England's Migrant King: Knut of Denmark

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King Cnut and Queen Emma before a large gold cross on an altar, from The New Minster Liber Vitae, 1031
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In this image from The New Minster Liber Vitae of 1031, two crowned figures place a golden cross on an altar. They are watched over from heaven by Christ in majesty, the Virgin Mary, St Peter and two angels (above). On earth (below), the monks of the New Minster at Winchester look on, one of them holding a book, perhaps the very book which holds this image.

The image is a record of an actual event: a royal donation to the church of New Minster from the King and Queen of England. The gold cross is now lost, but thanks to this image, we know of it and of the patrons who donated it.

One figure is labelled as ‘Ælfgifu regina’, the Queen Emma ('Ælfgifu' being her English name); the second figure is labelled as ‘Cnut rex’, King Knut of England and Denmark.

The image presents us with a very English scene known from previous charters and documents: English royalty donating to the English Church. However, the king in the scene was not English, nor an Anglo-Saxon. Known as England’s Viking king, Knut was a migrant from Denmark who became the king of his adopted country.

(The image has been provided courtesy of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts online and can be found here). 

Viking raids: King Sweyn and Prince Knut

Knut the Great (Knútr inn ríki in Old Norse) was a Danish prince, the son of Sweyn Forkbeard (Sveinn Tjúguskegg in Old Norse) and the grandson of Harald Bluetooth, the king credited with uniting all of Denmark. Knut first came to England with his father Sweyn as part of the latter’s raids in 1003-1005.

Viking raids began in the eighth century and continued with varying levels of intensity through the subsequent centuries. Early eleventh-century Viking raids were very similar in their nature and motivation to those by earlier Vikings. Similarly to their predecessors, Vikings were looking to trade as well as raid in the 1003–1005 period. They were primarily looking for wealth (silver, precious items, etc.), slaves and, in many cases, land to settle. England’s wealth was already common knowledge, and the large sums of silver and money paid as ‘weregild' by English kings to the Viking raiders were a big incentive. As an example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a payment of 24,000 pounds (of silver) to a Viking raiding party in 1002.

At the turn of the millennium, England was a rich kingdom and a land of opportunity. Having become king of Denmark in the mid-980s, Sweyn turned his attention across the seas for wealth. There may have been a further incentive for the father and son to raid in Wessex and East Anglia. According to one source, the Chronicle of John of Wallingford, Sweyn and Knut’s attacks of 1003 were a retaliation for the St Brice’s Day massacre of 13 November 1002. Sanctioned by King Æthelred the Unready, this event saw the murder of many Vikings living in England, including possibly Sweyn’s sister Gunnhild and her husband Pallig, the jarl (earl) of Devonshire.

The sources are conflicted on Knut’s age when he first came to England. According to court poet Óttarr svarti in Knútsdrápa 1, Knut was ‘lítt gamall’ (of no great age) when he joined his father’s raiding party in 1003. He was probably a teenager during these first raids (legal age of maturity was 12 years) and so spent most of his life in England.

Knut's consolidation of power 

Viking raids continued sporadically until 1013, when Sweyn and Knut returned to take advantage of the chaos caused by them. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘… in the same year, before the month of August, came King Sweyne with his fleet to Sandwich’.

By December 1013, Sweyn had been crowned King of England, but he died five weeks later. Knut was proclaimed his successor by the Danes, but the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred returned and succeeded in driving Knut out. Holding on to his claim, Knut returned to England in 1015 at the head of a vast army. The Encomium Emmae Reginae paints a fearsome picture of the force and the man leading it: 

'Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. ... For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, ... who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force?'

Over the next year, Knut’s forces ranged through England, clashing with the Anglo-Saxon forces of Æthelred and his son Edmund. Finally, after Æthelred’s death on 23 April 1016, followed by Edmund’s death on 30 November 1016, Knut was able to establish himself as the King of England and he was crowned in London. 

In July 1017, Knut married Emma, the widow of King Æthelred. In so doing, he married into the Anglo-Saxon establishment and took steps towards assimilation and integration. He even set aside his previous wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, and his sons by her were removed from the succession to the throne of England. It is clear that Knut’s marriage to Emma was a move to consolidate his position politically, as the marriage tied him to the line of English kings. 

Knut's election as King of England: law and church 

Knut’s actions during his reign show a number of features of integration and assimilation.

Like most early medieval kings, Knut relied for his power on the support of his nobility. According to the 1016 entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (see also: Making peace: Scandinavian migrants and King Alfred's 'fyrd'):

‘bishops, abbots, ealdormen and all the more important men of England assembled together and unanimously elected Cnut’ as king.' 

At a national assembly in Oxford in 1018, Knut, his followers and leading English nobles swore an oath to uphold ‘King Edgar’s Laws’. The acceptance of the laws of previous kings was a traditional method of convincing earls and other important people that their positions were safe and that the new king intended to govern along the same lines. Knut’s reinstatement of Edgar’s laws removed the changes introduced by Æthelred. Knut eventually introduced his own legal code of 1020–1021, modelled on ‘Edgar’s Laws’. Ironically this code was drafted by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, who had also drafted Æthelred’s codes and recycled a number of the latter’s laws in Knut’s codes. One of Knut’s prominent advisers, in England and Denmark, was Earl Godwine called ‘dux et baiulus’ (duke and steward) in the Vita Ædwardi.

As depicted in the main source image (above), Knut also became a patron of the English church. Although we think of Vikings as pagan, Christianity had spread into Scandinavia in the ninth and tenth centuries. Knut’s father and grandfather were both baptised. So it is not unusual for Knut to be Christian. He arranged for English clergymen (monks, bishops, etc.) to go to Denmark and establish new churches and further spread the Christian religion. In so doing, he embraced the religious patronage of Anglo-Saxon kings.

Knut's empire: ‘King of all England, and of Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden’

Knut based himself in England and went to Scandinavia only four times during his long reign:

-    1019: To Denmark; following the death of his brother Harald II, to claim the throne of Denmark and establish his Anglo-Danish empire

-    1022–1023: To ‘Wiht’; either the Isle of Wight or Witland, in the Baltic, to deal with a threat to his kingdom

-    1025–1027: To Helgeå in Sweden; to face the allied forces of Óláfr Haraldsson and King Önundr of Sweden, followed by a pilgrimage to Rome and the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II

-    1028–1029: To Norway; to end the confrontation with Óláfr and establish Earl Hákon on the throne of Norway

Two letters, sent by Knut while away from England, survive and show him acting in the interests of his English subjects. The first letter, dated to 1019/20, was probably sent from Denmark and intended for circulation in the shire courts. This letter mentions an unnamed ‘greater danger’ to England, which Knut tackled with his own money. He promised to continue to act as an English King, ruling by English laws and protecting his people.

In the second letter, dated to 1027, Knut is called ‘King of all England, and of Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden’. The letter gives prime importance to his English kingdom over the other parts of his empire. It describes steps that Knut has taken for the betterment of his subjects: greater security in journeys to Rome, the removal of burdensome tolls abroad (like a medieval Schengen agreement), and the reduction of fees for English archbishops being ordained in Rome.

Knut's ties with Denmark and Scandinavia

Knut’s identity was split between the land of his birth and his adopted home. Although he integrated into English society in many ways, Knut also remained tied to Denmark and Scandinavia. 

At the same time as the image of his gift to the church was being created, Knut was being celebrated by his skalds (poets) as a Scandinavian conqueror. Óttarr svarti refers to Knut as ‘konung Dana, Íra ok Engla ok Eybúa’ [King of the Danes, the Irish, the English and the Island-dwellers], giving primacy to his Scandinavian homeland among all his dominions. In the verses in this manuscript, Sigvatr Þórðarson and Óttarr svarti celebrate him as a defender of Denmark and a fierce warrior.

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Knútsdrápa 9 by Sigvatr Þórðarson. Image courtesy of the Arnamagnæan Institute
In Knútsdrápa 9, court poet Sigvatr Þórðarson describes Knut as follows: 

'Létat af jǫfurr / (ætt manna fannsk) / Jótlands etask / ílendr (at því).

Vildi foldar / fæst rôn Dana / hlífskjǫldr hafa. / Hǫfuðfremstr jǫfurr.'

(English translation: 'Arrived in his land, { the lord of Jutland } [DANISH KING = Knútr] did not let himself be deprived; the race of men were pleased at that. { The protecting shield of the Danes } [DANISH KING = Knútr] would allow minimal plundering of the land. … The most eminent prince.' Translation from Diana Whaley (2012), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1, p. 660)

In Knútsdrápa 11, court poet Óttarr svarti wrote the following about Knut

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Knútsdrápa 11 by Óttarr svarti. Image courtesy of the Arnamagnæan Institute

'Svíum hnekkðir þú, søkkva / siklingr ǫrr, en mikla / ylgr, þars Ô in helga, / ulfs beitu fekk, heitir.

Helt, þars hrafn né svalta, / (hvatráðr est þú) láði, / ógnar stafr, fyr jǫfrum, / ýgr, tveimr (við kyn beima).'

(English translation: 'Sovereign generous with treasures, you checked the Swedes, and the she-wolf received { much wolf’s food } [CORPSES], at the place which is called Helgeå. { Fierce staff of battle } [WARRIOR], you held the territory against two princes, where the raven did not at all go hungry; you are bold-minded against the race of men'. Translation from Diana Whaley (2012), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1, p. 767)

Knut ruled in Denmark and Scandinavia through regents but made great efforts to establish and keep his power there. He established his brother-in-law Ulf in charge in Denmark and his sister Estrid was patron of the Danish Church. Under her, the first stone cathedral was built at Roskilde. In Norway, his first regent was Håkon Eiriksson. After Håkon’s death, Knut sent his first wife, Ælfgifu and their son, Svein to maintain his hold over Norway.

Through Knut, connections between England and Scandinavia (Denmark in particular) were strengthened. English clergymen were sent over to Denmark to grow the fledgling Danish Church. English systems of coinage influenced those in Denmark. The impact of Knut’s migration to England was felt in the country of his birth.

Viking settlement

During the raids of 1003–1005, Vikings came to England from all sections of Scandinavian society, largely because of the way in which Scandinavian society was organised at the time. Chieftains were responsible for the households under them and all the men under the chieftain served on ships which went on ‘viking’ expeditions.  It was previously believed that only men came on these expeditions, but there is clear textual, archaeological and genetic evidence that women also travelled and migrated. But we have no indication of the number of Viking settlers, as there are no records of how many came.

Despite this, we know that Viking domestic settlement left a mark on England's cultural landscape. The existence of placenames with Scandinavian influences shows how widespread Scandinavian settlement was, and where it was concentrated (see also: Making peace: Scandinavian migrants and King Alfred's 'fyrd').  The incorporation of Old Norse words and phrases into the English language is another indicator of the impact of Viking domestic settlement. Everyday words like ‘die’, ‘egg’, ‘knife’, etc., have Scandinavian origins. In regions like North Yorkshire where there was a high level of Scandinavian presence, colloquialisms like ‘snicket’ survive to this day. For more information about the Scandinavian influence on English vocabulary, see the Gersum Project.

Scandinavians continued to be traders and middlemen in English trade for a long time after the end of the Viking age, providing access to luxury goods from the North like furs and walrus ivory. Church connections forged in this period persisted into later periods, although the direction of religious influence was mostly from England to Scandinavia.

Knut's legacy and England's migrant monarchs

King Knut died at Shaftesbury on 12 November 1035. He was buried in the Old Minster in Winchester. His bones are currently in a mortuary chest in Winchester Cathedral (the building which replaced the Old Minster).

Knut’s line died out in both England and Denmark within a decade of his death. But the legacy of the king who briefly united England and Scandinavia remains in the documents, chronicles, coins, poems and stories about him. These sources reveal the story of a migrant who became king of his adopted land, whilst remaining connected to his homeland. Like many migrants through the ages, Knut belonged to two places at once.

After Knut, the most well-known foreign ruler in English history is William the Conqueror. He too was descended from the Vikings who ruled Normandy. The royal line after William therefore continued to be Scandinavian in lineage, even if not in culture. A little later, the daughter of Henry I, Empress Maud, gave birth to Henry II, who was partly of French descent – Henry I's father was Geoffrey of Anjou. Much later in history, Queen Victoria was grandmother to the royals of eight different European kingdoms.

This sort of movement and marriage of royals and aristocrats across Europe was commonplace, sometimes with the purpose of marrying someone of equal social standing, but largely as a means for different kingdoms to forge political alliances. 

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Questions and Student Activities

What were the political, legal and cultural impacts of Knut's reign on England?

What was the influence of of Knut's reign in England on the other kingdoms of his empire - Denmark and Scandinavia?