Canute and his Empire

Canute and his Empire

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Canute and his Empire

By G.N. Garmonsway

The Dorothea Coke Memorial Lecture in Northern Studies, delivered at University College London (1963)

Excerpt: The first mention of Canute in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is in the entry for 1013, where it is recorded that his father Sweyn, after taking hostages from the conquered territories of Northumbria, Lindsey, and the Five Borough Towns, committed his ships and the hostages into the charge of Canute, his son, before setting forth to march south to bring about the submission of London and the expulsion of King Ethelred and his queen from the realm. The following year, in a laconic entry, the Chronicle records Sweyn’s death at Candlemas and tells us that all the fleet chose Canute as king. In Snorri’s separate Olafs saga helga, there is a reference to an English legend of the manner of Sweyn’s death – ‘and it is told by Englishmen that Edmund the Holy killed him, in the same fashion as St Mercurius killed Julian the Apostate’. The legend, preserved by Symeon of Durham and others, tells how in the midst of his court at Gainsborough:

Sweyn alone saw St Edmund armed coming against him, and was afraid, and began to shout great cries, saying, ‘Help me, my comrades, behold St Edmund has come to slay me’. And saying this, sharply pierced by the holy blade, he fell from the horse on which he was sitting and tormented with great agony until the fall of night on the 3rd of February by a wretched death, and was buried at York.

The saga makes Canute only ten years old at the time, and says it was decided that he should not claim his kingdom in England for three years; but it is hardly likely that Sweyn would have put his fleet under the command of a boy of nine the previous year, and it is more probably that Canute was in his teens when his father died. It is some evidence of the young man’s ability and promise that he was chosen be free election to succeed to the command of a fleet of ruthless, battle-seasoned veterans, many of whom had been schooled in the rigorous discipline of a military garrison such as that reputed to have existed at Jomsborg in the Baltic.

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