Cnut the Great, also known as Canute, was crowned King of England on January 6th 1017 in Old St. Paul's Cathedral, London. He would later also gain the thrones of Denmark (1018) and Norway (1028) and ruled over what is often referred to as the North Sea Empire until his death in 1035. He is popularly invoked in the context of the legend of King Canute and the waves, which usually misrepresents him as a deluded monarch believing he has supernatural powers, contrary to the original legend which portrays a wise king who rebuked his courtiers for their fawning behaviour.
Cnut was a son of the Danish prince Sweyn Forkbeard, who was the son and heir to King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark. Sweyn became King of Denmark and Norway in 986 and raided England between 1002 and 1012. In 1013 he even led his forces in a full scale invasion. During this invasion England’s King Æthelred the Unready, and his sons Edward and Alfred, fled to Normandy, so on Christmas Day 1013, Sweyn was declared King of England.
However, Sweyn died on February 3rd 1014 and while his Elder son Harald II succeeded him as King of Denmark, Cnut was declared King of England by the Norse people of the Danelaw. The English nobility however recalled Æthelred from Normandy and the restored English king swiftly led an army against Cnut, who was forced to flee with his army to Denmark. There, supported by his brother, Cnut succeeded in assembling an army of around 10,000 men and a fleet of some 200 longships with which to launch another invasion. In the summer of 1015, they set sail.
Following a bloody campaign, in late 1015 Wessex submitted to Cnut and in early 1016 his army was able to cross the Thames, moving northwards across eastern Mercia. Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside retreated north to join Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria and together they returned south and harried Danish allies in western Mercia. Cnut however occupied Northumbria, forcing Uhtred to return home to submit himself to Cnut, who sent a Northumbrian rival, Thurbrand the Hold, to assassinate Uhtred and his retinue.
Edmund was now in London, where he was elevated to king on the death of Æthelred on April 23rd 1016. While the Danish attempted to lay siege to the city, Edmund managed to break out to gather an army and battles were fought at Penselwood in Somerset and Sherston in Wiltshire. Edmund was even able to temporarily relieve London, driving his Fanish enemies away and defeating them after crossing the Thames at Brentford. This was at a heavy cost to his army however, and he was forced to retreat to gather more men. Cnut’s forces were also unsuccessful in their siege and were driven off by an attacking English army.
On October 18th 1016, Edmund was decisively defeated in the Battle of Assandun in Essex, though a further battle would still need to be fought near the Forest of Dean to bring about a conclusion. In this Edmund was wounded and so on an island near Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, Cnut and Edmund met to negotiate terms of peace. It was agreed that all of England north of the Thames was to be the domain of the Danish prince, while all to the south was kept by the English king, along with London. Accession to the reign of the entire realm was set to pass to Cnut upon Edmund's death, who then conveniently died a few weeks later on November 30th. Cnut was left as king of all of England.
Cnut ruled England for nearly two decades. The protection he lent against Viking raiders restored the prosperity that had been increasingly impaired since the resumption of Viking attacks in the 980s. In turn the English helped him to establish control over the majority of Scandinavia. He is generally remembered as a wise and successful king of England, although this view may in part be attributable to his good treatment of the Church, keeper of the historic record.
Following the death of his brother Harald in 1018, Cnut united the English and Danish Kingdoms. In 1023, taking advantage of Cnut’s commitment to England, the Norwegian king Olaf Haraldsson began to launch attacks on Denmark. Cnut was forced to sail from England and fought an army of Norwegians and Swede’s in the Battle of the Helgeå, probably in 1026. His victory there left him as the dominant leader in Scandinavia.
In 1027, Cnut referred to himself as king of "the Norwegians, and of some of the Swedes" and stated his intention to secure peace between the kingdoms of Scandinavia. The following year, he set off from England to Norway with a fleet of about fifty ships. Olaf Haraldsson stood down, unable to put up any fight as his nobles had already abandoned him. And so, Cnut was crowned king, now of England, Denmark and Norway as well as part of Sweden and what became known as the North Sea Empire reached its greatest extent. Olaf Haraldsson attempted to retake Norway, but was killed at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.
Cnut died on November 12th 1035. In England, he was succeeded by his son Harald Harefoot while, his other son Harthacnut succeeded in Denmark. In 1040 Harthacnut would also succeed to the English Throne, following the death of his brother. Norway passed to Magnus the Good, an illegitimate son of Olaf II.
These scenes were built by James Pegrum and Dan Harris as part of a series of models on the Kings and Queens of England. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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