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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology

Stephen Pollington

Cnut (d. 1035), 

king of Denmark, England, and Norway. Sven (Sweyn I) Forkbeard came to the English throne in 1014. Tradition, recorded in the Icelandic Flateyjarbók (the Flatey Book), tells that Cnut (Canute) was with his father on campaign and was trained by Thorkell the Tall, the foremost Viking of the day. Sweyn died soon after, and the exiled English king, Aethelred II, returned from Normandy. Cnut fled to Denmark, settled matters with his brother Harold, and returned in 1016 with an overwhelming force. The English prince, Edmund Ironside, fought a bitter and protracted campaign against him until, after defeat at Ashingdon, Essex, Edmund agreed to divide the kingdom. Edmund died mysteriously soon afterward, leaving Cnut as the sole ruler by 1017. Cnut married Aethelred’s widow Emma and consolidated his power, retaining a personal following of Danish troops, the housecarls. The king raised a series of punitive taxes with which to pay off his many followers.

Harold died in 1018; Cnut returned to Denmark to secure the succession for himself, leaving English affairs in the hands of the Anglo-Danish nobleman, Godwin, father of the later King Harold II. During Cnut’s absence opportunistic attacks on Denmark by Norwegian Vikings gave Cnut the pretext for invasion, establishing his rule in Norway by 1026. As the single ruler of the three largest polities bordering the North Sea, Cnut was in a unique position to dominate northern Europe. As a dutiful king of England, he issued law codes and regulated trade. He raised armies in England for his Scandinavian campaigns, promoting the church as a unifying element among them.

Despite his successes as a military leader, the union of his holdings fell apart after his death in 1035. His son Hardecnut reigned in Denmark and England until his death in 1042. Hardecnut installed the exiled Edward the Confessor, heir of Athelred II, on the English throne. During Edward’s reign, England faced south to Normandy rather than east to Scandinavia, and the legacy of Cnut’s ephemeral “North Sea Empire” was lost.

[See also Sven Forkbeard and Thorkell the Tall.]


Lawson, M. K. Cnut: England’s Viking King. Stroud, U.K.: Tempus, 2004.Find this resource:

    Rumble, Alexander R., ed. The Reign of Cnut: King of England, Denmark, and Norway. London: Leicester University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

      Stephen Pollington