Life of the Week: King Cnut

Recognised as one of the most prominent kings of the Anglo-Saxon era, King Cnut conquered England, Denmark, Norway, and areas of Sweden

A stained glass window of King Cnut at Canterbury Cathedral. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This week, the long-awaited Anglo-Saxon drama series The Last Kingdom airs on BBC Two. This eight-part series follows the lives of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, who in the 11th century battled it out to conquer the kingdom of England.

Here, we look at the life of the warring king, Cnut…

Born: c985–995 AD, Denmark

Died: AD 12 November 1035, Dorset, England

Ruled England: AD 1016–1035

Remembered for: Conquering kingdoms across northern Europe and becoming king of England, Denmark, Norway, and areas of Sweden.

Family: Cnut’s father was the Danish prince Svein ‘Forkbeard’, who became king of England in 1013. Little is known about Cnut’s mother, but it has been suggested that she may have been the daughter of King Mieszko I of Poland.

Cnut married Ælfgifu of Northampton (date unknown), and together they had two children named Svein and Harold. However, it has been suggested that the church did not officially recognise this marriage, for reasons that are unclear, thus Cnut was allowed to marry again.

Cnut married Emma of Normandy in 1017, and they had two children – a son named Harthacnut and a daughter named Gunhilda.

His life: The exact date and location of Cnut’s birth is unknown, and there is little evidence of his upbringing in the 10th century.

Cnut grew up at a time when the crown of England was being ferociously fought over by the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. In 1013, Cnut and his father, Svein, invaded England and deposed the king, Æthelred ‘The Unready’. Svein was proclaimed as king, but he died just a few months later on 3 February 1014. The English nobles then invited Æthelred ‘The Unready’ to return to the throne.

Upon learning of his father’s death, Cnut began planning an invasion of England to take the crown for himself. In 1015, Æthelred’s health deteriorated and England became divided over who should succeed the throne if he were to die. Some parts of the country allied with Cnut and the Vikings, while others showed support for Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside.

Following Æthelred’s death in April 1016, war broke out across southern England between Cnut and Edmund. After months of warfare, Edmund died on 30 November 1016, most probably after sustaining battle wounds. Cnut was now the undisputed successor to the English throne, and he was crowned at the Old St Paul’s cathedral in January 1017.

A silver penny from the reign of King Cnut. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In order to secure his position as king of England, Cnut married Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, in 1017. He also had any remaining enemies killed, and he exiled members of Æthelred’s family who were possible threats to his position on the throne.

In 1018, Cnut’s brother, Harald, the king of Denmark, died, and Cnut succeeded to the Danish throne. In 1027, Cnut traveled to Scotland where the Scottish kings acknowledged Cnut as the legitimate ruler of England, bringing peace to the two rivaling countries.

In 1027, Cnut also went on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he made alliances with the Pope and attended the coronation of Conrad II, the Holy Roman emperor. In 1028 Cnut expanded his empire further when he invaded Norway and placed his illegitimate son, Svein, as the governor there.

In England, Cnut attempted to gain the support of the church by giving gifts to different parish churches and monasteries, and he also oversaw the building of new churches across the country. Cnut was praised by his contemporaries for strictly enforcing English law and justice, and he strengthened the crown’s finances by establishing new trade routes between England and Scandinavia. Cnut successfully created a unified England, and it has been suggested that he was the first English ruler to not face any internal rebellions throughout his reign.

According to legend, Cnut’s circle of courtiers in England was so convinced of his power that they believed he could control the tides of the sea. Cnut saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate that, despite being king, he was not unaccountable to God. To prove this, he ordered that his throne be carried to the seashore. There, he sat on his throne and proved to his courtiers that he could not make the tides change, and in doing so demonstrated that God held power over everyone on Earth.

According to Henry of Huntingdon’s 12th-century chronicle, Cnut then announced: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey”.

Cnut died in Dorset, England, on 12 November 1035. The English crown was succeeded by his son Harold I. Cnut was buried in Winchester, which was the capital of the kingdom of Wessex, and his remains are now held in Winchester Cathedral.

The first episode of The Last Kingdom airs on Thursday 22 October at 9pm on BBC Two. To find out more, click here.

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