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King Canute of Bosham   (Born circa AD 994 - died 12th November 1035)

Legend of the waves

King 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 obey".

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 Sweden.

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 he would renounce his rights to the Danish throne.

The 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 king.

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.


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