Canute, also known as Cnut, was a Danish king of England from 1016 to 1035. He is chiefly famous for a legend about his failure to stop the waves coming up the beach, despite his kingly order. His real achievements were more substantial than the seaside story, although the tide of history swept many of them away after his death.

Conquering Britain

Canute invaded England in 1013 as part of a Viking army with his father King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. On Sweyn’s death the following year, the army declared Canute King of England. He disputed the title with Edmund Ironside, son of the deposed King Ethelred, until Edmund’s death in 1016 left Canute ruler of all England. To consolidate his position, he married Ethelred’s widow Emma of Normandy and replaced English earls with Danish warlords. However, he won respect for treating his English and Danish subjects with equal justice, and soon felt secure enough to appoint English bishops and noblemen to positions of power and to disband most of his army. In 1027 he also won the allegiance of King Malcolm of Scotland, thus earning the title of King of all Britain.

Empire Building

Canute built up a North Sea empire through a mixture of force, bribery and diplomacy. In 1019, he sailed to Denmark to secure the throne after his brother King Harald died. He also conquered Norway and part of Sweden by persuading their rulers’ henchmen to switch sides, and in 1027 added Schleswig by arranging a strategic marriage between his daughter Gunnhild and the German Kaiser. However, Canute’s Nordic alliance did not outlast him, as the nobles or family members he had appointed as deputies were too weak and unpopular to survive without his leadership.

Canute the Benefactor

Canute brought comparative peace and prosperity to Britain. As king of Denmark, he had the power to put an end to harassment by Viking raiders. He imposed heavy taxes, but used them in part to pay off and disband his army in Britain. Working with Archbishop Wulfstan of York, in 1020 Canute issued a charter upholding the laws of the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon king Edgar and promising to “everywhere maintain the glory of God and put down wrong, and work full peace by the might that God would give me.” He was a supporter of the church, winning favor with the English bishops by apologizing for earlier Viking assaults and making gifts in compensation, for example building churches and endowing Winchester Cathedral with a golden altar cross. By visiting Rome for the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, Canute gained both religious and diplomatic advantage, as he secured a reduction in tolls for English merchants and confirmed his alliance with the emperor.

Legend of the Waves

The legend of Canute proving that the sea would not retreat at his command was first written down around 1130 by Archdeacon Henry of Huntingdon in his “Historia Anglorum,” but may have come originally from oral story-telling tradition. Henry presents Canute as a wise and humble king demonstrating the moral that the power of earthly kings is trivial compared to that of God. The story is more often interpreted as illustrating the arrogance of political leaders.