Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Canute and His Sons

Steve Muhlberger

When Cnut, or Canute, was recognized as the sole king of England in late 1016, the English must have been exhausted. Ever since 991, or 994 at the latest, they had been under serious Scandinavian pressure.   England was content to accept Cnut as king, and only hoped he would be a good one.

Cnut was a man who had many irons in the fire. Cnut had only inherited his father Svein's claim to England; his brother had become King of Denmark in 1014. But soon after Cnut secured England his brother died and he inherited his homeland as well. With Denmark came Svein's ambitions to take Norway; with England came Aethelred's worries about Norwegian aggression. What he wanted in England more than anything was an end of war and a quiet, peaceful reign there so that he could attend to his other territories.

To secure his rule in England, Cnut followed a three part policy of eliminating powerful men he didn't trust, putting in people he did trust, and conciliating everyone else. 

Several  inconvenient ealdormen were killed at the same time. This was not the ruthlessness of an old, hardened monarch, but the ruthlessness of a young man in a hurry. Cnut at this point was not yet 20 years old.

Once he had killed or pushed out the existing royal deputies, Cnut appointed new ones, some Scandinavian, some English.  Cnut kept direct control of Wessex, where most of the royal estates and therefore royal wealth was located. The rest of England was given to men called earls -- after this we don't hear much about ealdormen any more. The most important English retainer, soon to become an earl was Godwine, apparently the son of Wulfnoth, the piratical Sussex nobleman who wrecked Aethelred's fleet in 1009.

With the most dangerous men out of the way and his own trusted followers in position, Cnut could make conciliatory gestures to other segments of the political community. He had already made some friends in Mercia and Northumbria by marrying a well connected noblewoman named Aelfgifu -- the same name, oddly enough, as Aethelred the Unready's first wife, who was mother of Edmund Ironside.

Then he dealt with his most dangerous rivals, the surviving family of Aethelred. Emma (also called Aelfgifu), Aethelred's queen, was the sister of the duke of Normandy, and she was in Normandy with her two young sons, the princes Edward and Alfred. To disarm the threat of a Norman-supported attempt on his throne in favor of the young princes, Canute married Emma and restored her as queen of England. He did this, by the way, without divorcing or dismissing the other Aelfgifu. He couldn't have her hanging around the royal court, but he maintained her in honorable estate, as we shall see later. This case is an indicator of how difficult it was for the church to enforce marriage laws among the nobility at this time.

In the next few years Cnut made a number of further gestures to impress the English people that he would be a good ruler, and not an oppressive conqueror. In 1018, he paid off his army with one last great collection of Danegeld and contented himself with a small fleet and a personal bodyguard like all kings had. In this way he reduced the tax burden on the free men of England and showed that he was confident in his rule. He also agreed in a meeting of all the important people in England that the basis of his rule would be the laws of King Edgar -- the last good native king.

Cnut made a more important commitment the next year, when he was on expedition to Denmark. He told them that he would rule as a good Christian monarch and a upholder of law and order; but further, he told the English that if they supported him, he would make sure that England would no longer be troubled by Vikings. This was a deal that everyone could approve of, and Cnut had little trouble in England for the twenty years that he reigned.

England was really the least of his worries. Securing his power over Denmark and conquering Norway were far more difficult. You will read in history books about Cnut's northern empire -- I've referred to it myself. He was certainly one of the strongest kings of his time, and contemporaries were very impressed. His rule, at its greatest extent, covered a lot of territory and several distinct countries. In that sense it can be called an empire. But we must remember that there was not a single institution that bound the conglomeration together. The empire was simply the personal ascendancy of a ruthless, energetic and lucky warlord over many local and regional rulers. To keep his position, Cnut had to be constantly on the move, supervising his deputies and vassals, doing a never-ending balancing act.

If you look in detail at Cnut's policies, you can see how delicate his position was. Cnut began to worry about Thorkell the Tall, an older experienced warrior who had been a key ally of his father Svein.  In 1021 Cnut banished him from England. Thorkell returned to Denmark, where he was just too strong to ignore. So in 1023, Cnut was reconciled with Thorkell. They exchanged sons -- in other words, gave hostages -- and Thorkell was made Cnut's chief deputy in Denmark. Thorkell was essentially a sub-king of Denmark under Cnut.  In fact, when Thorkell died, Cnut had to create a new Thorkell. An earl named Ulf was married to his sister, and Ulf and he traded sons to guarantee their alliance.

England was really the key to Cnut's power. It supplied the men and money to finance wars in Scandinavia. It was a combined English-Danish fleet that conquered Norway for Cnut in 1028. Two years later, when Norway had been lost and won again, Cnut sent his English first wife Aelfgifu to Norway to rule the country in his name and the name of their young son Swein.

Ironically enough, this strong king who depended so much on England to maintain his empire ended up by seriously weakening the power of the monarch in England. He certainly did not do this intentionally.

But in the mid-1020s, when he was very concerned with matters overseas, he decided he needed to have an earl in Wessex. Godwine, his long-time English follower, got the position. Wessex was the home turf of the native English dynasty. The vast majority of royal estates were there. Wessex was full of thegns whose direct loyalty to the crown was a family tradition. The English kings before Cnut had been so concerned to control their home turf that they seldom left Wessex except for special occasions. They apparently felt that as long as they had Wessex, they could rule the whole kingdom through deputies -- an accurate conclusion, if the record means anything.

Cnut looked at things differently. He had no personal connection with Wessex.; But turning over Wessex to Godwine was a dangerous expedient. If England were ever separated from the rest of Cnut's empire, Godwine would have most of the power that Edgar or Athelstan had enjoyed in the past. He would be in a position to be king himself.

Cnut's parcelling out of England among great earls created problems for his successors. These men were almost sub-kings, and could give a weaker king than Cnut a hard time. In fact, when Cnut died in 1035, at about the age of 40, England and Scandinavia both were thrown into confusion. Before he died, Cnut had already been losing his grip. In 1035, Aelfgifu had been forced out of Norway. The loss of Norway endangered Denmark and even England -- if Cnut could not protect England from the Norwegians, his claims on the loyalty of the English would evaporate. It was at this inconvenient point that he died.

Cnut's intention had been to leave his entire empire to his son by Emma, Harthacanute. There were problems to this arrangement. Harthacanute was the son who had been sent to Thorkell in Denmark as a foster-son and hostage in 1023. He had lived in Denmark ever since, and so he was not known to the English earls or the rest of the nobility. Furthermore, the loss of Norway meant that Harthacanute would have to stay in Denmark indefinitely.

But England country needed a strong leader or else there would be trouble. One candidate was Harold, the son of Aelfgifu and Cnut. He was in England and he had important relatives in the nobility of Mercia and Northumbria. The earls of those two areas started agitating for Harold to be elected king.

Others didn't want Harold. Emma, who controlled the treasury and was thus an important figure, hated Aelfgifu and didn't want her rival's son to be king. She and Godwine declared for Harthacanute and were determined to wait for him. The archbishop of Canterbury, also a southerner, supported them. Since he consecrated kings in England, his feelings were important. Divisions were opening up in the governing class.

Very soon, however, the country got restive waiting for Harthacanute, who had his hands full in Scandinavia. So Godwine and Emma started to look around for another candidate. They looked right across the English Channel to Normandy, where Emma's sons by Aethelred had grown up. In 1036, Emma summoned them to her at Winchester, where she still held the royal treasury. Edward, the elder son, was too cautious to come, but his brother Alfred took the chance. But when he got to England, he fell into a trap. Godwine had secretly changed sides. He intercepted Alfred, wined and dined him and his retinue, and when they were asleep, had the lot of them murdered. Actually Alfred was merely blinded and sent to a monastery, but he did not last long after that. Godwine's reward was to be the man who gave England to Harold, and Harold's favor made him secure in Wessex.

Harold was elected king soon after, in 1037, and Emma left the country.

When Harold died, Harthacanute took over peacefully in 1040, and Denmark and England were reunited. Harthacanute was a little more secure than Harold, but he still had to worry about Edward's claims to the throne and there was still a possibility of trouble from Norway. In 1041, he decided to solve one of those problems by inviting Edward to England, where he recognized him as his heir. And just in time, too. The very next year, although he was still a very young man, Harthacanute died at a wedding feast. According to the C version of the chronicle, he "died as he stood at his drink and he suddenly fell to the ground with a horrible convulsion." Poison? No one knows.

But the succession crisis had been settled for the moment. Edward, known as the Confessor for his later piety, was undisputed king of England.

In some ways he was in a very weak situation. He was, like Harthacanute, a stranger to England. Ever since 1014 or so, he had been living in Normandy. That was an absence of nearly thirty years, and he was not yet forty years old. He had no territorial base. The ancestral territory of Wessex was under the thumb of Godwine, and some earl or other had a grip on every other district in England. He had no money. He had no special friends. He didn't even get along with his mother, who had always preferred her Danish family and was involved, purposely or not, in the death of his brother.

Edward's unenviable position had nothing to do with him personally.  Cnut had made a big splash while he lived, but he spent all of his energies building up a ramshackle empire that had little chance of surviving him. In the course of his empire-building he undermined the position of the English kings in their own realm. His great deputies, the earls, did not dare cross Cnut, but they were a danger to any weaker monarch. They can be compared to the great dukes who dismantled the empire of Charlemagne in the ninth and tenth century, when his dynasty became divided and then died out.

Cnut's dynasty died too, far more quickly than Charlemagne's, thus depriving the English kingdom of the one factor that could guarantee domestic peace -- a strong king who could keep everyone else in line. Edward was left to pick up the pieces -- and even in 1042, people must have doubted that he was the man to do it.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.