Who Was Danish Warrior King Cnut? | History Hit

Who Was Danish Warrior King Cnut?

Canute the Great illustrated in an Initial of a medieval manuscript, c.1320.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

King Cnut, also known as Cnut the Great and Canute, has been described as the most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history. Descended from royalty, Cnut was the King of England from 1016, Denmark from 1018 and Norway from 1028 until his death in 1035. The three kingdoms under his rule, collectively referred to as the North Sea Empire, were united by a combination of Cnut’s ability to enforce law and justice, strengthen finances, establish new trade routes and embrace the changing religious climate.

A highly popular king, he was described in the Knýtlinga saga as being ‘exceptionally tall and strong, and the handsomest of men’, and was the first English ruler to not face any internal rebellions over the course of his reign. Today, he is immortalised in various books and films including the 2022 Netflix docufiction series Vikings: Valhalla. 

Here are some facts about King Cnut’s extraordinary life.

1. He was descended from royalty

Cnut was born some time between 980 and 1000 AD into a line of Scandinavian rulers who were central to Denmark’s unification. His father was Danish prince Sweyn Forkbeard who was son and heir to King of Denmark Harald Bluetooth, while his mother was probably Polish princess Świętosława, a daughter of either Mieszko I of Poland or Burislav, the king of Vindland. The date and place of his birth are unknown.

2. He was married once, possibly twice

Angels crown Cnut while he and Emma of Normandy (Ælfgifu) present a large gold cross to Hyde Abbey in Winchester. From the liber vitae in the British Library.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cnut’s partner was called Ælfgifu of Northampton, and together they had two children called Svein and Harold ‘Harefoot’, the latter of whom was King of England for a brief period. However, it is unclear whether Ælfgifu and Cnut were actually married; it has been suggested that she might have been a concubine rather than an official wife.

In 1017, Cnut married Emma of Normandy, who was the widow of King of the English, Æthelred ‘the Unready’. The couple’s marriage proved to be an excellent political partnership, and the couple had two children together called Harthacnut and Gunhilda, the former of whom became king of both England and Denmark for a short time.

4. He was a powerful ruler and Anglophile

Cnut was an effective statesman who, rather than rejecting the former Anglo-Saxon kings of England, made a point of showing support for them. He made visits and donated gifts to shrines to Anglo-Saxon kings, and even went to Glastonbury Abbey to pay his respects to his old adversary Edmund Ironside. This was well-regarded by his English subjects.

He also adopted a new law code in England, based upon those of Anglo-Saxon King Edgar, whose reign was seen as a golden age, which outlined a strong but fair regime that was strictly enforced. Cnut also introduced these policies abroad, taking advantage of innovations such as the English coinage system, while new trade routes between England and Scandinavia helped to solidify their powerful relationship.

3. He was king of three countries and ’emperor’ of five

Battle of Assandun, showing Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Great. 14th century.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cnut won the English throne in 1016 after prolonged fighting against the eldest son of King Æthelred of England, Edmund Ironside. Though Cnut and Edmund Ironside agreed to divide England between them, Edmund’s death in 1016 allowed Cnut to take over the whole of England as King.

Upon the death of King Harald II of Denmark in 1018, he became King of Denmark, which brought the crowns of England and Denmark together. Cnut strengthened the bond between the two countries both by using brute force and by focusing on similarities in their wealth and custom.

After a decade of conflict in Scandinavia, in 1028 Cnut became King of Norway in Trondheim. The Swedish city Sigtuna was also held by Cnut, with coins there calling him king, though there is no narrative record of that occupation. In 1031, Malcolm II of Scotland also submitted to him, though Cnut’s influence over Scotland had waned by the time he died.

A work dedicated to his second wife Emma of Normandy wrote that he “was the emperor of five kingdoms … Denmark, England, Wales, Scotland and Norway”.

5. He used religion to strengthen his power

With regards to his military tactics, use of longships and fondness for skalds (Scandinavian bards) who regaled ancient sagas and tales, Cnut was essentially a Viking. However, like generations of his family before him, he gained a reputation as a patron of the church, which, given that Vikings were known for raiding monasteries and other religious houses, was extraordinary.

Cnut recognised that times were changing in the Viking world. Christianity was gathering momentum in Europe, and Cnut strengthened Denmark’s relationship with England – since the latter was one of the richest countries in Europe – by being a significant religious patron.

Nowhere was this new religious commitment more pronounced than in 1027, when Cnut journeyed to Rome to attend the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. While there, he met Pope John XIX. That a Viking king was able to meet the head of the church as equals demonstrated just how effective his religious manoeuvres were.

6. He tried to command the sea

An 1848 Illustration of the legend of King Canute and the waves.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The story of Cnut resisting the incoming tide was first recorded in the early-12th century in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum. The story goes that Cnut ordered that a chair be placed on the shore as the tide was coming in. He sat in the chair and commanded the sea to stop coming towards him. However, the sea came towards him and drenched his legs, thus disrespecting its infuriated master.

Though Cnut may come across as arrogant, a prevailing theory is that the story actually emphasises his modesty and wisdom, since Cnut always knew that the tide would come in. It offers an insight into how he was remembered after he died, with the sea reminding people of his conquest of the North Sea Empire, and the disobedience of the waves pointing to his knowledge of a higher power or God in line with his Christian identity. Thus, the story neatly combines two aspects of Cnut’s success: his seafaring power and religious obedience.

7. Bluetooth technology is named after his grandfather

Harald Bluetooth was Sweyn Forkbeard’s father, who in turn was Cnut’s father. Bluetooth was named for his unusual distinguishing characteristic: his teeth appeared to be blue. This may be because they were in poor condition; equally, it might have been that he filed his teeth, carved grooves in them and then dyed the grooves blue.

Modern Bluetooth technology, which was a joint initiative between various Scandinavian companies, named their product after Harald since he played a part in trying to unify Denmark and Norway during his reign.

Many of us use Bluetooth technology every day, but know nothing or little of its namesake. And there is little to be known of the King of Denmark Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, except that he is credited with introducing Christianity to Denmark. In this episode, Søren Sindbæk explains what we do know of Bluetooth, and about his remarkable archaeological discovery of Danish Ring Forts. Søren is a Professor at the University of Aarhus.
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8. His remains are in Winchester Cathedral

Cnut died aged around 40 in Dorset, England, on 12 November 1035. He was buried in the Old Minster, Winchester. However, with the events of the new regime of Normandy in 1066, many grand cathedrals and castles were constructed, including Winchester Cathedral. Cnut’s remains were moved inside.

During the English Civil War in the 17th century, along with other people’s remains, his bones were used by Cromwell’s soldiers as tools to shatter stained glass windows. Afterwards, his bones were mixed up in various chests along with some other Saxon kings, including Egbert of Wessex, Saxon bishops and the Norman King William Rufus.

Lucy Davidson