Pilgrim and patron: Cnut in post-conquest historical writing
By Eleanor Parker
The Medieval Chronicle, Vol.9 (2015)
Abstract: This article examines a number of short narratives from the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries which relate to the activities of Cnut as king of England. Preserved in chronicles and in hagiographical sources, within the context of accounts of royal patronage of religious houses and the cults of English saints, these narratives present Cnut as a generous patron and a king given to extravagant public gestures of piety. The most famous such narrative is the story of how Cnut demonstrated he had no control over the waves, an episode first recorded by Henry of Huntingdon in the twelfth century; taking this story as a starting-point, this article discusses the contexts in which the king’s gifts to English houses are recorded, and argues that these narratives share certain concerns with the literature known to have been produced at Cnut’s Anglo-Danish court, including a thematic connection between travel, royal patronage and the king’s power over the sea.
Introduction: Perhaps the best-known story about Cnut, familiar even to those who know little else about the history of eleventh-century England, is the episode Henry of Huntingdon numbers among the king’s ‘three fine and magnificent deeds’. In the entry which records Cnut’s death in 1035, Henry gives a summary of his most notable achievements:
A few words must be devoted to the power of this king. Before him there had never been in England a king of such great authority. He was lord of all Denmark, of all England, of all Norway, and also of Scotland. In addition to the many wars in which he was most particularly illustrious, he performed three fine and magnificent deeds…
See also: The Changing Story of Cnut and the Waves