Canute (Cnut) the Great

Canute was born circa 985 – 995 to the Danish Prince Sweyn Forkbeard who himself was heir to Denmark. The mother of Canute is unknown.

Little is known of Canute’s childhood although he is mentioned in the Flateyjarbok (manuscript) as being taught soldiery by Thorkell the Tall. Other works mention him as being ‘of no great age’ when he first went to war.

Canute first became known when he was part of his father King Sweyn’s invasion against the English king Ethelred II in the summer of 1013. The invasion landed in the Humber (estuary on the east coast of Northern England).

Battle continued to rage, but near the end of the year Ethelred II, known as Ethelred the Unready fled to Normandy, France.

Following this Sweyn became King of England, however he died a few months later on 3 February 1014. His son Harald was to succeed him in Denmark and Canute remained in England. The English nobility recalled Ethelred from Normandy and he led an army against Canute who then fled with his own army to Denmark.

Canute spent his time in Denmark amassing a fleet to launch a further attack on England in 1015.

He landed in Sandwich, Kent and immediately sailed around to Wessex, who then surrendered to Canute. In 1016, Canute advanced to the north of England, and although he was confronted by Edmund Ironside (son of Ethelred), this resulted in little opposition and Edmund and Ethelred returned to London.

Edmund Ironside became King of England following the death of Ethelred on 23 April 1016.

Canute travelled south again to London, but his armies were divided and many defected to Edmund who himself had travelled to Wessex to amass an army before Canute arrived.

This led to battles at Penselwood, Somerset and Sherston, Wiltshire, but neither side was to be victorious.

The armies of the Danes and Edmund engaged again on 18 October 1016 leading to the battle of Assandun where the English were decisively defeated. A wounded Edmund then fled westwards, to be pursued by Canute.

Edmund and Canute met to discuss peace. They agreed that England would be split. All lands north of London were to be ruled by Canute, while London and the South remained with Edmund.

Edmund died within weeks of the agreement and Canute became ruler of England. The circumstances of Edmunds death are unknown but many believe him to have been murdered.

Canute attended his coronation on 6 January 1017 and he was to rule for 19 years.

Reign 1017 – 1035

In July 1017 Canute wed Emma of Normandy, who was Ethelred’s widow. To consolidate his rule, he was to eliminate his opposition by ordering the execution of many nobles.

Canute’s brother Harald, ruler of Denmark died in 1018 and Canute succeeded him. He then brought together the English and Danish kingdoms and was to dominate across Scandinavia and the British Isles.

There was some opposition to his rule in Denmark, but he managed to stabilise the country and then he returned to England in 1020.

In 1027 Canute travelled to Rome to attend the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. In 1027, he wrote a letter proclaiming himself ‘King of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes’.

Canute continued to battle for further control across Scandinavia, but having lost his key support in Norway he was unsuccessful.

He died in Shaftesbury, Dorset, England on 12 November 1035 and was buried in the Old Minster, Winchester.

Following his death, he was succeeded in Denmark by his son Harthacnut ruling as Cnut III. The English throne was ruled by his other son Harold Harefoot.

Harold Harefoot died in 1040 and Harthacnut took the throne of England bringing the crowns of both England and Denmark together again.

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