The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5

Author: David Hume  | Date: A.D. 1017

Canute Becomes King of England

A.D. 1017


After the success of King Alfred over the Danes in the last quarter of the ninth century, England enjoyed a considerable respite from the invasions of the bold ravagers who had caused great suffering and loss to the country. This immunity of England seems to have been partly due to the fact that the Danish adventurers had gained a foothold in the north of France, where they found all the employment they needed in maintaining their establishments. Under the reign of Edward the Elder—chosen to succeed Alfred—the English enjoyed an interval of comparative peace and industry. During this time and under the following reigns, known as those of the Six Boy-Kings, the social side of life had an opportunity to develop from a semi-barbarous to a more civilized state. The bare and rough walls of hall and court were screened by tapestry hangings, often of silk, and elaborately ornamented with birds and flowers or scenes from the battlefield or the chase. Chairs and tables were skilfully carved and inlaid with different woods and, among the wealthier nobility, often decorated with gold and silver. Knives and spoons were now used at table—the fork was to come many long years later; golden ornaments were worn; and a variety of dishes were fashioned, often of precious metals, brass, and even bone. The bedstead became a household article, no longer looked upon with superstitious awe; and musical instruments—principally of the harp pattern—began to find favor in their eyes, and were passed round from hand to hand, like the drinking-bowl, at their rude festivals.

But toward the end of a century following the victories of Alfred the Danes again threatened an invasion, and in 981-991 they made several landings, in the latter year overrunning much territory. King Ethelred (the "Unready") procured their departure by bribery, which led the Danes to repeat their visit the next year, following it up by a descent in force under King Sweyn of Denmark and Olaf of Norway. They defeated the English in battle and ravaged a great part of the country, exacting as before ruinous contributions from the already impoverished people. After the siege and taking of London, 1011-1013, the flight of the cowardly Ethelred to the court of Normandy, the sudden death of Sweyn, who had been but a few months before proclaimed King of England, and the return of Ethelred to his throne, Canute, the son of Sweyn, claimed the crown and ravaged the land in the manner and custom of his race. The complications and strife engendered by the rival claims of the Dane and Edmund ("Ironside"), son of Ethelred, and which ended in the triumph of Canute and the Complete subjugation of England, are hereinafter narrated by Hume, the English historian.

The Danes had been established during a longer period in England than in France; and though the similarity of their original language to that of the Saxons invited them to a more early coalition with the natives, they had hitherto found so little example of civilized manners among the English that they retained all their ancient ferocity, and valued themselves only on their national character of military bravery. The recent as well as more ancient achievements of their countrymen tended to support this idea; and the English princes, particularly Athelstan and Edgar, sensible of that superiority, had been accustomed to keep in pay bodies of Danish troops, who were quartered about the country and committed many violences upon the inhabitants. These mercenaries had attained to such a height of luxury, according to the old English writers, that they combed their hair once a day, bathed themselves once a week, changed their clothes frequently; and by all these arts of effeminacy, as well as by their military character, had rendered themselves so agreeable to the fair sex that they debauched the wives and daughters of the English and dishonored many families. But what most provoked the inhabitants was that, instead of defending them against invaders, they were ever ready to betray them to the foreign Danes, and to associate themselves with all straggling parties of that nation.

The animosity between the inhabitants of English and Danish race had, from these repeated injuries, risen to a great height, when Ethelred (1002), from a policy incident to weak princes, embraced the cruel resolution of massacring the latter throughout all his dominions. Secret orders were despatched to commence the execution everywhere on the same day, and the festival of St. Brice, which fell on a Sunday, the day on which the Danes usually bathed themselves, was chosen for that purpose. It is needless to repeat the accounts transmitted concerning the barbarity of this massacre: the rage of the populace, excited by so many injuries, sanctioned by authority, and stimulated by example, distinguished not between innocence and guilt, spared neither sex nor age, and was not satiated without the tortures as well as death of the unhappy victims. Even Gunhilda, sister to the King of Denmark, who had married Earl Paling and had embraced Christianity, was, by the advice of Edric, Earl of Wilts, seized and condemned to death by Ethelred, after seeing her husband and children butchered before her face. This unhappy princess foretold, in the agonies of despair, that her murder would soon be avenged by the total ruin of the English nation.

Never was prophecy better fulfilled, and never did barbarous policy prove more fatal to the authors. Sweyn and his Danes, who wanted but a pretence for invading the English, appeared off the western coast, and threatened to take full revenge for the slaughter of their countrymen. Exeter fell first into their hands, from the negligence or treachery of Earl Hugh, a Norman, who had been made governor by the interest of Queen Emma. They began to spread their devastations over the country, when the English, sensible what outrages they must now expect from their barbarous and offended enemy, assembled more early and in greater numbers than usual, and made an appearance of vigorous resistance. But all these preparations were frustrated by the treachery of Duke Alfric, who was intrusted with the command, and who, feigning sickness, refused to lead the army against the Danes, till it was dispirited and at last dissipated by his fatal misconduct. Alfric soon after died, and Edric, a greater traitor than he, who had married the King’s daughter and had acquired a total ascendant over him, succeeded Alfric in the government of Mercia and in the command of the English armies. A great famine, proceeding partly from the bad seasons, partly from the decay of agriculture, added to all the other miseries of the inhabitants. The country, wasted by the Danes, harassed by the fruitless expeditions of its own forces, was reduced to the utmost desolation, and at last submitted (1007) to the infamy of purchasing a precarious peace from the enemy by the payment of thirty thousand pounds.

The English endeavored to employ this interval in making preparations against the return of the Danes, which they had reason soon to expect. A law was made, ordering the proprietors of eight hides of land to provide each a horseman and a complete suit of armor, and those of three hundred and ten hides to equip a ship for the defence of the coast. When this navy was assembled, which must have consisted of near eight hundred vessels, all hopes of its success were disappointed by the factions, animosities, and dissensions of the nobility. Edric had impelled his brother Brightric to prefer an accusation of treason against Wolfnoth, governor of Sussex, the father of the famous earl Godwin; and that nobleman, well acquainted with the malevolence as well as power of his enemy, found no means of safety but in deserting with twenty ships to the Danes. Brightric pursued him with a fleet of eighty sail; but his ships being shattered in a tempest, and stranded on the coast, he was suddenly attacked by Wolfnoth, and all his vessels burned and destroyed. The imbecility of the King was little capable of repairing this misfortune. The treachery of Edric frustrated every plan for future defence; and the English navy, disconcerted, discouraged, and divided, was at last scattered into its several harbors.

It is almost impossible, or would be tedious, to relate particularly all the miseries to which the English were henceforth exposed. We hear of nothing but the sacking and burning of towns; the devastation of the open country; the appearance of the enemy in every quarter of the kingdom; their cruel diligence in discovering any corner which had not been ransacked by their former violence. The broken and disjointed narration of the ancient historians is here well adapted to the nature of the war, which was conducted by such sudden inroads as would have been dangerous even to a united and well-governed kingdom, but proved fatal where nothing but a general consternation and mutual diffidence and dissension prevailed. The governors of one province refused to march to the assistance of another, and were at last terrified from assembling their forces for the defence of their own province. General councils were summoned; but either no resolution was taken or none was carried into execution. And the only expedient in which the English agreed was the base and Imprudent one of buying a new peace from the Danes, by the payment of forty-eight thousand pounds.

This measure did not bring them even that short interval of repose which they had expected from it. The Danes, disregarding all engagements, continued their devastations and hostilities; levied a new contribution of eight thousand pounds upon the county of Kent alone; murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had refused to countenance this exaction; and the English nobility found no other resource than that of submitting everywhere to the Danish monarch, swearing allegiance to him, and delivering him hostages for their fidelity. Ethelred, equally afraid of the violence of the enemy and the treachery of his own subjects, fled into Normandy (1013), whither he had sent before him Queen Emma and her two sons, Alfred and Edward. Richard received his unhappy guests with a generosity that does honor to his memory.

The King had not been above six weeks in Normandy when he heard of the death of Sweyn, who expired at Gainsborough before he had time to establish himself in his new-acquired dominions. The English prelates and nobility, taking advantage of this event, sent over a deputation to Normandy, inviting Ethelred to return to them, expressing a desire of being again governed by their native prince, and intimating their hopes that, being now tutored by experience, he would avoid all those errors which had been attended with such misfortunes to himself and to his people. But the misconduct of Ethelred was incurable; and on his resuming the government, he discovered the same incapacity, indolence, cowardice, and credulity which had so often exposed him to the insults of his enemies. His son-in-law Edric, notwithstanding his repeated treasons, retained such influence at court as to instil into the King jealousies of Sigefert and Morcar, two of the chief nobles of Mercia. Edric allured them into his house, where he murdered them; while Ethelred participated in the infamy of the action by confiscating their estates and thrusting into a convent the widow of Sigefert. She was a woman of singular beauty and merit; and in a visit which was paid her, during her confinement, by Prince Edmund, the King’s eldest son, she inspired him with so violent an affection that he released her from the convent, and soon after married her without the consent of his father.

Meanwhile the English found in Canute, the son and successor of Sweyn, an enemy no less terrible than the prince from whom death had so lately delivered them. He ravaged the eastern coast with merciless fury, and put ashore all the English hostages at Sandwich, after having cut off their hands and noses. He was obliged, by the necessity of his affairs, to make a voyage to Denmark; but, returning soon after, he continued his depredations along the southern coast. He even broke into the counties of Dorset, Wilts, and Somerset, where an army was assembled against him, under the command of Prince Edmund and Duke Edric. The latter still continued his perfidious machinations, and, after endeavoring in vain to get the prince into his power, he found means to disperse the army, and he then openly deserted to Canute with forty vessels.

Notwithstanding this misfortune Edmund was not disconcerted, but, assembling all the force of England, was in a condition to give battle to the enemy. The King had had such frequent experience of perfidy among his subjects that he had lost all confidence in them: he remained at London, pretending sickness, but really from apprehensions that they intended to buy their peace by delivering him into the hands of his enemies. The army called aloud for their sovereign to march at their head against the Danes; and, on his refusal to take the field, they were so discouraged that those vast preparations became ineffectual for the defence of the kingdom. Edmund, deprived of all regular supplies to maintain his soldiers, was obliged to commit equal ravages with those which were practised by the Danes; and, after making some fruitless expeditions into the north, which had submitted entirely to Canute’s power, he retired to London, determined there to maintain to the last extremity the small remains of English liberty. He here found everything in confusion by the death of the King, who expired after an unhappy and inglorious reign of thirty-five years (1016). He left two sons by his first marriage, Edmund, who succeeded him, and Edwy, whom Canute afterward murdered. His two sons by the second marriage, Alfred and Edward, were, immediately upon Ethelred’s death, conveyed into Normandy by Queen Emma.

Edmund, who received the name of "Ironside" from his hardy valor, possessed courage and abilities sufficient to have prevented his country from sinking into those calamities, but not to raise it from that abyss of misery into which it had already fallen. Among the other misfortunes of the English, treachery and disaffection had crept in among the nobility and prelates; and Edmund found no better expedient for stopping the further progress of these fatal evils than to lead his army instantly into the field, and to employ them against the common enemy. After meeting with some success at Gillingham, he prepared himself to decide, in one general engagement, the fate of his crown; and at Scoerston, in the county of Gloucester, he offered battle to the enemy, who were commanded by Canute and Edric. Fortune, in the beginning of the day, declared for him; but Edric, having cut off the head of one Osmer, whose countenance resembled that of Edmund, fixed it on a spear, carried it through the ranks in triumph, and called aloud to the English that it was time to fly; for, behold! the head of their sovereign. And though Edmund, observing the consternation of the troops, took off his helmet, and showed himself to them, the utmost he could gain by his activity and valor was to leave the victory undecided. Edric now took a surer method to ruin him, by pretending to desert to him; and as Edmund was well acquainted with his power, and probably knew no other of the chief nobility in whom he could repose more confidence, he was obliged, notwithstanding the repeated perfidy of the man, to give him a considerable command in the army. A battle soon after ensued at Assington, in Essex, where Edric, flying in the beginning of the day, occasioned the total defeat of the English, followed by a great slaughter of the nobility. The indefatigable Edmund, however, had still resources. Assembling a new army at Gloucester, he was again in condition to dispute the field, when the Danish and English nobility, equally harassed with those convulsions, obliged their kings to come to a compromise and to divide the kingdom between them by treaty. Canute reserved to himself the northern division, consisting of Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumberland, which he had entirely subdued. The southern parts were left to Edmund. This prince survived the treaty about a month. He was murdered at Oxford by two of his chamberlains, accomplices of Edric, who thereby made way for the succession of Canute the Dane to the crown of England.

The English, who had been unable to defend their country and maintain their independency under so active and brave a prince as Edmund, could after his death expect nothing but total subjection from Canute, who, active and brave himself, and at the head of a great force, was ready to take advantage of the minority of Edwin and Edward, the two sons of Edmund. Yet this conqueror, who was commonly so little scrupulous, showed himself anxious to cover his injustice under plausible pretences. Before he seized the dominions of the English princes, he summoned a general assembly of the states in order to fix the succession of the kingdom. He here suborned some nobles to depose that, in the treaty of Gloucester, it had been verbally agreed, either to name Canute, in case of Edmund’s death, successor to his dominions or tutor to his children—for historians vary in this particular; and that evidence, supported by the great power of Canute, determined the states immediately to put the Danish monarch in possession of the government. Canute, jealous of the two princes, but sensible that he should render himself extremely odious if he ordered them to be despatched in England, sent them abroad to his ally, the King of Sweden, whom he desired, as soon as they arrived at his court, to free him, by their death, from all further anxiety. The Swedish monarch was too generous to comply with the request; but being afraid of drawing on himself a quarrel with Canute, by protecting the young princes, he sent them to Solomon, King of Hungary, to be educated in his court. The elder, Edwin, was afterward married to the sister of the King of Hungary; but the English prince dying without issue, Solomon gave his sister-in-law, Agatha, daughter of the emperor Henry II, in marriage to Edward, the younger brother; and she bore him Edgar, Atheling, Margaret, afterward Queen of Scotland, and Christina, who retired into a convent.

Canute, though he had reached the great point of his ambition in obtaining possession of the English crown, was obliged at first to make great sacrifices to it; and to gratify the chief of the nobility, by bestowing on them the most extensive governments and jurisdictions. He created Thurkill Earl or Duke of East Anglia—for these titles were then nearly of the same import—Yric of Northumberland, and Edric of Mercia; reserving only to himself the administration of Wessex. But seizing afterward a favorable opportunity, he expelled Thurkill and Yric from their governments, and banished them the kingdom; he put to death many of the English nobility, on whose fidelity he could not rely, and whom he hated on account of their disloyalty to their native prince. And even the traitor Edric, having had the assurance to reproach him with his services, was condemned to be executed and his body to be thrown into the Thames; a suitable reward for his multiplied acts of perfidy and rebellion.

Canute also found himself obliged, in the beginning of his reign, to load the people with heavy taxes in order to reward his Danish followers: he exacted from them at one time the sum of seventy-two thousand pounds, besides eleven thousand which he levied on London alone. He was probably willing, from political motives, to mulct severely that city, on account of the affection which it had borne to Edmund and the resistance which it had made to the Danish power in two obstinate sieges.1

But these rigors were imputed to necessity; and Canute, like a wise prince, was determined that the English, now deprived of all their dangerous leaders, should be reconciled to the Danish yoke, by the justice and impartiality of his administration. He sent back to Denmark as many of his followers as he could safely spare; he restored the Saxon customs in a general assembly of the states; he made no distinction between Danes and English in the distribution of justice; and he took care, by a strict execution of law, to protect the lives and properties of all his people. The Danes were gradually incorporated with his new subjects; and both were glad to obtain a little respite from those multiplied calamities from which the one, no less than the other, had, in their fierce contest for power, experienced such fatal consequences.

The removal of Edmund’s children into so distant a country as Hungary was, next to their death, regarded by Canute as the greatest security to his government: he had no further anxiety, except with regard to Alfred and Edward, who were protected and supported by their uncle Richard, Duke of Normandy. Richard even fitted out a great armament, in order to restore the English princes to the throne of their ancestors; and though the navy was dispersed by a storm, Canute saw the danger to which he was exposed from the enmity of so warlike a people as the Normans. In order to acquire the friendship of the duke, he paid his addresses to Queen Emma, sister of that prince, and promised that he would leave the children whom he should have by that marriage in possession of the Crown of England. Richard complied with his demand and sent over Emma to England, where she was soon after married to Canute. The English, though they disapproved of her espousing the mortal enemy of her former husband and his family, were pleased to find at court a sovereign to whom they were accustomed, and who had already formed connections with them; and thus Canute, besides securing, by this marriage, the alliance of Normandy, gradually acquired, by the same means, the confidence of his own subjects. The Norman prince did not long survive the marriage of Emma; and he left the inheritance of the duchy to his eldest son of the same name, who, dying a year after him without children, was succeeded by his brother Robert, a man of valor and abilities.

Canute, having settled his power in England beyond all danger of a revolution, made a voyage to Denmark, in order to resist the attacks of the King of Sweden; and he carried along with him a great body of the English, under the command of Earl Godwin. This nobleman had here an opportunity of performing a service, by which he both reconciled the King’s mind to the English nation and, gaining to himself the friendship of his sovereign, laid the foundation of that immense fortune which he acquired to his family. He was stationed next the Swedish camp, and observing a favorable opportunity, which he was obliged suddenly to seize, he attacked the enemy in the night, drove them from their trenches, threw them into disorder, pursued his advantage, and obtained a decisive victory over them. Next morning Canute, seeing the English camp entirely abandoned, imagined that those disaffected troops had deserted to the enemy: he was agreeably surprised to find that they were at that time engaged in pursuit of the discomfited Swedes. He was so pleased with this success, and with the manner of obtaining it, that he bestowed his daughter in marriage upon Godwin, and treated him ever after with entire confidence and regard.

In another voyage, which he made afterward to Denmark, Canute attacked Norway, and, expelling the just but unwarlike Olaus, kept possession of his kingdom till the death of that prince. He had now by his conquests and valor attained the utmost height of grandeur: having leisure from wars and intrigues, he felt the unsatisfactory nature of all human enjoyments; and equally weary of the glories and turmoils of this life, he began to cast his view toward that future existence, which it is so natural for the human mind, whether satiated by prosperity or disgusted with adversity, to make the object of its attention. Unfortunately, the spirit which prevailed in that age gave a wrong direction to his devotion: instead of making compensation to those whom he had injured by his former acts of violence, he employed himself entirely in those exercises of piety which the monks represented as the most meritorious. He built churches, he endowed monasteries, he enriched the ecclesiastics, and he bestowed revenues for the support of chantries at Assington and other places, where he appointed prayers to be said for the souls of those who had there fallen in battle against him. He even undertook a pilgrimage to Rome, where he resided a considerable time: besides obtaining from the pope some privileges for the English school erected there, he engaged all the princes through whose dominions he was obliged to pass to desist from those heavy impositions and tolls which they were accustomed to exact from the English pilgrims. By this spirit of devotion, no less than by his equitable and politic administration, he gained, in a good measure, the affections of his subjects.

Canute, the greatest and most powerful monarch of his time, sovereign of Denmark and Norway, as well as of England, could not fail of meeting with adulation from his courtiers; a tribute which is liberally paid even to the meanest and weakest princes. Some of his flatterers, breaking out one day in admiration of his grandeur, exclaimed that everything was possible for him; upon which the monarch, it is said, ordered his chair to be set on the sea-shore while the tide was rising; and as the waters approached, he commanded them to retire, and to obey the voice of him who was lord of the ocean. He feigned to sit some time in expectation of their submission; but when the sea still advanced toward him, and began to wash him with its billows, he turned to his courtiers, and remarked to them that every creature in the universe was feeble and impotent, and that power resided with one Being alone, in whose hands were all the elements of nature; who could say to the ocean, "Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther," and who could level with his nod the most towering piles of human pride and ambition.

The only memorable action which Canute performed after his return from Rome was an expedition against Malcolm, King of Scotland. During the reign of Ethelred, a tax of a shilling a hide had been imposed on all the lands of England. It was commonly called danegelt; because the revenue had been employed either in buying peace with the Danes or in making preparations against the inroads of that hostile nation. That monarch had required that the same tax should be paid by Cumberland, which was held by the Scots; but Malcolm, a warlike prince, told him that as he was always able to repulse the Danes by his own power, he would neither submit to buy peace of his enemies nor pay others for resisting them. Ethelred, offended at this reply, which contained a secret reproach on his own conduct, undertook an expedition against Cumberland; but though he committed ravages upon the country, he could never bring Malcolm to a temper more humble or submissive. Canute, after his accession, summoned the Scottish King to acknowledge himself a vassal for Cumberland to the Crown of England; but Malcolm refused compliance, on pretence that he owed homage to those princes only who inherited that kingdom by right of blood. Canute was not of a temper to bear this insult; and the King of Scotland soon found that the sceptre was in very different hands from those of the feeble and irresolute Ethelred. Upon Canute’s appearing on the frontiers with a formidable army, Malcolm agreed that his grandson and heir, Duncan, whom he put in possession of Cumberland, should make the submissions required, and that the heirs of Scotland should always acknowledge themselves vassals to England for that province.

Canute passed four years in peace after this enterprise, and he died at Shaftesbury; leaving three sons, Sweyn, Harold, and Hardicanute. Sweyn, whom he had by his first marriage with Alfwen, daughter of the Earl of Hampshire, was crowned in Norway; Hardicanute, whom Emma had borne him, was in possession of Denmark; Harold, who was of the same marriage with Sweyn, was at that time in England.

1In one of these sieges Canute diverted the course of the Thames, and by that means brought his ships above London bridge.


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Chicago: David Hume, "Canute Becomes King of England," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed April 26, 2018,

MLA: Hume, David. "Canute Becomes King of England." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 26 Apr. 2018.

Harvard: Hume, D, 'Canute Becomes King of England' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 26 April 2018, from