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Canute the Great

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This profile of Canute the Great is part of
Who's Who in Medieval History

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Canute was also known as:

King Canute I of England, King Canute II of Denmark, King Canute of Norway; also spelled Cnut, Knut or Knute; in Danish, Knud den Store; in Norwegian, Knut den Mektige.

Canute was known for:

Conquering large parts of England, taking the crown in Denmark and Norway, and building a formidable, if short-lived, empire.

Occupations:

Places of Residence and Influence:

Important Dates:

Born: c. 994
Victory at Ashingdon: Oct. 18, 1016
Crowned King of England: Jan. 6, 1017
Died: Nov. 12, 1035

About Canute the Great:

As a young man Canute accompanied his father, King Sweyn (or Swein) Forkbeard of Denmark, when he invaded England in 1013. Though Swein was accepted as king of England before the year was out, in February of 1014 he died. Canute's brother Harald succeeded Swein as King of Denmark, and the English invited Ethelred (the "unready"), who had fled when Swein invaded, back to England to resume his role as king.

Canute went to Denmark to gather his forces, then in 1015 he returned and fought against Ethelred's army. He managed to take control of nearly all of England, with the exception of London. Upon Ethelred's death, the Witan (the English council) named Canute the new king of England, but London chose Ethelred's son Edmund Ironside. Canute engaged in several battles with Edmund until he achieved a striking victory at Ashingdon in October of 1016, after which Edmund agreed to divide the kingdom. However, Edmund died at the end of November, and Canute became king of all England.

The new English king divided the realm into four districts to be governed by military leaders: Northumbria by his Norwegian brother-in-law, Earl Erik of Lade; Mercia by Eadric Streona, the English earl who had helped his invasion; East Anglia by the renowned Viking chief Thorkell the Tall; and Wessex he governed himself. Later Canute and Thorkell would have a falling out, and the Viking would be outlawed. In 1017, Canute married Ethelred's widow Emma of Normandy to help legitimize his claim and keep Ethelred's sons from falling into the control of Norman nobles.

At first Canute used harsh measures: he had some prominent English rivals outlawed or killed, engineered the death of Edmund Ironside's brother, and pursued Edmund's children until they fled to safety in Hungary. But within a few years he evolved a more even-handed policy, and he allowed more Englishmen into positions of power. His reign proved stable, peaceful and prosperous, and the power base he developed in England helped him pursue claims in Denmark and Norway.

Upon the death of his brother Harald in 1019, Canute went to Denmark to claim the throne. Seven years later his regent in Denmark, Ulf, allied with the kings of Norway and Sweden against him; though they defeated Canute at the Battle of the Holy River, terms were struck. Shortly thereafter Ulf was killed (possibly on Canute's orders), and Canute managed to foment unrest among the Norwegian landowners by bribing them. In 1028, he drove out the Norwegian king, Olaf II Haraldsson, and took the Norwegian crown.

Canute died in November of 1035 at about 40 years of age. The empire he built rapidly disintigrated into its various components; his direct heirs ruled for only a handful of years before the lands he had conquered reverted to the old royal lines.

More Canute the Great Resources:

Canute the Great in Print
Canute the Great on the Web


Vikings and Scandinavian History
Medieval Britain

Guide Note: This Who's Who Profile of Canute the Great was originally posted in October of 2003, and was updated in January of 2012. Content is copyright ©2003-2012 Melissa Snell.


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