Long before the Norman Invasion of 1066 Canute the Great crossed the North Sea and seized the throne of England. He was a Viking warrior, son of King Swein ‘Forkbeard’ of Denmark, and, in 1015, sailed into Kent with up to 120 longships, intent on conquest. After a campaign of bloody battles, lasting more than a year, it is understood he was crowned ‘king of all England’ in London, probably in St Paul’s Cathedral, in 1017.
Canute was a conqueror with no clear connection to the Anglo-Saxon kings who had ruled England for centuries. Capturing the English throne was the beginning of an impressive period of expansion and, before the end of his reign, his empire stretched from England to Denmark, Norway and he also claimed part of modern-day Sweden.
It is perhaps surprising that, despite seizing and holding this great North Sea Empire, Canute’s achievement is largely forgotten. Today he is best known for the story in which he sat on his throne at the water’s edge and commanded the tide to turn back. This tale has often been interpreted as a sign of Canute’s arrogance, that he could control the seas. But the earliest form of the story shows Canute as a humble king, proving to his flattering courtiers that he was only human, speaking the words:
“Let all inhabiting the world know the power of kings to be empty and worthless and that there is no other king worthy of the name but He at whose will heaven, earth, sea obey by the eternal laws.”