Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Who rules the waves?

There were frequent references to King Canute during the recent flooding, but how many journalists properly understood the moral of the story?

The story of Canute, or Cnut, and the waves was first recorded by the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon a hundred years or so after Canute's reign.

When he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide 'You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no-one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.'

But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king's feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried 'Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea bey eternal laws.'

Thereafter King Cnut never wore the golden crown, but placed it on the image of the Crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. 

Canute was a king of England, but he was not an English king. He was Danish, already king of Denmark when he succeeded to the English throne. He became king of England after the disastrous reign of Ethelred Unraed and the untimely death of Ethelred's son Edmund Ironside, a proven warrior who might have been an effective ruler.

Edmund's brother and sons were young, and Canute was in England with an army and a fleet. He was able to impose his rule on England with the support of people in the east of the country who were of Danish origin, descendants of the Danes who had been settling there since the second half of the ninth century. The Danish influence is still very evident in the place names and dialect of the region.

Canute reigned until 1035, bringing some much needed stability to the government of England.


  1. At long last! Someone who knows the real point of that story ... I think it was the Victorians who mangled the moral of the tale and it's long past time the matter was put to rights.

    1. Though the end result is the same, whichever way you read the story. Resisting the will of God, or the force of nature, depending on your beliefs, is always ultimately futile!

  2. Most interesting blog. I am late coming to my love of English history.... but I do now. :)

    1. Glad you like it. Hope to see you commenting again.