'Canute Reproving His Courtiers' - 1848 engraving

King Cnut the Great


King Canute

Cnut se Micela, King of England and many embarrassing but quite funny typing errors, became King of Denmark in 1018 following the death of his brother Harald II.  He would seem to have been a pretty standard Viking monarch of the age, given to excessive piety, staggering hypocrisy (he had two wives at the same time) and eye-watering brutality, showing a penchant for removing the ears and noses of his defeated foes.  He was ruthless in the taxation of his conquered English subjects, but he sweetened the pill by restoring many Saxon customs and showing no judicial preference between the vanquished and his loyal Danish followers.  Cnut was essentially a boy-king, taking the throne of England in 1016 at the age of 20 or 21, and neither would he live very long, dying at the age of 40.  These were the days when kings had names to be proud of:  Sweyn Forkbeard, Harald Bluetooth, Gorm the Languid, Olaf the Fat, Harald Harefoot and William the Bastard being only a taste of the banquet of titles that if used today would bring the Permanently Offended out in droves on Twitter.

He is best known for his hapless attempt to hold back the tide by the power of his command.  The story was originally penned by Henry of Huntingdon (c1088-1157) but there is much controversy regarding its authenticity.   There is no hard evidence from the contemporary sources that the event ever took place, and no one is even sure where it took place, though if it did it was almost certainly in the south of England.  More to the point, the moral of the tale has become inverted because it is usually associated with Cnut’s arrogance in assuming that he could control the elements when in fact Huntingdon’s legend has the King trying to demonstrate the opposite, that he was not in possession of supernatural powers and only God could control the waves, not mere mortals like himself.  Huntingdon’s account ends with the King declaring:  “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name but He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.”  Furthermore, Huntingdon’s story makes no mention of anyone else being present, but later accounts describe an audience. 

David Hume

David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, introduces the notion that the even may have been a confidence trick.  Fully expecting his fawning courtiers to approve of his ‘greatness’, he set his throne by the seashore and instructed the waves not to wet the royal feet.  At this point he was expecting his court to fall to their knees and praise his power so he could rise quickly and not have to reach for the towels; but when the tide ‘disobeyed’ him, he turned this public relations disaster around by rebuking his grovelling posse for their lack of faith in the Almighty.

It is much more likely that the event never happened at all, so why did the legend arise?  Possibly because it is a good moral tale that would have appealed to 11th-century Christians who feared God’s power more than they craved the love of Jesus.  By using this story to illustrate that kings are only mortal, Henry of Huntingdon might have been signalling his own personal distaste for those who value wealth and power over Christian piety.  Then again, it might just be a good story which helped the circulation of his writings, similar to World War 2 Bomber Found on Moon (Sunday Sport, 24 April 1988) which boosted sales ‘astronomically’.

Bomber found on Moon

Furthermore, Henry might have been drawing on earlier legends.  Lord Raglan (1960) considers the research of a Mrs Ettlinger who, in 1952, published the earlier story of Saint Illtud, a 5th-century Welsh Divine whose monastery was threatened by the encroaching sea.  Having tried building dams and ramparts to no avail, Illtud was instructed by an Angel to approach the sea the next day whereupon “he began to go forward, [and] the sea began to retreat”, never to return.  Another possible source was the tale of another 6th-century Welshman, Maelgwn, who entered some sort of contest to see who would be King of Gwynedd.  Going down to the shore, his supporters sat him upon a white chair of “waxen wings” , and “when the tide came in no one could withstand the tide, except Maelgwn because of the chair.” (Raglan, 1960)  Mightily impressed with his powers, the nobles made Maelgwn their King.  Perhaps the final and most logical argument that the whole Canute story was a myth rests with Lord Raglan who points out that no king would ever risk his prestige in a public fashion which might end in humiliation:  “The ridiculous situation of a man shouting orders to the sea and then scuttling away from it should not need to be emphasised.”   In other words, the old Viking would never have made such a cnut of himself in such a manner.

Useful sources:

History Extra:  https://www.historyextra.com/period/viking/8-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-king-cnut/

David Hume:  The history of England from the invasion of Julius Cæsar to the accession of Henry VII.  Available at:  Eighteenth Century Collections Online https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/

Lord Raglan:  Canute and the Waves (Man; Volume 60, January 1960, The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.)

The Life of St. Illtud:  https://web.archive.org/web/20171112031710/http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/illtud.html

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