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APART FROM HIS name offered as Canute, the medieval King Cnut got another bad rap from history. You know the story: The king planted his throne at the seashore and, in his narcissistic, egotistical, bullying way (remind you of anyone?), he knew the advancing tide was no threat to him.
Uh. Here’s another towel, Your Majesty.
The Real Story. Actually, Wikipedia gives a nuanced version: “He is popularly invoked in the context of King Canute and the tide, which often misrepresents him as a deluded monarch believing he has supernatural powers, contrary to the original legend which portrays a wise king who rebuked his courtiers for their fawning behavior.”
Let’s take back that modern reference.
The Real Story, in More Detail. The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes, edited by Elizabeth Longford, offers amplification of the Cnut tale by Henry of Huntingdon.
Henry of Huntingdon was Archdeacon of Huntingdon, author of Historia Anglorum, and considered “the most important Anglo-Norman historian to emerge from the secular clergy,” according to medieval specialist C. Warren Hollister.
Note, Huntingdon was born just 53 years after Cnut’s death and 22 years after the Norman Conquest, when William I replaced the Danish dynasty with a Norman-French one. An interesting time for an historian.
Henry of Huntingdon recounted how Cnut ordered the throne placement facing the incoming tide and, thus seated, he shouted to the flowing sea, “Thou, too, art subject to my command, as the land on which I am seated is mine; and no one has ever resisted my commands with impunity. I command you, then, not to flow over my land, nor presume to wet the feet and the robe of our lord.”
“The tide, however,” Huntingdon said, “continuing to rise as usual, dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person.”
Cnut leapt backward and said, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and the sea obey by eternal laws.”
“From thenceforth,” Huntingdon concluded, “King Canute never wore his crown of gold, but placed it for a lasting memorial on the image of Our Lord affixed to the cross, to the honour of God the Almighty King: through whose mercy may the soul of Canute, the King, enjoy everlasting rest.”
I’d rate Henry of Huntingdon’s narrative as wisely composed indeed, if apocryphal.
At the time, Huntingdon was a subject of King William I, whom others knew as the Norman Conquerer or William the Bastard, but that’s another story. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020