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British kings and queens

Cnut (Canute)

King CnutKing Cnut In 1014 the Danish king of England, Sweyn Forkbeard, died and was succeeded by his son Cnut (also spelled Canute, ruled 1016–1035). But the Saxon king, Aethelred II, returned to England to claim his throne. He drove out Cnut and ruled until his death in 1016. Aethelred's son, Edmund Ironside, was chosen to succeed him, while the Danes supported Cnut. The Saxon and Danish armies met at Assandun in Essex, where Edmund was defeated. He agreed to divide the kingdom, with Cnut ruling the north and Edmund the south. However, Edmund suddenly died, leaving Cnut the undisputed king of all England. Cnut was a wise ruler, treating both Danes and Saxons with equal respect. 


Medieval illustration of Edmund and Cnut in combatMedieval illustration of Edmund and Cnut in combat

Map of Cnut’s landsMap of Cnut’s lands

Cnut’s rule

On his ascent to the English throne, his rivals—Ethelred's surviving sons and Edmund's son—fled abroad. In 1018, the last Danegeld (money raised by taxes in England to “pay off” the Danes) of 82,500 pounds was paid to Cnut. Cnut gained favour with his English subjects by sending most of his soldiers back to Denmark. In 1017, he married Emma of Normandy, the widow of Aethelred II, and divided England into the four earldoms of East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex.

The earls were to assist him in the government of England, since Cnut was also king of Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden, and needed to divide his time between his realms (sometimes described as the “North Sea Empire”).

The legendary story of King Cnut (Canute) and the tide is very often told incorrectly. Far from being deluded into believing he could turn back the tide, the wise Cnut actually wanted to demonstrate the opposite: he was a mere human who lacked such god-like powers.

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