Canute was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, who had conquered England during the reign of Ethelred the Unready. When Swyen died in 1014, Ethelred came back to the throne, and when Ethelred died in 1016, his son Edmund II Ironside succeeded him. Canute, however, decided he wanted to rule England as his father had, and fought Edmund. The two eventually agreed to split the kingdom, but Edmund died within a year and Canute had England to rule alone. (He cemented his power by killing off as many other possible heirs as he could, such as one of Ethelred's younger sons; others fled the country.) He also conquered Norway in 1030, giving him quite an empire.

The version of the legend given in my sources is that Canute's advisors were trying to flatter him into thinking he was all-powerful, and he went to prove them wrong by commanding the tide to stop coming in, knowing he would fail. He then told them to realize "how empty and worthless is the power of kings." (This story is sometimes used as a Christian parable; some versions say Canute placed his crown on a statue of Christ after the tide came in.)

Canute died in 1035, probably aged around 40. His son Harold I Harefoot succeeded him to the throne of England (though not Denmark).

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.

A Viking known as Canute "the Great" or "the Mighty", also as Knut, Knud and Cnut. A legend states that the King was a Christian and clever man surrounded by obsequious courtiers who claimed he was "so great, he could command the tides of the sea to go back"1. Teleny has written an excellent account of this legend.

Canute was born around 995 C. E. to Svein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, and Sigrid the widow of Eric of Sweden. His grandfather was Harald Bluetooth and his great-grandfather was King Gorm the Old. In 1013, Canute accompanied his father on an invasion of England, but he and his army were expelled by the Saxon king Aethelred in 1014 after Svein Forkbeard's death. Canute reinvaded England in 1016, defeated Aethelred's son and successor Edmund (or Eadmund) and became King of all England shortly thereafter.

Canute married Aethelred's widow Emma in 1017. She produced two children, Harthacnut and Gunhild. Canute's mistress Aelfgifu (some sources state that Emma was also known by this name) also gave him two sons: Harald and Svein.

Canute was the first ruler to unite all of England. During his reign, England enjoyed almost 20 years of peace and prosperity. He protected the island from invasions by other Vikings and allowed Anglo-Scandinavian art and the old English laws to flourish. Christianity spread, both within England and to other parts of Europe.

Canute's brother Harald, King of Denmark, died in 1018 so Canute returned from England to claim the throne. He also captured Norway, Scotland and part of Sweden. Canute died on 12 November 1035 and was buried in Winchester, England. His sons were not able to hold onto the lands he had consolidated.

Another story told about Canute concerns the murder of the Danish Earl Ulf, who happened to be Canute's brother-in-law and the second-most-powerful man in Denmark, after the King. According to the tale recorded in the "Heimskringla" or "Chronicles of the Kings of Norway"2, while entertaining Canute in his estate in northern England, Ulf challenged the King to a game of chess. The Earl played well, the King became angry, and the Earl ended up overturning the board and walking away. The next morning, the King commanded his chamberlain to go kill Ulf in a nearby church.

There is also a poem by the English satirist John Walcot (a.k.a. Peter Pindar) that relates the story of King Canute and the incoming tide called "King Canute and His Nobles".


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