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