Cnut was the ruler of substantial territories across northern Europe in the 11th century.
He ‘was the emperor of five kingdoms … Denmark, England, Wales, Scotland and Norway’, according to the work known as In Praise of Queen Emma, written for his second wife, Emma of Normandy. In a letter sent to England in 1027, Cnut was described as ‘king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and some of the Swedes’.
The early years
Cnut was the son of Swein Forkbeard, king of Denmark (reigned 986–1014), and a Polish noblewoman. Epics composed for him suggest that he started fighting at a young age. He was probably still a teenager when his father died in 1014, after which his father’s army recognised Cnut as its new leader.
In October 1016, Cnut decisively defeated forces led by the English king, Edmund Ironside (reigned 1066), at the Battle of Assandun. When Edmund died on 30 November 1016, Cnut became king of all England.
Denmark, Norway and Scotland
Cnut probably succeeded to the throne of Denmark after the death of his brother, Harold, around 1019. He subsequently became king of Norway in 1028.
There are also reports of Cnut fighting in Scotland. According to one manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 1031 Cnut went to Scotland and received the submission of three kings. One of these, Maelbaeth, may be a reference to the historical Macbeth.
Statesman and lawgiver
Cnut was a major figure in European politics. He attended the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II, in Rome in 1027, and he negotiated with the Pope to reduce the tolls on English merchants and pilgrims in Rome.
He arranged for his daughter to marry Conrad II’s son and for his sister to marry the duke of Normandy. Cnut himself had initially married Ælfgifu of Northampton, an English noblewoman. In 1017, he then married Emma of Normandy, the widow of King Æthelred the Unready (reigned 978–1016).
Cnut’s law-code was issued around 1020, and he also made active efforts to cultivate the English Church. In 1019, he issued a legal confirmation of the lands held by Christ Church, Canterbury, as recorded in the Cnut Gospels. With his wife, Queen Emma, he was a major donor to the New Minster, Winchester, as revealed in the New Minster Book of Life.
Cnut and the sea
Today, Cnut is remembered primarily for the fable about the king and the sea. This asserts that King Cnut sat on the seashore and tried to command the tide not to touch his feet, yet the sea ignored him.
This story first appears in chronicles written more than a century after Cnut died. There is no earlier evidence that Cnut ever tried to command any waves.
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