King Canute was an accidental king. If it wasn’t for another of our infamous kings he probably would never have even come to our shores. That King was Aethelred or Ethelred the Unready. Of course his name is not exactly what it seems, Unready meaning more ill-advised than unprepared and ill-advised he certainly was. For many Saxon kings before Ethelred, Vikings had been a constant threat and so when Ethelred married Emma, the sister of the Duke of Normandy, he felt more secure on the throne having the Normans as allies. Shortly after his marriage, however, Ethelred made a huge mistake. He had ALL the Danish men left in England massacred, thinking this would make his position even stronger.
Unfortunately for Ethelred amongst the dead was Svein Forkbeard’s, (King of Norway) sister and brother-in-law. Wanting to avenge their deaths, Svein immediately made his way to England, which of course was bad news for Ethelred. Initially he came over and raided the south coast repeatedly until Ethelred tried to get rid of him by paying a ransom tax called ‘Danegeld’.
In 1013 he returned to England with his son Canute with one purpose only, to conquer England for himself. It wasn’t long before he was accepted as King with Ethelred fleeing to Normandy. Unfortunately Svein died only a year later and Ethelred returned briefly as King. In 1016 Canute came back to England and won the Battle of Ashingdon against Edmund, Ethelred’s eldest son and after a brief treaty became the first Viking king over the whole of England.
Canute married Emma, Ethelred’s widow who bore him two sons, Harthacnut and Gunhild. Emma had her other two sons from Ethelred remain in Normandy which would lead to future consequences for England and the Viking monarchy. In 1018 Canute’s brother the King of Denmark died leaving the throne to Canute and paving the way for him to make a claim for Norway. Canute put his son Svein and Mistress Aelgifu (an English lady) in charge of Norway and returned to England and before long Scotland also fell to him. Now Canute was King of all England, Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden.
Due to his hold over these realms Canute’s reign was largely peaceful and he was known as a humble and pious King but when he had to do battle he was renowned as a warrior king.
Today when people mention the name Canute they think of a proud man who tried to halt the tide, however, as the story goes his account was more of a testimony to God’s greatness other than his own.
Kings were inclined to believe in their own greatness and it sometimes went to their heads. Canute was told so often by his courtiers that he was King above all others that he took action against it. Canute was a Christian King and by way of proving Gods magnificence above all others he ordered his throne to be taken to the sea shore. When he could not command the tide to turn and had sea under his feet he pronounced
“All the inhabitants of the world should know that the power of a king is vain and trivial and that none is worthy of the name king but he whose command the heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws”
It is said that he never again placed a crown upon his head.
King Canute reigned for 20 years and died at Shaftsbury. He was buried in the ancient monastery at Winchester. Canute was the first ever King to hold such a wide ranging authority. He also upheld many English laws with a great sense of Justice and rights for the individual.
With Canute’s passing loomed the end of Viking rule, for neither of his sons came to much and with the return of Emma’s first son, Edward (later to be known as Edward the Confessor), came the return of the Anglo-Saxons.