Vikings are an important part of both Danish and world history with their many raids, settlements and trade. The first attacks on England and the official start of the Viking age was in 793, and the Viking era lasted until the mid-1000. In this period lots of changes happened in Denmark - from being a country where men gladly killed each other if someone was in the way, to becoming more aware of Christianity and the beginning of being a Christian country. During this time, many Nordic kings made their marks on history, but one certainly stands out from the crowd.
Detail from the triptych in St. Canute's Cathedral
Close to the end of the Viking age, in the year 1042, a small boy was born. This boy was the son of the then King Sweyn II Estridsson and an unknown mistress. Sweyn II fathered around 20 children with several wives and mistresses, Canute being the second oldest and one of five children who ended up on the throne. During Canute’s youth, he went on several raids, both with his father and one which he led. These raids targeted England, which at the time was ruled by William the Conqueror. Despite several attempts, the Danish fleet couldn’t expel William and failed to reunite Denmark and England.
As time went by, King Sweyn II died in 1076, and the nobles had to choose a new king. Canute was loved by his father and the one he wanted to see ascend to the throne. However, the nobles chose Canute’s brother Harald III Hen over Canute, who went in exile in Sweden and possibly participated in an opposition towards Harald. Four years later Harald died, and Canute was then elected king of Denmark in 1080.
As king, Canute proved to be highly ambitious, with considerable military experience, confident and intelligent as well as highly religious. Whether Canute was a violent king who tormented his people, or a strict, but fair king who fought for the church, its ideals and equal rights for all despite status, can be argued. However, Canute’s main focus as King of Denmark was to strengthen the Danish monarchy, and he did what he could to do so. Driven by religion, he was generous towards the poor and protected the weak, but if people were unfaithful they were punished severely.
The present day St. Canute's Cathedral which replaced the wooden church in which King Canute was murdered in 1086
During Canute’s reign he worked on improving the legislation, heavily inspired by the Church, and he created several taxes and fines, which met with resistance. The biggest resistance started due to Canute’s wish to conquer England. The ambitious king believed that the English crown belonged to him, being the grandnephew of Canute the Great, who ruled England until 1035. Therefore, Canute decided to call the fleet to assemble at Limfjorden in Northern Jutland to prepare for a grand raid to England.
The plan was simple; to meet with the fleet, sail to England and invade the country, however nothing went according to plan. Canute was held up in Schleswig due to a threat from the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who could potentially invade Denmark. Consequently, when Canute didn’t meet up with the fleet, the many warriors got tired of waiting and elected Canute’s brother Olaf to speak on their behalf. They wanted to go home for the harvest season, being that most were farmers not warriors, but if they left, they would be faced with a fine. Olaf travelled down to Canute and was arrested for treason.
Despite the failed attempt from Olaf and the threat of fines, the fleet was dispersed and the farmers went home for the harvest. The ambitious Canute was disappointed and angry, and became even more strict in his way of conduct. After a years’ time, his patience was gone, and he travelled to Vendsyssel to assemble the fleet once again. With the call for reassembly, the peasant revolt broke out and Canute fled to Schleswig and then to Odense.
On 10th July 1086 Canute took refuge inside the wooden Saint Albany Church with his brother Benedict and seventeen followers. Canute, being the religious man he was, fell to his knees, begged God for his life and hoped nobody would harm him in God’s house. Unfortunately, the wooden doors could not keep the mob out, and all seventeen followers were killed. Canute then accepted his fate and knelt before the alter, ready to take every single hit, and was ultimately killed by a spear.
C.A. Benzons painting depicting the murder of St. Canute. Painted in 1843.
Denmark became more and more religious as time went by, and in the years after the murder of Canute, the country was plagued by crop failures, and many considered it to be God’s punishment for the assassination. Combined with the many miracles reported as taking place at Canute’s grave, the project of making Canute a saint started. As part of the project, Canute’s bones were dug up in 1095 and put under several tests, to answer the question if he was a saint. These tests came out positive, and in 1100 was Canute recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church and was moved to the new Cathedral in Odense.
Perhaps not that surprising, Canute the Holy never really became a popular saint among Danes. However, he was of great importance for the royal family, who suddenly could be linked to God through the royal saint. Canute’s status as saint was also used as an argument for continuing the same path as Canute did through his reign.
The remains of Canute and his brother Benedict can still be seen in the Cathedral in Odense, Saint Canute Church, and close by, a statue of the Saint can be found on the spot where he was killed.
Article by Sofie Schäfler