Portrait: Cnut the Great

Wednesday, 22 March 2017 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Portrait
Reading Time:  6 minutes

Winchester Cathedral - Burial chest of Cnut the Great © Ealdgyth

Winchester Cathedral – Burial chest of Cnut the Great © Ealdgyth

King Cnut the Great, also known as Canute, was King of Denmark, England, and Norway, together often referred to as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. The North Sea Empire was one of several forerunners of the European Union and the Eurozone. After his death, the deaths of his heirs within a decade, and the Norman conquest of England in 1066, his legacy was mostly forgotten. The medieval historian Norman Cantor stated that he was “the most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history”, although Cnut himself was Danish and not a Briton or Anglo-Saxon. Cnut is popularly invoked in the context of the legend of King Canute and the waves, but usually misrepresents Cnut as a deluded monarch believing he has supernatural powers, when the original legend in fact states the opposite and portrays a wise king.

The North Sea Empire collapsed immediately once Cnut died in 1035. In fact in Norway it was already collapsing: by the winter of 1033, Svein and Ælfgifu were so unpopular that they were forced to leave Trondheim. In 1034 the leader of the army that had rebuffed and killed King Olaf at Stiklestad went together with one of the king’s loyal followers to bring his young son Magnus back from Gardariki to rule, and in autumn 1035, a few weeks before Cnut’s death, Svein and his mother had to flee the country altogether and go to Denmark. Svein died shortly afterwards. In Denmark, Harthacnut was already ruling as king, but he was unable to leave for three years because of the threat that Magnus of Norway would invade to exact revenge. In the meantime the English nobles, divided between him and Cnut’s younger son by Ælfgifu, Harold Harefoot, decided to compromise by having Harold rule as regent, and by the end of 1037 Ælfgifu had persuaded the most important to swear allegiance to Harold, he was firmly ensconced as Harold I, and Harthacnut’s own mother, Queen Emma, had been forced to take refuge in Flanders. Harthacnut prepared an invasion fleet to wrest England from his half-brother, but the latter died in 1040 before it could be used. Harthacnut then became king of England, reuniting it with Denmark, but made a generally bad impression as king. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said of him that he never did anything royal during his entire reign. He died suddenly in June 1042 “as he stood at his drink” at a wedding feast, and with him died the North Sea Empire.

Cnut the Great © www.bl.uk Coins of Cnut the Great at the British Museum © PHGCOM North Sea Empire of Cnut the Great © Hel-hama/cc-by-sa-3.0 Winchester Cathedral - Burial chest of Cnut the Great © Ealdgyth
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Winchester Cathedral - Burial chest of Cnut the Great © Ealdgyth
Cnut’s father was Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark (which gave Cnut the patronym Sweynsson, Old Norse Sveinsson). The identity of his mother is uncertain, although medieval tradition makes her a daughter of Mieszko I. As a Danish prince, Cnut won the throne of England in 1016 in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in northwestern Europe. His accession to the Danish throne in 1018 brought the crowns of England and Denmark together. Cnut maintained his power by uniting Danes and English under cultural bonds of wealth and custom, as well as by sheer brutality. After a decade of conflict with opponents in Scandinavia, Cnut claimed the crown of Norway in Trondheim in 1028. The Swedish city Sigtuna was held by Cnut. He had coins struck there that called him king, but there is no narrative record of his occupation.

The kingship of England lent the Danes an important link to the maritime zone between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, where Cnut, like his father before him, had a strong interest and wielded much influence among the Norse–Gaels. Cnut’s possession of England’s dioceses and the continental Diocese of Denmark – with a claim laid upon it by the Holy Roman Empire‘s Archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen—was a source of great leverage within the Catholic Church, gaining notable concessions from Pope Benedict VIII and his successor John XIX, such as one on the price of the pallium of his bishops, though they still had to travel to obtain the pallium. Cnut attempted to gain concessions on the tolls his people had to pay on the way to Rome from other magnates of medieval Christendom, at the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor. After his 1026 victory against Norway and Sweden, and on his way to Rome for this coronation, Cnut, in a letter written for the benefit of his subjects, which only now exists in two twelfth-century Latin versions, deemed himself “King of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes”. The Anglo-Saxon kings used the title “king of the English”. Cnut was ealles Engla landes cyning—”king of all England.” Cnut died at Shaftesbury in Dorset, and was buried in the Old Minster, Winchester. The new regime of Normandy was keen to signal its arrival with an ambitious programme of grandiose cathedrals and castles throughout the High Middle Ages. Winchester Cathedral was built on the old Anglo-Saxon site (Old Minster) and the previous burials, including Cnut’s, were set in mortuary chests there.

Read more on VisitDenmark.co.uk – Cnut the Great and Wikipedia Cnut the Great (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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