Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Old English, A Historical Background: King Canute And The North Sea Empire

Canute (Cnut in Old Norse or Canute Cyning in Anglo Saxon), was the sort of man that - like Alfred the Great - comes along once in in a generation. Medieval historian Norman Cantor has referred to him as "the most effective king in Anglo-Saxon England" - ironic in that he himself was not Anglo-Saxon at all.

Canute inherited inherited Anglo-Saxon England from his father upon the his death in 1014 A.D.; driven out  supporters of King Æthelred, he returned in 1015 A.D. and upon the death of Æthelred, continued the struggle with Æthelred's son Edward Ironsides, supported by his older brother King Harald of Demark and variety of troops including Danes, Poles, Swedes, and Norwegians.  Likely this army was composed largely of mercenaries - not coming to settle, but to conquer and get well paid for it.

The campaign climaxed in the Battle of Assandun in 18 October 1016 A.D., where the Anglo-Saxons were defeated when a key leader left the Anglo-Saxon side at a critical moment, causing defeat.  Canute, still apparently respecting Edmund's battle prowess (or perhaps still concerned about his position) signed a treaty with Edmund separating England between them, Canute hold all land north of the Thames, Edmund the land south of it.  Could there have been another period like that of Alfred the Great, where Wessex would again reconquer all of England?  We will never know, because a month later Edmund died.  Canute became the sole ruler of England and was crowned as such in 1017 A.D.

To tighten his control, Canute executed or drove off any remaining members of the house of Wessex and married Emma of Normandy, the widow of Æthelred.  In 1018 he gathered the colossal sum of 82,500 pounds of gold and silver as a Danegeld to pay off most of his fleet and send them home, leaving himself a small (40 ship fleet) - with this, the Viking threat to England was almost completed abated and the country in a position to enjoy peace and prosperity as it had not since the earliest days of Æthelred.  He also reorganized the administrative rule of England:  Ealdormen were replaced by Earl (Anglo-Saxon earl) and the territories made larger:

(Earldoms of England circa 1025.  Source)

In 1018 A.D. Canute's brother King Harald of Denmark died and Canute returned to Denmark in 1019 A.D. to claim his throne.  He took with him some of his Anglo-Saxon subjects: one, an earl named Godwine, earned the king's favor by leading an attack on the Wends.  Godwine we will also see again, as will we see his son, Harold, the future king.

His kingdom secured in 1020 A.D., Canute returned to England to rule, but spent time between the two states, overwintering in one or the other and leaving his representatives (the earls in England or the jarls in Denmark) to manage affairs.  In 1026 A.D. the then current kings of Norway and Sweden, Olaf Haraldsson and Anund Jakob, launched attacks against Denmark.  Canute responded and in 1027 defeated both at the Battle of the Helgea. Canute was now the pre-eminent king in the Norse world.

(Lands ruled by Canute the Great - Source)

In 1027 A.D., Canute was invited to attend the accession of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad the II in Rome.  This was a triumphal trip for Canute as he was now recognized among the greatest kings of Europe.  He met with the pope and negotiated down the cost of a bishopric, complained about the tolls levied of pilgrims, and hit it off with the Emperor - so much so, that the Emperor granted him a strip of land that for years had been contested between the two powers. 

In 1028 A.D., fresh off his success at Rome, Canute invaded Norway, causing the then current king Olaf Haraldsson to flee . Crowned the same year, he now claimed himself as King of England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden.  Unfortunately for Canute his conquest of Norway was not as successful as his conquest of England: plagued by the unexpected death of the jarl designated to managed the kingdom in his absence, his attempts to rule through his wife and older son did not yield the same results as England.  

(North Sea Empire.  Red are lands ruled by Canute, Orange are vassal sates, Yellow are Allied states.  Source)

Canute struggled in his relationship with the Church:  A baptized Christian and supporter of the church (He built a church at the site of his victory at Assandun), he also killed a rather large number of people (including, by indirect command, his brother-in-law).  His marriage to Emma of Normandy was his second marriage; he never divorced his first wife Ælfgifu but rather kept her on an estate in England (until he sent her and his son to Norway).  

Canute - at least for Anglo-Saxon England - should be adjudged a good king.  He kept the peace and the Vikings away.  He supported the hundred courts and the laws and richly endowed the Church.  Under his rule, trade with the North Sea flourished.  He also gave rise to the class of warriors known as Housecarls, a warrior caste with their own courts and brotherhood and regulations who served the King and his successors as bodyguards.

Canute's death in 1035 (12 November) passed the North Sea Empire onto his sons (whom we will visit with next week).  As a preview, neither of them could keep the Empire together and by 1042 A.D. all the countries controlled by Canute had reverted to individual rulers.  The North Sea Empire was an ephemeral thing, the realm of a single individual through the force of his personality.

The historian in me wonders: what if?  Canute died at a relatively young age of 45; what if he had been able to make it to 50 as did Alfred the Great or even longer?  What if his designated lieutenant in Norway had not died in 1030 A.D. but had lived, even for those five years he was still alive?  Surely Norway could have been more directly and better managed (The Norwegian had actually killed Olaf Haraldsson when he tried to return in 1030 A.D.; the re-establishment of his dynasty under Magnus the Good in in 1037 A.D. may have been more of a reaction to Swein Canuteson's rule).  What if his dynasty had lasted more than 10 years and his daughter Cunigund had married the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II and become Empress instead of dying?  History might have been very different indeed and the locus of power would have shifted in ways I cannot even imagine.

(Old English Posting Page)

Works cited:

Brooke, Christopher:  From Alfred to Henry III 871-1272.  Norton Library:  USA,  1961.

Trevelyan, G.M.:  History of England Volume 1:  From the Earliest Times to the Reformation.  Anchor Books:  USA, 1953

Hollister, C. Warren:  The Making of England 55 B.C. to 1399.  D.C. Heath and Company:  United States,  1976.

Wikipedia:  Cnut, North Sea Empire


  1. Nylon122:42 AM

    Excellent post TB, those maps really help. "What If" in history is always fun to think about.

    1. Nylon12, this is on of those "what ifs" that really makes me wonder and I had never thought of before. Would there have been the equivalent of the British Empire - but would it have Anglo-Norse?

  2. I suspect playing what if with history has sold many a fictional book.

    1. It had Ed - and not just history. I am reading a book by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called Legacy of Heorot, which is a retelling of Beowulf in a science fiction setting.

  3. "What if" is the inspiration for historical fiction. :)

    1. It makes for fun reading Leigh. Harry Turtledove replanted a Roman Legion in a Byzantine-style world - it was a bit odd, but made for good fun.

  4. Anonymous6:04 AM

    I read that as Swine Canut's Son. I wondered who named him....
    Very interesting. My people come from that area. Neat to know what the very great grands were doing.

    1. Interestingly, the original word from which the name is derived means "youth, young man, male attendant".

      It is interesting to see what our ancestors were going through. Helps with perspective, if nothing else.


Your comment will be posted after review. If you could take the time to be kind and not practice profanity, it would be appreciated. Thanks for posting!