Simanaitis Says

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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.

Cnut the Great, c. 990 A.D.-1035 A.D., King of England from 1016, Denmark from 1018, and Norway from 1028 until his death. Together, his domain was known as the North Sea Empire. Contemporary portrait, cropped, from Liber Vitae, 1031.

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.

Image from “Henry of Huntingdon Trying to Turn the Tide.”

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. 

The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes, edited by Elizabeth Longford, University of Oxford Press, 1992.

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. 

Henry of Huntingdon, c. 1088–c. 1157, English cleric and historian. Image from Wyrtig, for gardners with a sense of history.

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.

The History of the English People 1000-1154 (Oxford World’s Classics), by Henry of Huntingdon, Oxford University Press, 2009.

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.

King William I of England. Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry, this one depicting Duke William lifting his helmet at the Battle of Hastings to show that he still lives. Scanned from Lucien Musset’s The Bayeux Tapestry.

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,, 2020

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