Canute and the Waves
W HEN Edmund Ironside died, Canute became king over all England, as it had been agreed between them that whoever lived the longest should have the whole kingdom. Edmund had two sons, and Canute was afraid that the people might wish to make one of them king, so he sent both to a far-off country called Hungary. Perhaps it was wrong to banish these children, but at least it was better than killing them, as some people say he wanted to do.
Canute did not begin by being a good king. At first he was bad and cruel. But he ended by being very good and wise. In fact he seems to have ruled so well that the English came to love him almost as if he had been an English king.
They loved him, but they flattered him too. He was certainly a great king, for he ruled not only over England, but over Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The nobles thought it pleased Canute to be told of his greatness, so they used often to let him hear them praise him.
One day as they were walking upon the seashore, the nobles began, as usual, to tell Canute how powerful he was.
"All England obeys you," they said.
"And not only England, but Denmark, Norway, and Sweden."
"Should you desire it, you need but command all the nations of the world and they will kneel before you as their king and lord."
"You are king on sea and land. Even the waves obey you."
Now this was foolish talk, and Canute, who was a wise man, did not like it. He thought he would teach these silly nobles a lesson. So he ordered his servants to bring a chair.
When they had brought it, he made them set it on the shore, close to the waves. The servants did as they were told, and Canute sat down, while the nobles stood around him.
Then Canute spoke to the waves. "Go back," he said, "I am your lord and master, and I command you not to flow over my land. Go back, and do not dare to wet my feet."
But the sea, of course, neither heard nor obeyed him. The tide was coming in, and the waves rolled nearer and nearer, until the king's feet and robe were wet.
Then Canute rose, and turning sternly to his nobles said, "Do you still tell me that I have power over the waves? Oh! foolish men, do you not know that to God alone belongs such power? He alone rules earth and sky and sea, and we and they alike are His subjects, and must obey Him."
The nobles felt how foolish they had been, and did not again try to flatter Canute in such a silly way. From that day, too, Canute never wore his crown, but it placed it upon the figure of Christ in the minster at Winchester, as a proof of his humility. From this story we learn that Canute was a Christian, although many of the Danes were still heathen, but no doubt they very soon followed the example of their king, and became Christians too.
Gradually the differences between the Danes and the English passed away. The Danes began to forget that they had ever lived in any other country, and lived like Englishmen, taking English ways and customs for their own. So once more England became a united kingdom. But this, of course, did not happen all at once. It was many years before the English and the Danes quite forgot their quarrels.
As Canute had other countries to govern as well as England, he felt the need of some one to help him to rule. So he divided England into four earldoms, and placed an earl over each part. These earls ruled the kingdom under the king. Over the part which was called Wessex, Canute placed a man named Godwin, who afterwards became of very great importance in English history.
In the year 1035 A.D. King Canute died, and was buried in the minster at Winchester.
After him his two sons, Harold Harefoot and Hardicanute, reigned. Neither of them was good and, at the death of Hardicanute, the English were easily persuaded by Earl Godwin not to have any more Danish rulers. Following his advice they chose Edward, the son of Ethelred the Unready, to be their king.