’s Reign Essay, Research Paper
For the English people, King Cnut’s reign from 1017 to 1035 was much like the month of March, “in like a lion and out like a lamb”. 1 Crowned in the turmoil of war and conquest, Cnut quickly established an era of peace and prosperity. England became so secure that Cnut could frequently leave the country to settle affairs elsewhere in his empire. It was especially important to a people weary from thirty years of war that all of the fighting during his reign was on foreign soil. By the time of his death in 1035, Cnut was recognized as an equal by the Holy Roman Emperor and had negotiated with the Pope as a Christian monarch.
Very little is known about Cnut’s life before 1013. He may have spent some time in Poland with his mother, Gunhild, after his father, King Svein, divorced her to marry the Swedish Queen Sigrid. 2 He may also have been the foster son of Thorkell the Tall at Jomburg 3
Cnut was in charge of the Danish army at Gainsborough, north of Lincoln, when Svein died suddenly on February 3, 1013. While the Danish army proclaimed Cnut king, the English Witan recalled King Ethelred from Normandy where he had gone into exile after his defeat in 1012. 4 Ethelred immediately led an army north, forcing Cnut to abandon England. On leaving, Cnut sailed along the coast south as far as Sandwich where he mutilated the hostages he held, put them ashore, and went to Denmark.
Cnut was well received in Denmark by his older brother Harald, whom Svein had installed as king before he left for England. Harald helped Cnut raise a large fleet for an invasion to regain the crown of England. Various sources have numbered this fleet between two hundred and one thousand ships. 5 The lowest estimate comes from the earliest source and is likely to be the most accurate, indicating an invasion force of over ten thousand men. 6 Cnut was joined by his Norwegian brother-in-law, Earl Erik of Lade, whose long experience in warfare and government made him an ideal advisor for the inexperienced young prince. 7 Just before leaving, they were joined by Thorkell who had abandoned Ethelred. 8
The invasion force landed in Wessex in the summer of 1015. Most likely, the landing was made in the south because Cnut’s earlier abandonment had alienated the people in the Danelaw. 9 Shortly after landing, the invasion force was joined by the English Earl Eadric Streona with forty ships. 10 Within four months, Cnut controlled Wessex and was operating north of the Thames. After Earl Uhtred of Northumbria surrendered and was killed by Cnut on the advice of Eadric, Erik of Lade became Cnut’s Earl in the north. 11
In April of 1016, Cnut brought his fleet into the Thames and besieged London. At this time, Ethelred died and his son, Edmund Ironside, was declared king by the people of London.
Edmund broke out of London before the siege was closed He collected an army which defeated the Danes in several skirmishes. At this point, the outlook for the Danes was black enough that Eadric deserted Cnut and joined Edmund’s forces. In October, Edmund’s army caught the Danes at Ashingdon in Essex. Early in this battle, Eadric and his forces fled from the Danes and the English were decisively defeated. Edmund survived and fled to Gloucestershire where he and Cnut met and accepted a peace settlement. They agreed that Cnut’s soldiers were to be paid a specified amount and the country would be divided between them. Edmund was given Wessex while Cnut received all of the country north of the Thames. 12 The potential for renewed hostilities was removed when Edmund died on November 30, 1016 and Cnut was accepted by the English as their king.
Cnut was still young when he became king of England, but he had either been well trained in statesmanship, or more likely, he listened to the advice of his more experienced counsellors. 13 Thorkell held a particularly important place in the kingdom in the early years of Cnut’s reign. He was listed first of the earls in charters that he witnessed and is the only earl addressed by name in Cnut’s letter to the English people of 1019-1020. 14
The pacification of England began immediately after Cnut was declared king. Cnut divided the country into four districts with military governors in each district. Eadric Streona was given his old Earldom of Mercia, Erik controlled Northumbria, Thorkell was put in charge of East Anglia and Cnut himself kept Wessex. During Cnut’s first year as king, several important Anglo-Saxon nobles were executed including Eadric, whose execution seems to have been popular with the English people as indicated by the comment in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “very rightly”. 15 In addition to the executions, the young sons of Edmund were exiled, eventually finding a home in Hungary out of Cnut’s reach. Cnut married Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, probably to neutralize the presence of Ethelred’s sons, Alfred and Edward, who were in exile in Normandy. Cnut negotiated with Duke Richard of Normandy and agreed that any children by Emma would have precedence over his other children and over Emma’s sons by Ethelred. 16
With his kingdom free from attack from Normandy, Cnut felt secure enough to send most of his army home in 1018. The fleet was paid off with a huge Danegeld of 72,000 pounds of silver collected from throughout the country and an additional 10,500 pounds from London. Cnut retained forty ships for his personal body guard and to serve as the nucleus of a defense force. 17 In the same year, at a national assembly at Oxford, both the Danes and English in the kingdom agreed to accept the laws of King Edgar as the foundation of their legal relationships. These laws were later drafted into a legal code by Archbishop Wulfstan. At this point, Cnut’s reign as an English king effectively began. 18
Cnut was a Christian when he became king, but he retained the mentality of a Viking. 19 He openly acknowledged Elgifu of Northhampton as his consort and treated her as his northern queen. In other areas, Cnut cooperated fully with the English church which in turn granted him a legitimacy that would otherwise have been hard to win. This enabled him to gain the support of the Pope and the Emperor when he went on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1027 where he also attended the Emperor Conrad’s coronation. While in Rome Cnut sent a letter back to England reporting that he had negotiated a reduction in the fee paid by the English Archbishops to receive their pallium from the Pope and also arranged a reduction in the fees and tolls paid by English pilgrims and merchants on the road to Rome.
When Cnut’s brother Harald died in 1019, England was secure enough that he could go to Denmark to assure his succession leaving Thorkell as regent. Thorkell’s ambitions apparently got the better of him because he was outlawed in 1021 after Cnut returned. They were reconciled on Cnut’s next trip to Denmark in 1023 when Thorkell was made regent there, but he died within a couple of years and Earl Ulf, who was married to Cnut’s sister Estrith, was made regent for Cnut’s son Hordacnut
In 1026 Cnut was in Denmark again to face a threat from an alliance between King Onund-Jakob of Sweden and King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway. In a battle at Holy River in Southern Sweden, Cnut’s fleet was driven off, but he retained command of the sea and Olaf was forced to return to Norway overland instead of in his ships. 20 On his return to Denmark, Cnut dealt with Ulf whom he apparently suspected of conspiring with the enemy. Ulf was murdered in the sanctuary of Rothskilde church at Cnut’s command. For this crime, Cnut placated the church with lavish gifts. 21 Since he went on his pilgrimage to Rome directly from Denmark, it may have been undertaken partly in penance for this act against the church sanctuary.
While he was in Rome, Cnut’s emissaries were busy bribing the independent Norwegian nobility. 22 He returned to Norway in 1028 with a large fleet and his overlordship was accepted without opposition. Olaf could not raise an army to oppose Cnut and was forced to go into exile in Russia. At an assembly at Trondheim in Norway, Cnut established Hordacnut as king of Denmark and set Earl Hakon Eriksson to govern Norway. 23 At this time, Cnut had earned the description used in his letter of 1027 to the English people, “King of the all England and of Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden”. 24
The situation in Norway changed in the summer of 1029 when Hakon drowned. Cnut then sent his consort Elgifu as regent for their son Svein whom he appointed as king of Norway. This appointment was not well received by the Norwegians. Hearing this, Olaf attempted to return from exile. A Norwegian army met and defeated him at Stickelstad, resulting in Olaf’s death and eventual sainthood. The Norwegians later rejected Svein and asked Olaf’s son Magnus to return as their king. This ended Cnut’s influence in Norway.
Cnut’s relations with Germany were excellent. The Emperor Conrad’s son, Henry, was betrothed to Cnut’s daughter Gunhild and Conrad ceded Schleswig and territory north of the River Eider to Denmark as a token of their friendship. 25 In exchange, Cnut maintained neutrality during Conrad’s campaigns against Poland in 1032.
Relations with Normandy were favorable until the death of Duke Richard II in 1026. Cnut attempted to maintain a good relationship with Duke Robert by offering his sister Estrid in marriage, but she was rejected. Robert then began to press Cnut to recognize the rights of Alfred and Edward who were still exiles in his court. 26 Cnut’s refusal led to broken relations. There are hints in charters that Robert may have collected an invasion fleet in 1033, but he seems to have used it against the Bretons which may have been his intent all along. 27
In addition to a prosperous trade relationship within his empire, a study of Cnut’s coinage shows that there were significant improvements in this important technology in Scandinavia during his reign. The English monetary system was well organized prior to Cnut’s reign. The coin types were of high quality with very consistent weight. 28 At the beginning of Cnut’s reign, Scandinavians exchanged silver by weight, treating hack silver and coins alike in their transactions. Toward the end of his reign, Cnut’s northern coins were equal in quality and consistently to those produced in England.
Little is known of the last years of Cnut’s reign. A few charters survive that show he was at Glastonbury in 1032 and Sherborne in 1035. 29 The few entries for these years in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicate a peaceful time. 30
Cnut died at Shaftesbury on November 12, 1035 and was buried at Old Minster in Winchester. He was less than forty years old when he died. The death of his sons, Harold and Hordacnut, within seven years brought an end to the empire Cnut had formed. Before his own death in 1042, Hordacnut made Edward, Ethelred’s son, his heir. This returned the West Saxon dynasty to power. If Cnut had lived longer, his legacy might have been more significant. As it was, he gave England almost thirty years of freedom from foreign invasion. 31 Stenton provides a fitting summary of Cnut’s reign, “It was so successful that contemporaries found little to say about it”. 32
With the death of his father Svein Forkbeard, Canute (Knut Sveinsson) withdrew from England to Denmark. There, he gathered his forces, came back to England in 1015 and took control of virtually the whole country, except for the city of London. At the death of ?thelred II, in 1016, the Londoners chose Edmund II as their king, but the Witan had chosen Canute. A series of engagements with Edmund followed, with Canute defeating Edmund at Ashington, Essex. A treaty was made between them calling for a partition of England, which would continue in force until one of their deaths, at which time all lands would revert to the survivor. Canute had only a month to wait to become king, since Edmund II died in November of 1016.
Canute consolidated his power by eliminating all claimants to the throne from the House of Wessex, through either banishment or execution. He had a son by his English mistress ?lgifu, Harald Harefoot, who would be regent at Canute’s death and then, king for a short time. Canute got rid of his mistress and took ?thelred’s widow, Emma, to be his lawfully wedded wife. Their union produced a legitimate son, Hardicanute, who would later rule as Canute II.
Canute’s reign was a strong and effective one. He brought with him security from foreign invasion and he ruled justly and well. He was considered a friend of the English church and was generous toward it. At his death, he was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
Canute accompanied his father, Svein Haraldsson, when they attempted to conquer England in 1013. On his father’s death he withdrew to Denmark where his elder brother had inherited the throne. Canute returned with his army in 1015 and although he failed the capture London, he controlled the rest of England.
Ethelred the Unready died in April 1016, and was replaced by his son Edmund Ironside. Canute defeated Edmund at the battle of Ashington in Essex. Soon afterwards, Canute became the undisputed king of England. when he banished or executed all possible claimants to the throne.
In 1017 Cunate divided his kingdom into four earldoms – Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. Whereas he chose Danes as earls of Northumbria and East Anglia, he appointed the Anglo-Saxon, Godwin as Earl of Wessex.
He also summoned Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, to be his wife. They later had a son, Hardicanute. Canute inherited the throne of Denmark from his brother in 1018. By 1030 he was also king of Norway.
Canute brought firm government to England and security from external threat. He died in Shaftesbury in 1035 and was interred in Winchester Cathedral.
The Christian Viking King
on of Swegn Forkbeard. Canute had fought Edmund II tooth and nail for three years. The Witan met and declared him king. The Witan’s train of thought was that if you can’t beat them, join them. Canute at a meeting with the Witan’s at Oxford swore to rule the country under the laws introduced by King Edgar. It was necessary however to quell unrest, which he did with brutal efficiency. Canute was a good king. He upheld the peace and was true to his oath to the Witan. This son of a Pagan was totally captivated by England. It is often said that England conquered Canute rather than the other way round. Canute was baptized and set about building churches and monasteries and promoting the faith as Edgar had done. In 1027, Canute even went to Rome on Pilgrimage where he laid a tribute to St Peter. He slowly rebuilt everything his countrymen had destroyed in the previous centuries. Canute was not only king of England but of Denmark and latterly of Norway. The legend of him stemming the flow of the tide is recounted i
n the life of Harold II. Canute married Emma of Normandy, Aethelred’s widow, which was more for political reasons to avert any attack from Normandy. He had three sons. Two by his first wife ( mistress ) Aelfgifu and Harthacanute ( Hardicanute )by Emma. Canute died at the age of 40.