THIRD MILLENNIUM LIBRARY
CANUTE THE GREAT
THE BEGINNINGS OF EMPIRE
THE first three or four years of Canute's government in England can have given but little promise of the beneficent rule that was to follow. To the conquered Saxon they must have been a season of great sorrow. On the throne of Alfred sat an alien king who had done nothing as yet to merit the affectionate regard of his subjects. In the shire courts ruled the chiefs of the dreaded Danish host, chiefs who had probably harried those same shires at an earlier date. A heavy tax had been collected to pay the forces of the enemy, but a large part of those forces still remained. The land was at peace; but the calm was the calm of exhaustion. The young King had shown vigour and decision; thus far, however, his efforts had been directed toward dynastic security rather than the welfare of his English subjects.
But with Canute's return from Denmark in 1020 begins the second period in the history of the reign. After that date, it seems that more intelligent efforts were made to reconcile the Saxons to foreign rule. For one thing, Canute must have come to appreciate the wonderful power of the Church; for an attempt was made to enlist its forces on the side of the new monarchy. Perhaps he had also come to understand that repression could not continue indefinitely.
This change in policy seems to be the outgrowth principally of the new situation created by Canute's accession to the Danish throne. Harold, his older brother, king of Denmark, appears to have died in 1018. Little is known of Harold; he died young and evidently left no heirs. For a year there seems to have been no recognised king in Denmark, as Canute did not leave England before 1019. In that year he sailed to the Baltic to claim the throne in person, taking with him nine ships, fewer than one thousand men; the rest of the new force of housecarles was doubtless left in Britain as a matter of security. Thurkil, Earl of East Anglia, seems to have been left behind as English viceroy.
Various reasons may be assigned for this delay in securing the ancestral crown. Harold died in the year when Canute was reorganizing the military forces of the realm; before his great corps of housecarles was complete, it would not have been safe to leave the country. Perhaps the King also felt that he must take some steps to reconcile the two racial elements of his kingdom. He may have concluded that with two kingdoms to govern it would be impossible to give undivided attention to English affairs and movements. To prevent rebellion in his absence, it might be well to remove, so far as possible, all forms of hostility; we read, therefore, of a great meeting of the magnates, both Danes and Angles, at Oxford in 1018, where the matter of legislation was evidently the principal subject. At this assembly, it was agreed to accept Edgar's laws as the laws for the whole land. It is significant that the comparatively large body of law that was enacted in Ethelred's day was ignored or rejected. The chief reason for this may have been that Canute was not yet willing to enforce the rigid enactments against heathen practices that were such a distinctive feature of Ethelred's legislation. There can be small doubt that in the Scandinavian settlements and particularly in the alien host heathendom still lingered to some extent.
The delay was also due, perhaps, in large part to a serious trouble with Scotland. The term Northumbria is variously used; but in its widest application it embraced territories extending from the Humber to the Forth. The northern part of this kingdom, the section between the Tweed and the Forth, was known as Lothian; on this region the kings of Scotland had long cast covetous eyes. In 1006, while the vikings were distressing England, King Malcolm invaded Lothian, crossed the Tweed, and laid siege to Durham. The aged Earl Waltheof made practically no attempt at resistance; but his young son Uhtred placed himself at the head of the Northumbrian levies and drove the invader back into Scotland. Uhtred succeeded to his father's earldom and was apparently recognised as lord throughout the entire ancient realm. While Uhtred lived and ruled, the neighbours to the north seem to have kept the peace; but in 1016, as we have seen, the great warrior was slain, probably at Canute's instigation and his earldom was assigned to Eric. Whatever Canute's intentions may have been, it seems likely that the new Earl did not come into immediate and undisputed control of the entire earldom; for we find that in the regions north of Yorkshire, the old kingdom of Bernicia, Uhtred's brother, Eadulf Cudel, "a very sluggish and timid man", sought to maintain the hereditary rights of the family.
Two years after Uhtred's death, Malcolm the son of Kenneth reappeared in Lothian at the head of a large force gathered from the western kingdom of Strathclyde as well as from his own Scotia. The Northumbrians had had ample warning of troubles to come: for thirty nights a comet had blazed in the sky; and after the passage of another period of thirty days, the enemy appeared. An army gathered mainly from the Durham country met the Scotch forces at Carham on the Tweed, near Coldstream, but was almost completely destroyed. There is no record of any further resistance; and when Malcolm returned to the Highlands he was lord of Lothian, Eadulf having surrendered his rights to all of Northumbria beyond the Tweed.
Canute apparently acquiesced in this settlement. So far as we know, he made no effort to assist his subjects in the North, or to redeem the lost territory. We cannot be sure of the reason for this inactivity; but the general situation on the island appears to offer a satisfactory explanation. It will be remembered that 1018 was the year when Canute disbanded his Scandinavian army. As we are told that the bishop of Durham, who died in 1019, took leave of earth a few days after he had heard the news of the great defeat, it seems likely that the battle of Carham was fought late in the year 1018, and after the host had departed for Denmark. Canute, therefore, probably had no available army that he could trust; to call out his new subjects would have been a hazardous experiment. There is also the additional fact that the sluggish Eadulf was in all probability regarded as a rebel, whom Canute was not anxious to assist.
As to the terms of the surrender of Lothian, nothing definite is known. Our only authority in the matter puts the entire blame on Eadulf, and apparently would have us believe that Malcolm merely stepped into the earl's position as vassal of Eric or Canute. If such were the case, Canute could hardly have been left in ignorance about the cession, and he may have cherished certain pretensions to overlordship, which Macolm evidently did not regard very seriously. In one way the cession of Lothian was a great loss to England; on the other hand, it added an Anglian element to the Caledonian kingdom, which in time became the controlling factor, and prepared the northern state for the union of the kingdoms that came centuries afterwards.
The following year, Canute was finally in position to make the deferred journey to Denmark. The Danish situation must have had its difficulties. In a proclamation issued on his return, the King alludes to these, though in somewhat ambiguous terms:
Then I was informed that there threatened us a danger that was greater than was well pleasing to us; and then I myself with the men who went with me departed for Denmark, whence came to you the greatest danger; and that I have with God's help forestalled, so that henceforth no unpeace shall come to you from that country, so long as you stand by me as the law commands, and my life lasts.'
Most probably, the difficulty alluded to was some trouble about the succession. There may have been a party in Denmark to whom the thought of calling a king from England was not pleasant; or it may be that a conservative faction was hoping for a ruler of the old faith. Any form of invasion from Denmark at this time, when the nation was even kingless, is almost beyond the possible. But no doubt there had been a likelihood that Canute would have to call on his English subjects for military and financial support in the effort to secure his hereditary rights in the North.
Canute chose to spend the winter in Denmark, as during the winter season there was least likelihood of successful plots and uprisings. As early as possible in the spring of 1020, he returned to England. Evidently certain rebellious movements had made some headway during his absence, for Canute immediately summoned the lords to meet in formal assembly at the Easter festival. The plotting was apparently localized in the southwestern shires, as we infer from the fact that the gemot sat in an unusual place, Cirencester in the Severn country. Its chief act seems to have been the banishment of Ethelwerd, earl in the Devon country, and of a mysterious pretender whom the Chronicler calls Edwy, king of churls. It seems natural to associate the destinies of these two men and to conclude that some sort of conspiracy in the pretender's favour had been hatching, but we have no definite information.
It was probably at this gathering that Canute issued his proclamation to the English nation; at least there seems to be no doubt that it was given in 1020. It is a remarkable document, a message to a restless people, an apology for the absence in Denmark, and a promise of future good government. It hints darkly at what may have been the disturbances in the Southwest and the measures taken at Cirencester in the following terms:
Now I did not spare my treasures while unpeace was threatening to come upon you; with the help of God I have warded this off by the use of my treasures.'
In a measure the Proclamation of 1020 contains the announcement of a new governmental policy in England, one that recognizes the English subjects as citizens who may be trusted with some share in the administration of the realm, and not merely as conquered provincials whose rebellious instincts can be kept down by a continuous policy of coercion only. There was, it is true, little need of coercion after 1020; the natural leaders of the native population were gone. But the importance of the union with Denmark with respect to politics in England must not be overlooked: it removed what fear had remained as to the stability of Canute's conquered throne. At the first indication of an uprising, it would be possible to throw a Danish force on the British coast, which, combined with the King's loyal partisans in England, could probably stifle the rebellion in a brief campaign.
The purpose to make larger use of the native energies is indirectly shown in the command to the local functionaries that they heed and follow the advice of the bishops in the administration of justice:
And I make known to you that I will be a kind lord and loyal to the rights of the Church and to right secular law.
And also my ealdormen I command that they help the bishops to the rights of the Church and to the rights of my kingship and to the behoof of all the people.
And I also command my reeves, by my friendship and by all that they own, and by their own lives, that they everywhere govern my people justly and give right judgments by the witness of the shire bishop, and do such mercy therein as the shire bishop thinks right and the community can allow.
The significance of this appears when we remember that the local prelates were probably English to a man.
There is, however, no evidence for the belief so frequently expressed, that Canute by this time, or even earlier, had concluded to dispense with' his Scandinavian officials, and to rule England with the help of Englishmen only. In the Proclamation the King speaks of Danes and Angles, not of Angles and Danes. Among the thegns who witnessed his charters, Danes and Saxons continue to appear in but slightly changed ratio till the close of the reign. The alien guard was not dismissed. Local government continued in the hands of Norse and Danish earls. Time came when these disappeared from their respective earldoms, but for reasons that show no conscious purpose of removal because of nationality or race. As the field of his operations widened, as the vision of empire began to take on the forms of reality, Canute found it necessary to use his trusted chiefs in other places and in other capacities. Consequently the employment of native Englishmen in official positions became more common as the years passed.
The following year about Martinsmas (November 11, 1021), came the first real break in Canute's political system: Thurkil the Tall, who stood second to the King only in all England, was outlawed. Florence of Worcester adds that his wife was exiled with him. The reason for this act is not clear; but we may perhaps associate it with a lingering dislike for the old dynasty. If Edith was actually Ethelred's daughter, Thurkil's marriage may have been a source of irritation or even supposed danger to Canute and possibly also to the lady's stepmother, the callous Queen Emma.
It is also possible that the King in this case simply yielded to pressure from the native element, particularly from the Church. Thurkil's prominence in the kingdom can hardly have been a source of pleasure to the men who recalled the part that he had played in the kingdom at various times. In the Proclamation he is entrusted with the task of enforcing the laws against heathen and heretical practices. But to assign such a duty to the man who was in such a great measure responsible for the martyrdom of Saint Alphege must have seemed a travesty upon justice to the good churchmen of the time. The conjecture that the banishment of the Earl was not wholly the result of royal disfavour receives some support from the fact that, a few months later, Canute and Thurkil were reconciled, and the old Earl was given a position in Denmark analogous to the one that he had held in England. Canute still found him useful, but not in the western kingdom. At the same time, the shrewd King seems not to have felt absolutely sure of the Earl's loyalty, for we read that he brought Thurkil's son with him to England, evidently as a hostage.
In 1023 another great name disappears from the documents: Earl Eric is mentioned no more. Later stories that he, too, suffered exile are not to be believed. Eric seems to have died in possession of all his Northumbrian dignities and of the King's favour at a comparatively advanced age; for the warrior who showed such signal bravery at Hjörunga Bay nearly forty years before could not have been young. In all probability he had passed the sixtieth milestone of life, which was almost unusual among the viking chiefs of the period. We are told that in his last year he contemplated a visit to Rome which was probably never made. Most reliable is the story that he died from the effects of primitive surgery. Just as he was about to set out on the Roman journey, it was found necessary for him to have his uvula treated. The surgeon cut too deep and a hemorrhage resulted from which the Earl died.' That the story is old is clear, for some of the accounts have the additional information that the leech acted on the suggestion of one who can be none other than Canute. This part of the story is probably mythical.
The spirit of chivalry was not strong in the viking; but, so far as it existed, it found its best representative in Eric, the son of Hakon the Bad. He was great as a warrior, great as a leader in the onslaught. He possessed in full measure the courage that made the viking such a marvellous fighter; the joy of the conflict he seems to have shared with the rest. But when the fight was over and the foeman was vanquished, nobler qualities ruled the man; he could then be merciful and large of soul. As a statesman, on the other hand, he seems to have been less successful; in Norway he permitted the aristocracy to exercise local authority to a greater extent than the welfare of Norse society could allow. As to his rule in Northumbria we know nothing.
The next year we have the closing record of still another Scandinavian earl in England: Eglaf signs a grant for the last time in 1024. Doubtless some trouble had arisen between him and the King, for two years later he appears to be acting the part of a rebel. Still later, he is said to have joined the Varangian guard of Scandinavian warriors at Byzantium, where he closed his restless career in the service of the Greek Emperor.
There still remained Norse and Danish earls in England, such as Ranig and Hakon; but the men who were most intimately associated in the English mind with conquest and cruel subjection were apparently out of the land before the third decade of the century had finished half its course. It is probable that Hakon succeeded his father in the Northumbrian earldom, as Leofwine of Mercia seems to be in possession of Hakon's earldom in Worcestershire in 1023, the year when Hakon's father presumably died.
After the banishment of Thurkil, we should expect to find Eric, while he still lived, as the ranking earl in the kingdom and the chief adviser to the King. But Eric's earldom was in the extreme north; his subjects were largely Norwegian immigrants and their descendants, as yet, perhaps, but imperfectly Anglicized; he was himself an alien and his circle of ideas scarcely touched the field of Saxon politics. He could, therefore, be of small assistance in governing the kingdom as a whole. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether Canute really felt the need of a grand vizier at this time. An excellent assistant, hoever, he seems to have found in the Saxon Godwin. It has been thought that Godwin's exalted position of first subject in the realm belongs to a date as early as 1020. But this is mere conjecture. It is evident that his influence with Canute grew with the passage of time; still, it is likely that historians have projected his greatness too far back into his career.
A position analogous to that of the tall earl he could not have held before the closing years of the reign. If Canute left any one in charge of the kingdom during his absences after 1020, it could not have been Godwin. When the fleet sailed against the Slavs on the south Baltic shores in 1022, Godwin appears to have accompanied the host. Tradition tells us that he fought valiantly in the Swedish campaign of 1026. A Norse runic monument records his presence in some expedition to Norway, presumably that of 1028. Canute did not employ English forces to a large extent in any of his foreign wars, possibly because he was distrustful of them: only fifty English ships made part of that vast armada that overawed the Norwegians in 1028. Canute's probable reluctance about arming the Saxons after the battle of Carham and the consequent loss of Lothian has already been referred to. The presence of Godwin as a chief in Canute's host may, therefore, be taken as a mark of peculiar confidence on the King's part.
Godwin was never without his rival. In the Midlands Leofwine and after him his son Leofric were developing a power that was some day to prove a dangerous barrier to the ambitions of the southern Earl and his many sons. The family of Leofwine had certain advantages in the race for power that made for stability and assured possession of power once gained: it was older as a member of the aristocracy; it seems to have had AngloDanish connections, presumably Danish ancestry; it was apparently controlled by a spirit of prudence that urged the acceptance of de-facto rule. But in the matter of aggressive abilities and statesmanlike ideas the Mercians were far inferior to their Saxon rivals; the son and grandsons of Leofwine never attained the height of influence and power that was reached by Godwin and his son Harold.
While these changes were going on in England, an important advance had been made in the direction of empire. In his message from Rome to the English people (1027) Canute claims the kingship of England, Denmark, Norway, and parts of Sweden. The copies of the document that have come down to us are, however, not contemporary, and it is not likely that the sweeping claim of the salutation was found in the original. For at no time was Canute lord of any Swedish territory as the term was understood and the frontier drawn in the eleventh century. It has been pointed out that in this case we probably have a scribal error of Swedes for Slays. As King of Denmark, Canute inherited pretensions to considerable stretches of the south Baltic shore lands, and consequently could claim to rule a part of the Slavic lands. Early in his reign he made an expedition to these regions, of which we have faint echoes in both English and Scandinavian sources.
From the Elbe eastward along the Baltic shores, at least as far as the Vistula, where the Lithuanian settlements appear to have begun, Slavic tribes were evidently in full possession all through the viking age. There was, however, no consolidated Slavic power, no organized Slavic state. The dominions of Bohemia and Poland were developing but neither had full control of the coast lands, The non-Slavic peoples who were interested in this region were the Danes and the Germans. The eastward expansion of Germany across and beyond the Elbe had begun; but in Canute's day Teutonic control of Wendish territories was very slight.
We find the Danes in Wendland as early as the age of Charlemagne, when they were in possession of a strong and important city called Reric, the exact location of which is not known. The Danish interest appears to have been wholly a commercial one: horses, cattle, game, fish, mead, timber products, spices, and hemp are mentioned as important articles of the southern trade. There was also, we may infer, something of a market for Danish products. At all times, the intercourse seems to have been peaceful; Danes and Wends appear to have lived side by side on the best of terms. The Germans, on the other hand, were not regarded with much favour by their Slavic neighbours. The feeling of hostility and hatred that the Wend cherished was reciprocated on the German side ; the German mind scarcely thought of the Slav as within the pale of humanity.
The most famous of all Danish settlements in these regions was Jom, a stronghold near the mouth of the Oder, sometimes called Jumne, Jumneta, or Julin. In the eleventh century Jom was a great city as cities went in those days, though it was probably not equal to its reputation. The good Master Adam, who has helped us to so much information regarding Northern lands and conditions in his century, speaks of the city in the following terms:
It is verily the greatest city in Europe. It is inhabited by Slavs and other peoples, Greeks and barbarians. For even the Saxons who have settled there are permitted to live with the rest in the enjoyment of the same rights; though, indeed, only so long as they refrain from public profession of their Christian faith. For all the inhabitants are still chained to the errors of heathen idolatry. In other respects, especially as to manners and hospitality, a more obliging and honourable people cannot be found.
The city was located on the east side of the island of Wollin, where the village of Wollin has since been built. For its time it enjoyed a very favourable location. Built on an island, it was fairly safe from land attacks, while its position some distance from the sea secured it from the common forms of piracy. Back into the land ran the great river highway, the Oder, while a few miles to the north lay the Baltic with its long coast line to the east, the west, and the north.
To secure Danish influence in the city, Harold Bluetooth built the famous fortress of Jomburg and garrisoned it with a carefully chosen band of warriors, later known as the Jomvikings. According to saga, Palna Told, the viking who is reputed to have slain King Harold, was the founder and chief of the brotherhood; but the castle probably existed before Told became prominent in the garrison, if he ever was a member. The fortress was located north of Jom near the modern village of Wollin, where abundant archaeological evidence has definitely identified the site. The harbour or bay that served as such has since filled with the rubbish of time; but in the tenth century it is reported to have had a capacity of three hundred dragons.
The existence of a military guild at Jomburg seems well attested. Only men of undoubted bravery between the ages of eighteen and fifty years were admitted to membership; and, in the admission, neither kinship nor friendship nor considerations of exalted birth should be taken into account. As members of the brotherhood, all the Jomvikings assumed the duties of mutual support and the revenge of a fallen comrade. Strict discipline was enjoined in the fortress; absence for more than three days at a time was forbidden; no women were to be admitted to the castle. There was to be no toleration of quarrelsome behaviour; plunder, the fruitful source of contention, was to be distributed by lot. In all disputes the chief was the judge.
It seems evident that the chief of these vikings was something more than the captain of a garrison; he bore the earl's title and as such must have had territorial authority in and about the city. Supported by the Jomvikings he soon began to assert an independence far beyond what the Danish kings had intended that he should possess. However, till the death of Harold Bluetooth, the brotherhood appears to have been fairly loyal to their suzerain; it was to Jomburg that the aged King fled when his son rebelled against him; it was there that he died after the traitor's arrow had given him the fatal wound. The rebel Sweyn was not immediately recognised by the Earl at Jom; the vikings are said to have defied him, to have captured him and carried him off. Only on the promises of marriage to Gunhild, the sister of Earl Sigvaldi's wife, and of the payment of a huge ransom, was he permitted to return to his throne. The saga story has probably a great measure of truth in it. Sweyn seems to have been determined on the destruction of the fraternity, and most likely had some success; for toward the close of his reign, we find the Jomvikings no longer terrorising the Baltic shores, but plundering the western isles.
In 1021, toward the close of the year, we read of the exile of Thurkil the Tall, who will be remembered as an old Jomviking, the brother of Earl Sigvaldi, and the leader in the descent of these vikings upon England in 1009. We do not know where the exile sought a new home, but one is tempted to conjecture that he probably returned to the old haunts at the mouth of the Oder. It is an interesting fact that a few months later Canute found it advisable to make a journey to that same region.
In the entry for 1022, the Chronicler writes that "in this year King Canute fared out with his ships to Wiht", or, as one manuscript has it, to "Wihtland". Apparently, the movement, whatever it was, did not interest the scribe; far more important in his eyes was the news that Archbishop Ethelnoth, when in Rome to receive the pallium, was invited to say mass in the papal presence, and was afterwards permitted to converse with the Holy Father. Historians have thought with the monk that the journey with the fleet can have had but little importance, that it was merely a mobilization of the navy at the Isle of Wight, perhaps for the purpose of display.
It was the Danish historian Steenstrup who first suggested that Wiht or Wihtland probably did not mean Wight in this case, but the old Witland that we read of in the writings of Alfred: Wulfstan the wide-farer informed the royal student that "the Vistula is a mighty stream and separates Witland from Wendland and Witland belongs to the Esthonians." Evidently the Angles understood Witland to be the regions of modern Prussia east of the Vistula. That Canute's expedition actually went eastward seems extremely probable for we read that the next year he returned from Denmark and had become reconciled with Earl Thurkil.
There were Danish colonies at the mouths of the Oder, the Vistula, and the Düna; all these, no doubt, submitted to the conqueror from England. The expedition probably first went to Jom in Wendland; thence eastward to the Prussian regions of Witland and the still more distant Semland, a region near the Kurisches Haff that is reported to have been conquered by one of Harold Bluetooth's sons. Canute's possessions thus extended along the Baltic shores from Jutland almost to the eastern limits of modern Germany; he may also have had possessions farther up the eastern coast of the sea. It is not likely that these possessions were anything more than a series of stations and settlements; but these would serve as centres of influence from which Danish power would penetrate into the interior to the protection of Danish trade and commerce.
Later English writers have a story to tell of this expedition, especially of the valorous part that was played by the Earl Godwin. In the expedition against the Vandals, Godwin, without first informing the King, made a night attack on the enemy and put them to rout. When Canute prepared to make an attack early in the morning, he missed the English and feared that they had fled or deserted. But when he came upon the enemy's camp and found nothing there but bloody corpses and plunder, light dawned on the King, and he ever afterward held the English in high esteem.
Jomburg apparently retained its old preeminence as the centre of Danish control on the southern shore. The King's brother-in-law, Ulf, seems to have been left in control, probably with the title of earl. But after the death of Thurkil, who had been left as viceroy of Denmark, Ulf was apparently transferred to that country and Canute's son Sweyn, under the guidance of his mother Elgiva, was appointed the King's lieutenant in Wendland.
The extension of Danish influence among the Wends brought Denmark into closer contact and relations with the Empire. Two years after Canute's expedition to the Slavic lands, Henry the Saint passed to his reward, and Conrad the Salic succeeded to the imperial dignities. On the death of Henry II the great Polish Duke Boleslav hastened to assume the regal title, and evidently planned to renounce the imperial suzerainty. This policy of hostility to the Empire was continued by his son and successor, Mieczislav, who also may have hoped to interest his cousin King Canute in the welfare of the new kingdom.
Conrad also felt the need of a close alliance with the Danish conqueror, and called upon Archbishop Unwan of Hamburg-Bremen for assistance as a mediator. Unwan was Canute's friend and succeeded in bringing about the desired understanding. Possibly the price of the alliance may have appealed to Canute as much as the Archbishop's arguments; for Conrad bought the friendship of his Northern neighbour with the Mark of Sleswick to the Eider River.
The exact date of this alliance is a matter of doubt, but the probabilities appear to favour 1025, when the Emperor Conrad was in Saxony. Some historians believe that the mark was not ceded at this time but ten years later, when Canute's daughter Gunhild was betrothed to Conrad's son Henry, as Adam of Bremen seems to associate these two events. But Adam's chronology is confused on these matters. Canute's friendship was surely more difficult to purchase in 1025 when his star was rapidly ascending than in 1035 when his empire had begun to collapse. While we cannot be sure, it seems extremely likely that the boundary of Denmark was extended to the Eider in 1025.