Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

Canute the Great, King of Six Nations

A famous old king of Denmark, known as Harald Blaatand or Bluetooth, had many sons, of whom only one, Svend or Sweyn, outlived him. While Harald was a Christian, Sweyn was a pagan, having been brought up in the old faith by a noble warrior Palnatoke, to whom his father had sent the boy to teach him the use of arms.

When the king found that the boy was being made a pagan he tried to withdraw him from Palnatoke, but Sweyn would not leave his friend, whereupon the crafty king sought to destroy the warrior. We speak of this, for there is a very interesting story connected with it. Every one has read of how the Austrian governor Gessler condemned the Swiss peasant William Tell to shoot with an arrow an apple from his son's head, but few know that a like story is told of a Danish king and warrior four hundred years earlier. This is the story, as told for us by an old historian.

One day, while Palnatoke was boasting in the king's presence of his skill as an archer, Harald told him that, in spite of his boasts, there was one shot he would not dare to try. He replied that there was no shot he was afraid to attempt, and the king then challenged him to shoot an apple from the head of his son. Palnatoke obeyed, and the apple fell, pierced by the arrow. This cruel act made Palnatoke the bitter foe of King Harald, and gathering around him a band of fierce vikings he founded a brotherhood of sea-rovers at Jomsborg, and for long years afterwards the Jomsborgers, or Jomsborg vikings, were a frightful scourge to all Christian lands on the Baltic Sea. In former tales we have told some of their exploits.

It is said that Sweyn himself, in a later war, killed his father on the battlefield, while Palnatoke stood by approving, though in after years the two were bitter foes. All we need say further of these personages is that Sweyn invaded England with a powerful force in the time of Ethelred the Unready and drove this weak king from the island, making himself master of great part of the kingdom. He died at Gainsborough, England, in 1014, leaving his son Knud, then a boy of fourteen, to complete the conquest. It is this son, known in England as Canute the Great, and the mightiest of all the Danish kings, with whose career we have to deal.

England did not fall lightly into Canute's hands; he had to win it by force of arms. Encouraged by the death of Sweyn and the youth of Canute, the English recalled Ethelred and for a time the Danes lost the kingdom which their king Sweyn had won. Canute did not find a throne awaiting him in Denmark. His younger brother Harald had been chosen king by the Danes and when Canute asked him for a share in the government, Harald told him that if he wished to be a king he could go back and win England for himself. He would give him a few ships and men, but the throne of Denmark he proposed to keep.

Nothing loth, Canute accepted the offer and the next year returned to England with a large and well appointed force, whose work of conquest was rapidly performed. Ethelred died and great part of England was surrendered without resistance to the Danes. But Edmond, Ethelred's son, took the field with an army and in three months won three victories over the invaders.

A fourth battle was attempted and lost and Edmond retreated to the Severn, swiftly followed by Canute. The two armies here faced each other, with the fate of England in the balance, when a proposal in close accord with the spirit of the times was made. This was to settle the matter by single combat between the kings. Both were willing. While Edmond had the advantage in strength, Canute was his superior in shrewdness. For when the champions met in deadly fray and Canute was disarmed by his opponent, the wily Dane proposed a parley, and succeeded in persuading Edmond to divide the kingdom between them. The agreement was accepted by the armies and the two kings parted as friends—but the death of Edmond soon after had in it a suspicious appearance of murder by poison.

On the death of Edmond, Canute called a meeting of the popular assembly of the nation and was acknowledged king of all England. Not long afterwards Harald of Denmark died and the Danes chose him, under his home name of Knud, as their king also. But he stayed in Denmark only long enough to settle the affairs of the Church in that realm. He ordered that Christianity should be made the religion of the kingdom and the worship of Odin should cease; and put English bishops over the Danish clergy. He also brought in English workmen to teach the uncivilized Danes. Thus, Dane as Canute was, he preferred the religion and conditions of his conquered to those of his native kingdom, feeling that it was superior in all the arts and customs of civilization.

A great king was Canute, well deserving the title long given him of Canute the Great. Having won England by valor and policy, he held it by justice and clemency. He patronized the poets and minstrels and wrote verses in Anglo-Saxon himself, which were sung by the people and added greatly to his popularity. Of the poems written by him one was long a favorite in England, though only one verse of it now remains. This was preserved by the monks of Ely, since they were its theme. Thus it runs, in literal translation:

"Merrily sung the monks within Ely

When Canute King rowed by;

Row, knights, near the land,

And hear we these monks' song."

It is said that the verse was suggested to the king when rowing with his chiefs one day in the river Nene, near Ely Minster, by the sweet and solemn music of the monastery choir that floated out to them over the tranquil water. The monks of Ely, to whom we owe much of our knowledge of King Canute, tell us that he had a strong affection for the fen country and for their church, and gave the following story in that connection. It is at once picturesque and humorous.

One year, at the festival of the Purification, when King Canute proposed to pay his usual visit to Ely, the weather was very severe and all the streams and other waters were frozen. The courtiers advised the king to keep the holy festival in some other godly house, which he might reach without danger of drowning under broken ice, but such was his love for the abbot and monks of Ely that he would not take this advice.

Canute proposed to cross the ice by way of Soham Mere, then an immense body of water, saying that if any one would go before and show him the way he would be the first to follow. The soldiers and courtiers hesitated at this suggestion, and looked at one another with doubt and dread. But standing among the crowd was one Brithmar, a churl or serf, who was nicknamed Budde, or Pudding, from his stoutness. He was a native of the island of Ely and doubtless familiar with its waters, and when the courtiers held back he stepped forward and said he would go before and show the way.

"Go on then, in the name of our Lady," said Canute, "and I will follow; for if the ice on Soham Mere can bear a man so large and fat as thou art, it will not break under the weight of a small thin man like me."

So the churl went forward, and Canute the Great followed him, and after the king came the courtiers, one by one, with spaces between; and they all got safely over the frozen mere, with no mishaps other than a few slips and falls on the smooth ice; and Canute, as he had proposed, kept the festival of the Purification with the monks of Ely.

As a reward to the fat churl Brithmar for his service, he was made a freeman and his little property was also made free. "And so," the chronicle concludes, "Brithmar's posterity continued in our days to be freemen and to enjoy their possessions as free by virtue of the grant made by the king to their forefather."

There is another and more famous story told of King Canute, one showing that his great Danish majesty had an abundant share of sound sense. Often as this story has been told it will bear retelling. The incident occurred after his pilgrimage to Rome in the year 1030; made, it is said, to obtain pardon for the crimes and bloodshed which paved his way to the English throne.

After his return and when his power was at its height, the courtiers wearied him by their fulsome flatteries. Disgusted with their extravagant adulations he determined to teach them a lesson. They had spoken of him as a ruler before whom all the powers of nature must bend in obedience, and one day he caused his golden throne to be set on the verge of the sea-shore sands as the tide was rolling in with its resistless might. Seating himself on the throne, with his jewelled crown on his head, he thus addressed the ocean:

"O thou Ocean! Know that the land on which I sit is mine and that thou art a part of my dominion; therefore rise not, but obey my commands, and do not presume to wet the edge of my royal robe."

He sat as if awaiting the sea to obey his commands, while the courtiers stood by in stupefaction. Onward rolled the advancing breakers, each moment coming nearer to his feet, until the spray flew into his face, and finally the waters bathed his knees and wet the skirts of his robe. Then, rising and turning to the dismayed flatterers, he sternly said:

"Confess now how vain and frivolous is the might of an earthly king compared with that Great Power who rules the elements and says unto the ocean, 'Thus far shalt thou go and no farther!'"

The monks who tell this story, conclude it by saying that Canute thereupon took off his crown and deposited it within the cathedral of Winchester, never wearing it again.

After his visit to Rome, Canute ruled with greater mildness and justice than ever before, while his armies kept the turbulent Scotch and Welsh and the unquiet peoples of the north in order. In the latter part of his reign he could boast that the English, the Scotch, the Welsh, the Danes, the Swedes, and the Norwegians were his subjects, and he was called in consequence "The King of the Six Nations," and looked upon throughout Europe as the greatest of sovereigns; none of the kings and emperors of that continent being equal in power, wealth and width of dominion to King Canute, a descendant of the vikings of Denmark.

Canute spent the most of his life in England, but now and then visited his northern realm, and there are some interesting anecdotes of his life there. Though a devout Christian and usually a self-controlled man, the wild passions of his viking ancestry would at times break out, and at such times he spared neither friend nor foe and would take counsel from no man, churchman or layman. But when his anger died out his remorse was apt to be great and he would submit to any penance laid upon him by the Church. Thus when he had killed one of his house servants for some slight offense, he made public confession of his crime and paid the same blood-fine as would have been claimed from a man of lower rank.

The most notable instance of these outbursts of uncontrollable anger was that in which he murdered his old friend and brother-in-law Ulf, who, after rebelling against him, had saved him from complete defeat by the Swedes, by coming to his rescue just as the royal fleet was nearly swamped by the opening of the sluices which held back the waters of the Swedish river Helge-aae. Ulf took Canute on board his own ship and brought him in safety to a Danish island, while leaving his men to aid those of Canute in their escape from the Swedes. Yet the king bore a grudge against the earl, and this was its cause.

At one time Ulf ruled over Denmark as Canute's regent and made himself greatly beloved by the people from his just rule. Queen Emma, Canute's wife, wished to have her little son Harthaknud—or Hardicanute, as he was afterwards called in England—made king of Denmark, but could not persuade her husband King Canute to accede to her wishes. She therefore sent letters privately to Ulf, saying that the king wished to see the young prince on the throne, but did not wish to do anything the people might not like. Ulf, deceived by her story, had the boy crowned king, and thereby won Canute's ill-will.

The king, however, showed no signs of this, nor of resentment against Ulf for his rebellion, but, after his escape from the Swedes, asked the earl to go with him to his palace at Roeskilde, and on the evening of their arrival offered to play chess with him. During the game Canute made a false move so that Ulf was able to take one of his knights, and when the king refused to let this move count and wanted his man back again the earl jumped up and said he would not go on with the game. Canute, in a burst of anger, cried out:

"The coward Norwegian Ulf Jarl is running away."

"You and your coward Danes would have run away still faster at the Helge-aae if I and my Nowegians had not saved you from the Swedes, who were making ready to beat you all like a pack of craven hounds!" ejaculated the angry earl.

Those hasty words cost Ulf his life. Canute, furious at the insult, brooded over it all night, and the next morning, still in a rage, called to one of the guards at the door of his bed-chamber:

"Go and kill Ulf Jarl."

"My Lord King, I dare not," answered the man. "Ulf Jarl is at prayer before the altar of the church of St. Lucius."

The king, after a moment's pause, turned to a young man-at-arms who had been in his service since his boyhood and cried angrily:

"I command you, Olaf, to go to the church and thrust your sword through the Jarl's body."

Olaf obeyed, and Ulf was slain while kneeling before the altar rails of St. Lucius' church.

Then, as usual with King Canute, his passion cooled and he deeply lamented his crime, showing signs of bitter remorse. In way of expiation he paid to his sister Estrid, Ulf's widow, a large sum as blood-fine, and gave her two villages which she left at her death to the church in which her husband had been slain. He also brought up Ulf's eldest son as one of his own children. The widowed Estrid afterwards married Robert, Duke of Normandy, father of William the Conqueror, who in 1066 became master of England.

King Canute died in 1035, at thirty-six years of age, and his son Harald reigned after him in England for four years, and afterwards his son Harthaknud, or Hardicanute, for three years, when England again came under an Anglo-Saxon king—to fall under the power of William of Normandy, a conqueror of Norwegian descent, twenty-four years later.