Someone needs to defend Canute's honor

The writer is a Church of God member who lives with his wife, Cindy, in Australia.

By Walter Steensby

CANBERRA, Australia--In the Dec. 31 edition of The Journal, a columnist states that the famous King Canute of England, in commanding the tide to turn back, did so out of sheer pride and self-importance ("Intolerable or Impossible: What's Your Preference?," by Melvin Rhodes, page 3). This is a grave misrepresentation that cannot remain uncorrected.

Canute the Great (born 995) was king of Denmark and England from 1016 to 1035. The name is Danish and is variously spelled Knut, Canute and Cnut. In modern usage he might be called Knut Sweinsson.

After Canute's father's death, the Anglo-Saxons expelled him from England. He returned from Denmark to subdue England by military means, and indeed "when he first appears in England, it is as the mere northman, passionate, revengeful, uniting the guile of the savage with his thirst for blood. His first acts of government were a series of murders" (J.R. Green, A Short History of the English People, Macmillan & Co., London, 1902, Vol. 1, pp. 122-127).

Change of nature

This was not an auspicious beginning at all, but his behavior was not atypical of the era. Fortunately for England, Canute's nature thereafter underwent an extraordinary change: "From a savage such as this Cnut rose suddenly into a wise and temperate king . . . His aim during twenty years seems to have been to obliterate from men's minds the foreign nature of his rule, and the bloodshed in which it had begun" (ibid.).

One wonders if God had a hand in this transformation. Think of the Church of Rome as one may, Canute then saw it as the one civilizing element in a world of anarchic barbarism.

However, his loyalty to the church was not one of complete obeisance. In 1027 he went to Rome to attend the coronation of the emperor, Conrad II; he had the welfare of his subjects in mind as much as to seek absolution for the sins of his youth. He persuaded the pope to abolish certain church taxes and grant safe conduct to those of his subjects who wished to visit Rome.

Canute's letter from Rome to his English subjects is worth our contemplation, and our rulers today would do well to take it to heart: "I have vowed to God to lead a right life in all things, . . . to rule justly and piously my realms and subjects, and to administer just judgment to all. If heretofore I have done aught beyond what was just, through headiness or negligence of youth, I am ready with God's help to amend it utterly."

He was especially opposed to unfair taxation: "I have no need that money be heaped together for me by unjust demands" (ibid.).

Had Canute learned and remembered the example of Rehoboam? He did not cease to levy taxes; far from it! However, "no English king before him had levied such heavy taxes, yet never were taxes more cheerfully paid; because the people felt that every penny of the money was used for the benefit of the country" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-11, "Canute," Vol. 5, p. 222). Canute kept his promises; they were not idly uttered.

Model of civility

He provides us with another unexpected example: He created four earldoms, in England, Mercia, Northumberland, Wessex and East Anglia, and to these he allowed provincial independence while firming and establishing the ties that bound the rulers of these great dependencies to the crown. In this we may find a model of civil government that echoes that of the early New Testament church: a collection of bodies, each recognized as having merit and worth in its own right, yet all tied closely and willingly to the king.

We do not know the details of what education he received in his youth, nor do we know of what Christian tutelage he received during his reign, but we see described a man to whom the highest motivations are attributed, a man expressing sentiments that come directly from the Word of God. He had the noble gift of recognizing talent in others and the happy knack of reconciling enemies.

Indeed, to reconcile himself to his subjects he sought out and won the affections of and married Emma (Aelgifu, in Saxon), the widow of his mortal enemy Aethelred, the former king of England, whom Canute had slain.

The gift of peace

What were the results of Canute's rule?

"Cnut's greatest gift to his people was that of peace. With him began the long internal tranquillity which was from this time to be the special note of [English] national history. During two hundred years, with the one terrible interval of the Norman Conquest, and the disturbance under Stephen, England alone among the kingdoms of Europe enjoyed unbroken repose. The wars of her Kings lay far from her shores . . . The stern justice of their government secured order within" (J.R. Green, A Short History of the English People, Macmillan & Co., London, 1902, Vol. 1, pp. 122-127).

Evidence of this tranquillity is provided by the fact that, while Canute was absent from England to attend to the other areas under his sovereignty (Denmark, Scotland and part of Sweden), the country remained quiet. The country prospered during his reign, new lands being brought into cultivation and trade routes extending through the north to the Mediterranean, into Russia, to Constantinople and beyond to the East.

As the Britannica puts it, "he did his utmost to deserve the confidence of his Anglo-Saxon subjects, and the eighteen years of his reign were of unspeakable benefit to his adopted country" (11th edition, 1910-11, "Canute," Vol. 5, p. 222).

Rather than oppressing the people, "he declared his intention of ruling England by the English, . . . at the same time threatening with his vengeance all those who did not judge righteous judgment or who let malefactors go free."

Sincerely religious

Canute was "a Christian by conviction and sincerely religious. His humility is finely illustrated by the old Norman poem which describes how he commanded the rising tide of the Thames at Westminster to go back" (ibid.).

Although another account states that this incident occurred by the sea at Southampton, the essentials of both are the same.

Canute had endured much flattery by his courtiers, who called him the most mighty king of kings, able to command men, sea and land.

The account describes Canute setting his chair of estate by the shore and as the tide rose commanding the water to come no nearer. When the tide took no notice of him and at last wet his feet, his flatterers had no option but to recognize that this "mighty king" was not able to command even the smallest part of thesea.

His words to them are recorded thus:

"Let all which dwell in the world know the power of kings to be but vain, neither any man to be worthy the name of a king beside Him unto Whose beck the heavens, the earth and sea for ever obey" (Robert Glover and Thomas Milles, The Catalogue of Honor, 1610 [Folio Society reprint, The Kings of England, London, 1995, pp. 45-47]).

Whether true or not, this charming tale well fits Canute's temperament and inclinations. His words are humble and biblically sound, and few have heard their like in recent history from our rulers.

Suspect the truth of the accounts of Canute if you may, yet the accounts and legends agree that he was a wise, just and Christian king.

Same sorry cycle

Canute died much too early at the age of 40, cut off before he could implement most of his great plans. His far-flung kingdom broke up almost at once, and after the long peace the violent acts of his son and successor Harthacanute sickened men of violence and murder.

The unjust ruler was soon enough replaced by a firm and kinder man in Godwine, and England returned to her relative God-given peace.

How often do we see the same sorry cycles in secular history as in the biblical account of the kings of Israel and Judah, bad ruler after good!

How earnestly do we look forward to the return of the perfect King to bring unspeakable benefit to His adopted countries, all those on earth, to heal, to rule and to build!

While we wait, what an enormous difference it would make to life today if just one of our prime ministers or presidents were to take Canute's example and put it into practice.

Our people desperately need godly leadership and mentoring, and we are being deliberately starved of it.

Pray for God's mercy upon all peoples.

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