Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Story of Cnut and the Waves


King Cnut died on 12 November 1035, aged probably not much more than forty. At the time of his death he was the ruler of a great Scandinavian empire which included Denmark, Norway, England and part of Sweden, but he died at Shaftesbury and was buried at Winchester, in the heart of England and the ancient capital of the kingdom of Wessex - and in this fact lies the fascination of Cnut. The image above was made in his lifetime and depicts him at the height of his power, presenting a splendid golden cross to the New Minster, Winchester (where Alfred the Great was buried - what would Alfred have thought!). Here's the whole thing:


One hand on the cross and one hand on his sword, which swaggeringly pierces the frame of the picture - however much the angels point upwards to Christ, you're not permitted to forget who's in charge here.

The most successful of Scandinavian kings, Cnut is also the subject of some of the best post-Conquest stories about Anglo-Saxon history: whether he is chasing after peasants, composing songs about the beauty of monastic chant, or chopping off a traitor's head with a snappy pun, he gets all the best lines, all the grandest gestures. The most famous story of all is one of the few bits of Anglo-Saxon history to have entered widespread popular discourse - it's a tale with a hold on the public imagination rivalled only, perhaps, by Alfred and his burnt cakes.  Many people who know absolutely nothing about medieval history could nonetheless tell you that Cnut tried to hold back the waves. Although it's such a widely-known myth, the story of Cnut and the waves actually has some interesting things to tell us about Cnut, his reign, and his reputation in England.*

First, the story in its earliest recorded form, as told by the twelfth-century chronicler Henry of Huntingdon (writing c.1140, a century after Cnut's death). When he reached the point in his chronicle when he had to note the death of Cnut, Henry wrote:

A few words must be devoted to the power of this king. Before him there had never been in England a king of such great authority. He was lord of all Denmark, of all England, of all Norway, and also of Scotland. In addition to the many wars in which he was most particularly illustrious, he performed three fine and magnificent deeds.

The first is that he gave his daughter in marriage to the Roman emperor, with indescribable riches.

The second, that on his journey to Rome, he had the evil taxes that were levied on the road that goes through France, called tolls or passage tax, reduced by half at his own expense.

The third, that when he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, ‘You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.’ But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, ‘Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws’. Thereafter King Cnut never wore the golden crown on his neck, but placed it on the image of the crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. By whose mercy may the soul of King Cnut enjoy rest.

Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.367-9.

There are actually two roughly contemporary versions of the story, and this is the other one:

[After becoming king of Norway] Cnut was lord over three kingdoms, and few people were to be found who dared oppose his wishes. Nevertheless he did meet resistance and his orders were on one occasion treated with contempt. He was in London on the bank of the River Thames, and the tide was coming in near the church called Westminster. The king has dismounted and was standing on the sand along the strand. The tide kept rising and rising remorselessly, and as it got closer, it came right up to the king. Cnut grasped his sceptre in his hand and addressed the tide: ‘Turn back and get away off me, otherwise I shall strike you!’ The sea did not leave off on his account, and the tide kept rising and rising. The king stood his ground and waited, then struck the water with his sceptre. This did not make the water leave off; on the contrary it came right up and drenched him.

Understanding that he had waited too long, and that the tide was taking not the slightest notice of him, he retreated from the strand. Then, standing up on a stone, he stretched out his hands towards the east. Just hear what he said in the presence of his people: ‘He who causes the sea to rise is the right and proper person to place one’s trust in and to honour. He is a just and virtuous king, whereas I am a miserable wretch. I am a mere mortal, whereas he is everlasting. Every single thing obeys his command, and he is the one to whom I pray for protection. My intention now is to go [as a pilgrim] to Rome to worship him, and all my land I will [henceforth] hold as his vassal.’

Whereupon, wishing to start out without delay, he begins preparations for his journey. He took large amounts of gold and silver with him.

Geffrei Gaimar, Estoire des Engleis: History of the English, ed. and trans. Ian Short (Oxford, 2009), pp.254-6. Additions in square brackets, except the first, are Short’s.

I find this story fascinating. Popularly, the story is still often misunderstood as Cnut being foolish and arrogant, which doesn't fit with Henry's telling - Henry is perfectly clear that this is a "fine and magnificent deed", so he saw it as a proper demonstration of the king's humility before God. Cnut was given to grand gestures of royal piety and lavish gifts to religious shrines - just look at that cross in the image above! - and as a result, some scholars have suggested this story has its roots in such a gesture, Cnut knowing all along that the tide won't obey him, and choosing this way of demonstrating his humility. I have some sympathy for this theory, but it's problematic for several reasons. It's hard to picture the logistics of such a gesture - do you carry a chair all the way to the sea-shore just for this? - or to think that many witnesses would take it in the spirit it was intended: people today seem to find the image of a king with the sea around his ankles irresistibly funny, and I don't think Cnut's Danish followers were deficient in that kind of humour. They might have laughed too, and then the grand gesture falls a little flat!

And it's also not quite clear who exactly would be the audience for this demonstration, or that there is an audience at all; Henry doesn't mention one and Gaimar barely does. Who's being demonstrated to? You often hear the story explained today as a rebuke to the flattery of the king's followers (John Milton's comment on the story in his History of Britain is typical, and amusing: he calls it "one remarkable action done by him, as Huntingdon reports it, with great Scene of circumstance, and emphatical Expression, to shew the small Power of Kings in respect of God; which, unless to Court-Parasites, needed no such laborious Demonstration… [U]nless to shame his Court Flatterers who would not else be convinc’t, Canute needed not to have gone wet-shod home"). But there aren't any court flatterers in either of the earliest versions - and anyway Cnut, a great patron of praise-poetry, was more inclined to reward than rebuke flattery from his followers.

So I'm inclined to think that this story is not true nor based on truth, but just that: a story. And not a story invented by the twelfth-century historians, but a story of meaning and use to Cnut and his court, told for a particular purpose, and drawing on a certain attitude to power which is identifiably Anglo-Danish. Cnut's power came, in the most literal sense, from his dominion over the sea: he was a Viking and the heir to Viking kings, who had conquered England by their superior ships and their swift sea-journeys. The splendour of these ships is lauded in the wonderful Old Norse poems written for Cnut, and in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written for his wife. The poems describe a young Cnut setting out to conquer kingdoms in his ships, preparing and launching his fleet, and personally steering them to glory; one of them addresses him 'You won great fame on the banks of the Thames, ruler of the leaping rollers' steed!', which is particularly impressive when you remember where Gaimar says Cnut demonstrated his powerlessness. To Cnut and his Danish followers, sea, and control over the sea, was the very basis of the king's power, and as a result, to portray Cnut saying that the sea does not follow his orders is not the recognition of an obvious fact of nature - it's a real concession.

What's more, narratives about control over the sea occur in other English stories about Cnut acknowledging the power of English saints, and also in a Scandinavian context among stories about the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity; the ability to produce calm weather at sea is routinely brought forth as evidence of the power of the Christian God and his saints. These accounts represent a Christian point of view (with this Gospel story as one obvious source), but expressed in narratives which had particular force for a Scandinavian aristocratic audience.

So the story of Cnut and the waves is a Christian story told in the language of Viking power. You could read it as a conversion story, describing not actually the moment Cnut was converted to Christianity, but symbolically the moment when a pagan Viking king was converted into a Christian monarch. At the time he became king of England Cnut was nominally a Christian (he had been baptised) but the idea of Christian kingship was not very old in his native Denmark; his father Svein was - in English eyes - an infamous pagan, and Cnut's first appearance in English sources shows him doing some truly horrible things which gave no hint that he would become the pious king depicted in that image above, crowned by angels and with his hand upon the cross. In the early days of his kingship his English clerical advisers (chiefly Archbishop Wulfstan) pulled off something like a miracle: they made Cnut sound, look and act like a Christian king. This new kind of kingship found expression in the Old Norse poems written for Cnut, which praise him for going on pilgrimage to Rome and consorting with the 'Lord of monks', while still retaining all the traditional poetic markers of Scandinavian royal authority. In this they're the poetic equivalent of that image from the New Minster Liber Vitae: the king with one hand on the cross and one hand on his sword. The story of the waves does something similar, and would have appealed most to the king's Danish followers, many of whom enthusiastically followed Cnut's example of generous piety. It reinforced, rather than rebuked, an idea which had especial resonance for them: honour is due to the one who rules the seas, whether that's Cnut or the Christian God.

The advantage of the story is that it pleases two audiences at the same time, something Cnut was extremely good at - to the English church it plays like a gesture of humility and conversion, but it does so in the political language most acceptable to the king's Danish followers. Even better, in presenting his crown to a crucifix, Cnut was aligning himself with continental rulers who had made similar gestures - it takes a truly great politician to be able to say 'look how humble I am' and 'look how I'm just as good as the Holy Roman Emperor' in the exact same moment, and convince people you mean it. It's ironic that Cnut's name has today become a byword for vainly trying to hold back the tide of events, because no one was better than Cnut at recognising which way the tide was flowing and taking advantage of it. As Cnut's poets would have us remember, he was a sailor, and that's what sailors do.

This is the chest in Winchester Cathedral where Cnut's bones may rest (although perhaps not; see this post). 'The power of kings is empty and worthless', indeed!

*ETA, 2015: my article on the story of Cnut and the waves (with a theory about how it got into twelfth-century sources) can be found in The Medieval Chronicle 9.

3 comments:

Richard Aelwyn said...

Love this analysis with it's debunking of popular usage. I used to work in Canute Court in Knutsford.

Knutsford in Cheshire, named after the fording of a stream by Cnut. The stream is small now but runs, unguarded, alongside a road and the unwary could still easily ditch their car in it.

The connection was in danger of being obscured by Elizabethan maps which rendered the place as Knottersford.

Viking Cnut's rebranding of himself as the Anglo Norman sounding Canute was also an example of his cleverness. An example followed by so many to this day.

Jane Setter said...

I was just talking about this with my other half. Really enjoyable - thank you!

Annie Whitehead said...

Being a pedant, I get annoyed when people tell the 'holding back the waves' story as a demonstration of Knut's arrogance. Thanks for this in-depth post