Biography of Canute I, the Great

Name: Canute I, the Great
Bith Date: c. 995
Death Date: November 12, 1035
Place of Birth:
Nationality: Danish
Gender: Male
Occupations: king
Canute I, the Great

Canute I (ca. 995-1035) was a viking king who united the English and Danish people of England to become the first ruler since the fall of Rome to rule over all of England.

Contributed by E. Lanier Clark, Assistant Professor of History, Albany State College, Albany, Georgia

Name variations: Translations of Viking runes phonetically indicate that Knut is proper, but the Anglicized versions--Cnut, Canute--are more popular. Pronounced: Ke-NOOT. Born Canute Sweynson between 995 and 998; died at Shaftesbury on November 12, 1035; son of Sweyn Haraldson (king of Denmark) and Gunhild (a Polish princess and sister to Duke, later King, Boleslav Chrobry); married: Aelfgifu of Aelfhelm; married: Emma (widow of the English king Ethelred), 1017; children: (first marriage) Harald Harefoot and Sweyn; (second marriage) Harthacanute and Gunhild. Predecessor: Ethelred the Unready in England, Harald Sweynson in Denmark, and Olaf Haraldson in Norway. Successors: son Harald Harefoot in England and Denmark.

The life of Canute Sweynson (Cnut the Viking) King of England (1016-35), Denmark (1018-35), and Norway (1028-29), developed in a culture and setting shaped by over 100 years of interaction between the Danes and the English, for the Danish and Norwegian Vikings had used England and Ireland as a source of plunder and treasure. Violence dominated the relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes. The accession of Ethelred I to the English throne in 975 intensified the strife, as he proved to be neither a capable warrior nor an efficient administrator. The period of upheaval and civil war between 975 and 1015 was especially important for Canute and for England.

Inhabitants called the northeast section of England the Danelaw. This was the largest Viking settlement, a region occupied by Danes for over 100 years. By 975, the local English population had accepted the presence of these foreigners; indeed, English and Danish intermarriage was not uncommon. In this Viking settlement, the tribal leaders laid the groundwork for a Viking king to unite them.

Descended from the Shieldings, a long line of kings, Canute was also reputed by the Viking sagas to be descended from the Knytling dynasty, adding to his prestige. His grandfather was Harald Bluetooth, and his father Sweyn Haraldson, both kings of Denmark. When Canute was born (c. 995/998), his father was in the process of conquering more areas of England under Ethelred's rule. Canute's mother Gunhild was a Polish princess and sister to Duke (later King) Boleslav Chrobry. Gunhild became Sweyn's consort and mistress. Though they had no formal marriage arrangement, Sweyn made their sons, Harald and Canute, his heirs.

Details of Canute's early life remain unclear because no written record exists. When the King married Sigrid the Haughty (the widow of King Eric of Sweden) in order to cement an alliance with Sweden, Gunhild had to leave Sweyn's court. Evidently, Gunhild took Canute--then no more than two or three years old--to the court of her brother. Though his childhood is shrouded in mystery, evidence points to a foster father, Thorkil the Tall, a distant cousin and brother to Earl Sigvaldi of Jomburg. Thorkil had also served as second-in-command to Sweyn on several raids during the years preceding Canute's birth.

Between 994 and 1007, Sweyn led a constant barrage of raids upon the beleaguered kingdom of England. Canute's brother Harald served as regent during the father's absence from Denmark. Sweyn resumed these attacks in 1009, and Canute appeared for the first time with his father in 1013. In that year, Canute held the fleet camp at Gainsborough in northeastern England while his father subdued all of northern and eastern England. Even London, which had lost no battles to the Vikings, submitted to Sweyn's authority, and in January 1014, Ethelred fled to Normandy and the court of his brother-in-law, Duke Richard.

On February 3, 1014, Sweyn's death, following a brief illness, set a number of events in motion. His elder son Harald received the crown of Denmark, while Sweyn's host ("army") at Gainsborough acknowledged Canute as his father's successor in England. Unfortunately, Canute needed the acceptance of both English and Danish nobles to claim the English throne. Though untested, the 20-year-old Canute must have displayed great promise or the Viking host would not have followed him.

Although they had given hostages to insure their submission to Sweyn and his son, the English nobles conspired with their exiled King. In April, Ethelred returned and gathered a large army to drive Canute from England. Realizing he could not hope for victory, Canute withdrew in May, taking revenge upon his unfortunate hostages. By his hasty retreat, Canute lost the Danelaw. He arrived in Denmark to find his brother in firm command with no interest in redividing the inheritance. Though both brothers agreed to assist each other in their endeavors to secure their kingdoms, Canute's claim remained more tenuous.

The following year, Canute (with assistance from another brother, Earl Eric, regent of Norway, and his foster father Thorkil) led an army which overran English territories of Wessex and Mercia. While this force was in England, Olaf Haraldson (the Stout), in the absence of Eric, began his quest to gain the throne of Norway. Because of his preoccupation with England, Canute could not spare Eric to return to defend Norway, and Eric would have to wait 15 more years for his chance to bring Norway under his sway.

Though Ethelred and his son, Saxon King Edmund Ironside, were no match for Canute, the Eadric of Mercia's change in allegiance gave Canute a significant edge. In the fall of 1015, Ethelred lost Wessex; in early 1016, Northumbria surrendered and was placed under the control of Earl Eric of Norway; by April, Canute was planning his attack on London. Before he could launch the assault, however, Ethelred died on April 23. Though in choosing a new king the English witan ("council of nobles") usually selected a successor in the line of Alfred of Wessex; they evidently had some powers of discretion. Before May's end, when over three-fourths of the kingdom had submitted to the Dane, many magnates and ecclesiastical leaders had met to designate Canute as their choice. At the same time, a similar body in London declared for Ethelred's son Edmund--an act which could only prolong the violence.

Using Mercia as a source of provisions, Canute besieged London over the course of the summer. In the fall, he led an attack on East Anglia, despite having to simultaneously besiege London. On October 18, 1016, Edmund's army found the Danes at Ashingdon and--against the advice of Eadric--attacked Canute's army. Edmund lost decisively. With England by then too exhausted to continue raising armies for him, Edmund's councillors suggested a division of England with peace. The "Compact of Olney" followed, dividing England into two sections: Edmund received Wessex while Canute held London, Mercia, and Northumbria. Edmund agreed in addition to levy a Danegeld ("tax") upon his lands to support Canute's army. Each ruler made the other his heir and exchanged oaths of friendship.

Canute Gains Undisputed Control of England

Edmund died on November 30, however, leaving Canute in undisputed control of England. For the first time in seven years, peace returned to the country, and at the Christmas celebration in London all of England's nobles recognized Canute as England's king.

Not wishing to destroy the existing social order, Canute made England the center of a growing empire, governing the kingdom with the advice of English as well as Danish nobles. The new king would need strong English support for a stable rule, yet he brought with him from Scandinavia the custom of allowing considerable freedom to nobles. Indebted to his Danish and Norwegian nobles who had shown him strong support, he raised several Scandinavians to high court positions, while depending most heavily upon Earl Eric of Norway and his foster father Thorkil. To compensate for the loss of Norway in 1016, he made Eric the Earl of Northumbria. Thorkil became Earl of East Anglia and Canute's regent in Denmark in the King's absence. Canute also utilized the Mercian Eadric, despite Eadric's history of shifting allegiances; the Archbishop of York, Wulfstan II; and the newly made Earl Godwin of Devon. The use of such English councillors clearly indicated Canute's desire to rule the kingdom in the manner of his Anglo-Saxon predecessors.

Confirming the existing system, Canute's first act as king was to divide the kingdom into four great earldoms. While Eric, Eadric, and Thorkil held the above-mentioned positions, Canute held Wessex for himself, developing a division of power and land that would later provide a base for resistance by other such nobles against future kings. In addition to this system, Canute established a series of lesser earldoms along the Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish marches to protect those regions from raiders.

In July 1017, Canute married Emma, the widow of Ethelred. He had as well a consort in Denmark, Aelfgifu of Aelfhelm, with whom he had initiated a relationship in 1013 while holding charge of the fleet at Gainsborough. His marriage to Aelfgifu was after the Danish custom and not one sanctioned within the Christian church; together they had two sons, Harald Harefoot and Sweyn. When Canute then married Emma, a precondition was that the sons of their marriage would stand in line for the English throne before Canute's older sons or Emma's sons by Ethelred. The royal couple would eventually have two children, a boy, Harthacanute, and a girl, Gunhild, who later married Prince Henry of Germany.

During 1018, Canute sent most of his Scandinavian host back to Denmark. With the remaining 3,000 men, he established an elite bodyguard, which became the core of his army, and stationed these soldiers at strategic points around the kingdom. The defense of the peace against both English offenders and Danish raiders rested upon this force. In the summer his brother Harald died without heirs. Then in October, Archbishop Wulfstan drafted a law code for Canute; it reinforced the idea that Canute was ruling as an English successor to the line of Alfred of Wessex, thus making his rule more palatable to his English subjects.

Canute returned to Denmark in 1019 to establish a firm claim to the throne, but, regarding England as not yet stabilized, he did not remain long in his homeland. After making Thorkil his regent in Denmark in the spring of 1020, Canute journeyed back to London to contend with a plot led by the Earl of Devon whom he replaced with Godwin of Devon.

Among the problems Canute faced during his rule was the conflict between his Christian and pagan followers. In England, he ruled as a most Christian king, ordering his nobles to follow the advice of the bishops and abbots and having the holy relics of the martyred Archbishop Aelfheah transferred from London to Canterbury in June 1023. His outlawing of Thorkil, a determined pagan, in 1021, may also have been a concession to the Christian church in England; Thorkil was reconciled to Canute two years later but never returned to England. This period also found the King endowing many churches and rebuilding monasteries to secure the goodwill of the Church.

After Thorkil's fall from grace, Canute used his brother-in-law, Earl Ulf, and his Danish consort, Aelfgifu, to enforce the laws and collect the taxes in Denmark. He named Sweyn, his son by Aelfgifu, regent though the power resided with Earl Ulf and Aelfgifu. In 1023, Canute sent Harthacanute, his son by Emma, to the Danish court to learn Danish customs as would befit a future king of Denmark.

That same year, he began pressing his claims to Norway in opposition to King Olaf Haraldson the Stout. With Earl Eric of Norway dead, no one else could contest Canute's claim, and if Olaf meant to hold the kingdom, Canute said, then he would do so as a vassal to Canute--an idea which Olaf rejected. In preparation for the forthcoming war, Canute was able to forge an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad the Salic. This alliance added some disputed territory to Canute's southern Danish border and gave Conrad support against dissident Slavs in the eastern part of his realm. This treaty also freed Canute from the worry of intervention by Conrad should an invasion of Norway be necessary.

By the autumn of 1025, Canute was in Denmark preparing a fleet and army for war. With large sums of money in hand, he also employed bribery as a means to change the loyalties of some Norwegian nobles. Six months later, Canute traveled to England, leaving Harthacanute as regent under the guidance of Earl Ulf. Unfortunately, Ulf's ambition outran his common sense; heavy-handed in ruling the Danes, he provoked some to rebel against the regent and declare their support for Olaf. Ulf even went so far as to declare Harthacanute king before an assembly of Danish nobles.

That summer Canute returned to Denmark with a large English force to suppress the rebellion and to press a war against Olaf. In the former act, Canute was successful, even forgiving Ulf; in the latter, however, Canute was defeated in battle September 1026 at the mouth of the Holy River. It was, however, a pyrrhic victory for Olaf. Badly outnumbered, he was forced to flee to Sweden for the winter.

During the war, Earl Ulf was assassinated in a church, and for this Canute had to repay the Church in Denmark and the widow, his sister. With this deed weighing on his mind, in 1027 Canute proclaimed that he would make a pilgrimage to Rome and ask forgiveness of the pope, John XIX, hoping that such a trip would repair the strain put on his relationship with the Roman Catholic Church by the murder of Earl Ulf. The trip would also offer Canute an opportunity to confer with the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad face to face.

Arriving in Rome near the end of March, Canute attended a Church synod at the Lateran Palace and requested a reduction in fees for the palia of English archbishops, to which the Pope consented under the condition of a more regular payment of Peter's pence. In addition, Canute managed to obtain lower charges for pilgrims at inns along the route from England through Burgundy, as well as a promise for better protection for English pilgrims traveling through that region.

His business concluded in Rome, Canute returned to Denmark quickly, perhaps fearing a renewal of hostilities with the spring thaw. Fortunately, Denmark was quiet enough to allow him to return to England in late 1027 to deal with Scottish raiders. With a large army, Canute forced King Malcolm of Scotland and Earl Macbeth to render homage.

By 1028, the English ruler was back in Denmark to pursue his conquest of Norway. He encountered little resistance when he finally invaded. Advancing through the kingdom, he summoned the assemblies of minor nobles, the franklins, who swore faith and gave hostages. At the Ere-thing ("council meeting") in Throndheim, the franklins declared him the true king of Norway. At that meeting, many lords rendered homage to and received enlarged fiefs ("estates") from Canute.

A Meeting of the Nobles

In 1028, for the only time in his life, Canute called an imperial meeting at Nidaros, where the nobles from all three parts of his kingdom met. Creating a system of vassal earls and kings, he named his nephew, Haakon, earl of Norway and vice-regent while he made Harthacanute king of Denmark, with his foster brother Harald Thorkilson as chief advisor. As long as Canute reigned with an easy hand, his Norwegian nobles remained loyal. But when Aelfgifu, as regent for Harthacanute in Denmark and Norway, ruled with a heavy hand in Canute's name, the nobles of Norway began to turn away.

In 1029, Canute was again in England with his eastern portions of the kingdom once more secure. Unfortunately, his nephew Haakon perished during a storm in January 1030 and in his place Canute appointed Kalf Arnesson as vice-regent; his son Sweyn was named earl of Norway.

King Malcolm of Scotland renewed his homage during the year 1031, while many Welsh lords apparently submitted to Canute's overlordship as well. Yet the Empire had already grown too large for one man to rule easily. By 1033, problems were developing in Norway; Aelfgifu's rule had grown burdensome to Norwegian nobles, many of whom spoke of bringing Olaf Haraldson back. In the face of their growing rebellion, in 1035 Canute planned to travel again to Denmark in part to finalize the arrangements for a marriage between his daughter, Gunhild, and the son of Emperor Conrad, the future Henry III.

But the trip never took place. Following a period of illness, Canute died on November 12, 1035, at Shaftesbury while on an inspection tour of England; his remains were buried at Winchester. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the writer reported jaundice as the cause of death. During his 19-year reign, Canute had provided peace for England, as well as freedom from the savage raids which had marked his predecessor's reigns. His children did not long survive his death. Harthacanute reigned briefly as king of the entire realm but did not possess his father's strength or abilities. Harald also ruled briefly, but the great Anglo-Danish Empire depended upon a vigorous personality such as Canute. By 1040, the Empire was an idea of the past and in 1042, another Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor (son of Ethelred II), ascended the throne.

Historical Context

  • 911 Viking Rollo granted Normandy by the Franks
  • 945 Harald Bluetooth crowned king of Denmark
  • 985-1014 Sweyn Haraldson crowned king of Denmark
  • 995 Canute born
  • 1014 Death of his father, Sweyn Haraldson
  • 1016 Death of Ethelred and Edmund Ironside; Canute became king of England
  • 1019 Became king of Denmark upon brother's death
  • 1027 Pilgrimage to Rome
  • 1028 Conquered Norway; his son Sweyn became king
  • 1033 Norwegian Revolt
  • 1035 Canute died; his possessions divided
  • The Life and Times of Canute I, the Great (995-1035)
  • At the time of Canute's birth:
  • Ethelred II (the Unready) was king of England
  • Otto III was Holy Roman Emperor
  • Syria was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire by Basil II
  • At the time of Canute's death:
  • Harold I succeeded Canute as king of England
  • Henri I was king of France
  • Castile's Sancho the Great died after ruling Navarre for 35 years and Castile for 8 years; he is succeeded by his son Ferdinand I
  • The times:
  • 330-1453: Byzantine Empire
  • 378-1000: Early Medieval Europe
  • 428-1100: Old English Period (English Literature)
  • 787-1066: Age of the Viking Raids
  • 1000-1450: Middle Ages
  • Canute's contemporaries:
  • Brian Boru (926-1014) Irish king
  • Erik the Red (950-1000) Norwegian navigator
  • Leif Eriksson (975-?) Icelandic navigator
  • Lady Godiva (1010-1067) English social reformer
  • William I, the Conqueror (1027-1087) Norman king
  • Selected world events:
  • 1000: Chinese used gunpowder in war
  • 1000: Leif Eriksson discovered Western Hemisphere
  • 1013: Danes conquered England
  • Further Reading

    • The main source of facts about Canute is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, edited and translated by G.N. Garmonsway (1953). For analyses of Canute's character, policies, and achievements see F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943; 2d ed. 1947), and C.N.L. Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963).
    • Larson, Laurence Marcellus. Canute the Great, c. 995-1035, and the Rise of Danish Imperialism During the Viking Age.Putnam, 1912.
    • Loyn, H. R. The Vikings in Britain. St. Martin's Press, 1977.
    • Brooke, Christopher. From Alfred to Henry III, 871-1272. Norton, 1961.
    • Garmonsway, G. N. Canute and His Empire. University College Press, 1964.

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