Image: Ringerike-style runic carving on a slab from St Paul’s Churchyard

Professor Richard North marks the 1000th anniversary of the accession of King Cnut of Denmark to the throne of England. More commonly known as Canute, he is considered one of the most successful rulers of Anglo-Saxon England.

England in late June 1,000 years ago was a bitterly divided country in ruins, one which could only now, with the high summer victories of King Cnut of Denmark, look forward to peace and reconstruction.

Cnut’s mother came from Poland; his father, King Sveinn Forkbeard of Denmark, had raided England almost annually after an anti-Danish pogrom throughout England, the St Brice’s Day massacre of 1002, until he invaded in 1013. The Danish north of England gave itself up and when the south followed suit, King Æthelred II fled to Normandy in December leaving Sveinn as sole king. But Sveinn died on 3 February 1014, Æthelred returned, and the young Cnut, who had been accepted as king by the Danelaw and Viking fleet, was forced back to Denmark.

Æthelred rebuilt his power base while Cnut recruited an even bigger army of Danes, Swedes, Frisians and Poles. Sailing back to England in August 1015, he reconquered most of the country and laid siege to London. Æthelred defended the city with the help of his son Edmund Ironside, and when Æthelred died on 23 April 1016, Edmund was crowned head of what was left of his father’s kingdom. Edmund fought and lost a string of battles against Cnut in the early part of the summer, while London held out. Eventually Cnut defeated Edmund in Assandun (Ashdon or Ashingdon in Essex) on 18 October, chased him west and forced him to make terms in Deerhurst, Gloucestershire. The Siege of London ended while Edmund, seriously wounded, remained king of only this city and Wessex. When he died on 30 November, Cnut became king of all England.

Cnut’s reign was good for England. Although he imposed some Danish earls over regions to start with, within a few years he replaced them with native governors. To hold power in north and south, Cnut made a ‘handfast’ marriage with Ælfgifu of Northampton on one side and a dynastic marriage with Emma, Æthelred’s still young widow on the other, mothers respectively of his successors Kings Harold Harefoot (1035-40) and Hartha-Cnut (1040-42).

The Anglo-Saxon economy was still powerful and Cnut paid off most of his Scandinavian army with £72,000 tax money, as well as £10,500 from London – an English hold-out which he never trusted. The Ringerike-style runic carving on a slab from St Paul’s Churchyard [see fig.] apparently commemorates a commander of the Danish garrison here during this time. Leaving his earls in charge, Cnut sailed to Denmark in 1019 and again in 1026-7 to consolidate his power over there and southern Sweden, and in 1028 he spread himself even further by taking Norway from King Óláfr (later the ‘Saint’) Haraldsson.

While in England, Cnut donated huge sums to the church, to Canterbury and especially Winchester, the old capital of Wessex which he made the centre of his empire. In 1027 he stood alongside Conrad II, as a near equal, along with King Rudolf III of Burgundy, in the German emperor’s coronation in Rome. No king had done so much to make England a player on the international stage, and it was by making us part of a northern European union that he did so.

On 6–9 July the English and Scandinavian departments of University College London will hold a conference partly to commemorate the accession of Cnut, king of England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden: Entitled Æthelred II and Cnut the Great, it will explore the relationship between Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia during the early 11th century, with a focus on the political and cultural repercussions of regime change in 1016 and the role of London in that process.

Richard North is a professor of English at University College London. He has written on Anglo-Saxon paganism and teaches English literature of all kinds, but mainly Old and Middle English such as Beowulf and Chaucer (for which he is helping to create an app) and also some Old Icelandic literature. His early medieval research interests includes a book on English heathen gods in which he argued for the existence of Ingui, divine focus of a massive fertility cult permeating Anglian Britain from the fifth century to the late seventh. His 2006 book on Beowulf makes the case that the resemblance between Beowulf and his sidekick Wiglaf on one hand and the Mercian kings Beornwulf (823-26) and Wiglaf (827-39) on the other is not a coincidence. For his later medieval research, North’s next project will address the relation of Beowulf to Grettis saga.