King Canute of Bosham (Born circa
AD 994 - died 12th November 1035)
Legend of the waves
Canute is best remembered for the story of how he commanded the
waves to go back in Bosham. According to oral tradition, he grew tired of
flattery by the locals.
"You are the greatest man that ever lived," one would say. "O
king, there can never be another as mighty as you," another would say.
"Great Canute, you are the monarch of all, nothing
in this world would dare to disobey you." When one such flatterer
said the king could command the obedience of the sea, the King proved him wrong by practical
demonstration on the foreshore.
"Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings.
For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea
So spoke the King, seated on his throne
with the waves lapping around his feet. "Go back, sea!" he commanded time
and again, but the tide continued as expected. Canute put it to his
courtiers that the sea was not obeying him and insisted they stay there
until they admitted it.
Born the son of King Sweyn (Svein) Forkbeard
of Denmark and
the daughter of Mieszko I of Poland, his grandfather was Harold Bluetooth
and his great-grandfather King Gorm. At the height of his reign King Canute
was ruler of an empire that included England, Denmark, Norway and parts of
In August 1013 he accompanied his father
as a young Viking warrior on their invasion of England. He was initially
put in charge of the Danish army at Gainsborough and, on the death of his
father the following February, they proclaimed him king. However, the body
of ruling magnates
(politicians) refused to accept him and voted instead for Ethelred the Unready
who at that time was in exile in Normandy. Ethelred raised an
army, defeated Canute and forced him to sail back to Denmark with what
remained of his own defeated army.
Meanwhile back in Denmark
Canute’s older brother Harold had become King of Denmark. Canute had suggested that the two brothers should jointly rule the
Kingdom. However, Harold
didn't like the idea and instead promised to support him in a conquest of England if
renounce his rights to the Danish throne.
Conquest of England.
Canute returned to England in the summer of
1015 with a Danish force of approximately 10,000 men. They landed in
Bosham and executed Earl Uhtred for breaking an
oath pledged to Canute's father two years earlier. In April 1016, Canute
took his fleet up the Thames and besieged London. King Ethelred died
during the siege, and his son Edmund Ironside was proclaimed
When Edmund left London to raise an army in the countryside, he was
intercepted by Canute at Ashingdon, Essex. After a decisive victory, meeting on an island in the Severn River, Canute
and Edmund agreed to divide the kingdom, but Edmund died suddenly, leaving Canute
as sole ruler.
At first Canute used harsh measures: he had
prominent English rivals outlawed or killed, engineered the death of
Edmund Ironside's brother, and pursued Edmund's children until they fled
to safety in Hungary. But within a few years he evolved a more even-handed
policy, and he allowed more Englishmen into positions of power. His reign
proved stable, peaceful and prosperous, and the power base he developed in
England helped him pursue claims in Denmark and Norway.
Canute reinstated the laws passed under
King Edgar, reformed the existing laws and initiated a new series of laws
and proclamations. Two significant ones were On
Heriots and Reliefs, and Inheritance in Case
of Intestacy. He strengthened the coinage system, and initiated a series
of new coins which would be of equal weight as those being used in Denmark
and other parts of Scandinavia. This greatly improved the trade of
England, whose economy was in turmoil following years of social disorder.
In part this success was what lead many to praise him so highly.
In order to associate his line with the
overthrown English dynasty and to insure himself against attack from
Normandy where Ethelred's sons Edward the Confessor and Alfred Atheling
were in exile, Canute married Ethelred's widow Emma of Normandy, daughter of Richard the Fearless,
Duke of Normandy in July 1017. He proclaimed their son Harthacanute as heir in
preference to Harold, his illegitimate son by Aelgifu of Northampton.
By dividing the country into four great
earldoms; Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, he instituted the system of
territorial lordships which would underlie English government for
centuries. The very last Danegeld ever paid, a sum of £82,500, went to
Canute in 1018. He felt secure enough to send the invasion fleet back to
Denmark with £72,000 that same year.
He repaired the churches and monasteries
that were looted by his army and he constructed new ones. He became a big patron of
the monastic reform, which was popular among the ecclesiastical and
secular population. The most generous contribution he is remembered for is
the impressive gifts and relics that he bestowed upon the English Church.
Canute’s pilgrimage to Rome in 1027 was another sign of his devotion to the Christian faith. It is still debated whether he went to
repent his sins, or to attend Emperor Conrad II’s coronation in order to
improve relations between the two powers. While in Rome, Canute obtained
the agreement from the Pope to reduce the fees paid by the English
archbishops to receive their pallium. He also arranged with other
Christian leaders that the English pilgrims should pay reduced or no toll
tax on their way, and that they would be safeguarded on their way to Rome.
In 1028, Canute conquered Norway with a fleet of fifty ships from England.
At an assembly at Trondheim, he was officially crowned King. His new title
was “King of all England and of Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden”. His
attempt to govern Norway through Aelgifu (his concubine) and his other son
by her, Sweyn, ended in rebellion and the restoration of the former
Norwegian dynasty under Magnus I.
Canute died on the 12th November 1035, at Shaftesbury in Dorset, and was buried in the Old
Minster in Winchester. On his death, Canute was succeeded in Denmark by
Harthacanute, reigning as Canute III. Harold took power in England,
however, ruling until his death (1040), whereupon the two crowns were
again briefly reunited under Harthacanute.