1000 years ago, on 30 November 1016, the Scandinavian leader Cnut became king of all England following the death of Edmund Ironside. What do you know about King Cnut? Ask a British or Danish person of a certain age, and they’ll probably tell you the story about King Cnut and the sea. According to this story, King Cnut sat on the seashore and tried to command the tide not to touch his feet, but the sea ignored him. This image is still used by modern political commentators to mock politicians who vainly fight against real or figurative tides of change.
Detail of King Cnut, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (New Minster, Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.
However, if you come to our display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, assembled for the 1000th anniversary of Cnut's conquest, you will not find any references to Cnut turning back the tide. You’ll find a lot of other things, including Beowulf, a charter, a copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a copy of Cnut’s lawcodes, and the only known manuscript portrait of Cnut made during his lifetime. But the story of Cnut trying to turn back the tide — the only story most people know about Cnut — is a much later invention, as many scholars have noted in the face of the story's enduring popular appeal.
Opening page from Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, England , c. 1400-1450, Arundel MS 46, f. 2r.
The story is often attributed to Henry of Huntingdon’s Chronicle, written more than a century after Cnut died. There is no earlier evidence that Cnut ever tried to command any waves. However, once told the story became very popular, and there are a range of later medieval retellings of this story.
As some historians have noted, Henry’s account does point us towards an important aspect of Cnut’s career which can be verified: his extravagant piety. In Henry’s account, Cnut used his failure to control the waves to make the pious point that only God has supreme control over nature. According to Henry, after that day on the seashore Cnut never wore his crown again, but instead placed it over a crucifix. Documents and manuscripts from Cnut’s own reign on display in the Treasures Gallery show that Cnut went to great lengths to portray himself as a good Christian king.
Drawing showing Cnut and his queen donating a cross to the New Minster, from the New Minster Liber Vitae, England (Winchester), c. 1031, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.
Cnut was known for his lavish gifts to churches. The Treasures Gallery display includes a charter written in 1018 which recorded Cnut giving woodland to the archbishop of Canterbury, at the encouragement of his queen, Emma. The New Minster Liber Vitae, also on display in the Treasures Gallery, lists Cnut as one of the most important benefactors of the New Minster at Winchester. Its opening drawing shows Cnut and his queen donating a jewelled cross to the altar of the New Minster. In the case of the New Minster Liber Vitae, however, Cnut is not giving up his crown along with the crucifix: on the contrary, angels descend to affix the crown to his head. This is perhaps an apt metaphor for kings of England who supported the Church and whose rule in turn benefitted from the Church’s social and cultural support.
Cnut may have been keen to highlight his good Christian credentials because he was a conqueror who came from Scandinavia, a region to which Christianity had been introduced relatively recently. It is unlikely that Cnut himself was ever a pagan. However, many English laws and sermons from the end of Æthelred’s reign had framed Cnut’s and Swein’s invasion as an attack by barbarians, a punishment from God for the sins of the English. Not all Anglo-Saxons viewed Scandinavians so negatively: the story of Beowulf, which featured a pagan Scandinavian as the titular hero, was being retold and copied around the time of Cnut's conquest. Nevertheless, after conquering England in 1016, Cnut seems to have been keen to reassure his new subjects that his regime would be a return to business as usual.
Detail of Emma, from Stowe MS 944, f. 6r.
One point of continuity was Cnut's queen. Cnut married the widow of his predecessor, Æthelred the Unready: Emma of Normandy, or Ælfgifu as the English called her. She appears next to Cnut in the image from the New Minster Liber Vitae, and the author of Stowe Charter 38 emphasized that she was the one gave Cnut the idea to donate the woodland to the archbishop. Cnut also hired the same person to write his laws as had written Æthelred’s laws: Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, one of the sermonizers who had denounced Cnut's invasion as divine retribution for the sins of the English. Cnut’s laws of 1020, drafted by Wulfstan, borrow heavily from previous laws of Anglo-Saxon kings. They even command the celebration of English saints, like Edward the Martyr and St Dunstan.
Detail of Cnut’s Winchester lawcode (also known as I- II Cnut), England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 11v.
So, was Cnut an overconfident king, a committed Christian, a nervous conqueror trying to build bridges with a population who may have viewed him as a divine punishment, or all of the above? Come and see some manuscripts connected to his conquest in the Treasures Gallery (or on Digitised Manuscripts) and decide for yourself. There’s much more to Cnut than the story about him and the sea.