King Canute or Knut is one of the earliest Kings of England
and reigned from 1016-1035, and was known for consolidating the country after a divisive war with the Saxons
. He was also known as a man of great wisdom. Once he heard one of his court bards
acclaim him with the phrase "Great King Canute, that rules the land, the sun
, the moon
, and the stars
obey you." Canute was somewhat peeved by this, since he certainly was in no way that
powerful, the song raised expectations he could not possibly fulfill, and besides, like most proper Vikings
, he was a very modest man. But the song persisted, and he decided to Do Something about it.
Assembling his courtiers, he proposed an expedition down to the sea, taking his throne (which at that time was a nicely decorated oak stool) with him. When they all stood together on the North Sea beach at low tide, he asked the throne be brought to him.
"I have heard it said that the sun, the moon, and the stars obey me."
The assembled courtiers assured him that yes, this was so.
"Now if the sun, moon, and stars obey me, would not the sea obey me as well?"
The courtiers agreed that this, indeed would be the case.
"If that is so, then I command the sea not to touch the hem of my tunic!" he said, firmly planting the throne at the waters' edge, and sitting down.
The courtiers waited incredulously. Was he mad? His tunic was made of silk, that had been brought, as brocade, from China, unraveled at Cos, in Greece, and rewoven into a fine tissue. Embroiderers had worked it over lavishly with gold thread. It was, in sum, perhaps one of the most precious items in the whole kingdom. Would a miracle intervene? Did he know something they did not? What would happen next? The waters rose, first to the toes of his boots, then to their heels, to the ankles, then to their tops. Canute kept sitting in place, resolutely scowling at the sea. Finally, the sea came in to touch his hem, then a wave came to wet it by several inches. At last, he stood up.
"You observe, that the sea does not obey me. The sea obeys only God, as does the sun, the moon, and the stars. Do not sing that song again."
And he lifted the throne up onto his shoulder and walked back up onto the beach.