"Last of the aquatic kings till William IV"- King Cnut the Great

12 November 1035, Cnut (Canute) the Great, King of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden, died in Shaftesbury.

“Canute began by being a Bad King on the advice of his Courtiers, who informed him (owing to a misunderstanding of the Rule Britannia) that the King of England was entitled to sit on the sea without getting wet. But finding that they were wrong he gave up this policy and decided to take his own advice in future - thus originating the memorable proverb, 'Paddle your own Canute' - and became a Good King and C. of E., and ceased to be memorable. After Canute there were no more aquatic kings till William IV” (W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, “1066 and All That”)

An imagination of the apocryphal legend of King Canute who placed his throne on the shore and ordered the sea to stop wetting his feet - but "continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.' (Pictures of English History, 1868, Cnut's gesture indicates that the artist was a follower of Hume rather than Henry of Huntingdon)

For 200 years, the Norse had harassed, battled and settled in the Engla lage, the land of the English, from the first raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne to the occupation of Northumbria by the Great Heathen Army of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok and the days, when half of the island became Danelaw, Danish territory, from London to Newcastle. Alfred of Wessex and his successors were able to stem the tide only just and began to recapture lost territories over the following decades until the Danelaw covered only the region between Manchester and Jorvik, York, and the sea, and the death of Eric Bloodaxe, king of Norway and Northumbria at the Battle of Stainmore in 954 traditionally ended Norse rule in England. But there was life in the old dog yet and the Age of Viking Invasions was far from being over. At the end of the 10th century, the raids began again under the King of Denmark and Norway, Sweyn Forkbeard, usually short affairs that ended with the payment of “Danegeld” a tribute, until the English King Aethelred the Unready had it and ordered the killing of all Danes living in England, the infamous St Brice’s Day massacre and the significant loss of life during the pogrom had Sweyn returning with a vengeance and chasing Aethelred to the continent and his father-in-law Richard of Normandy. And even though he died a few weeks later, Sweyn Forkbeard was the first Danish king of England.

St Brice’s Day massacre, as imagined by Alfred Pearse (1923)

However, the Witan didn’t acknowledge the sons of Sweyn as kings, recalled Aethelread and provoked the next major invasion. The Norse came back in 1015, led by Sweyn’s son Cnut and a year later, Aethelred and his son Edmund Ironsides were dead and Cnut was crowned King of England on Christmas 1016. After the death of his older brother Harald, Cnut became King of Denmark as well and during the strife with the kings of Norway and Sweden he emerged victorious again. By 1025, Cnut ruled a vast empire ranging from the Irish Sea to Sweden. Naturally, it is rather doubtful that he was a devout man, even if he was baptised, C. of E. and all that, before his seizure of the English crown and when the church doubted his rights to the English crown, he made his peace and used his influence to further the Christianisation of Scandinavia. It had a nice touch to it, when a clergyman, lay clergy, admittedly, made his rule memorable by handing down the legend of learning a lesson in royal humility while trying to order the tide about that, along with time, famously stops and waits for no one. In obvious hubristic ignorance of the combined effects of the gravitational forces exerted by the Moon and the Sun and the rotation of Earth on the rise and fall of sea levels, Canute the Great had his throne placed on now lost Thorney Island, or picturesquely in sight of the White Cliffs of Dover, and, as Henry of Huntingdon tells a hundred years after the king’s passing in his “Historia Anglorum”, addressed the rising waters: “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” Naturally, the great Canute got wet feet and, in something of a minor Damascus experience, cried out: “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.”, and having said that, the humbled monarch took his own crown and placed it on the head of the crucified saviour whose image was conveniently brought along by his staff. Later generations reframed the legend from a lesson in humility and finitude of human endeavours into that of a world-wise ruler risking his body politic getting wet and ridiculed by showing his overenthusiastic camp followers that even the power of Canute the Great had its limits. Or so the great David Hume had it. But, memorable or not, Cnut’s most consequential decision was to marry Aethelred’s widow Emma. At least in hindsight.

A 13th century illustration of Queen Emma of Normandy fleeing England with her two sons before marrying Cnut

Emma, Richard of Normandy’s daughter, bestowed two sons of Aethelred into the marriage with Cnut, one of them Edward the Confessor and as grand aunt of William the Conqueror, she played a pivotal role in the chaos of a succession crisis that led to the invasion of 1066. Cnut, however, tried to stabilise his brace of kingdoms as good as he could, raised the last Danegeld in English history, but this time as a regular tax, and died in 1035 as one of the more successful Kings of England before the invasion. His sons of his first marriage as well as his son by Emma, Hardiknut, succeeded him until his step-son Edward ascended the throne in 1042, leaning heavily on his Danish and Norman followers, another prerequisite for William’s success 25 years later. Cnut’s North Sea Empire crumbled soon after his death, though, and England and Scandinavia went separate ways again, while the end of the Viking Age traditionally is marked by the English victory at Stamford Bridge in 1066, won by an English in-law of old King Cnut's, Harold Godwinson, a couple of weeks before the era of Anglo-Saxon rulers of England ended at Hastings.

And more on