Cnut Biography

Cnut, also known as Cnut the Great and Canute, was a powerful ruler who held the titles of king of England, Denmark, and Norway during the 11th century. His vast territories, which included parts of Sweden, were collectively known as the North Sea Empire. Cnut was highly respected by his contemporaries, both royals and religious figures, and he was known for his bravery and ambition. He inherited his father’s army and went on to defeat the English king, Edmund Ironside, to claim the throne of England. Later, he ascended the Danish throne and continued to expand his empire. Cnut was also deeply devoted to the church and played a significant role in strengthening the English church. His commitment to Christianity was further demonstrated by his pilgrimage to Rome in 1027.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Cnut the Great, Canute
  • Died At Age: 45
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Emma of Normandy (m. 1017), Ælfgifu of Northampton
    • Father: Sweyn Forkbeard
    • Mother: Gunhild of Wendens
    • Siblings: Estrid Svendsdatter, Harald II of Denmark
    • Children: Gunhilda of Denmark, Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut, Svein Knutsson
  • Born Country: Denmark
  • Died on: November 12, 1035
  • Place of Death: Shaftesbury, United Kingdom

Childhood & Early Life

Cnut was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard, a Danish prince. His father came from a line of Scandinavian rulers who played a major role in the unification of Denmark and was the heir to King Harald Bluetooth. According to some traditional sources, his mother was Świętosława, the daughter of Mieszko I of Poland. A few other sources state that his mother was a Polish princess called Gunhild, the daughter of Burislav. It is not known for sure when and where Cnut was born. It is speculated that he was born between 980 and 1000. He has been described as tall, strong, and handsome in the 13th-century Icelandic Knýtlinga Saga. Hardly anything is known about his childhood. As a young man, probably in his teens or twenties, he became a part of the Scandinavian force under his father. He participated in the invasion of England in 1013 and is believed to have been a part of his father’s previous campaigns in England in 1003 and 1004 as well.

Accession & Reign

Cnut created a large Danish force of around 10,000 men and went to England to conquer the region in the summer of 1015. He had the support of his Norwegian brother-in-law Eiríkr Hákonarson, an experienced soldier and statesman. The invaders quickly conquered Wessex and Northumbria. He successfully defeated the English army led by the English king, Edmund Ironside at the Battle of Assandun. Edmund agreed to divide his kingdom with Cnut. However, he died soon after, leaving Cnut the sole ruler of England in late 1016. As king of England, he consolidated English and Danish institutions. He divided the country into four earldoms: Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. He reformed the existing laws and instituted the system of territorial lordships. He implemented a series of new coins and helped rebuild the economy of England after years of financial turmoil. In 1018, King Harald II, Cnut’s brother and the ruler of Denmark, died. Cnut claimed the Danish throne and appointed his brother-in-law Ulf Jarl as regent of Denmark and returned to England. In 1027, he attended the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II, in Rome. He also negotiated with the Pope to lessen the burden of taxes on English merchants and pilgrims in Rome. Cnut the Great conquered Norway in 1028. He completed the conquest with a fleet of 50 ships from England. He was officially crowned king at an assembly at Trondheim. Conrad II, Holy Roman Emperor, gave Cnut the Mark of Schleswig and Pomerania to govern. As a ruler, Cnut the Great is generally regarded as a successful and wise leader. Under his rule, England enjoyed more than two decades of prosperity and peace.

Major Battles

Cnut the Great is best known for his valour in the Battle of Assandun (or Essendune) which was fought between Danish and English armies in October 1016. The Danish forces, led by Cnut crushed the English army led by King Edmund Ironside. Cnut’s triumph in the battle cemented the Danish conquest of England. Another major battle Cnut the Great participated in was the Battle of Helgea in 1026. The battle took place between the combined armies of Denmark and England and the combined Norwegian and Swedish forces. Cnut commanded a massive army and emerged victorious, thus becoming the dominant leader in Scandinavia.

Family & Personal Life

Cnut the Great first married Ælfgifu of Northampton. This was a political alliance fixed by the families of the young couple. They went on to have two sons, Sweyn Knutsson, the future king of Norway, and Harold Harefoot, the future king of England. While still married to Ælfgifu, Cnut married Emma of Normandy in 1017. Emma was previously married to King Æthelred of England and had three children: sons Edward the Confessor and Alfred Ætheling, and daughter, Goda of England. Her first husband died in 1016. It is believed that she agreed to remarry Cnut in order to save her sons’ lives; Cnut would have otherwise killed them as they were rival claimants to the English throne. Even though Cnut and Emma’s marriage began as a political strategy, the couple eventually started loving each other and had a happy marriage. They went on to have two children: a son, Harthacnut, the future king of Denmark and England, and a daughter, Gunhilda, who grew up to marry Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor. Cnut breathed his last on 12 November 1035. His son Harthacnut succeeded him as king in Denmark, reigning as Cnut III. His other son Harold Harefoot claimed the throne of England.

Cnut & the Legend of the Sea

According to a popular legend, Cnut the Great had many flatterers and was getting tired of their flattery. One such flatterer claimed that the king had the power to command obedience even from the sea. Cnut decided to prove to him that he had no command over the natural elements. It is said that he tried to command the waves not to touch his feet but the sea ignored him and touched him anyway.

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