Canute I (Canute the Great)

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Canute I (Canute the Great)

King of denmark


Respect. Canute or Cnut I (Canute the Great) was the king of England from 1016–1035 and king of Denmark from 1018–1035. (At the time the kingdom of Denmark comprised present-day Norway and parts of Sweden, Germany, and England, as well as Denmark.) A powerful political figure of the eleventh century, Canute I was respected by both the Holy Roman emperor and the pope.

England. In 1013 Canute I accompanied his father, Danish king Sweyn I Forkbeard, on his invasion of England. When he assumed the English crown, Canute I began to rule over a Christian maritime kingdom. Canute I did not create the Viking interest in extended territory, but his ruthlessness encouraged his people, and through a series of battles at Penselwood (Somerset), Sherston (Wiltshire), Brentford (Middlesex), Otford (Kent), and Assandun (Ashington), they conquered the British Isles.

Motives. A mixture of military and economic motives are evident in many of Canute I’s undertakings. Contemporary stories about him emphasize his personal piety and fascination with the idea of penance, as well. Several chroniclers offer hints at the motivations behind his conquest of England. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, written in praise of Canute I’s wife Queen Emma by Jomsviking Saga, a monk of Saint Omer, and the account of Adam of Bremen, a monk with the diocese of Hamberg-Bremen, recount his rise to power and emphasize the king’s expansionist visions. They suggest a basic medieval formula of conquering and strengthening Christianity, but they also claim that the strongest motive was Canute I’s aspiration of fulfilling the goals of his father without sustained hostility.

Commercial Gain. Modern historians debate the degree to which Viking travels were motivated by attempts to combat the local inhabitants and make inroads for settlement, but virtually all concede that the Vikings had economic aspirations. Canute I maintained a prosperous trade relationship within his empire and some degree of commercial pressure over territories encountered by his merchants. He used a pilgrimage to Rome (1027) to secure easier trading conditions for merchants of his realm in northern Italy. Unlike royal patrons of trading ventures, Canute I was not interested in claiming vast amounts of wealth for himself. He focused instead on the strategic and pragmatic guarantees of trade at major ports and across key water routes. Church chroniclers from the era provide functional records of Canute I’s fleets that link his vessels to the feats of tenth-century explorers.

Impact. Canute I has been credited with establishing a northern maritime empire and transforming the city of Lund in southwestern Sweden into a capital the equal of London. Contemporary chroniclers certainly contributed to his reputation, as did evidence of prosperous ports. Recent assessments suggest a complex man who was given more credit in his own time for his religious gestures than any other accomplishments. Canute I did not, however, establish Christianity in England, and there is no evidence that he held any unique theological understanding of that faith. He certainly did not lead a Christian expedition in conquering England, something a man of his status could have done were his soldiers not pagans. His support of pilgrims in Rome and churches in England were more likely motivated by the value of trade and real estate in secure hands than in an idealistic expression of religious fervor. After his death, the English church continued to benefit from the stability of the pax Cnutonis (the peace of Canute I’s reign), though church authorities remained unwilling to elevate his status beyond “Canute the Great.”


M. K. Lawson, Cnut: The Danes in England in the Early Eleventh Century (London & New York: Longman, 1993).

John D. Niles and Mark Amodio, ed., Anglo-Scandinavian England: Norse-English Relations in the Period before the Conquest (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1989).

Alexander Rumble, ed., The Reign of Cnut: King of England, Denmark and Norway (London: Leicester University Press, 1994).