The Danish North Sea Empire, also known as the Anglo-Scandinavian
Empire, was the thalassocratic domain ruled by
Cnut the Great
Cnut the Great as king
of England, Denmark,
Norway and parts of what is now
1016 and 1035.[a]
1.5 Tributary areas
4 After Cnut's death
5 See also
See also: History of Anglo-Saxon England
Cnut was the younger son of the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard. When his
father died on 3 February 1014 during an invasion of England, Cnut,
who had been left in command of the fleet in the
River Trent while
Sweyn was in the south of England, was acclaimed by the Danes.
However, the invasion fell apart: the men of the Kingdom of Lindsey,
who had promised to supply horses for a tactical raid, were not ready
before the English nobles had reinstalled
King Æthelred, whom they
had previously sent into exile, after forcing him to agree to govern
Cnut's brother Harald became king of Denmark, but with help from Eric
Haakonsson of Norway, Cnut raised a new invasion fleet of his own and
England in summer 1015. The English were divided by
intrigue among the king, his sons, and other nobles; within four
months one of Æthelred's sons had pledged allegiance to Cnut and he
controlled Wessex, the historic heart of the kingdom. Before the
decisive battle for London could be fought, Æthelred died on 23 April
1016. The Londoners chose his son Edmund as their king, while most of
the nobles met at
Southampton and swore fealty to Cnut. Cnut blockaded
London, but was forced to leave to replenish his supplies and beaten
by Edmund at the Battle of Otford; however, following the Danes as
they raided into Essex, Edmund was in turn defeated at the Battle of
Assandun. He and Cnut struck an agreement under which Edmund would
Wessex and Cnut rule all of
England north of the Thames. But on
30 November 1016, Edmund in turn died, leaving Cnut king of
In summer 1017 he cemented his power by marrying Æthelred's widow,
Emma, although he had previously married an English noblewoman,
Ælfgifu of Northampton. In 1018 he paid off his fleet (with money
especially from the citizens of London) and was fully recognised as
King of England.
See also: History of
Denmark § Middle Ages
Cnut the Great
King Harald died childless in 1018 or 1019, leaving the country
without a king. Cnut was his brother's heir and went to
1019 to claim it. While there he sent his subjects in
England a letter
saying he was abroad to avert an unspecified "danger", and he only
returned to quell incipient rebellions. One Danish chronicle states
that the Danes had previously deposed Harald in favour of Cnut, then
brought back Harald because of Cnut's frequent absences, until Cnut
finally became king permanently after his brother's death.
King Olaf of
King Anund Jacob of Sweden, seeing the
combined Anglo-Danish kingdom as a threat – Cnut's father Sweyn had
asserted power over both their countries – took advantage of Cnut's
England to attack
Denmark in 1025 or 1026, and were joined by
Ulf Jarl, Cnut's Danish regent, and his brother. Cnut took Olaf's
fleet by surprise and took the battle to the Swedish fleet at the
Battle of the Helgeå. The precise outcome is disputed, but Cnut
came out best; Olaf fled and the threat to
In 1027, Cnut travelled to Rome, partly to expiate his sin for having
Jarl Ulf killed the previous Christmas, partly to attend the
coronation of Conrad II as
Holy Roman Emperor
Holy Roman Emperor and to demonstrate his
importance as a ruler. He secured relaxation of tolls levied on
pilgrims journeying to Rome from Northern Europe, and on Papal fees
for English archbishops receiving their pallium; he also began a
relationship with Conrad that led to the Emperor's son Henry marrying
Cnut's daughter Gunnhild and before that to the Emperor ceding to
Denmark Schleswig and a strip of ancient Danish territory between
Hedeby and the Eider that the Germans had occupied as a buffer zone
against the Danes.
See also: Kingdom of
Olaf II had extended his power throughout
Norway while Jarl Erik was
with Cnut in England. Cnut's enmity with him extended further
back: Æthelred had returned to
England in a fleet provided by
Olaf. In 1024 Cnut had offered to let Olaf govern
Norway as his
vassal; but after Helgeå, he set about undermining his unpopular
rule with bribes, and in 1028 set out with 50 ships to subjugate
Norway. A large contingent of Danish ships joined him, and Olaf
withdrew into the
Oslo Fjord while Cnut sailed along the coast,
landing at various points and receiving oaths of allegiance from the
local chieftains. Finally at Nidaros, now Trondheim, he was acclaimed
king at the Eyrathing, and in a few months Olaf fled to
In 1030, Olaf attempted to return, but the people of the Trondheim
area did not want him back and he was defeated and killed at the
Battle of Stiklestad.
See also: History of
After Helgeå, Cnut also claimed to rule "part of Sweden" together
with England, Denmark, and Norway. He had coins minted either in
the capital, Sigtuna, or in Lund, then part of Denmark, with the
inscription CNVT REX SW ("Cnut
King of the Swedes"). Western Götaland
Blekinge have been suggested. Most
England runestones are in
Uppland. It was probably either overlordship or disputed rule; Cnut
did not have to be present in
Sweden to order the minting of coins,
coins were also minted asserting he ruled Ireland, and Swedish
history at this early date is very uncertain.
North Sea Empire. Red: Countries where Cnut was king. Orange: vassals.
In addition to Sweden, of which he or the person who wrote the heading
to his letter claimed he was king, Cnut received tribute from the
Wends and was allied with the Poles; in 1022, together with Godwin and
Ulf Jarl, he took a fleet east into the Baltic to confirm his
overlordship of the coastal areas that the Danish kings dominated from
Immediately after his return from Rome, Cnut led an army into Scotland
and made vassals of Malcolm, the High
King of Scotland, and two other
kings, one of whom, Echmarcach mac Ragnaill, was a sea-king whose
Galloway and the
Isle of Man
Isle of Man and would become king of
Dublin in 1036. All these and likely also the Welsh paid tribute,
on the model of the
Danegeld that Æthelred had instituted to pay off
the Danes; and Cnut was thus reasserting the dominion over the Celtic
kingdoms that recent English kings had had to let lapse, as well as
punishing those who had supported Olaf against him. A verse by the
Óttarr svarti calls Cnut "king of the Danes, the
Irish, the English and the Islanders"; presumably
Norway is omitted
because Cnut had not yet come to power there.
See also: Christianization of Scandinavia
By the early 11th century,
England had been Christian for centuries;
Danelaw was in transition from paganism to Christianity, but
the Scandinavian countries were still predominantly pagan. Cnut's
father, Sweyn, had initially been pagan but in later life had been
basically Christian. In England, Cnut assiduously promoted the
interests of the church, and this brought him acceptance from the
Christian rulers of Europe that no other Scandinavian king had
previously been accorded. In Norway, in contrast, he built
churches and was both respectful and generous to the clergy, but also
made allies of the heathen chieftains, and unlike Olaf, did not make
laws benefitting the church until his power was on a solid
Thing (assembly) and Witenagemot
England c. 1025
Penny of Cnut the Great
Early in 1017, probably because he was king by right of conquest not
more normal means, Cnut divided
England into 4 earldoms on the
Wessex he governed directly, and of his allies
Thorkell the Tall
Thorkell the Tall became Earl of East Anglia,
Eric Haakonsson retained
Northumbria, which Cnut had already given him, and Eadric Streona
became Earl of Mercia. But the last was disgraced and executed within
a year. In 1018 Cnut revived at least two earldoms in
Wessex and at a
meeting at Oxford, his followers and representatives of the English
agreed that he would govern under the laws of
Frank Stenton points out that the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle has relatively little to say about Cnut's reign except to
note his frequent travels abroad, indicating that he was in strong
control of England. Thorkell likely acted as his regent during his
absences, until they had a falling out and he was outlawed in
1021. The terms of their reconciliation in
Denmark in 1023, with an
exchange of sons for fosterage and Thorkell becoming Cnut's regent in
Denmark, suggests that Thorkell had won them with an armed force.
However, it was left to another of Cnut's earls, Siward, to protect
his earldom of
Northumbria by consolidating English power in Scotland;
at his death in 1055 he, not the king, was overlord of all the
territory that the
Kingdom of Strathclyde
Kingdom of Strathclyde had annexed early the
The Danes had more reason to grumble about Cnut's absences than the
English; he reigned primarily from England, leaving regents in charge
in Denmark. He replaced Thorkell as his primary advisor in
England with Godwin, an Englishman whom he made Earl of Wessex,
while within three years of their reconciliation he had also been
replaced as regent of Denmark, by Ulf Jarl, Cnut's sister's husband,
whom Cnut also made guardian of his son by Emma, Harthacnut. Ulf
in turn proved less than loyal, first conspiring against him with the
Sweden and Norway, then making a power play by having the
nobles swear fealty to
Harthacnut (thus effectively to him); Cnut
Denmark at Christmas 1026, ordered his housecarls to kill
Ulf, and it was done in Trinity Church at Roskilde. By the end of
his life, he had entirely replaced the Scandinavian inner circle who
advised him with Englishmen.
In Norway, Cnut stayed into the new year and then left Jarl Erik's son
Hakon in charge as his regent (he had served
Sweyn Forkbeard in the
same capacity), but he drowned the following winter. As his
replacement Cnut sent Swein, the younger of his two sons by Ælfgifu
and thus known as Sveinn Alfífuson in
Norway – along with his
mother as guardian. They were delayed in southern
Norway while Olaf's
return was rebuffed, but became even more unpopular than he had been.
Ælfgifu tried to impose new taxation and stricter controls on a
people who valued their independence and especially resented that the
new customs were Danish.
Cnut also prepared to hand over
Denmark to one of his sons: upon
taking power in Norway, he held a great court in
proclaimed Harthacnut, his son by Emma, king of Denmark. As
Stenton points out, by appointing different sons his heirs in
different countries, he demonstrated that he did not have "the
deliberate intention of founding a northern empire . . . [which] would
remain united after his death." It may have been simply the custom
of his people. In any event, it was clear throughout Cnut's reign
that the weakness of his empire lay in the impossibility of finding
loyal and competent regents to govern when he could not be
present. And his sons could not hold it together.
After Cnut's death
The North Sea
Empire collapsed immediately once Cnut died in 1035. In
Norway it was already collapsing: by the winter of 1033, Swein
and Ælfgifu were so unpopular that they were forced to leave
Trondheim. In 1034 the leader of the army that had rebuffed and killed
King Olaf at Stiklestad went together with one of the king's loyal
followers to bring his young son Magnus back from
rule, and in autumn 1035, a few weeks before Cnut's death, Swein
and his mother had to flee the country altogether and go to
Denmark. Swein died shortly afterwards.
Harthacnut was already ruling as king, but he was unable
to leave for three years because of the threat that Magnus of Norway
would invade to exact revenge. In the meantime the English nobles,
divided between him and Cnut's younger son by Ælfgifu, Harold
Harefoot, decided to compromise by having Harold rule as regent, and
by the end of 1037 Ælfgifu had persuaded the most important to swear
allegiance to Harold, he was firmly ensconced as Harold I, and
Harthacnut's own mother, Queen Emma, had been forced to take refuge in
Harthacnut prepared an invasion fleet to wrest
England from his
half-brother, but the latter died in 1040 before it could be used.
Harthacnut then became king of England, reuniting it with Denmark, but
made a generally bad impression as king. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
said of him that he never did anything royal during his entire
reign. He died suddenly in June 1042 "as he stood at his
drink" at a wedding feast, and with him died the North Sea Empire.
List of English monarchs
List of Danish monarchs
List of Norwegian monarchs
List of Swedish monarchs
List of possessions of Norway
Norse activity in the British Isles
^ As one historian put it: When the 11th century began its fourth
decade, Canute was, with the single exception of the Emperor, the most
imposing ruler in Latin Christendom. ... [H]e was lord of four
important realms and the overlord of other kingdoms. Though
technically Canute was counted among the kings, his position among his
fellow-monarchs was truly imperial. Apparently he held in his hands
the destinies of two great regions: the British Isles and the
Scandinavian peninsulas. His fleet all but controlled two important
seas, the North and the Baltic. He had built an Empire.
^ Laurence Marcellus Larson, Canute the Great: 995 – c. 1035 and the
Rise of Danish Imperialism During the Viking Age, New York: Putnam,
1912, OCLC 223097613, p. 257.
^ Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971,
ISBN 978-0-19-821716-9, p. 386.
^ Stenton, pp. 388–93.
^ Stenton, p. 397.
^ Stenton, p. 399: "It is with the departure of the Danish fleet and
the meeting at Oxford which followed it that Cnut's effective reign
^ Stenton, p. 401.
^ Palle Lauring, tr. David Hohnen, A History of the Kingdom of
Denmark, Copenhagen: Høst, 1960, OCLC 5954675, p. 56.
^ Edward A. Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest of England:
Its Causes and its Results, Volume 1 Oxford: Clarendon, 1867, p. 404,
^ Stenton, pp. 402–04.
^ Jim Bradbury, The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare, London:
Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-22126-9, p. 125.
^ Philip J. Potter, Gothic Kings of Britain: The Lives of 31 Medieval
Rulers, 1016–1399, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009,
ISBN 978-0-7864-4038-2, p. 12.
^ Stenton, pp. 407–08.
^ Viggo Starcke,
Denmark in World History, Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania, 1962, p. 282.
^ Stenton, pp. 402–03.
^ Herbert A. Grueber and Charles Francis Keary, A Catalogue of English
Coins in the British Museum: Anglo-Saxon Series, Volume 2, London:
Trustees [of the British Museum], 1893, p. lxxvii.
^ a b c Starcke, p. 284.
^ Stenton, p. 404.
^ Starcke, p. 289.
^ Karen Larsen, A History of Norway, The American-Scandinavian
Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University, 1948, repr.
1950, OCLC 221615697, p. 104.
^ In the probably later heading to a 1027 letter sent to his English
subjects: Rex totius Angliæ et Denemarciæ et Norreganorum et partis
King of all
Norway and part of
Sweden". Freeman, p. 479, note 2.
^ Brita Malmer, "The 1954 Rone Hoard and Some Comments on Styles and
Inscriptions of Certain Scandinavian Coins from the Early Eleventh
Century", in Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c. AD
500–1200: Essays in Honour of Marion Archibald, ed. Barrie Cook and
Gareth Williams, Leiden: Brill, 2006, ISBN 90-04-14777-2, pp.
435–48, p. 443.
^ Henry Noel Humphreys, The Coinage of the British Empire: An Outline
of the Progress of the Coinage in Great Britain and her Dependencies,
From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, London: Bogue, 1855,
OCLC 475661618, p. 54.
^ "The Hiberno–Norse Coinage of Ireland, ~995 to ~1150", Irish
^ Franklin D. Scott, Sweden: The Nation's History, 2nd ed. Carbondale:
Southern Illinois University, 1988, ISBN 0-8093-1489-4, pp.
25–26, listing Cnut's claim.
^ Starcke, pp. 281–82.
^ a b Stenton, p. 419.
^ M.K. Lawson, Cnut: England's Viking King, Stroud: Tempus, 2004,
ISBN 0-7524-2964-7, p. 103: "Cnut's power would seem in some
sense to have extended into Wales".
^ Benjamin T. Hudson, Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty,
Empire in theNorth Atlantic, New York: Oxford
University, 2005, ISBN 978-0-19-516237-0, p. 119.
^ Lauring, p. 56: "the Danes in
England very quickly became
^ Starcke, p. 283.
^ Stenton, pp. 396–97: "Swein ... first appears in history as the
leader of a heathen reaction . . . [but] behaved as at least a nominal
Christian in later life. ... Swein's tepid patronage of Christianity
^ Stenton, p. 397: "the first viking leader to be admitted into the
civilised fraternity of Christian kings".
^ Stenton, pp. 398–99.
^ Stenton, pp. 399–401.
^ Stenton, pp. 401–02.
^ Jón Stefánsson,
Denmark and Sweden: with
Iceland and Finland,
London: Unwin, 1916, OCLC 181662877, p. 11: "Cnut's ideal seems
to have been an Anglo-Scandinavian Empire, of which
England was to be
the head and centre".
^ Lauring, p. 56: "He was fond of
England and regarded it as his
principle [sic] kingdom.... Canute actually became an Englishman".
^ Grueber and Keary, p. 6: "Though
England had been conquered by the
Dane she was really the centre of his Danish empire".
^ a b Jón Stefánsson, p. 11.
^ Stenton, p. 402.
^ Stenton, p. 416.
^ a b Stenton, p. 405.
^ Larsen, pp. 104–05.
^ T. D. Kendrick, A History of the Vikings, New York: Scribner, 1930,
repr. Mineola, New York: Dover, 2004, ISBN 0-486-43396-X, p. 125:
"Danish taxes were introduced, Danish laws imposed, and preference was
everywhere given to Danish interests".
^ Stenton, pp. 404–05.
^ a b Stenton, p. 406.
^ Grueber and Keary, p. 6: "But what more than anything else ruined
these hopes, as they almost always ruined the hopes of extended
Scandinavian rule, were the customs of inheritance which obtained
among the northern nations".
^ Lauring, p. 57: "Now that a single king had assumed power after the
pattern of Western Europe, the moment that king went away and omitted
to leave strong men in charge behind him, or left a weak one, [the
viking threat] became fatally weakened".
^ Larsen, p. 110.
^ Stenton, p. 420.
^ Joseph Stevenson, ed. and tr., The Church Historians of England,
volume 2 part 1, London: Heeleys, 1853, p. 96, entry for 1040.
^ Stenton, p. 422.
^ Lauring, p. 57: "Canute's sons, despite the fact that they were both
completely incompetent, were both proclaimed Kings of England".
^ Lauring, p. 57.
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