One day King Knut (“Canute” as the English call him) ordered his throne carried to the seashore when the tide was out. It was near Chichester on the south coast of England. Then the king took his place on the royal chair and commanded his officers and courtiers to stand at attention before him.
As the tide rolled in, King Knut spoke to the rising waters: “You are within my jurisdiction, and the land on which I sit is mine; no one has ever resisted my command with impunity. I therefore command you not to rise over my land and not to presume to wet the clothes or limbs of your lord.” But the water kept rising and soon, king, throne and royal attendants retreated to higher ground.
What kind of madness would possess a king to utter such a command? Had power crazed his mind?
No such thing. Back on dry ground, King Knut addressed the people. “Be it known to all inhabitants of the world that the power of kings is empty and superficial, and that no one is worthy of the name of king except for Him whose will is obeyed by heaven, earth and sea in accordance with His eternal laws.” Then he took off his crown of gold and never wore it again.
Who was this Knut? He was the great-grandson of Gorm, the founder of Denmark’s royal family. It is the oldest monarchy in the world with its heirs also on the thrones of Norway and England today.
It was Knut’s grandfather, Harald “Bluetooth,” who converted to Christianity and began a royal line of faith that has been unbroken for over 1,000 years. Knut’s father, Svein, conquered England and died five years later on Feb. 3, 1014.
Knut became England’s king on Nov. 30, 1016. He brought peace to a torn nation and was a champion of justice and the rights of the people. The English still call him the “Great,” a title reserved for only a few rulers in the world’s history. The only thing they held against him was that he was Danish and not English, but they came to respect and love him dearly. His rule was firm and he promoted the church’s mission. These were happy days for the ancient island.
King Knut, however, was no friend of Norway’s King Olaf Haraldson, later known as the “saint.” He drove Olaf into exile in Russia and declared himself king of Norway.
At the Battle of Sticklestad on July 30, 1030, the much larger force of Knut crushed Olaf’s army. By the end of the day, Olaf had perished, perhaps by Norwegian hands. Now Knut was ruler of the whole of Denmark, England, Norway and also Scotland. He was the undisputed sovereign of a North Sea kingdom. He was a natural leader of men.
Like Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814) and many great leaders, Knut’s empire did not survive his death in 1035. England went back to native-born rulers. The end of Scandinavian dominance was at hand. His remains are buried in Winchester Cathedral. He was a “saint” in their eyes.
The Danes had a long established kingdom in the north and east of England with Jorvik (York) as its headquarters. Its main political and commercial was Dublin, the Norwegian capital of Ireland. Recent archaeological diggings have shown that the ancient Vikings were first class city builders and effective community organizers.
The Scandinavian part of England was called the “Danelaw,” the area where Danish laws prevailed. The English often referred to the Norwegians as Danes also. Even today the physical appearance of the people and their language betrays their Nordic past. The big difference between those earlier Vikings and those of Knut’s reign was the civilizing influence of the Christian faith found in Gorm’s descendants.
If you go Denmark, you can visit the site where old King Gorm and his wife Thyra were buried. It’s at Jelling, a few miles to the northwest of Vejle in Jutland where Lego blocks are made. The English still regard Knut, their Danish king, as worthy of London. The Norwegians owe a strange debt to Knut. It was Knut’s ambition for a North Sea empire that propelled Olaf Haraldson into “sainthood.”
However you may feel about Olaf the Saint, this story belongs to Knut. He was also a distant relative Norway’s King Harald V and Denmark’s Queen Margaret II. And there are thousands of others who also claim a share in this royal bloodline. Some relatives of the Danish portion of my household quietly make such a claim. Long live Kings Gorm and Knut in the memory of the Scandinavian heritage.
Next time: “Thor Heyerdahl, Discover of Old Worlds”