Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Dead King Watch: Canute

'Cnut' is the bloke on the right.

Today marks the 871st anniversary of the death of Canute, a Danish King who ruled England and so gets to be part of Dead King Watch. Lucky old Canute. Canute is perhaps best remembered while King of England for the legend of the waves, about how he commanded the waves to go back. Was 'Cnut' simply a Cnutter? Well, according to the legend, not really. Apparently, Canute grew tired of flattery from his courtiers and when one such flatterer gushed that the King could even command the obedience of the sea, Canute got so annoyed that he took the courtier down to the seaside to prove him wrong. However, Wikipedia notes that 'It is quite possible that the legend is even simply pro-Canute propaganda' and I find the idea of any feudal King getting 'tired of flattery' a little far fetched myself. Still, whether true or not - it means old Canute gets to be remembered for something.

Canute was born in about 995, son of Sweyn I of Denmark. Little is known about his life before 1013, but that year, in August, he accompanied his father on his successful invasion of England. While King Sweyn was off conquering England, Canute was left in charge of the remainder of the Danish army at Gainsborough. Upon the sudden death of his father the following February, in 1014, Canute was proclaimed king by the Danish army. However, the assembly of magnates refused to accept him and instead voted to restore the defeated king Ethelred the Unready from exile in Normandy.

Ethelred quickly raised an army, forcing Canute to abandon England and sail back to Denmark with the remnants of his army. When he sailed past Sandwich, Canute was so pissed off that he mutilated hostages given to his father as pledges of support from local nobles. Nice.

Canute’s older brother Harold became the King of Denmark on their father’s death. Canute suggested that the two brothers should jointly rule the Kingdom, which found little appeal with his brother. However, Harold promised him assistance and support for his conquest of England if Canute renounced his rights to the Danish throne. Canute kept silent and waited for an opportunity to present itself when he would 'reclaim' his throne in England.

Canute did not wait long, but returned to England in the summer of 1015 with a Danish force of approximately 10,000 men. The invasion force landed in Essex, which was occupied quickly. Northumbria fell next, and Canute executed its Earl Uhtred for breaking an oath pledged to Sweyn Forkbeard two years earlier. In April 1016, Canute entered the Thames with his fleet and besieged London. King Ethelred died suddenly during the siege, and his son Edmund Ironside was proclaimed king. When Edmund left London to raise an army in the countryside, he was intercepted by Canute at Ashingdon, Essex. After a decisive victory for Canute in the Battle of Ashingdon, Edmund was forced to negotiate under unfavourable circumstances.

Meeting on an island in the Severn River, King Edmund II was forced to accept defeat and sign a treaty with Canute in which all of England except for Wessex would be controlled by Canute, and when one of the kings should die, the other king would take all of England; his sons being the heir to the throne. After Edmund's death (possibly murder) on 30 November, Canute ruled the whole kingdom. Canute was recognised by the nobility as the sole king in January 1017.

By dividing the country (1017) into the four great earldoms of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, Canute instituted the system of territorial lordships which would underlie English government for centuries. The very last Danegeld ever paid, a sum of £82,500, went to Canute in 1018. He felt secure enough to send the invasion fleet back to Denmark with £72,000 that same year. After about two decades of presiding over relative social peace, no mean achievement, Canute died in 1035, at Shaftesbury in Dorset, and was buried in the Old Minster in Winchester. On his death, Canute was succeeded in Denmark by his son Harthacanute.



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