A short tale of great­ness

en­joys a slim but sk­il­ful bi­og­ra­phy of King Cnut, an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated An­glo-Saxon ruler

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Dr Eleanor Parker is lec­turer in me­dieval English lit­er­a­ture at Brasenose Col­lege, Ox­ford, and au­thor of Dragon Lords: The His­tory and Le­gends of Vik­ing Eng­land (2018)

Cnut: The North Sea King by Ryan Lavelle Allen Lane, 128 pages, £12.99

Cnut is one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ures in me­dieval his­tory: a Vik­ing in­vader who be­came a suc­cess­ful king of An­glo-Saxon Eng­land, he was ruler of an em­pire that reached across the North Sea. Yet, as Ryan Lavelle com­ments in his en­gag­ing short ac­count of Cnut’s life, this mighty king “has been rel­e­gated to a bit-part in the pop­u­lar per­cep­tion of me­dieval his­tory”. Per­haps in­evitably, the book be­gins with the fa­mous story of Cnut com­mand­ing the tide to obey him – but as Lavelle goes on to show, there is much more to Cnut than colour­ful leg­end.

Cnut was the son of the Dan­ish king Svein Fork­beard, who briefly seized the throne of Eng­land in 1014 af­ter a long and vi­o­lent cam­paign of in­va­sion. Cnut in­her­ited his fa­ther’s wars along with his king­dom, and re­gained Eng­land for him­self in 1016. He ruled for nearly 20 years, un­til his death in 1035, ex­pand­ing his con­trol to some ex­tent over other re­gions of Bri­tain, as well as Den­mark, Nor­way and parts of Swe­den. Lavelle deftly places Cnut in this wider con­text, show­ing how the king as­pired to be a player on a Euro­pean stage and con­sorted with popes and em­per­ors as no Vik­ing monarch (and few English ones) had done be­fore him.

This con­cise bi­og­ra­phy is a new ad­di­tion to the Pen­guin Mon­archs se­ries, a range of at­trac­tively de­signed and pocket- sized books of­fer­ing brief sketches of the lives of 45 rulers of Eng­land (or Bri­tain, in the later pe­riod). De­spite the pub­lisher’s claim to cover “ev­ery ruler from Æthel­stan to El­iz­a­beth II”, Cnut is in fact one of only four pre-Con­quest mon­archs to make the cut so far. This se­lec­tive ap­proach to An­glo-Saxon his­tory seems par­tic­u­larly hard on King Edgar, whose im­pe­rial as­pi­ra­tions and dis­play of Chris­tian king­ship made him, as Lavelle demon­strates, an in­flu­en­tial model for Cnut. It also makes the bi­og­ra­pher’s task more dif­fi­cult: this book has to not only cover the reign of Cnut but also to lo­cate it be­tween those of Svein Fork­beard, Ed­mund Iron­side and Cnut’s two short-lived sons, Harthac­nut and Harold Hare­foot.

It’s not an easy thing to do in just over 100 pages, espe­cially since the sources for Cnut’s life are com­plex, frag­men­tary, and of­ten writ­ten long af­ter the king’s own time. Lavelle nav­i­gates these choppy wa­ters with con­fi­dence and skill, and through­out the book he is care­ful to in­di­cate where the truth is in doubt or where ev­i­dence is sim­ply ab­sent. As he ob­serves, “we lack the full story at cru­cial mo­ments of Cnut’s life”, and a cer­tain amount of spec­u­la­tion is un­avoid­able. The size of the book does not leave much space for scene-set­ting, and the reader un­fa­mil­iar with the pe­riod may find the nar­ra­tive dif­fi­cult to fol­low in places; un­cer­tainty about dates and the ev­i­dence of con­tested sources ne­ces­si­tate a fair de­gree of chrono­log­i­cal jumping around. None­the­less, this is a valu­able ad­di­tion to a fine se­ries, and a use­ful in­tro­duc­tion to a king who

de­serves to be bet­ter known.

A 14th-cen­tury im­age of An­glo-Saxon king Cnut

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