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Chapter XVIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

Reign of Canute the Great - His Reproof to his Courtiers - His Marriage and Death.
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canute saw that the time had arrived in which he might hope to obtain possession of the entire kingdom. For this purpose he caused an assembly of nobles to be convened, and bribed several of them to depose that, by the treaty concluded between himself and Edmund, it had been verbally agreed that in the event of the death of the latter he was to succeed to his dominions.

Under this pretence the claims of the English heir were set aside, and Canute became the monarch of the country - the nobility being tired of war, and unwilling to risk their lives and fortunes to support the rights of a prince who was too young to bear the burden of a crown.

Conscious that whilst the sons of Edmund lived he held his throne by an insecure tenure, he sent the princes to his ally, the King of Sweden, with secret orders to put them to death on their arrival, and so rid him of his fears.

The Swedish monarch found himself placed in an embarrassing position by this infamous request, and resolved to spare them. But to avoid being drawn into a war with his powerful neighbour, he in his turn sent them to Stephen, King of Hungary, to be educated at his court. The eldest son was afterwards married to a sister of that king; but dying without issue, Stephen gave his sister-in-law, Agatha, daughter of the Emperor Henry II., to Edward, the younger, to wife; she bore him Edgar Atheling, and two daughters - Margaret, afterwards Queen of Scotland, and Christina, who became a nun.

Canute, although King of England, was obliged to divide his authority in a great measure with the nobles, by bestowing on them greater territories and jurisdiction.

He created Thurkyl Duke of East Anglia; Yric had Northumberland, and Edric Mercia, as the price of their services. The latter he afterwards, when he found himself more firmly seated, caused to be executed, as a reward for his many treasons, and his body cast into the Thames.

The new king found himself obliged to levy immense taxes to gratify the rapacity of his followers; he extorted from the people at one time no less than seventy-two thousand pounds, an enormous sum in those days, besides eleven thousand which he levied on London alone. The latter city suffered more in comparison than others, on account of the attachment it had shown his rival. Canute could neither forget nor pardon his having been obliged twice to retire from the siege of that important place.

With a degree of savage justice he put to death a great number of the nobility, giving as a reason that it was impossible he could ever trust them, on account of their treachery to their native king. The probability is, that their wealth was the principal cause of their offence.

Having thus got rid of those whom he most feared, Canute determined, if possible, to reconcile the people to his government by justice and impartiality. He not only sent back to Denmark a great number of his followers, but in a general assembly of the states which he convened, restored the Saxon laws and customs, which during the late distracted times had fallen into disuse, and made no distinction between Saxon and Dane in the administration of justice.

The latter people he gradually incorporated with his new subjects.

The removal of Edmund's children into so distant a country as Hungary was, next to their death, regarded by Canute as the greatest security to his government: he had no further anxiety, except with regard to Alfred and Edward, who were protected and supported by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Normandy. Richard even fitted out a great armament, in order to restore the English princes to the throne of their ancestors; and though the navy was dispersed by a storm, Canute saw the danger to which he was exposed from the enmity of so warlike a people as the Normans. In order to acquire the friendship of the duke, he paid his addresses to Queen Emma, sister of that prince; and promised that he would leave the children whom he might have by that marriage, his heirs to the crown of England. Richard complied with his demand, and sent over Emma to England, where she was, in 1017, married to Canute. The English, though they disapproved of her espousing the mortal enemy of her former husband and his family, were pleased to find at court a sovereign to whom they were accustomed, and who had already formed connections with them; and thus Canute, besides securing by this marriage the alliance of Normandy, gradually acquired, by the same means, the confidence of his own subjects. The Norman prince did not long survive the marriage of Emma; and left the inheritance of the duchy to his eldest son of the same name, who, dying a year after him without children, was succeeded by his brother Robert, a man of valour and abilities.

In a.d. 1019, Canute, having settled his power beyond all danger of a revolution, made a voyage to Denmark, in order to resist the attacks of the King of Sweden; and he carried along with him a great body of the English, under the command of Earl Godwin. This nobleman had here an opportunity of performing a service, by which he both reconciled the king's mind to the English nation, and, gaining to himself the friendship of his sovereign, laid the foundation of that immense fortune which he acquired for his family. He was stationed next the Swedish camp; and observing a favourable opportunity, which he was obliged suddenly to seize, he attacked the enemy in the night, drove them from their trenches, threw them into disorder, pursued his advantage, and obtained a decisive victory over them. Next morning, Canute, seeing the English camp entirely abandoned, imagined that those disaffected troops had deserted to the enemy: he was agreeably surprised to find that they were at that time engaged in pursuit of the discomfited Swedes. He was so pleased with his success, and with the manner of obtaining it, that he bestowed his daughter in marriage on Godwin, and treated him ever after with entire confidence and regard.

In another voyage, which he made afterwards to Denmark, in 1028, Canute attacked Norway; and expelling the just, but unwarlike Olaf, kept possession of his kingdom till the death of that prince. He had now, by his conquests and valour, attained the utmost height of grandeur: having leisure from wars and intrigues, he felt the unsatisfactory nature of all human enjoyments; and, equally weary of the glories and turmoils of this life, he began to cast his view towards that future existence which it is so natural for the human mind, whether satiated by prosperity or disgusted with adversity, to make the object of its attention. Unfortunately, the spirit which prevailed in that age gave a wrong direction to his devotion. Instead of making compensation to those whom he had injured by his former acts of violence, he employed himself entirely in those exercises of piety which the monks represented as the most meritorious. He built churches, he endowed monasteries, he enriched the ecclesiastics, and he bestowed revenues for the support of chantries at Assington and other places, where he appointed prayers to be said for the souls of those who had there fallen in battle against him. He even undertook a pilgrimage to Rome, where he resided a considerable time: besides obtaining from the Pope some privileges for the English school erected there, he engaged all the princes, through whose dominions he was obliged to pass, to desist from the heavy tolls exacted upon English pilgrims.

Canute, who was the greatest and most powerful monarch of his time, being sovereign of Denmark and Norway as well as of England, was not so blinded by his good fortune as to credit the flattery of his courtiers, who fain would have persuaded him that he was all but omnipotent.

To rebuke them, he hit upon the following expedient: - He directed his chair of state to be placed on the sea-side just as the tide was about to rise; and commanded the waves as they approached to retire at his word; then seated himself as if in full expectation that his orders would be obeyed.

When the sea, however, reached his feet, he turned with an angry frown to his panic-stricken courtiers, and exclaimed -

"Every being in the world is feeble and impotent; omnipotent power exists with God, in whose hands are all the elements of nature. He only can say to the sea - Thus far shalt thou go and no further; and his power will level with a nod the towering piles of ambition and greatness."

The only remarkable action which Canute performed after his return from Rome, was an expedition against Scotland in a.d. 1031. During the reign of Ethelred, a tax of a shilling a hide had been levied on all the lands in England. Malcolm, King of Scotland, who held Cumberland, refused to pay this impost, or to do homage for Cumberland to the crown of England.

On the English monarch approaching the frontier of Scotland with a formidable army, Malcolm consented that his grandson and heir, Duncan, should be put in possession of Cumberland; and thus the prudent king avoided the humiliation of doing homage in his own person, and the disasters of war with his powerful neighbour.

Canute died (November 11,1035), after this enterprise, at Shaftesbury, leaving three sons - Sweyn, whom he had by his first marriage with Alfwen, daughter of the Earl of Hampshire; Hardicanute, who was in possession of Denmark; and Harold, who, at the time of his father's death, was in England.

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Pictures for Chapter XVIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

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