he commanded the waves to go back. According to the legend, he grew tired of flattery from his courtiers. When one such flatterer gushed that the king could even command the obedience of the sea, Canute proved him wrong by practical demonstration, his point being that even a king's powers have limits. Unfortunately, this legend is sometimes misunderstood to mean that he believed himself so powerful that the natural elements would obey him, and that his failure to command the tides only made him look foolish. It is quite possible that the legend is simply pro-Canute propaganda.

Canute died on November 12, 1035, at Shaftesbury in Dorset, and was buried at Winchester. On his death, Canute was succeeded in Denmark by Harthacanute, reigning as Canute III. Harold took power in England, however, ruling until his death (1040), whereupon the two crowns were again briefly reunited under Harthacanute.


Preceded by:
Edmund II
List of British monarchs Succeeded by:
Harold I
Preceded by:
Harald II
List of Danish monarchs Succeeded by:
Harthacanute
Preceded by:
Saint Olaf
List of Norwegian monarchs Succeeded by:
Magnus I of Denmark and Norway