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Knútr inn ríki (997 - November 12, 1035,) known to later historians as Canute the Great, was a Danish king of England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden. His successes as a statesman, politician and war-leader , and his status among Mythic Europe's magnates, shown by the concessions he won in diplomacy with both Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, led some to call him Emperor of the North, although this was never an official title.

Birth and Kingship[]

Knutr was a son of the Danish king Sveinn Tjúguskegg and the Sigrid the Haughty, heir to a line of Viking Kings dating to Gorm the Old. In the Flateyjarbók it is said that Knutr was taught his soldiery by the chieftain Thorkell the Tall (Þorkell inn hávi,) brother to Sigvaldr Strut-Haraldsson, Jarl of Jomsborg at their stronghold on the Island of Wollin, off the coast of Pomerania.

It is said by the Knýtlinga saga:

Knutr was exceptionally tall and strong, and the handsomest of men, all except for his nose, that was thin, high-set, and rather hooked. He had a fair complexion none-the-less, and a fine, thick head of hair. His eyes were better than those of other men, both the handsomer and the keener of their sight.

Knutr was part of the force under his father Sveinn which invated England in the summer of 1013. This was the climax of decades of Viking raids on the country, and the kingdom fell swiftly.

In the months after, Tjúguskegg consolidated his kingship, leaving Knutr in charge of the fleet and a base at Gainsborough, after much of the army, having been paid, had returned to Scvadinavia for the winter. With Sveinn's sudden death in February 1014, Knutr was held to be King of England. The native English nobility were loath to accept this.

There was at the Witenagemot (the assembly of Anglo-Saxon nobility) for the former king, Ethelred the Unready, an Anglo-Saxon of the Wessex royal house, to return from exile with his in-laws in Normandy. It was a move which meant Knutr had to abandon England and set sail for Denmark, while the nobility of England, possibly with Normans in their forces, made the Kingdom theirs once again. On the beaches of Sandwich the Vikings put to shore to mutilate the hostages taken from the English as pledges of loyalty to Knutr's father.

On the death of Sveinn Forkbeard, his eldest son, Haraldr, was to be King of Denmark. Knutr made the suggestion they might have a joint kingship, although this found no ground with his brother, and Haraldr offered his brother command of another invasion of England, on the condition he did not continue to press his claim. Knutr did not, and began preparing for the final, greatest invasion.

Conquest of England[]

In the summer of 1015, Knutr's fleet set sail for England with a Danish army of ten thousand, in 200 longships. Among the allies of Denmark was Boleslaw the Brave, Duke of Poland and a relative to the Danish Kings, Þorkell inn hávi, the Jomsviking chief who had fought against the Viking invasion of Sveinn, Eiríkr Hákonarson, an in-law to Knutr and Haraldr, and Eadric Streona an Ango-Saxon nobleman who supported Knutr out of hatred for Ethelred.


Knútr inn ríki

In September 1015, Knutr's fleet was seen off the shore of Sandwich, before going round the coast to land at Bristol. With the advantages of surprise and speed, Knutr's forces ravaged the heartland of Wessex and established a base there. The Encomium Emmae paints a picture of the scene which was to confront the English when they had made their landfall:

There were so many kinds of shields, that you could have believed that troops of all nations were present… Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed… who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, (who?), without feeling any fear for the king of such a force. Moreover, in the whole force there could be found no serf, no freedman, none of ignoble birth, none weak with old age. All were nobles, all vigorous with the strength of complete manhood, fit for all manner of battle, and so swift of foot that they despised the speed of cavalry.

Until mid-winter the Danes stood their ground, with the English king in London. Knutr's invaders then crossed the Thames, with no pause for bleak weather, through Mercian lands to confront Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria and Edmund Ironside, son of Ethelred and commander of the English army. Knutr found Northumbria without its garrisons, as Uhtred was away with the English prince in Mercia, to countermand the lands of Eadric Streona, the Earl of Mercia who had thrown his support behind the Danes.

Uhtred, with his lands now in the hands of his enemies, thought it wise to sue for peace, but he was executed for breaking his oaths to Sveinn Forkbeard. Knutr now brought over Eiríkr Hákonarson and left the Norwegian in control of Northumbria.

In April 1016, Canute went southward with his army through the western shires to gain as much support from the English as possible, already confident in the eastern Danelaw. The fleet set sail for the Thames to place London under siege. Edmund Ironside was effectively swept before this movement, which left London as his last stronghold. Ethelred the Unready met his death on April 23, leaving the now beleaguered prince as king. Over the next few months the Vikings made their camps on the city's fringes, and Canute had a canal dug through which to pull the longships and cut off the river on the far side of London. Encirclement was completed by the construction of dikes on the city's northern and southern sides.

In the summer, Edmund broke out of London to raise an army in Wessex, and the Danes broke off a portion of their siege in pursuit. The English were able to rally on a hill in Selwood Forest, and the battle that was fought there did not leave any clear victor. A subsequent battle at Sherston was fought over two days and again left neither side victorious.

Edmund Ironside did break the siege of London. With the invaders in disarray, Knutr brought his forces back together, and the besiegers again lay their attentions on the steadfast city. However, with London still held by the English, the Danes had to make it their priority to search for supplies, nominally amongst their allies in Mercia. At this point Eadric Streona thought it wise to ally himself with his countrymen again, and the Danes were subsequently attacked in Mercia. At the Battle of Brentford, Edmund Ironside fought the besiegers off their dikes on the outskirts of London and back to their ships on the Isle of Sheppey. The fleet crossed the estuary and the Danish forces regrouped in Essex.

In October 1016, at Assandun, on the hill of ash trees, the two armies came together for a final confrontation, which Knutr won decisively. Eadric Streona betrayed his countrymen once again, retreating in the heat of battle. His army beaten, Edmund Ironside, likely to have been a casualty himself, made his escape, only to be caught near the Forest of Dean where there was a final struggle made by the English to protect their king. Canute was ultimately able to maneuver negotiations, with a rendezvous on an island in the Severn.

Accepting defeat, Edmund signed the Treaty of Olney with the Viking, in which all of England except for Wessex was to be the domain of the Danish prince. Its key clause was that by the death of one of the two, the other should be the one and only King of England, his sons being the heirs. After Edmund Ironside's death on November 30, as a result of his wounds after Assandun, Knutr was sole ruler. His coronation was at Christmas, a ceremony attendeed by his brother Haradlr, with recognition by the nobility in January the next year.

King of England[]

Canute was to be one of England's most successful kings. His statesmanship brought in a prosperous era of stability, and the wealth of England of his pedigree allowed him to eventually become overlord of much of Scandinavia and the British Isles.

In July 1017, Canute married Emma of Normandy, the widow of Ethelred, and daughter of Richard the Fearless, the first Duke of Normandy, in a move calculatedto elevate his line above the heirs of England's overthrown dynasty, as well as to protect himself against his enemies in Normandy, where Emma and Ethelred's sons Edward the Confessor and Alfred Aetheling were exiled. Canute put forward their son Harthacanute as his heir; his two sons from his wedding to Aelgifu of Northampton, his handfast wife, were left on the sidelines. He sent Harthacanut to Denmark when he was still a boy, and the heir to the throne was brought up, as Canute was himself, a Dane.

England was divided into four great Earldoms (Jarldoms) by decree of Knutr. These were Wessex, his personal fief, Mercia for Eadric, East Anglia for Thorkell, and Northumbria for Eirik.

Eadric Streona was beheaded in 1017 for betraying both Edmund and Knutr, his body left on the ground for the crows and worms, his head stuck on a pole for all to see. Mercia went to Leofwine, scion of a noble family of the Hwicce, and by the 1030s, to his son Leofric, whose wife was Godgifu.

The very last Danegeld ever paid, a sum of 82,500 pounds, went to Knutr in 1018. After their staunch resistance, as well as the fact of their mercantile wealth, 10,500 pounds was levied from the citizenry of London alone. Knutr felt secure enough to allow his Vikings to return to their lands in Scandinavia with 72,000 pounds in payment for services the same year. He, with his huscarls and the no doubt grateful earls, were left to control England.

King of Denmark[]

Canute's brother Haraldr died in 1018, and Knutr traveled to Denmark to press his claim to that throne as well, but many of the Danes were set against him; an attack was made against the Wends of Pomerania, but Godwin earned the king's trust by himself leading a night raid against the attackers. By 1020 Knutr had returned to England, his hold on the Danish throne secure. Ulfr, his brother-in-law, was his appointee as the Earl of Denmark, and Harthacanute was left in his care.

When Sweden and the Norwegian king Olafr Haraldsson took advantage of Knutr's absence and began to launch attacks against Denmark, Ulf gave the discontent freemen cause to take Harthacanute, still a child, as king. This was a ruse of Ulf's, since the role he had as the caretaker of Harthacanute subsequently made him the ruler of the kingdom. When news of these events came to Canute in 1026, he brought together his forces, and, with Ulf in line again, won Denmark supremacy in Scandinavia, at the Battle of Helgeå.

This service, however, did not the usurper the forgiveness of Knutr, and on Christmas of 1026, one of Canute's huscarls, with his blessing, killed Ulf, in a church.

Journey to Rome[]

On the death in 1024 of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry II, the Ottonian dynasty was at an end, and with Conrad II the Salian dynasty was begun. Canute left his affairs in the north and went to the coronation on Easter 1027, in Rome, where his status among monarchs was so great that he went alongside the emperor in the imperial procession. On his return journey he sent a letter of to his subjects in England proclaiming himself to be King of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes.

King of Norway and part of Sweden[]

Earl Eiríkr Hákonarson was ruler of Norway under Canute's father, Forkbeard, and Norwegians under Eirikr had assisted in the invasion of England in 1015-16. Canute showed his appreciation by awarding Eiríkr the Earldom of Northumbria. Sveinn, Eiríkr's brother, was left in control of Norway, but he was beaten at the Battle of Nesjar, in 1016, and Eiríkr's son, Hakon Eiriksson, fled to his father. Olafr Haraldsson, of the line of Fairhair, then became King of Norway, and the Danes lost their control.

Þorkell inn hávi, a chieftain of the Jomsvikings, was a former associate of the new King Olav of Norway, and the difficulties Canute found in Denmark, as well as with Thurkel, were perhaps related to Norwegian pressure on the Danish lands. His death in 1022, though, and the succession of his son meant the Danish domains were now threatened by the Swedes.

In the Battle of the Helgeå in 1026, Knutr and his navy attacked the Swedes and Norwegians led by the allied kings Olaf Haraldsson and Anund Olafsson at the mouth of the river Helgea. The victory left Canute in control of Scandinavia, confident enough in his dominance to make the journey to Rome for the coronation of Conrad II.

In 1028, after his return from Rome, through Denmark, for the arrangement of a peace treaty, Canute set off from England with a fleet of fifty ships to Norway and the city of Trondheim. Olaf Haraldsson stood down, unable to put up any fight, as his nobles were against him due to both offers of gold from Knutr and resentment for their king's tendency to flay their wives for sorcery.

Knutr entrusted the Earldom of Lade to the former line of earls, in Håkon Eiriksson.

Hakon, a member of a family with a long tradition of hostility towards the independent Norwegian kings and a relative of Knutr, was already in lordship over the Isles, with the earldom of Worcester, possibly from 1016-17. The sea-lanes through the Irish Sea]] and the Hebrides led to Orkney and Norway and were central to Canute's ambitions for dominance of Scandinavia as well as the British Isles. Hakon was meant to be Canute's lieutenant of this strategic chain. Hakon, though, died in a shipwreck in the Pentland Firth, between the Orkneys and the Scottish mainland in early 1030, and with his death, Olaf Haraldsson was to return to Norway with an army of Swedes.

He, though, met his death at the hands of his own people at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Knutr's subsequent attempt to rule Norway without the key support of the Trondejarls was not a success, an would eventually result in the restoration of the former Norwegian dynasty under Magnus the Good.

Relations with the Church[]

Canute's actions as a Viking conqueror had made him uneasy with the Church. His ruthless treatment of the overthrown dynasty in England, as well as his open relationship with a concubine, Aelgifu of Northampton, his handfast wife, whom he kept as his northern queen when he wed Emma of Normandy, kept in the south with an estate in Exeter — did not fit with the emergent romantic ideals of Christendom.

His treatment of the Church was kind; he repaired churches and monasteries that had been damaged by Danish plundering and refilled their coffers, and built new churches and patronized new monasteries, making him popular with the ecclesiastical and secular population alike, but he also retained a respect for the old faith.


Canute died in 1035, at Shaftesbury, in Dorset, and was buried in Old Minster at Winchester. He was succeeded in Denmark by Harthacanute, reigning as Canute III. Harald Harefoot laid claim to the throne in England until his death in 1040. Harthacanute was to reunite the two crowns of Denmark and England until his death in 1042.

Marriages and issue[]

See Also[]

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