Cnut

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Cnut (d. 1035), king of England (1016–35). Cnut, the younger son of the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, came to prominence campaigning in England by the side of his father, 1013–14. Sweyn forced King Æthelred into exile and received the submission of all England but died in February 1014. His son then took his army back to Denmark after an act of savage brutality when he mutilated his hostages before putting them ashore at Sandwich. He returned in September 1015 and after hard battles with Æthelred's son Edmund Ironside (d. Nov. 1016) conquered England. For close on 20 years this Danish prince, quickly recognized as legitimate successor to the Christian kingship of England, gave the kingdom substantial peace and prosperity. At a great assembly at Oxford in 1018 he promised to adhere to the laws of King Edgar, a promise reiterated in a letter sent to all the shire courts in 1019/20 in which he stated his intention to be a gracious lord and to support the rights of the church and just secular law. In 1019 he succeeded his elder brother as king of Denmark, and he also, after one major set-back at the hands of Olaf Haraldson (St Olaf) and the Swedes in 1026, gained mastery of Norway in 1028. Incongruously, Cnut attempted to govern Norway through the virtual regency of his English wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, and their young son Sweyn (d. 1036), an experiment which ended in miserable failure in 1035, the year of Cnut's own death. Whether Cnut could have repaired the damage had he lived is a moot point: but the Norwegian fiasco is a reminder of the fragile nature of Cnut's so-called Scandinavian empire. England and to a lesser extent Denmark constituted the solid base of his political power. In England itself continuity is the main theme. There were occasional outbursts of ferocity, notably in the opening years of the reign, including the murder of the treacherous ealdorman Eadric Streona in 1017. Cnut made, primarily for political reasons, a Christian marriage to Æthelred's widow Emma of Normandy, although continuing to consort with and recognize Ælfgifu of Northampton, and relied heavily on many of Æthelred's principal advisers, notably Wulfstan, archbishop of York and bishop of Worcester (1002–23). Wulfstan was chiefly responsible for the framing of Cnut's law codes, the first of which dealt with ecclesiastical matters and the second, longer and more elaborate, with secular affairs. These codes proved the chief vehicles for the transmission of knowledge of Anglo-Saxon law deep into the Norman period. Local government continued to operate in shires, hundreds, and wapentakes, essential for the judicial and financial health of the local communities and of the monarchy. Cnut exploited to the full the wealth of a basically prosperous England. There were some major exactions recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, £10,500 from London alone in 1018 to help pay off the victorious Danish fleet and £72,000 from the whole of England: but it was the regular exaction of geld from the country that provided the king with the means to set up stable government and to preserve internal peace. The sophisticated coinage that Cnut had inherited from his predecessors continued to be struck to a high and consistent standard. His piety was much more than skin deep and on an impressive visit to Rome in 1027 to attend the coronation of the Emperor Conrad—in itself a symptom of his prestige and confidence—Cnut took the opportunity to negotiate favourable terms for English traders and pilgrims en route. Prompted in part by his needs for reliable subordinates who would exercise more than traditional authority when the king was abroad, he deliberately built up the regional powers of some great men to whom was accorded the title of eorl, a step that has been interpreted, probably falsely, as potentially harmful to the integrity of the late Old English monarchy. In Cnut's day they, especially Godwine, earl of Wessex, were kept firmly under royal discipline, serving a useful purpose as regional commanders. The reputation of Cnut suffered in one respect from sheer biological accident. He died relatively young (one later authority says at the age of 37) in 1035. His two sons Harold Harefoot (by Ælfgifu) and Harthacnut (by Emma) contended for the succession to England and to Denmark, and both died in their early twenties, Harold in 1040, Harthacnut in 1042. His other two children by Ælfgifu, Sweyn, much entangled in Norwegian politics, and Gunnhild, married to the future emperor Henry III, also died young in 1036 and 1038 respectively. The return of the ancient dynasty to England in the person of Edward the Confessor (1042–66) left Cnut with no great apologist among English historical writers. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has comparatively little to say about him, and indeed his wife Emma, who lived on until 1052, has a better personal historical press. There can be no doubt, however, that Cnut's contribution to the institutional and economic life of England was considerable, and that medieval Scandinavian historians and chroniclers were well justified in referring to him as ‘Cnut the Great’.

Henry Loyn

Bibliography

Lawson, M. K. , Cnut (1993).

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