Based on the methods they used to conquer territories, the success in their rebellions, how they caused an economic revolution in their empires, and how they ruled over their people, different Vikings are remembered, represented, and reincarnated differently in the course of English history.
Many people assume that Vikings were a race linked by ties of common ancestry. Contrary to this popular belief, they come from different areas, including Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Different historical records also identify Saami, Finnish and Estonian Vikings. They were seafaring men who migrated from their original homeland in search of places to settle in Europe. While they all came from different regions, they were bound by a common ground -Norse culture. The Viking age saw several Vikings who shaped the historical development of Europe. Among the greatest Vikings to have ruled in the 10th century was Cnut the Great, who left his mark as a trader, raider, and pirate. Read on to find out more about his story.
Who was Cnut the Great?
Cnut the Great was the King of Denmark, Norway, and England, and he was also the overlord of Pomerania and Schleswig. He was a Danish prince in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in Northwestern Europe. It was during this time that he won the throne of England, particularly in the year 1016. At the time of his reign, he sought to keep and grow his power base by uniting the Danish people and the English people under common cultural bonds of wealth and custom. With time, he was also able to claim the Norwegian crown and rule over all three at once.
Based on several historical records, he is identified as a successful ruler who brought peace to the people of Norway, England, and Denmark. Considering the peaceful coexistence of the people in the 3 regions at the time, he was able to comfortably leave the British Isles and roam around to create new networks and develop his empire even further. He established common institutions across North Europe as a way of creating a sense of shared belonging. This way, it was easier for his subjects to peacefully co-exist by passively binding them under one functional ruling system.
Based on his ruling style, all his subjects regarded Canute as a wise and one of the most successful kings to have ruled over England. Also, he held the church in high regard, and the medieval church was in high support of his rule because he brought in a lot of peace and prosperity. He was often described as a religious man but was actively involved in several political murders to secure his empire and conquer several territories, which directly contradicted religious teachings.
Cnut the Great- Early Life
Cnut the Great, also known as Canute, was the grandson of Harald Bluetooth and son to Sweyn Forkbeard, the Danish prince. His roots trace back to a line of influential Scandinavian rulers who were central to the historical development and unification of the Danish people. His grandfather, Harald Bluetooth, influenced the Christianization of Denmark. Also, Bluetooth was among the first Scandinavian kings to accept Christianity. Cnut the Great’s mother was the daughter of Mieszko I of Poland and was known as Gunhild.
His grandmother, his mother’s mother, was abducted from a religious home and married off to Mieszko, the first Duke of Poland. At first, the duke had no religious affiliations and directly condemned religion in his territory. However, with time he was able to adapt to Christianity. His conversion into Christianity informed Cnut the Great’s pragmatic relation to religion and was the basis for social and religious development in Denmark and Britain.
Not much is mentioned about Canute’s life when he was growing up, so there is not much to account for in his early life before 1013. In 1013, his father carried him along when invading England. At this time, Cnut was about 20 years of age. As King Sweyn led off his army towards the conquest of England, he left his son to take charge over the remainder of the Danish army that he had commissioned at Gainsborough.
Having conquered England, King Sweyn died in February 1014, after a fall from his horse. After his death, the Danish army recognized Cnut the Great as the king. Even so, the assembly of magnates was against his appointment, and they rejected his status as King. Following the tension at the time, it was ideal to conduct a vote to determine who should be the king. Instead, the assembly voted to restore King Ethelred the Unready, who was in exile in Normandy. Immediately, King Ethelred reclaimed the throne and mobilized men to form an army to eliminate Canute, which forced Cnut the Great to flee England and get back to Denmark to preserve his life. He sailed back with the remnants of his army. During their trip back to Denmark, Cnut vandalized all areas with hostages that were given to his father by local nobles and condemned all traitors. When Canute made it to Denmark, he allied with his brothers to cooperatively rule the kingdom, but Harold established new conditions because he wasn’t comfortable with the joint rule concept. Harold claimed that the only way he would rule jointly with his brother Cnut is if Cnut would renounce his rights to the Danish throne. Canute had no intentions to re-divide his father’s inheritance, so he watched from a distance and began preparations to reclaim his throne in England.
He formed several allies to help him conquer England, and he raised a very powerful and strategic army to carry out his conquest. When he reclaimed the throne, he ruled England for about two decades. He offered maximum protection to his territory against Viking raiders, and he restored the peace and prosperity levels existing in the region in the 980s before the Viking attacks began. Because of this, he received massive support from the English people and their neighbors, which significantly allowed him to establish total control over the majority of Scandinavia.
Cnut the Great History
Henry of Huntingdon recorded a story of King Cnut the Great and the tide in the 12th Century. This story is an apocryphal anecdote that shows the piety and humility levels that the King had throughout his reign. The story identifies how the Viking conducted himself gracefully and magnificently, especially when his daughter was getting married to the Holy Roman Emperor, his bravery in warfare, and how he negotiated for the reduction of tolls on the road in 1027.
In Huntingdon’s account, Cnut the Great set his throne by the seashore, and he commanded the incoming tide to halt and not wet the robe he had on and his feet. However, the tide continued to rise and eventually dashed over his feet and let his robe wet without paying any respect to the fact that he was a royal person. Naturally, most of his subjects believed that he had supernatural powers because he was the king of the land, but this wasn’t the case. Instead, King Canute identified that he had no control over the elements and further explained that no power on earth matches the supreme power of God. When this happened, he took off his crown, hang it on a crucifix, and stopped wearing it since then as a way to honor the Lord. This action directly reflects his piety and humility.
How did Cnut the Great die?
Following a prolonged period of illness, Canute the Great died on November 12th, 1025, at Shaftesbury. During this time, he was on an inspection tour of England, and his remains were buried at Winchester. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle identifies that Cnut the Great died from jaundice which wasn’t easily treatable back then. He reigned for 19 years, and compared to his predecessors, he provided peace all over England and freed his subjects from the bloody raids that caused a lot of damage. He also brought together the English and Danish kingdom and created a common governance system that united people from both sides. Also, his total control over the Baltic Sea route influenced English trade and the overall economy of Europe.
After his death, his son Harthacnut took over the throne but died within a short while, and so did his daughter Cunigund, within a decade of Cnut’s death. While both children were the best heirs to their father’s throne, they barely possessed any powerful abilities and tough personalities needed to run the empire. Afterward came Harald Hardrada, who ruled for a short while before he was killed in battle. After Harald died, Cnut the Great’s other son, Edward the Confessor, succeeded the throne and restored the rule of the House of Wessex in England, which significantly marked the end of the Viking age.
Cnut the great was thought of as a successful yet brutal ruler, and his reign was filled with peace, harmony, and exponential prosperity. However, after he succumbed to jaundice in 1025, the North Sea Empire disintegrated almost immediately because there was no one to match his resilience, conquest strategy, and ruling style.