Cnut (Canute) 995 – 1035 CE
Canute (the anglicized form of his name) born 995, son of Svein Forkbeard King of Denmark was the King of England, Norway and Denmark. An effective leader with an ethos and system of government which would last the test of time. He was thought of so highly by his subjects they persuaded him to attempt to control the waves. This is thought to have been at Bosham and was as expected unsuccessful. “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings”
In 1013, Cnut accompanied his father Sweyn Forkbeard on an invasion of England. As far as we know, this was the first time he had been to the country. Sweyn was not just raiding England; by this time, he was trying to conquer it. It soon looked like Sweyn was about to become king of the country; he had been so successful in battle that the current king Æthelred had fled. But then, just as it appeared that Sweyn’s triumph was complete, he suddenly died.
Cnut, probably then just a teenager, seems to have been caught with his guard down. He assumed that he would merely assume the role left vacant by his father’s death. But he was faced by an unexpected English backlash. An army caught him unawares and a catastrophic defeat followed. Cnut barely escaped.
However, when he left England by ship, Cnut left behind a number of hostages – minus their ears and noses. It was a stark warning to those who did not support him that they could be in for a seriously difficult time in the future.
Timeline of Cnut(Canute)
1015 Cnut comes armed with a force of 20,000 in 200 long boats. He battles with Edmund Ironside, Ethelred the Unready’s effective son is killed and Edmund’s rule ended in just 7 months.
1015 West Saxons submit to him.
1016 Northumbrians submit to him
1016 Mercia submit to him.
Cnut became King of all England crowned in London, after Edmund’s death in 1016 and 6 months later he married Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, legitimising and including England within the Viking Empire. He already had an effective wife, Elfgifu of Northampton. She was the mother of Harold I (Harefoot.)
Malcolm of Scotland paid Cnut homage.
1019-35 He was King of Denmark
1028-35 He was King of Norway
Divided England into territorial lordships, owing allegiance to the king, providing a unified system of government that would last until the Tudors.
He ended the practice of paying Danegeld, a tax payable by English kings to Danish lords, in return for their not ransacking England.
Canute stabilised the English coinage, introducing a unified system, with coins of equal weight to Scandinavian coins, thereby encouraging international trade.
On a pilgrimage to Rome he converted to Christianity and brought it to Scandanavia. ‘Danegeld’ was the term used for money paid to troublesome Viking raiders, in order to make them go away. The late king Æthelred was infamous for his frequent Danegeld payments, though it was not Æthelred who made the largest Danegeld payment, but Cnut.
The idea of paying off raiders was not new; it had been used in Carolingian Francia two centuries earlier and even the heroic Alfred the Great had used it as a tactic. However, there were problems with the approach. Even if one party of raiders went away, another would soon take their place and the payments would need to be repeated, which was clearly an expensive scenario. Meanwhile, some raiders, such as Sweyn Forkbeard, might go away for a short time before simply coming back again.
When Cnut first became king, he was faced with the problem of what to do with thousands of unemployed Viking raiders. His solution was to pay them to go away. The cost was enormous – Cnut raised 10,000 Troy lbs [a measurement used to measure gold and silver] of silver from London and 72,500 Troy lbs from the rest of England to finance his policy. This was a mammoth sum at the time; while it is difficult to meaningfully convert into modern currency, it amounted to more than 30,000kg of silver. Cnut’s payment was greater than any previous Danegeld sum (the former highest was 48,000 pounds, paid in 1012 during the reign of Æthelred). But although it must have caused great pain to the taxpayers of England, the policy largely seems to have worked, as Viking raids diminished substantially.
A coin depicting Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred, who was “infamous for his frequent Danegeld payments”.
At the time of Cnut’s rule, the laws of Viking succession were fairly flexible. When a great leader such as Sweyn Forkbeard died, it was not unusual for his patrimony to be divided between his sons, rather than the eldest taking everything. In theory, this helped prevent disputes involving disgruntled younger sons, though in reality these disagreements were still common.
Because Sweyn Forkbeard died while he and Cnut were in England, another of his sons, Harald, took over control of Denmark. Cnut was forced to fight for the country he was in, otherwise he would have been left with nothing. In 1018, Harald died without an obvious heir, leaving Denmark available for his brother Cnut. He seems to have taken the country without too much difficulty and held on to it for the rest of his reign.
Norway was a different matter. Although Sweyn Forkbeard had conquered the country at the end of the 11th century, it was never fully assimilated into his territories and he lost control of it after an uprising there. In 1030 Cnut won a decisive victory against his opponent, King Olaf II of Norway, at the battle of Stiklestad, but his subsequent reign in the country was short-lived. Those he appointed to be his representatives there were not popular, partly due to a period of extended famine, and they were ejected from the country. Norway was never securely integrated into Cnut’s kingdom.
Cnut’s wife, Emma was originally married to the unlucky Æthelred ‘the Unready’. The royal couple had several children, one of whom would later become King Edward the Confessor. When Æthelred died in 1016, Emma seems to have left the country and returned to Normandy.
When she returned to England in 1017, it was as Cnut’s wife. Emma was a loyal lieutenant for Cnut and their marriage was a great political success. Emma seems to have had a strong instinct for political survival. Cnut and Emma had several children together, including Harthacnut, who later became king of both England and Denmark for a short time.
However, marital alliances at the time could be complicated. When Cnut married Emma, he already had a partner, Ælfgifu of Northampton. Whether they were ever married or not is unclear. It was quite normal at that period for kings and noblemen to have a concubine rather than an official wife and it would appear that Ælfgifu fell into that category. Their relationship did produce several children. One of them, Harold ‘Harefoot’, was king of England for a short time.
Ælfgifu and Emma were bitter rivals for decades, and they both outlived Cnut.
Cnut and his wife Emma, in an engraving from an 11th-century manuscript.
Cnut was an astute statesman. Rather than rejecting the former Anglo-Saxon kings of England, he went out of his way to show support for them. He did this by visiting or making gifts to shrines associated with Anglo-Saxon kings, such as Shaftesbury Abbey, where King Edward the Martyr lay buried, or Wilton Abbey, linked with St Edith, sister of Æthelred. He even paid his respects to his old adversary, Edmund Ironside, at Glastonbury Abbey. This Anglophile policy was a smart political move on Cnut’s part, as it was well regarded by his English subjects.
He also adopted a new law code, which was regarded as introducing a strong but fair regime to England. Cnut based these laws on those of the Anglo-Saxon king Edgar, whose reign was regarded as a golden age.
Cnut also not only adopted English policies, but also introduced them to his overseas territories with a good degree of success. He took full advantage of the English coinage system, which was renowned for its quality at the time. He ensured that this quality was maintained and introduced a vastly improved coinage into Denmark. There are a number of cases recorded where the moneyers working in Denmark were of English origin.
Cnut was in many senses a Viking, and is probably best known as such today. He led his army using Viking tactics and launched raids on enemy territory using instantly recognisable longships. He was also fond of skalds [Scandinavian bards, or minstrels] who related old Viking sagas and tales.
Yet, it was as a patron of the church that Cnut made his reputation; this was quite a turnaround given the fact that Vikings had become renowned as scourges of the institution and frequent raiders of monasteries and other religious establishments.
This reflected the fact that these were changing times for the Viking world. Christianity had gained a foothold in much of Europe centuries previously, but was a more recent introduction to the Viking world. Cnut’s family, especially his grandfather Harald Bluetooth, had been patrons of the church. However, Cnut’s reign in England, then one of Europe’s richest countries, allowed him to take this policy to new heights. He was able to make a number of generous gifts to the church and strengthen the fledgling religion in Denmark.
Cnut’s recognition of the church reached its height in 1027, when he journeyed to Rome to attend the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II. While there he met Pope John XIX. The fact that a Viking ruler could meet the head of the church and be treated as an equal of other mainstream European leaders shows just how much the world had changed.
Succession was again problematic and the dispute between his sons (Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut) enabled Godwin of Wessex to acquire the role of Kingmaker. Ruthless, cunning and extrovert he secures the throne for Edward the Confessor who despite repeated vows of celibacy married Godwin’s daughter. He was Godwin’s puppet monarch.
King Canute was buried in Old Minster Winchester and his bones placed in a mortuary chest.
In fact, Harold’s association with Bosham is such that some believe he might have been buried in the church. The child’s skeleton thought to be that of Cnut’s daughter was originally discovered under the nave in 1865, but re-examined in 1954. At that time, another stone coffin was found nearby, which contained the remains of a man, about 5’6” tall, aged about 60, minus a head, leg, and part of the other leg. It has been speculated that these are the remains of Harold, last king of the Saxon English. We do not actually know what happened to Harold’s mutilated body after the Battle of Hastings – William didn’t want the English to create a shrine to their dead king and it is generally thought that Harold was discreetly buried at Waltham Abbey. But no one knows for sure. Indeed, it cannot be certain that the child’s skeleton is that of Cnut’s daughter either. All we do know is that under the nave is a privileged place to be buried and the right place to find a king’s daughter – as well as, perhaps, a king.
We should end with a famous tale about the mighty Cnut. He was son of Sweyn Forkbeard and Sigrid the Haughty, which does make you wonder what his childhood was like; perhaps he didn’t get too many hugs. By all accounts he was a no-nonsense sort of chap, as illustrated by the ‘legend of the waves’, which reputedly occurred in Bosham. The story is that Cnut was unimpressed by fawning courtiers who assured him that everything and everyone in the world obeyed his word. So, displaying something of a wicked sense of humour, he invited his fans to sit with him on the shoreline whilst he repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, told the tide to turn back; and everyone got very wet. The moral is that the power of kings is nothing compared with the power of God. Or, you might conclude that Cnut, a pretty ruthless Viking, simply didn’t have much time for fawning but did enjoy a good laugh.
Holy Trinity Church. Of the Saxon and early Norman tower's four stories, the upper is Norman
The Grade II listed 18th-century Brook House with Holy Trinity church behind
The Holy Trinity Church is an historic building of some note – it has been in existence at least since Anglo-Saxon times, and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It has been dedicated to the Holy Trinity since the early part of the 14th century; its previous dedication is not known. Much of the building retains its original Saxon architecture, dating from about the late 800's. The tower houses an original Saxon window. There is also a 13th-century crypt, which is speculated to have been a charnel house used to harbour the bones of those from the collegiate church nearby.
Holy Trinity occasionally hosts concerts and recitals.
Chichester Harbour, a Site of Special Scientific Interest is partly within the parish. This is a wetland of international importance, a Special Protection Area for wild birds and a Special Area of Conservation. The harbour is of particular importance for wintering wildfowl and waders of which five species reach numbers which are internationally important.