A King Among Fools and Flatterers

During the reign of the Danish king Canute, a devout Christian, the Faith in England flourished.

[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a multi-part series on the unsung heroes of Christendom.]

“The high tide,” King Alfred cried. “The high tide and the turn!” Such was the battle cry of Alfred the Great, rallying the Anglo-Saxons against the pagan Danes, as imagined by G.K. Chesterton in his epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse. In singing the praises of the great Anglo-Saxon king, Chesterton was joining the chorus of consensus down the ages that Alfred the Great was indeed “great.” He was also indubitably a hero of Christendom. Since, however, he has been lauded universally, he is hardly unsung and does not qualify, therefore, as one of our unsung heroes. 

Even though King Alfred had turned back the tide of pagan invasion in the late ninth century, repelling the Danes and keeping England part of Christendom, the tide would turn once again. By the eleventh century, for a brief period, the Danes ruled supreme in England. These Danes were, however, very different from the pagan Vikings who had terrorized the country in preceding centuries because these Norsemen were Christians. 

In embracing the faith of the host culture, the conquerors had ironically been conquered. Like the Romans a thousand years earlier, who had conquered the Greeks militarily but had been conquered by the Greeks culturally, adopting the Greek gods as their own, so the Danes had conquered the Anglo-Saxons militarily but had been conquered by the Anglo-Saxons culturally, adopting the Christian God as their own. During the reign of the Danish king Canute, a devout Christian, the Faith in England flourished. 

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Although, like Alfred, Canute is also sometimes referred to as “the Great” because he was the ruler of three kingdoms—England, Denmark, and Norway, which were known collectively during his reign as the North Sea Empire—he is best known for his alleged and legendary stupidity. It is said that he ordered the tide to obey him and was rewarded with wet feet when the disobedient tide ignored his kingly commands. He is ever associated with the arrogance of kings and those who are blinded by pride and corrupted by power. His name has become a byword for iniquity and idiocy. History has laughed him to scorn.

Such a view does King Canute a great injustice. Far from being a megalomaniac intent on singing his own praises, he is an unsung hero of Christendom who should be praised for his humility and his wisdom. During his reign, which was from 1016 until 1035, new churches were built in London and there were thought to be about twenty-five within the city by the time of his death, including six dedicated to the Norwegian saint Olaf and one to Olaf’s son, St. Magnus the Martyr. He made a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine at Glastonbury and also established the Benedictines at Gloucester Abbey. In addition, at the height of his power, he went on pilgrimage to Rome.       

Yet those who think of King Canute do not think of the promotion of Christianity during his reign, nor do they have visions of him as a pilgrim visiting Christian shrines. Instead, he remains best known to posterity for the legendary account of his ordering the tide to obey him. “My tide,” King Canute cried. “My tide you must turn!” Although, as we have said, this is often cited as evidence of the foolishness of egocentric rulers who “try to stop the tide,” the true source of the account, which dates from the twelfth century, demonstrates Canute’s piety and humility, not his folly and pride. 

According to the twelfth-century account by Henry of Huntingdon, Canute ordered his throne to be placed on the beach. Then, sitting on it, he ordered the incoming tide to stop. When the tide lapped against his feet, in defiance of the royal command, he used the incident to teach a priceless lesson to his flattering courtiers. “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” he declaimed, “for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.” He then hung his crown on a crucifix and, according to the account, never wore it again “to the honour of God the almighty King.” 

The episode shows King Canute to be a kindred spirit to the chastened and converted King Lear, who refers to flattering courtiers as “gilded butterflies” and “poor rogues [who] talk of court news.” Such men are not to be trusted, either in history or on the stage. Although most historians question the veracity of this anecdotal episode, seeing it as “apocryphal,” the fact that the source for the story dates from only a century after Canute’s own time suggests the possibility that there could be a core of fact at the heart of Henry of Huntingdon’s account.

King Canute, as wise and virtuous as he was, would be eclipsed in terms of sanctity by his stepson, St. Edward the Confessor, who ruled England from 1042 until the fateful year of the Norman Conquest in 1066. As with Alfred the Great, historians have sung the praises of St. Edward the Confessor. He would be England’s patron saint until the adoption of St. George as England’s patron at the time of the crusades. He would be lauded and lionized by Shakespeare who shone him forth as the embodiment of a good and virtuous king in contradistinction to the wickedness of Macbeth. 

No such praises have been sung to King Canute who could justly complain, with Hamlet, that he has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and has borne the whips and scorns of time. He has suffered the oppressive wrongs of ignorant gossip, passed from one generation to the next, and “the proud man’s contumely,” the insults and the scorn of lesser men. 

And yet, the final judgment that matters is not the judgment of history but the judgment of God. And the only songs of praise that really matter are the songs of praise to God. This being so, let’s join the noble Horatio with the prayer that he said for the soul of Hamlet, the “sweet prince” of Denmark, saying it for the soul of Canute, the humble King of Denmark (and England): May flights of angels sing the unsung hero to his rest!    

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