Almost one thousand years ago, fifty years before the Norman Conquest, Canute became King of England.
The second son of king Sweyn of Denmark, who made war on Ethelred the Unready, King of England, Canute helped Sweyn to defeat the English army, forcing Ethelred into exile. But Sweyn died before he could declare himself king. A hasty family agreement gave Canute’s elder brother Harold the crown of Denmark, while Canute agreed to take over as king of England. However, the English nobles refused to accept Canute as king and asked Ethelred to return home and take the throne. Ethelred raised an army and forced Canute to abandon England.
Canute planned his revenge. He went home to Denmark and raised over 10,000 men and launched an invasion. In April 1016, Canute entered the Thames and laid siege to London. Ethelred, on hearing the news, suffered a heart attack and died. Ethelred was succeeded by his son, Edmund Ironside, who was forced to sue for peace and agreed to split the kingdom into two. And one year later, when Edmund died, Canute seized Edmund’s half of the kingdom.
Canute proved to be a most effective ruler. He divided England into territorial lordships, owing allegiance to the king, providing a unified system of government that would last until the Tudors. He ended the practice of Danegeld, a tax paid by English kings to Danish lords in return for their not ransacking England.
Canute was generally remembered as a wise and successful king of England, although this view may in part be attributable to his good treatment of the Church, keeper of the historical record. Accordingly, he is described as a religious man, despite the fact that he had two wives and dealt harshly with his fellow Christian opponents.
Canute is still famous for the tale of the incoming tide, although its implication is usually misinterpreted. According to legend, his courtiers flattered him into believing that his word was so powerful that even the tide would recede at his command. The first written account of the episode was in the Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People) by the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, writing some 50 years after the death of Canute (1035 AD).
According to the story, the king had his chair carried down to the shore and ordered the waves not to break upon his land. When his orders were ignored, he pronounced: “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless and there is no King worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven and earth and sea obey eternal laws.”
Canute died in 1035 and was buried in the Old Minster at Winchester. The Normans later built Winchester Cathedral on the site and the bones from earlier burials, including Canute’s, were placed in mortuary chests. During the English Civil War in the 17th century, Roundheads ransacked the place and scattered the bones of Canute on the floor along with various others. After the Restoration of the monarchy, the bones were gathered together and replaced at random in the chests, which can still be seen today.
1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates, written by W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman and illustrated by John Reynolds, first appeared serially in Punch magazine and was later published in book form by Methuen in 1930. It records that:
“Canute began by being a Bad King on the advice of his Courtiers who informed him (owing to a misunderstanding of the Rule Britannia) that the King of England was entitled to sit on the sea without getting wet. But finding that they were wrong he gave up this policy and decided to take his own advice in future – thus originating the memorable proverb, ‘Paddle your own Canute’.”