Beowulf was connected to King Cnut, study finds

When King Cnut sailed to Denmark in 1019, did he bring a copy of Beowulf with him? That is the theory put forward in a new article on why the famous Old English poem was written in the early years of the 11th century.

Beowulf is only found in one copy: the Nowell Codex, which is now kept at the British Library. In his article, “Behold the Front Page: Cnut and the Scyldings in Beowulf,” the historian Richard North argues that this manuscript was at least partially written after Cnut became King of England in 1016. Moreover, the Norse leader and his entourage took a keen interest in the story, using it to develop a claim to the throne of Denmark.


Set hundreds of years in the past, Beowulf tells the story of a hero arriving to help Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, defeat the monster Grendel. Beowulf slays Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, before returning home to Geatland and becoming King of the Geats. Many years later, Beowulf also defeats a dragon, but at the cost of his own life.

Historians have often debated when the Nowell Codex and Beowulf was created, narrowing it down to somewhere between the year 975 and 1025. It has been suggested that it was written during King Æthelred II’s reign (978-1016) to encourage the English to defend their lands against the Vikings. North finds that an odd choice for several reasons, including it being a “poem which glorifies Danes, Geats, Swedes, and their kings as a means of arousing patriotic opposition to a prince of Denmark invading England with armies from Scandinavia.”


North believes that the Nowell Codex was composed mostly during Cnut’s reign, based on a variety of factors including that it had two scribes who wrote it. Since the work includes not only Beowulf, but some other interesting texts such as Wonders of the East and Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, it was most likely composed “to amuse a Danish earl, or his ally, or even the king.”

Even the first folio of the Beowulf poem offers more clues, as North writes:

More narrowly, there is also evidence internal to Beowulf of an alignment with eleventh-century Danish concerns. The first words, “Hwæt, we Gar-Dena” might be taken as “Listen, we [who are] of the Spear-Danes,” as Kevin Kiernan has supposed, like an appeal to Danes in an English audience. Not long after, “Beowulf” is twice written for *Beow, son of Scyld Scefing, in lines 18 and 53. In the first case we are told that Scyld gets a son in the far east of Denmark: “Beowulf wæs breme . . . Scedelandum in” (lines 18–19; Beowulf was renowned . . . in Scanian lands).

Another even more remarkable assertion by North is that there were originally two copies of Beowulf from Cnut’s reign. The Danish king and his court were interested in linking the figure of Beowulf to Cnut’s ancestors. This would prove useful when Cnut sailed to Denmark in 1019 to assert his claim to that country’s throne. North speculates that he took this second copy of Beowulf with him during the expedition, so it could shown like a charter, especially to the people of Zealand and Skåne, as proof of his right to rule Denmark.

The article appears in Anglo-Danish Empire: A Companion to the Reign of King Cnut the Great, which is edited by North along with Erin Goeres, and Alison Finlay. It is a collection of over 20 articles that examine the reigns of Æthelred II and Cnut. You can learn more about the book from the publisher or buy it on


Richard North is a Professor at University College London, where his research focuses on the Early Middle Ages and Beowulf. On his page there is an older version of this article.

See also: Which translation of Beowulf should I read?