Canute the Great


Canute was a Danish king who ruled over a Saxon-Danish kingdom in England from 1016 until his death in 1035. Canute was of the Viking race, but he was for the most part, a humane ruler, who sought to provide justice and protection for all of his subjects, Dane and Saxon alike. Although Canute was baptized by his Christian mother, he did not show signs of religiosity until ascended to the throne, but from the beginning of his reign was deferential to the church, and supported its civilizing influence on all his subjects. Furthermore, he actively sought Saxon support and many of his counsellors and leading ministers were Saxon, most notably the Earl Godwin, father of Harald Godwinson.

Canute's father, Sweyn Forkbeard, was a king of Denmark who determined to conquer England after spending ten years raiding the coasts, and winning a great deal of tribute. By 1013 he had driven Ethelred, the Saxon king, from his throne, and was on the verge of a complete victory when he died in 1014. His dominions were passed to his son Canute, who had accompanied him on the most recent voyage, but the son of the deposed king, Edmund Ironside, raised an army to reclaim the Saxon throne. After an indecisive battle, both Canute and Edmund agreed to a truce in order to prevent a horrendous civil war. Edmund died shortly thereafter, and the Saxon dominions that he controlled passed to Canute.

Soon after gaining the throne, Canute married Emma, the widow of Aethelred. His reign was a good one for England, largely because it put an end to the Viking raids, but also, because Canute sought to treat his Saxon subjects fairly, and made some amends for the depredations of the Danes, largely through donations to the church. He live during a period when Christianity was spreading throughout the Norse strongholds of Scandinavia, he governed as a Christian king, and he encouraged the conversion of his pagan subjects. He was also served by some key Saxon ministers, allowed many Saxon nobles to retain their holdings, and encouraged intermarriage between Dane and Saxon nobles.

In 1018 his brother died and he inherited his father's kingdom of Denmark and so for eight years governed both Denmark and England. In 1026 however, Olaf II, the king of Norway, attacked Canute's dominions in Denmark. Olaf was defeated at the Battle of the Helgea, and Canute followed up his victory by driving Olaf II from his throne in Norway, and adding all of Scandinavia to his dominions. When he died unexpectedly at age in 1035, there was strife between his sons for control of his empire. Within the next six years however, both of his sons died, and his empire was divided among various claimants, and England was restored to the Saxon dynasty under Edward the Confessor.

Key events during the life of Canute the Great:

Birth of Canute
Accompanies his father Sweyn on the invasion of England.
Returns to Denmark on the death of his fathers, Sweyn I.
Besieges Edmund Ironside's stronghold of London, to no avail.
Peace made with Edmund Ironside, but he dies soon after.
Declared sole monarch of England.
Marries Emma, widow of the Saxon King Aethelred.
Inherits the Kingdom of Denmark on the death of his brother.
Godwin, a leading Saxon earl, becomes counsellor to Canute, marries Canute's sister.
Olaf II of Norway attempts to conquer Denmark, but is defeated at Helgea.
Goes to Rome for coronation of Conrad II.
Olaf II is killed at the Battle of Stiklestad; Canute reigns over Scandinavia
Died at Shaftsbury

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Lady Emma  in  William the Conqueror  by  Jacob Abbott
King Canute on the Seashore  in  Fifty Famous Stories Retold  by  James Baldwin
King Canute by the Sea-shore  in  Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary  by  Cambridge Press
Story of King Canute  in  Stories from English History  by  Alfred J. Church
Canute the Great  in  Famous Men of the Middle Ages  by  John H. Haaren
Normans Conquer England  in  The Story of England  by  Samuel B. Harding
England in the Middle Ages  in  The Story of the Middle Ages  by  Samuel B. Harding
Canute and the Waves  in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall
Canute the Great, King of Six Nations  in  Historical Tales: Scandinavian  by  Charles Morris

Image Links

Sea, I command you to come no farther!'
 in Fifty Famous Stories Retold

King Canute and his Queen
 in Stories from English History

Canute on the Seashore
 in  The Story of the English

Canute rebukes his courtiers
 in Famous Men of the Middle Ages

Canute Orders the Ocean to Retreat
 in European Hero Stories

Short Biography
Emma of Normandy Norman princess, wife first of Aethelred, then of Canute. Mother of Edward the Confessor.
Dunstan Influential archbishop at the court of Edgar of England.
Sweyn I Viking king of Denmark who conquered England from the Saxons. Father of Canute.
Edmund Ironside Eldest son of Aethelred the Unready, fought Canute for the throne, but then died.
Edward the Confessor Last Saxon king of the Wessex line. Raised in Normandy, befriended William the Conqueror.
Godwin Very influential Earl of Wessex during reigns of Canute and Edward the Confessor. Father of Harold.
Aethelred the Unready Acsended to the Saxon throne at a young age, ruled poorly and was unable to effectively resist the Danes.