Canute the Great (985/95 to 1035) was the most successful ruler of the Anglo Saxon period. At the height of his power he was King of England, Denmark, Norway, parts of Sweden, and overlord of Scotland. He put an end to Viking attacks on Britain and paid off the standing army, thus abolishing the enormous taxes which had been used to pay them. He reinstated the rules of King Edgar, an earlier, well-respected English king, and attended the coronation in Rome of the Emperor Conrad II, resulting in his reputation as a true partner to Europe. His achievements all but forgotten, Canute is now mainly known for a single misinterpreted story: Canute and the Waves.
The story originated with Henry of Huntingdon (1088 to 1157) in his Historia Anglorum – History of the English People, an historical account commissioned by the Bishop of Lincoln.
Most are familiar with the beginning of the story: King Canute, being an arrogant ruler, had his throne placed on the banks of the Thames, waiting for the tide to come in. As the tide rose, Canute stood and held out his hand, demanding that the waves recede.
“With the greatest vigor he commanded that his chair should be set on the shore, when the tide began to rise. And then he spoke to the rising sea saying “You are part of my dominion, and the ground that I am seated upon is mine, nor has anyone disobeyed my orders with impunity. Therefore, I order you not to rise onto my land, nor to wet the clothes or body of your Lord.”
(Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum)
Most people’s understanding of the story stops here; the tale is often used as an example of an arrogant king performing a foolish act. However there’s more to the story.
“But the sea carried on rising as usual without any reverence for his person, and soaked his feet and legs. Then he moving away said: “All the inhabitants of the world should know that the power of kings is vain and trivial, and that none is worthy of the name of king but He whose command the heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws”.
(Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum)
Rather than a tale telling of a king’s hubris, the story actually celebrates Canute’s good sense and Christian piety.
Still Getting it Wrong
For centuries the misrepresentation of this story has perpetuated, right to the present day. Professor Simon Keynes of the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge, quoted by BBC News, has this to say:
“It is often used about politicians who consider themselves so powerful they can stop the tide of something, such as rising wages – as arrogant as King Canute,” says Prof Keynes, who says he used to collect examples from the newspapers of those so-called Canute moments. Everyone always gets it wrong. Every now and then someone points out that the reference is wrong, but commentators continue to do it and historians such as myself wince. The story is intended to illustrate his piety – a prominent feature in his kingship,” he says. “He knows his power is nothing besides that of God.”
(Westcott, Katheryn. “Is King Canute Misunderstood?” BBC News, May 2011.)
In 2005 the misunderstood story was used to criticise the New Orleans city council’s response to Hurricane Katrina. It was also used as late as 2014 to describe Britain’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis. A quick internet search is revealing.
It’s more interesting and engaging to tell a story about an arrogant historical king than a boring pious one. And obviously Canute the Proud and Foolish makes for a better comparison than Canute the Reasonable in any political arena.
Read more about Canute in my novel The Northern Queen, including this scene!
5 thoughts on “Canute and the Waves: A Misunderstood Story”
Thank you for this history lesson! My mother was the final addition to a book on King Cnut in the 1970s, as we are direct descendants from the Cornett (a changing of spelling from Cnut/Canute) family out of Southampton, England. I’m so glad to finally learn the truth of this story.
Great stuff. The story lives on and those with a nose for fantasy will know there is a truth to be found around the story so eventually they will research and realise the reality, or at least another slice of it. Completely ignorant of King Cnut until today when this story was used to say you couldn’t stop nature re climate change. So perhaps his message was recieved after all?