So it's not really a secret that I am a massive fan of King Cnut, the most successful of Viking kings and the subject of some of the best stories in Anglo-Saxon history. Whether he is chasing after peasants, composing songs about the beauty of monastic chant, or chopping off a traitor's head with a snappy pun, he gets all the best lines, all the grandest gestures. Today, 12 November, was the date of his death in 1035, and I had to post something to mark it. So, this is the most famous story about him - at least, the only one to have entered popular discourse, if usually in a way which misses the entire point!
Here it is as told by the twelfth-century chronicler Henry of Huntingdon. When he reached the point in his chronicle when he had to note Cnut's death, Henry wrote:
A few words must be devoted to the power of this king. Before him there had never been in England a king of such great authority. He was lord of all Denmark, of all England, of all Norway, and also of Scotland. In addition to the many wars in which he was most particularly illustrious, he performed three fine and magnificent deeds.
The first is that he gave his daughter in marriage to the Roman emperor, with indescribable riches.
The second, that on his journey to Rome, he had the evil taxes that were levied on the road that goes through France, called tolls or passage tax, reduced by half at his own expense.
The third, that when he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, ‘You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.’ But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, ‘Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws’. Thereafter King Cnut never wore the golden crown on his neck, but placed it on the image of the crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. By whose mercy may the soul of King Cnut enjoy rest.
Quotation from Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.367-9.