Friday, 23 May 2008

WRONG: King Cnut tried to hold back the tide

First, don’t let anyone get away with calling him Canute – that’s just an affectation to make his name easier to pronounce (and less dangerous to misspell). Properly called Knut, he was son of the Danish invader Svein Forkbeard. He took control of Anglo-Saxon Britain in 1016, and was King not only of England but also Denmark and parts of Norway and Sweden.

The story of him trying to hold back the tide is frequently misreported, though as the first account of it was in the 1120s (Historia Anglorum, Henry Of Huntingdon), the entire event is open to question. Rather than try to order the sea back in order to prove his power, Knut, a Christian, wished to demonstrate that only God had true power, as evidenced by his own inability to turn the tide back.

(King Xerxes of Persia was less humble in his dealings with the sea in the 5th century BCE. According to Herodotus, after his bridge of boats across the Hellespont was destroyed in a storm, he ordered that the sea be given 300 lashes, fettered and branded with an iron.)

After his tidal display, Knut supposedly never wore his crown again, placing it instead on a crucifix, saying, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.”

The other notable event (or more likely, story) from Knut’s reign was Lady Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry to protest her husband Leofric’s taxes. According to legend – this part almost certainly is pure fiction – only one person dared watch, a tailor called Tom (the origin of Peeping Tom). He subsequently went blind, which doesn’t say much for Ms Godiva.

EDIT: Reader Ash suggests, "I would think it is quite complimentary to Ms Godiva, if you ask yourself why he went blind..."


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