Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

The Story of King Canute

A BOUT forty years after the death of the brave Athelstan, the kingdom of England came to a boy whose name was Ethelred. He was but ten years old when he became king, and during all his reign he and his people were in great trouble. So ill did he rule that men called him the "Unready."

Every year the Danes grew more and more powerful. Sometimes the King tried to drive them out of England by force of arms, but he was often defeated. Sometimes he bribed them by large sums of money to go away. They took the money and went away, but very soon came back again. At last he tried what was the very worst and most wicked way of all. He sent secretly to the rulers and magistrates throughout the kingdom that on a certain day—it was the 13th day of November in the year 1002—"all the Danish men in England should be slain." These Danish men were living in peace among the English; many of them had married English wives. On the morning of this day this evil deed was done; all indeed were not killed, but many thousands were, and women also, and among these the sister of King Sweyn of Denmark. The last thing that this lady said was this: "My death will bring many wars upon England."  And so indeed it came to pass.

Year after year the Danes came and ravaged the land. Sometimes King Sweyn came with them, sometimes he sent other chiefs. At last, eleven years after the death of his sister, he came with a fleet greater and more splendid than had ever been seen before. The beaks of the ships were of brass, and under the beaks were figure-heads, finely carved and painted, of men and bulls and dolphins. On the mast-heads were figures of birds and dragons to serve for weathercocks, and the sterns were adorned with golden lions. The King brought with him his son Canute, of whom I am to tell in this story.

For six months or more King Sweyn went through the land with his army, doing such damage as no army had ever done before, The English could not stand up against him; as for King Ethelred, he fled over the sea to France. Sweyn indeed was King of England, but the crown was never put upon his head, for on Candlemas Day he died suddenly. Of the manner of his death the men of the time told this story. I have spoken before of a certain town in the East country which was called St. Edmundsbury, after King Edmund. There had been built in the town a house for monks, in honour of the King. Sweyn sent messengers to say that he would burn both the town and the monks' house with fire, and slay all their inhabitants, unless he should receive a great ransom for their lives. And when the people of the town sent to the King at Gainsborough, in the county of Lincoln, praying that he would not ask so great a sum of money, for that they were not able to pay it, he said the same things again with greater violence. When he had spoken, it seemed to him that King Edmund suddenly appeared in the midst of the council, no man seeing him except himself, and that he thrust him through with a spear of gold that he carried in his hand. Men said also that before he died he sent for his son Canute, and bade him rule England prudently and justly.

The Danes chose Canute to be King, but the English were not content that a foreigner should reign over them, and sending to Ethelred, where he was in France, prayed him to come back. So Ethelred returned, and marching into the East country where Canute still was, compelled him to take to his ships and sail away. The next year he came back with more ships and men than before, and there was war again till Ethelred died. Thereupon Canute was crowned King by command of an assembly that met at Southampton, but Ethelred's son, Edmund, who was called Ironside by reason of his valour, was also crowned in London. Canute sailed up the Thames, having a fleet of more than three hundred ships. When he came to London he found that he could not pass the bridge, so strongly was it held against him. Thereupon he caused a canal to be dug on the south side of the river, and by this took some of his ships to the other side of the bridge. But when he tried to take the town, the citizens beat him back from the walls, killing many of his men.

After this the two Kings met in battle at Sherston. Edmund put his best and bravest warriors in the front line, and he himself took his place in front of all, for none was better or braver than he. All day long the two armies fought, neither winning the victory. That night they rested on the field of battle, and on the morrow, when the day dawned, they fought again. And now the English began to drive back their enemies, when there went through the army the report that King Edmund had been slain. It was a traitor that set the report about. When King Edmund heard it, he mounted to the top of a hill, and taking off his helmet, showed himself to the people, that they might see that he was yet alive. It is said also that seeing the traitor who had first told the false news, he threw his spear at him. He indeed warded it off with his shield, but it pierced the man that stood by his side, and wounded two others also, so great was the strength of the Ironside.

Seven times in that year did Edmund fight with Canute, and the last and fiercest fight of all was at Assandun. Canute made as if he would get to his ships, and Edmund seeing this charged him sword in hand at the head of his men. And now again the English might have won the day, but that a traitor, the very same that had spread the false report of the King's death, fled from the battle with his followers. So their line was broken; nevertheless they still held out, even till the end of the day, and till far into the night. Then at last Edmund the Ironside was constrained to leave the field. That day the flower of the English race perished.

Even so King Edmund did not lose heart. He gathered together another army, and would have fought again, but that all the land was weary of the war. So these two, Canute and Edmund, met on an island in the Severn, and agreed to divide the kingdom between them; Edmund was to rule the South, Canute the North. But before the year was out King Edmund died, some said of poison, and the whole kingdom came to Canute, for it had been agreed that whoever of the two should live the longer, should have the whole.

And now Canute the Dane set himself with all his heart to become a true English king. The traitor that had played King Edmund false was rightly punished for his wrong-doing. It is said that he even boasted to the King that he had not only deserted Edmund in the hour of need, but had also slain him. Thereupon the King cried out, "Therefore you shall die, for you are guilty of treason both to God and to me."  And the traitor was slain.

When Canute was crowned King, he swore that he would do justice between man and man, and that he would himself be obedient to the laws. And this he did. So, when in a fit of rage he slew with his own hand one of the "house-carles," he declared that he would pay the fine that was set on the shedding of blood. In those days when a man was slain, the slayer paid a fine according to the rank of the man. So the King said to the house-carles, "Say what fine I must pay for the killing of your comrade." And when they, fearing to judge the King, would not say, he fixed the fine for himself, making it nine times greater than what it should have been of right. And what the King did for himself, that he commanded all that were in authority under him to do for others. The poor were to be protected against the wrong-doing of the rich; all men were to be judged justly but with mercy; above all, Englishmen and Danes were to live at peace with each other, forgetting all grudges and injuries.

And as he did his duty to man, so he did it also to God, judging that it was from Him that he had his kingdom; this he showed in the manner that I will now tell. On a certain day, when he was at the very height of his power, he commanded that they should set his royal chair on the sea-shore. On this he sat, his courtiers standing about him. Then he spoke to the tide as it flowed, "Thou art my subject, and this land on which I have set my chair is mine; never hath there been any one that refused to obey my bidding, and having so refused, escaped without punishment. I command thee therefore that thou come no further on to my land, and that thou presume not to wet the garments and limbs of thy lord." And when the tide, rising after its wont, came up and had no respect to the King's command, but wetted his feet and his legs, then the King, leaping from his seat, cried aloud, "Let all men know henceforth that the power of kings is an empty and foolish thing, and that no one is in very truth worthy to bear this name of King, saving Him only whose bidding the earth and the sea and all that in them is obey according to everlasting laws." After that day Canute would never again put his crown upon his head, but put it on the image of the crucified Christ.

The King greatly honoured the clergy, and gave great gifts to churches and abbeys. At Assandun, where he vanquished King Edmund, he caused a church to be built, that was notable for being built of stone, for in those days they were mostly built of wood. On the church of St. Edmund and on many others he and his Queen Emma bestowed much wealth. Among these was the great Church or Cathedral of Ely. They say that one day as he was passing in his boat by this church he made these verses that follow

"The Ely monks sang clear and high,

As King Canute was passing by;

'Row near the doors and hear them sing,'

Cried to his knights Canute the King."

Minstrels he loved greatly, and rewarded with generous gifts, as will be seen from this story. Among those who came to his Court was a certain man from Iceland, where in those days poetry and learning greatly flourished. When the King came into the hall he said, "I see one here who is not of this country; he has the look of a poet, yes, and of a fighter too, for I would sooner have him as my comrade in battle than any other man here." When the minstrel from Iceland heard these words he sang these verses—

"To Cnut the Dane I tune my lay;

English and Irish own his sway,

And many an island in the sea;

So let us sing his praise that he

Be known of men in every land

To where heaven's lofty pillars stand."

This done he said to the King, "Suffer me to speak a poem that I have made in your honour."  "You shall," said the King, "at our next meeting." So the next day there was a great gathering. When the poet from Iceland repeated his poem, the King highly praised it, then he took off from his head a Russian cap that he wore; it was broidered with gold, and had golden knots to it. "Fill this with silver," said he to his Chamberlain, "and give it to the poet." This the Chamberlain would have done, but because there was a great crowd of men, he had to reach it over their shoulders. So the silver was turned out of the cap on to the floor. But when the poet stooped to pick it up, the King said, "Let it be; the poor will be the better for it, and thou shalt not lose."

King Canute died when he was but little more than forty years old. His subjects greatly lamented him, for never was a king who better kept his oath to deal truly with his people.

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