The Viking Conquest of England in 1016 saw two great warriors, the Danish prince Cnut and his equally ruthless English opponent King Edmund Ironside fight an epic campaign. Cnut would end up ruling the majority of England. Cnut was far removed from the archetypal pagan Viking being an avid protector of the Christian Church and a man who would also become Emperor of the North as king of Denmark and Norway. His wife, Emma of Normandy, was a remarkable woman who would outlive the two kings of England that she married. His son Harthacnut would be the second and last Danish king of England.
5. Cnut’s first invasion of England was a disaster
In 1013, Cnut was at his father’s side (Sweyn Forkbeard) during an invasion of England. According to written history, this was the first time he had been to the country. Sweyn was focused on conquering England. It looked like Sweyn’s conquest of England was going to be successful, but he suddenly died.
Cnut, probably in his teens, was unprepared to deal with the sudden loss of his father. He was under the impression that he would assume the role vacated by his father. Unfortunately for Cnut, he faced immediate English backlash. A surprise attack was launched at him and he was unable to mount a successful defense. As a result, he was forced to flee for his life.
Cnut’s escape did not go without repercussions. Cnut wanted to make a bold statement. He left several hostages behind without their ears and noses. This act served as a warning to those who would oppose him in the future.
4. Cnut inherited Denmark from his father
The laws of Viking succession were flexible while Cnut was on the throne. When an exceptional leader such as Sweyn Forkbeard died, it was normal for his patrimony to be divided between his sons. This practice helped prevent heated disputes between angry younger sons although disagreements did take place.
Harold took control over Denmark when Sweyn Forkbeard died in England with Cnut by his side. Cnut did not have many options. He had to fight for the country he was in, or he would have been left with nothing. Cnut became the king of Denmark when Harold died without an obvious heir and managed to rule Denmark without strong opposition.
Cnut did not fare well in Norway. Norway was conquered by Sweyn Forkbeard at the end of the 11th century, but it was never fully assimilated in his territories. He lost full control after a big uprising. Cnut was able to secure a clear victory over King Olaf II of Norway at the battle of Stiklestad, but his reign over Norway did not last long. His representatives were forced out of the country and Cnut was not successful in adding Norway to his illustrious kingdom.
3. Cnut was a devoted supporter of the church
History recognizes Cnut as a true Viking. He used shrewd Viking tactics during his battles, and launched fierce raids on enemy territory with long ships. He also showed favor to skalds (Scandinavian bards, or minstrels) who told ancient Viking tales and sagas.
Cnut made great strides as a devoted patron of the church. This was intriguing when you look at the fact that Vikings were well-known for raiding monasteries and other religious establishments. Vikings had a reputation for being very aggressive and violent.
The view of Cnut revealed that things were changing for the Viking world. After gaining a foothold in much of Europe during previous centuries, Christianity was new to Vikings. Cnut’s family, especially his grandfather Harold Bluetooth, had been popular patrons of the church. During his reign in England, Cnut managed to take this policy to a higher level. He gave many gifts to the church, and strengthened the religion in Denmark.
Cnut traveled to Rome to attend the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II in 1027. He met Pope John XIX while he was there. At this time, his recognition of the church reached its height. The world had changed when a proud Viking ruler could meet the head of the church, and be treated like an equal of other powerful European leaders.
2. Cnut’s wife, Emma, married two different kings of England
Emma’s first husband was the hapless Ethelred “The Unready”. The royal couple managed to have several children, one of whom would later rise to become King Edward the Confessor. When Ethelred passed away in 1016, Emma departed for Normandy.
Emma returned to England as Cnut’s wife in 1017. Emma’s courage and loyalty opened the door for her to become Cnut’s lieutenant. This made their marriage a great political success. Emma had the uncanny ability to survive in harsh political circles. Cnut and Emma had several children together. One of their children, Harthacnut, would later become the king of England and Denmark for a short period of time.
It is imperative to point out that marital alliances at that time could be very complicated. Cnut had a partner (Elfgifu of Northampton) when he married Emma. It is not clear if he was married to Elfgifu. At that time, it was normal for kings and noblemen to have a concubine instead of an official wife. It appears that Elfgifu falls into that category.
Elgifu and Cnut did manage to have several children. One of them, Harold “Harefoot”, became the king of England for a short period of time. Elfgifu and Emma were fierce adversaries for many years. Their love for the same man forced them to have a bitter rivalry and as fate would have it, they both outlived Cnut.
1. England had two kings at the same time in 1016
A golden opportunity presented itself to Cnut in 1016. Cnut’s son (Edmund Ironside) took the throne of England after Ethelred “The Unready” passed away. However, Ironside was unable to get unanimous support from his people. Some felt that Cnut, who returned to the country with a strong army, was more suited for the royal crown. Cnut and Edmund fought a long war. After several big clashes, their feud ended at Ashingdon (Assandun) in Esses.
Triumphant in victory, Cnut forced Ironside to flee for his life. Cnut was able to catch up with Ironside in Gloucestershire in October 1016. Instead of starting another bloody war, both men decided to divide England between them. Edmund ruled the kingdom of Wessex, and Cnut ruled over the rest of England. It’s unclear if this unique power structure would have been successful in the long-run. Cnut became the undisputed king of England when Ironside died a few weeks after their truce. Cnut was then the sole ruler of England.