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Cnut the Great by Timothy Bolton
Cnut the Great by Timothy Bolton

Cnut the Great

In the annals of early 11th-century rulers, one figure stands out prominently – Cnut, known as Cnut the Great and Canute. He ascended to the throne of England in 1016, assuming the title of King, and later, in 1018, claimed the throne of Denmark. Such dominion over two kingdoms brought about a remarkable union under his reign, and this triumvirate of power, which included Norway from 1028 onwards, became known as the North Sea Empire.

Hailing from Danish lineage, Cnut’s rise to power followed the decline of Viking activities in the region. His ambition was to consolidate his authority by forging strong cultural bonds and shared traditions between the Danes and the English.

Not content with ruling over England and Denmark alone, Cnut, after facing challenges in the northern lands, seized the crown of Norway in Trondheim in 1028. Some influence in the Swedish city of Sigtuna also came within his grasp, as evidenced by coins struck in his name. Yet, the extent of his occupation there remains veiled in uncertainty. While he managed to gain submission from Malcolm II of Scotland in 1031, his influence over Scotland saw a gradual waning over time.

Cnut’s dominion over England had broader implications, granting the Danes a significant foothold in the maritime region that spanned between Great Britain and Ireland. His predecessors, and indeed he himself, held considerable sway and interests among the Norse Gaels in this domain. Controlling the English dioceses and the continental Diocese of Denmark, which held a claim asserted by the Holy Roman Empire’s Archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen, granted Cnut prestige and leverage within the Catholic Church, garnering recognition from influential figures in Christendom. In this regard, he achieved noteworthy concessions, including reduced tolls for his subjects on their pilgrimage to Rome and securing discounts on the pallium for his bishops, though the journey to receive it was still imperative.

Evidencing his triumphs and aspirations, Cnut addressed a missive to his subjects, declaring himself as “King of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes,” celebrating his victories against Norway and Sweden in 1026, and participating in the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor in the Eternal City of Rome.

Among the chronicles of Anglo-Saxon history, esteemed medieval historian Norman Cantor lauds Cnut as “the most effective king,” a ruler whose imprint on the annals of power remains indelible.

Cnut's Birth and Ascent to Kingship

Sweyn (Suanus rex) invading England in 1013 (detail of a 13th-century miniature) – Cambridge University Library

Sweyn (Suanus rex) invading England in 1013 (detail of a 13th-century miniature) – Cambridge University Library

The Enigmatic Figure of Cnut

In the annals of history, emerges the enigmatic figure of Cnut, a scion of Danish royalty, born to Sweyn Forkbeard, the heir of King Harald Bluetooth, a towering figure in the unification of Denmark. Regrettably, the precise details of Cnut’s birth, the time and place shrouded in the mists of time, elude our grasp.

Legends and Lineage

Legends, woven with threads of antiquity, trace the lineage of the Danish royal house back to the fabled Harthacnut I, the founder of the dynasty in the early 10th century. And it was Gorm the Old, Harthacnut’s progeny, who heralded the advent of the official regal line, a distinction etched in the very epithet “Old” adorning his name. Harald Bluetooth, the scion of Gorm, Cnut’s illustrious grandfather, left an indelible mark in the annals of Denmark’s past, instrumental in the Christianization of the realm, a vanguard of the early Scandinavian monarchs to embrace the embrace of Christianity.

Uncertainty in Maternal Ancestry

A veil of uncertainty shrouds the ancestry of Cnut’s mother, as historical records diverge in their accounts. The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg and the Encomium Emmae, in concord, proffer Świętosława, the daughter of Mieszko I of Poland, as the maternal figure of Cnut. In contrast, Norse sagas, chief among them Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson, give voice to a different claim, attributing Cnut’s maternal lineage to Gunhild, daughter of Burislav, the king of Vindland. Amidst these divergent threads of ancestry, a prevailing belief asserts that Sweyn embraced two matrimonial unions: Cnut’s mother, a Slavic princess, and the esteemed Sigrid the Haughty, erstwhile Queen of Sweden.

Glimpses of Early Life and Martial Training

Glimpses of Cnut’s early life are scant, obscured by the veils of antiquity, yet within the 13th-century Icelandic tome, Flateyjarbók, the seeds of his martial tutelage emerge. Therein, it is revealed that he received military training under the mentorship of Thorkell the Tall, a chieftain and sibling to Sigurd, Jarl of Jomsborg, and the storied Jomsvikings, on the hallowed isle of Wollin, nestled along the Pomeranian shore.

Chronicles of Birth and Formative Years

As for the chronicles of his birth, the verses of Óttarr svarti’s Knútsdrápa suggest he engaged in warfare at a tender age, perchance near the year 990 or 980, should these poetic stanzas recount his involvement in Sweyn Forkbeard’s expedition to England during the years 1003-1004. Alternatively, if these verses bespeak of another epoch, like Sweyn’s conquest of England in 1013-1014, the eve of Cnut’s birth may draw closer to the turn of the millennium, in the year 1000.

Destiny and Invasion

The course of Cnut’s destiny gained momentum when, amidst the pages of history, he found himself at the forefront of a Scandinavian host led by his father, the formidable King Sweyn, during the perilous invasion of England in 1013. Oft, it is speculated that Cnut’s prior participation in his father’s earlier forays into England, in the years 1003 and 1004, shaped the path that led him to England’s shores once more.

Struggles for Power and New Endeavors

With the demise of Sweyn, the scepter of Denmark passed to Harald, while the Viking and Danelaw factions, in their tumultuous accord, acclaimed Cnut as England’s King. But the English nobility espoused a different verdict, summoning Æthelred from the refuge of Normandy to reclaim the throne. In the ensuing struggle for power, Cnut sought refuge in Denmark, leaving in his wake hostages upon the Kentish coast. A fruitless endeavor to negotiate a joint sovereignty with Harald ensued, culminating in failure. Undaunted, Cnut steeled himself, mustering a formidable fleet, setting the stage for another momentous invasion of England.

English Conquest

 Denmark Allies
Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor, bestowing a crown upon Bolesław at the Congress of Gniezno. An imaginary depiction from Chronica Polonorum by Maciej Miechowita, c. 1521

Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor, bestowing a crown upon Bolesław at the Congress of Gniezno. An imaginary depiction from Chronica Polonorum by Maciej Miechowita, c. 1521

In the annals of Denmark’s allies, a prominent figure emerges – Bolesław I the Brave, the Duke of Poland and later crowned king, who shared kinship with the Danish royal house. Bolesław I, extending his support, offered a contingent of Polish troops, a gesture likely stemming from a pledge made to Cnut and his brother Harald during their mission to bring their mother back to the Danish court. This motherly figure, dispatched by their father following the demise of Sweden’s King Eric the Victorious in 995, had been married to Sigrid the Haughty, the revered queen mother of Sweden. The matrimonial ties forged a potent alliance between Olof Skötkonung, Sweden’s throne successor, and the rulers of Denmark, who were, in fact, his in-laws. In the ranks of the allies during the English conquest, Swedish forces, beyond a doubt, lent their might.

Moreover, another relative to the Danish royal house appeared on the stage of this great drama – Eiríkr Hákonarson, the Earl of Lade and co-ruler of Norway alongside his brother Sweyn Haakonsson. Norway, tracing its submission to Danish sovereignty back to the historic Battle of Svolder in 999, found itself entwined in this tale. Eiríkr Hákonarson, a figure of significance, took part in the invasion, leaving his son Hakon to rule over Norway, sharing the reins with Sweyn.

The Summer Invasion of 1015

The annals of the summer of 1015 recount the expedition of Cnut’s fleet, setting sail for England with an imposing force of 10,000 warriors, transported aboard a fleet of 200 longships. A grand assembly of warriors hailing from diverse corners of Scandinavia constituted this Viking armada, composed mainly of battle-hardened mercenaries. Over the ensuing fourteen months, the invading host engaged in a fierce and unyielding conflict with the English, with most clashes culminating in battles against Æthelred’s eldest son, Edmund Ironside.

The Campaign Commences

The dawn of the campaign unfolded in September 1015, as Cnut’s formidable fleet reached the shores of Sandwich and proceeded to ply the waters around Kent before making incursions into Wessex, launching invasions in Dorset, Wiltshire, and Somerset. Such a military campaign, of a scale reminiscent of the days of Alfred the Great, stirred echoes from the past. Contemporary records, such as Queen Emma’s Encomium, offer a striking portrayal of Cnut’s naval might, bedecked with an array of glimmering shields and ships adorned with gold and silver, all manned by a formidable and illustrious cadre of noble warriors.

Alliances and Defections

As events unfurled, Wessex, once ruled by the eminent dynasty of Alfred and Æthelred, succumbed to Cnut’s might in the latter months of 1015, much akin to its yielding to his father’s supremacy two years prior. Eadric Streona, the venerable Ealdorman of Mercia, shifted loyalties and aligned with Cnut, bringing with him forty ships and their devoted crews. Among those who forsook their erstwhile allegiance was Thorkell the Tall, a prominent Jomsviking chieftain, whose decision, perchance, was influenced by the ramifications of attacks on Jomsborg’s mercenaries within the confines of England.

The March Northwards

As the year 1016 unfurled, the Vikings crossed the Thames, wreaking havoc upon Warwickshire. Edmund Ironside’s attempts at resistance seemed ineffectual, resulting in the disbandment of the English forces, occasioned by the absence of both king and citizenry of London. In a relentless northward advance through eastern Mercia, Cnut’s host left a trail of devastation in its wake. Edmund, undeterred, forged an alliance with Uhtred, the venerable Earl of Northumbria, and together they ventured to plunder parts of western Mercia, potentially targeting the estates of Eadric Streona. Meanwhile, Cnut’s ascendancy in Northumbria led Uhtred to submit, while Eiríkr Hákonarson arrived, bolstering Cnut’s ranks with further Scandinavian reinforcements, assuming the mantle of command over Northumbria.

Prince Edmund’s Fortitude

Amidst these tumultuous events, Prince Edmund remained ensconced within London’s protective walls, electing to stand resolute. As the sands of time swept on, fate would eventually smile upon him, as he emerged victorious in the succession, following the passing of Æthelred on April 23, 1016.

Cnut’s Southern Journey

Cnut retraced his steps southward, revealing a divided Danish army. Engaging forces with Edmund, who had skillfully eluded the encirclement of London, the English king sought to rally a new army from the heartland of English royalty, Wessex.

Siege of London

Meanwhile, a segment of the Danish army besieged London with strategic prowess. Constructing dikes on the northern and southern flanks and a strategic channel dug across the Thames, the Danes skillfully cut off communications upriver using their longships.

Battles in Somerset and Wiltshire

Battles ensued at Penselwood in Somerset, with the hill in Selwood Forest suspected to be the site. The conflict then shifted to Sherston in Wiltshire, where an arduous struggle spanned two days, yet neither side emerged as the clear victor.

Edmund’s Determined Defense

Edmund’s forces managed a brief respite for London, successfully driving away the Danish invaders and securing a victory by crossing the Thames at Brentford. However, the heavy toll of the conflict necessitated regrouping in Wessex to muster fresh troops. The Danes, undeterred, renewed their siege of London, but subsequent failed assaults led to their withdrawal to Kent, where a significant turning point occurred when Eadric Streona shifted allegiance, supporting King Edmund.

Cnut’s Northern Advances

Taking to the waters, Cnut set sail northwards across the Thames estuary to Essex and journeyed up the River Orwell to inflict further challenges upon Edmund’s forces, ravaging the region of Mercia.

The North Sea Empire of Cnut the Great, c. 1030

The North Sea Empire of Cnut the Great, c. 1030

The Pivotal Battle of Assandun

The turning tide of fate revealed itself on 18 October 1016 during the Battle of Assandun, possibly fought either at Ashingdon in the southeast or Ashdon in the northwest of Essex. Amidst the struggle, Eadric Streona’s loyalties came into question, as he withdrew his forces, dealing a decisive blow to the English. In the aftermath, Edmund fled westwards, pursued by Cnut into Gloucestershire, where another significant battle ensued, likely near the Forest of Dean due to Edmund’s alliance with Welsh forces.

A Negotiated Peace

Amidst the turmoil, Cnut and the wounded Edmund met on an island near Deerhurst to negotiate terms of peace. The two rulers agreed that England north of the Thames would fall under the domain of the Danish prince, while Edmund retained control of all territories to the south, including the coveted city of London. A fateful arrangement also decreed that Cnut would ascend the throne upon Edmund’s passing, unifying the entire realm. Tragically, Edmund’s life came to an untimely end on 30 November, a mere few weeks after the agreement. The circumstances surrounding his demise remain shrouded in mystery, with certain accounts hinting at foul play, while others speculate that he succumbed to wounds inflicted during the battle of Assandun.

Cnut’s Ascendancy

Following the solemn events, the West Saxons accepted Cnut as the sovereign ruler of all of England. In the year 1017, he received the crown from Lyfing, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a momentous ceremony held in London. The pages of history were poised to witness the reign of Cnut, a resolute king who held dominion over a united realm.

King of England

14th-century portrait of Cnut the Great

14th-century portrait of Cnut the Great

Cnut’s Decades of Rule

Cnut, the ruler of England, wielded power for nearly two decades. His firm leadership extended protection against Viking raiders, many of whom served under his command, thus restoring the prosperity that had waned due to relentless Viking assaults in the 980s. Moreover, under his rule, England remained shielded from significant external threats.

Quelling Challenges to the Throne

As the Danish King of England, Cnut acted swiftly to quell any potential challenges from the surviving members of the once-mighty Wessex dynasty. In the early days of his reign, he purged a number of English noblemen he deemed suspicious, making a clear statement of his authority. Eadwig Ætheling, son of Æthelred, fled the realm, but Cnut’s orders eventually led to his demise. Likewise, the sons of Edmund Ironside sought refuge abroad, finding safety under the protection of their kin in the Duchy of Normandy.

Strengthening His Hold on Power

In July 1017, Cnut cemented his hold on power by marrying Queen Emma, the widow of Æthelred and daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy. To finance his rule, he levied a colossal Danegeld of £72,000 from across the land, supplemented by an additional £10,500 from London. With this wealth, he disbanded much of his army, retaining 40 ships and their crews as a standing force in England. To maintain the military, an annual tax known as heregeld, previously instituted by Æthelred to reward Scandinavian warriors in his service, was collected.

Administrative Reforms

Cnut further reshaped the English administrative system, uniting multiple shires under a single ealdorman, creating four large provinces. These units, based on the former separate kingdoms of England, were governed by earls, a title of Scandinavian origin that replaced the previous Ealdorman designation. Cnut retained personal control over Wessex while granting Northumbria to Erik of Hlathir, East Anglia to Thorkell the Tall, and Mercia to Eadric Streona.

Shifts in Power

However, this initial distribution of power saw changes in the following years. Eadric, known for his treacherous nature, met his fate with execution only a year after Cnut’s ascent to the throne. Mercia, too, underwent shifts in rulership, passing to the influential family of Leofwine, potentially under the ealdorman of the Hwicce, Leofric. Thorkell also faced a downfall, being outlawed in 1021.

The Succession in Northumbria

As the 1020s unfolded, Erik of Hlathir’s position as Earl of Northumbria was succeeded by Siward, whose grandmother, Estrid, happened to be Cnut’s sister, connecting their lineage. While Bernicia, the northern part of Northumbria, was theoretically part of Erik and Siward’s earldom, it effectively remained under the sway of the English dynasty based at Bamburgh, a lineage that had wielded dominance in the region since the early 10th century. They served as junior Earls of Bernicia under the titular authority of the Earl of Northumbria.

Legacy and Integration

By the 1030s, Cnut’s direct administration of Wessex had come to an end, as Godwin, a notable Englishman from a powerful Sussex family, was appointed as an earl. As time passed, Cnut entrusted those Anglo-Saxon families from the existing English nobility who had earned his trust to govern his earldoms, gradually integrating them into the fabric of his rule.

The Death of Cnut the Great

Cnut’s Passing and Harthacnut’s Rise

On the twelfth of November in the year 1035, Cnut, the powerful ruler, took his last breath in Shaftesbury, Dorset. With his demise, the reins of power in Denmark were handed over to Harthacnut, known as Cnut III, amid a backdrop of war with Magnus I of Norway. This conflict would later lead to Harthacnut being forsaken by the English, as he prolonged his stay in Denmark. Consequently, Queen Emma, Cnut’s mother, who had been residing in Winchester alongside her son’s housecarls, found herself compelled to seek refuge in Bruges, Flanders. The pressures exerted by Cnut’s other son, Svein, born of Ælfgifu of Northampton, who would later become Harold Harefoot, the regent of England from 1035 to 1037, forced her to depart. Subsequently, Harold Harefoot asserted his claim to the English throne in 1037 and ruled until his demise in 1040.

Harthacnut’s Claim to the Throne

Following the eventual restoration of tranquility in Scandinavia, Harthacnut was free to assert his rightful claim to the throne in 1040, which paved the way for his mother’s reinstatement. This marked a momentous event as he united the crowns of Denmark and England under his rule until his passing in 1042. However, the tranquility in Denmark proved to be short-lived, as the kingdom fell into a period of unrest characterized by a power struggle between Sweyn Estridsson, the claimant to the throne and son of Ulf, and the Norwegian king, which persisted until Magnus’s death in 1047.

The House of Wessex Restored

The venerable house of Wessex regained its former sway as Edward the Confessor, previously in exile in Normandy, struck a significant treaty with his half-brother, Harthacnut. This treaty, mirroring the one with Magnus, stipulated that if Harthacnut died without a legitimate male heir, the throne would pass to Edward. In the fateful year of 1042, Harthacnut’s reign concluded, and Edward ascended the throne as king. This marked the beginning of an era marked by Norman influence at court, setting the stage for the ambitions of the dukes to culminate in the historic invasion of England in 1066, led by William the Conqueror, fifty years after Cnut’s coronation in 1017.

Lost Opportunities and Potential Unions

Had the fortunes of Cnut’s sons been different, and if his only known daughter, Cunigund, had not met her untimely end in Italy before her betrothal to Henry III, the son of Conrad II, Cnut’s reign might well have served as the foundation for a profound political union between England and Scandinavia. Such a union, a North Sea Empire, would have forged enduring ties with the Holy Roman Empire, leaving a lasting legacy in history.

Featured Image

Medieval illumination depicting Kings Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut (right), from the Chronica Majora written and illustrated by Matthew Paris.

Medieval illumination depicting Kings Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut (right), from the Chronica Majora written and illustrated by Matthew Paris.

This medieval illumination portrays two illustrious figures from the past: King Edmund Ironside and King Cnut. The artwork, which finds its home within the pages of the renowned Chronica Majora written and masterfully illustrated by the skilled hand of Matthew Paris, captures a moment of historical significance.

On the left side of the vibrant scene stands King Edmund Ironside, exuding an air of nobility and strength. His regal attire, adorned with intricate patterns and embellishments, reflects the opulence of the medieval era. With a resolute gaze and a firm stance, King Edmund appears as a valiant warrior and a steadfast ruler.

Contrasting his presence on the right side of the illumination, King Cnut commands attention with an air of authority and wisdom. Draped in sumptuous robes, lavishly decorated with symbols of his reign, Cnut’s portrayal exudes an aura of majesty and grandeur. The artist skillfully captures the king’s dignified expression, hinting at the power and charisma that defined his rule.

In the background of the illumination, a beautifully crafted medieval setting comes to life. Ornate architectural elements, inspired by the period’s distinctive design, lend an air of authenticity to the depiction. The use of vibrant colors and intricate brushwork enhances the overall richness of the scene, evoking the lavishness of medieval artistry.

Through Matthew Paris’s remarkable skill and attention to historical accuracy, this illuminated masterpiece immortalizes the legacy of these two significant kings.

Sources

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, July 23). Cnut. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cnut

  • The Empire of Cnut the Great. (2023). Google Books. https://books.google.com.mt/books?id=CV-1H24C_MwC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

  • Cnut the Great. (2017). Google Books. https://books.google.com.mt/books?id=E9sCDgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

  • Wayback Machine. (n.d.). Web.archive.org. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from https://web.archive.org/web/20090824022435/http://www.royal.gov.uk/pdf/wessex.pdf

  • Anglo-Saxon England. (2023). Google Books. https://books.google.com.mt/books?id=0Y65NxJaMtcC&pg=PA393&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

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