The End of Canute's Reign (History in a Nutshell No.11)

Updated on June 6, 2019
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History is one of S.P. Austen's favourite topics and he is fascinated how it has shaped us all.

King Canute the Dane ruled over England from the year 1014 until 1035. Over that twenty-one year period, Canute gained great power and became known as the Emperor of the Anglo-Saxons. He ruled not only England, but also Scotland and Wales and also his homeland of Denmark, as well as Sweden and Norway.

It is from this period that Shakespeare took inspiration for his play Macbeth. Macbeth, or Malbethe, as he was known, was one of the local kings of Scotland who became subjected under Canute's reign. Both Macbeth and Malcolm of the Scots, along with Duncan, the king of Cumbria, were all in alliance against the reign of Canute, refusing to recognise him as a legitimate heir to the English throne. But Canute forced them all into subjugation.

Due to such unrivalled power for a sovereign of England, the myth of King Canute being taken to the seashore by his loyal subjects and asked to hold back the sea became a legend. Of course, he knew he couldn't do that, and no doubt when the tides refused to go back into the ocean and lapped his feet, he must have looked at his courtiers and said, "I told you so!"

That aside, Canute became something of a legend in England and abroad. He even repented of the past 'sins' of his Viking youth, and went on pilgrimage to Rome. Returning, he declared that he would rule England with justice and mercy accordingly. He died in the year 1035 and was buried at Winchester, the old capital of Wessex.

"Cnut and the Waves."  Attribution: Alphonse de Neuville
"Cnut and the Waves." Attribution: Alphonse de Neuville | Source

Who Would be King?

Canute had one heir, named Hardicanute, (sometimes known as Harthacnut) by Emma, widow of Ethelred the Unready and sister of Richard, the Duke of Normandy. But there were also two other sons, named Sweyne and Harold, both of illegitimate origin.

Before Canute's death, he had planned to divide his kingdom between his three sons. He had chosen Harold as future ruler for Britain, but this was not in accord with what the English leaders and advisors wanted. They wanted at least one of the sons of Ethelred or one of Canute's sons who was descended from the line of Emma, meaning Hardicanute.

A Witan or Council of advisors was called, in which they elected Harold as king of Mercia and Northumbria. This was the year 1037. One of the important earls in the country, named Godwin, was opposed to Harold as king of any of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and he prevailed enough that Godwin himself held the kingdom of Wessex for Hardicanute, whom he supported. Finally, the kingdom of Wessex was granted to Hardicanute.

However, Hardicanute was dwelling in Denmark, and his mother Emma ruled Wessex for a time, in his stead. But during this time, Harold (known as Harold Harefoot) basically claimed the kingdom of Wessex. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury was against the rule of Harold, and refused to sanction his claim on the throne. Harold took it anyway.

Meanwhile, we must not forget that Ethelred's two sons by Emma, Edward and Alfred, were still alive and living abroad. Edward attempted a landing, to claim the crown, but was faced with hostile forces when he came to Southampton by sea. He had no other choice but to turn around and go back to Normandy.

Alfred then attempted to land in Britain, with a few followers, urged on by his mother, only to be held captive and blinded by Harold Harefoot's men, then murdered. It has been implied historically, that earl Godwin was also involved in Alfred's death, acting under the direction of Harold. This, even though Godwin had opposed Harold as king at the council of the Witan!

But Harold, who was reigning as king, did not live for long, and the call was sent out for Hardicanute to return from Denmark and take up the crown of England. This was in the year 1040. Yet Hardicanute soon proved to be most unpopular, as he imposed enormous levies on the people, so much so that an armed rebellion rose against him in Worcester. Hardicanute sent his forces against Worcester, burning the city.

But Hardicanute's reign was also a short one. He died in 1042, standing at a banquet drinking, and collapsing to the floor in convulsions. He was aged only around 25 years old. Was the drink possibly poisoned? Probably; so die tyrannical rulers.

"Death of Hardicanute." Attribution: John Cassell.
"Death of Hardicanute." Attribution: John Cassell. | Source

Edward the Confessor

In the year 1043, Edward the son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy, became King of England upon the death of Hardicanute. In fact, he was the only and the most natural choice.

It was said of Edward that he was mild mannered and good-natured, and he even did away with the Danegeld in England once and for all, relieving the populace of the heavy taxation on them by their Danish rulers. Yet, Edward hated the Danes so much that any association with them was punished. He even deprived his mother Emma of all her property, including gold and silver and land, probably because she had married Canute the Dane after his father Ethelred's death.

Earl Godwin had persuaded Edward to marry Godwin's daughter Editha. Editha had five brothers, and one of them, Harold, was famous for his height, good looks and character. Harold held several earldoms in the southeast of the country and thus held considerable power. (This is the same Harold who would face William the Conqueror at Hastings in 1066.) All of the Godwin brothers bore little respect for King Edward, who was clearly more interested in religion than in matters of state, hence the sobriquet of the Confessor. They were therefore able to run the country in their own way, as they saw fit.

Edward had brought with him from Normandy many courtiers who were considered to be unwelcome foreigners. The Godwin brothers did not trust the close relationship that these Norman courtiers had with the new king. Not only that, Edward and his Norman courtiers conversed in French much of the time, and the language became increasingly introduced into the country, which acted as a further affront to the Godwin brothers and those who followed them. They felt now that the country was being ruled by a foreign court.

The Godwins are Exiled

Around the year 1051, an incident arose in which some Norman nobles led by a certain Count Eustace, took advantage of the local people in Dover, demanding free board and lodging in an Englishman's home. A fight ensued in this private house in which the Englishman was wounded, but he killed one of the Normans. In the event, the Normans returned and then killed the Englishman who had defended his home. As far back as this time period, an Englishman's home was considered to be his castle!

After this, the Normans ran amok through the streets of Dover, and killed and wounded several townsfolk. The English citizens fought back and killed most of the Normans and ran Eustace and the survivors out of town. Eustace fled to King Edward and relayed his own account of what took place, no doubt distorted from the facts. Edward believed him, and commanded Earl Godwin to punish the people of Dover by military force. But Godwin refused the order.

Instead, Godwin and his sons Sweyne and Harold gathered their own forces together and demanded that Count Eustace be delivered up for punishment. Edward had no choice but to sue for peace terms, and hostages were exchanged on both sides of the argument.

However, a Witan of the Norman courtiers met, and decided that Sweyne should be outlawed, (meaning he would be easy prey to any who might want to kill him without fear of the laws of the land) and banishment was pronounced upon Godwin and Harold. Godwin and Sweyne went to Flanders and Harold fled to Ireland. Edward went so far as to punish his own wife Editha, as she was Godwin's daughter, and he confined her to a nunnery having taken away all her possessions. Godwin was a very flawed and duplicitous character, and like him or not, this judgment against him and his sons signalled the beginning of Norman tyranny in England.

Enter William, Duke of Normandy

History now introduces William Duke of Normandy to the story of England. He had succeeded his father Robert to the Dukedom, and was said to be illegitimate. He came to England in 1051 with a large entourage to visit King Edward, his cousin, as Emma, Edward's mother was the sister of William's father. William discussed with Edward who would be crowned King of England after Edward died, as Edward had no offspring of his own and was now an old man. It is quite possible if not likely, that William already had designs on the English throne himself. He returned to Normandy, under the firm impression that the crown of England would pass to him as the natural successor on Edward's demise.

However, any plans that William might have had at this particular time regarding the throne of England were interrupted when Earl Godwin and his son Harold returned to England in 1052. They landed near Hastings and soon the counties of Sussex, Kent, Surrey and Essex had joined forces with them against Edward.

And so it was that the beginning of the troubles which led to conflict with William began. England would never be the same.

Historical Sources:

History of the Anglo-Saxons by Sir Francis Palgrave

This Sceptred Isle by Christopher Lee for the BBC Radio Collection

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 S P Austen

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