A History of England

Canute Becomes King Of England

Author:      Hume, David

 

1017

 

 Canute Becomes King Of England

     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.

 

[See King Canute: When he became king of all England, on the death of Edmund

Ironsides, Canute ruled with wisdom and with power.]

 

     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.

 

[Footnote 1: In one of these sieges Canute diverted the course of the Thames,

and by that means brought his ships above London bridge.]

 

     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 daugther 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.