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Cnut the Great by Timothy Bolton

20 April 2018

Nicholas Orme reflects on a practical king

COULD we have become Scandinavians? Our main external links have led towards the South since prehistoric times. But from 793, when the Vikings arrived, until the late 1000s, the East was just as important. At first, they came as individual raiders and settlers. By the 990s, they were led by kings of Denmark with enough ships and men to conquer the whole of England.

King Swen, who led the invasions up to 1014, was once believed to be pagan. In fact, as Dr Timothy Bolton shows, he was a Christian who had chaplains in his retinue, appointed at least one bishop, and was buried in a church. This, with his military power, gained him acceptance as King of England in 1013, and his son Cnut likewise in 1016.

Cnut was remarkably young when he came to power, perhaps only 20. The sources for his reign are limited, which may oversimplify our view of it, but he was clearly competent as a military leader and as a civil ruler. He gave lands and offices to his Danish followers, while carefully marrying first an English bride and then the Queen of his predecessor, Æthelred the Unready. He promoted English noblemen and kept a balance between the nations.

Little survives about his personality. He had no biographer, and the only anecdote about him — Cnut and the waves — comes from a century later. If anything, it confirms what else we know: that he was clear-headed and practical. He kept the peace, made laws, and gave gifts to churches in an empire stretching from England to Denmark and Norway.

Bolton has made an exhaustive study of the available sources, both texts and artefacts. His narrative has the virtues of a well-told story. Sometimes one would wish for more context: thus Cnut’s journey to Rome, the first by an English king for many years, is alluded to rather than explained. But this is the most detailed study yet, with only one serious fault. The publishers should be ashamed of the miserable index, which omits many important places discussed in the book and does not even mention Cnut himself.

In the end, heredity did for the Danish empire. There was a bad gene in the family’s DNA. Cnut died in 1035 little older than 40. His elder brother and eldest son predeceased him. His other sons Harold and Harthacnut did not see out their twenties; the latter dropped dead at a wedding feast. In 1042, the Danes chose Cnut’s nephew as king, and the English chose Edward the Confessor. Had things been otherwise, there might have been no Norman Conquest.

Dr Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University. His latest book is The History of England’s Cathedrals.

Cnut the Great
Timothy Bolton
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