A Short Biography of King Canute

By Tim Lambert

Canute was a great king of the 11th century. He was probably born in the early 990s (the exact date is not known). His father was King Sweyn of Denmark. It’s believed his mother was Polish.

In 1013 his father, the Danish king Sweyn invaded England. His fleet sailed up the Humber and along the Trent and the people of northern England welcomed him. Swein marched south and captured more and more of England so King Ethelred fled abroad. The English accepted Swein as king but he died in February 1014.

Some of the English invited Ethelred back. When he arrived the Danes, led by Canute, withdrew. However, they were soon back. In 1015 Swein’s son Canute or Cnut led an expedition to England. They landed at Poole Harbour and occupied southern England. Ethelred finally died in April 1016.

There was then a struggle between Canute and Ethelred’s son Edmund, known as Edmund Ironside. The people of the Danelaw accepted Canute as king but London supported Edmund. England was split between the two contestants. They fought at Ashingdon in Essex.

Canute won the battle but he was not strong enough to capture all of England. Instead, he made peace with Edmund. Canute took the north and Midlands while Edmund took the south.

However, Edmund conveniently died in November 1016 and Canute became king of all England. In 1019 he also became king of Denmark. In 1028 he became king of Norway. Meanwhile, Canute married Emma in 1017.

Canute turned out to be a good king. Under him, trade grew rapidly and England became richer. Canute divided England into four Earldoms, Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex. Each earl was very powerful. In 1027 he went on a pilgrimage to Rome.

When Canute died on 12 November 1035 England was stable and prosperous.

There is a famous story that flatterers told King Canute that even the tide would obey him. King Canute ordered the tide not to come in, at Bosham in Sussex but of course, it did. But this story was not recorded till the 12th century and it may be apocryphal.

St Canute’s Cathedral, Odense, Denmark