Monday, June 6, 2016

Canute - and that Tale of the Tide

By Helen Hollick

1016 is the 1000th anniversary of Cnut becoming King of England...

How many of us remember hearing that famous tale of a king who was so arrogant he thought himself better than God? To prove it he would command the tide to obey him. He sat there, by the shore, on his purple-cushioned throne resplendent in all his kingly robes and waited for the tide to come in. And come in it did.
“Halt!” he commanded. “Go back!” he ordered. Nothing happened; it came in, and in, and in. Failing to make his point, the king abandoned the experiment and went away humiliated and somewhat soggy.

1911 Illustration by William Balfour Ker
'King Canute forbids the tide to rise'.
I certainly remember the story as a child, because it struck me that this king must have been a very silly man, and not deserving of a throne – be it a dry or a wet one. What I did not know, until many years later while researching for my novel about Anglo Saxon Queen Emma (A Hollow Crown – UK title / The Forever Queen –  US title) was that this king was her husband, Cnut (or Knut, or Canute; spellings vary.) Her second husband actually.

Emma was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy. She was betrothed to Æthelred II (known  as ‘The Unready’) in 1002, probably in her early teens between the age of thirteen to fifteen. In my novel I have written that she detested her husband at first sight. I am probably right, although there is no substantial proof, except…

from the Encomium Emmae Reginae
When Emma later released her biography there was no mention of Æthelred, although her two sons by him were featured their father was conveniently airbrushed out of the picture. She also, apparently, had no qualms about abandoning these two boys into exile in Normandy, for what turned out to be many years, so that she could marry Cnut and retain her crown and title. It is also intriguing that Emma and the eldest of these two sons, Edward, disliked each other. One reason could have been because Emma’s firstborn was so alike the husband she despised for his blunders and weakness as a king. All of which is conjecture, but that is one of the exciting things about being an author of historical fiction – the very few known facts can be liberally explored and interpreted accordingly.

Edward, of course, went on to become King of England from 1042-1066 and was later dubbed Edward the Confessor. He was not a weak king like his father, but because of his exiled years his life would have been suited more as a monk of abbot than that of royal duties. He was not adept at decision making or leading an army. He was easily influenced and manipulated – first by his Norman friends and then by various members of the Godwin family (though I hate to admit this as I am a confirmed Godwinite) from Earl Godwin of Wessex himself, to Harold Godwinson, Tostig Godwinson and Edith Godwinsdaughter – who became his wife. He did, however, stand up for himself against his mother in her later years. Although he only won a skirmish, not the battle. Tired of her interfering in his life and the politics of the time, he had her wealth, which included not only her own lands, but the entire king’s treasury (always held by the queen at this stage of history) confiscated and ordered her into exile. She did not comply, but stayed in her Winchester ‘palace’ and retained her lands. However, very soon after the unpleasant altercation she passed away at an elderly age, so it was somewhat of a shallow victory for Edward.
But what of Cnut?

In all probability the Tide Tale is based on an actual event – but it has been distorted. He was not trying to show that he was greater than God, in fact he was attempting to show that he was not God, that he could not command the sea.

He had invaded England with his father, Swein Forkbeard in 1013, resulting in Æthelred, Emma and their children fleeing into exile. Fortunate for them, though, Swein died and that was the end of that little incursion by the Danes – until Cnut reorganised himself and tried again. He won a victory over the English, led by Edmund Ironside (a son of Æthelred by a previous marriage) at Ashingdon (actual site unidentified), where Edmund was wounded. The two agreed to divide the kingdom, but Edmund died and Cnut became King, consolidating his achievement by taking Emma as wife. It appears to have been a good, successful marriage (although not from the point of view of her children by Æthelred.) Cnut was everything Æthelred had not been, and it is said that after his conversion to Christianity (on or around the time of his coronation) Cnut ‘became more English than the English’.

His ‘right-hand-man’ was Earl Godwin of Wessex, who was also married to a Danish lady of noble birth, with her brother being married to Cnut’s sister. Cnut had an estate on the south coast of England in West Sussex opposite the small trade harbour of Bosham (pronounce it Bozzum). He gave substantial land here to Godwin, who rebuilt the church tower, which doubled as a watch tower for se-raiders. (Today, Bosham’s creeks and channels have silted up, but in the eleventh century the estuary was deeper.) Bosham is depicted twice on the Bayeux Tapestry, once where Harold and his brother are entering Holy Trinity Church, and again as they are setting sail for Normandy.

Harold and his brother enter Bosham church
Bosham historian, John Pollock, now sadly deceased, managed to prove that the present church and tower retains much of the 1066-era: the axis of the nave is clearly Saxon, as are the round windows, and the tower is now half its original width. John has shown that half of the outline of the double doors, depicted in the Tapestry, can still be seen in the existing masonry. Cnut’s daughter is believed to have been buried beneath the chancel arch – she drowned in Bosham’s millrace. (And there is a second, unexplained burial also beneath the Chancel arch – a headless torso with one leg missing. Cnut and Godwin were buried in Winchester, so this can only, logically, be the grave of Harold Godwinson himself – but more of that in another article.)

Bosham church
It has long been believed that Cnut might have made his dramatic gesture at Bosham. It was an estate he was fond of, he was often in residence when in England and the tide comes in fast and deep, as anyone who has parked their car on the causeway and not taken account of the incoming tide will know. The houses bordering the causeway and shoreline have high walls and steep steps – steps which were also there in the eleventh century, as shown on the Tapestry.

Harold descends the steps at Bosham
(Bayeux Tapestry)
A friend (James Hanna) sitting on some Bosham steps
John was a treasured friend of mine, and he enthused about my novels. I received a phone call from him one day soon after A Hollow Crown was published; he was full of excitement. “Where did you find the research for the Cnut and the tide scene?” he asked. “It’s marvellous!” he added. “Just what we need to show that legend is fact!” 

I didn’t like to tell him the full truth, that I made the whole scene up.

He was so enthusiastic, however, that he was determined to prove that Cnut could indeed have made his gesture and an accompanying speech at Bosham.

To be viable, a sturdy chair needed to be set at the foot of the steps, and someone needed to sit there as the tide was came in. John, as I understand it, did just that. It would also be necessary for bystanders and onlookers to witness the event, hear what the King announced and remain dryshod. The only practical place for a gathered crowd was on the nearby bridge across the millrace.

So there was John, in his chair, the tide lapping at his wellington boots. Meanwhile his wife stood on the bridge, and John read aloud the speech I had written for Cnut in my novel.

John telephoned me again. “She could hear every word!” he exclaimed, “every word, quite clearly! I am sure we’ve proven Bosham was the place!”

Well, maybe not proven, but a good possibility!


A Hollow Crown (UK title)
The Forever Queen (US title)
Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Pendragon's Banner Trilogy, and the 1066 era, she became a USA Today bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK). She wrote the novel because, back in 2001, few people outside of academia had heard of Emma, and because she wanted to explore why this relationship between mother and son had turned so sour. The sequel is Harold the King (UK title) / I am the Chosen King (US title) the story of events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, from the English point of view.
She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based adventures with a touch of fantasy.

As a supporter of Indie Authors she is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and inaugurated the HNS Indie Award.

Twitter: @HelenHollick

Author page on an Amazon near you :

Cnut M.K.Lawson Longman
The Reign of Cnut ed Alexander R. Rumble  Leicester U.P.
Queen Emma and the Vikings  Harriet O'Brien Bloomsbury
Queen Emma and Queen Edith Pauline Stafford Blackwell
Encomium Emmae Reginae ed Alistair Campbell Camden
Æthelred the Unready Ann Williams Hambledon
Æthelred King of the English Ryan Lavelle Tempus


  1. Very interesting post, Helen. I've always had a soft spot for Cnut.

  2. Funny isn't it - most of us are against that chap from Normandy (a foreigner) conquering England and becoming King - yet Cnut (a foreigner) we admire! I guess its because Bill changed everything to Norman ways, while Cnut changed his ways to English, becoming 'more English than the English'. Pity Bill didn't take a leaf out of the Dane's book!

  3. A very interesting post Helen. Having had to quickly recover my car from the incoming tide at Bosham, I agree that this could be the place. I think that Southampton has claimed the honour, naming a road to the sea, "Canute Road", but the shore there is far too muddy.

    1. yes, floating cars....:-) Southampton doesn't really have a leg to stand on (on a throne to sit upon!) as there isn't really as much to connect Cnut with the original harbour, unlike Bosham where he has very strong ties.

  4. Bosham is one of my favorite places! I remember the church well; it was certainly described as Saxon when I visited. Bosham figures prominently in one of my novels too -- but in a different age as one of the favorite watering holes of the RAF pilots from nearby Tangmere during the Battle of Britain. ("Where Eagles Never Flew")

  5. Being close to Southampton and Portsmouth, that part of the south coast got quite a battering during the war.

  6. When I heard the story of King Cnut and the waves, I got the impression he was trying to prove he was *not* mightier than God -- regardless of what his courtiers might think. Does that explanation (pardon the expression) hold water?

    1. As you'll see from my article, your thoughts most certainly DO hold water Drew! :-)


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