King Canute (= Cnut) and the waves

Canute's (Cnut's) name is known nowadays largely because of the story that he was so proud that he thought his command could hold back the tide.

This story was first recorded in Henry of Huntingdon's twelfth-century Chronicle of the history of England. In fact, Henry's account was rather a testimony to Canute's good sense and Christian humility - not his vainglory.

From a famous comic history of England:

"Canute began by being a Bad King on the advice of his Courtiers who informed him (owing to a misunderstanding of the Rule Britannia) that the King of England was entitled to sit on the sea without getting wet. But finding that they were wrong he gave up this policy and decided to take his own advice in future - thus originating the memorable proverb, "Paddle your own Canute" …"

(Seller & Yeatman, 1066 & all that)

("Rule Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves" is from a song of 1740 by Thomas Augustine Arne)

" … Cnut rex cum viginti annis regnasset, vivere destitit apud Scaftesbirh, & sepultus est apud Wincestre in veteri Monasterio. De cuius regis potentia pauca sunt perstringenda. Nec enim tantae magnitudinis rex fuerat in Anglia. Erat enim dominus totius Daniae, totius Angliae, totius Norwagiae, simul & Scotiae.

Enimvero extra numerum bellorum, quibus maxime splenduit, tria gessit eleganter & magnifice:

Primum est, quod filiam suam Imperatori Romano cum ineffabilibus divitiis maritavit.

Secundum, quod Romam pergens omnes malas exactiones in via, quae per Gallias Romam tendit (quae vocantur tolonea vel transversa) data pecunia sua diminui fecit usque ad medietatem.

Tertium, quid cum maximo vigore imperii, sedile suum in littore maris, cum ascenderet, statui iussit. Dixit autem mari ascendenti, tu meae ditionis es, & terra in qua sedeo mea est: nec fuit qui impune meo resisteret imperio. Imperio igitur tibi, ne in terram meam ascendas, nec vestes nec membra dominatoris tui madefacere praesumas. Mare vero de more conscendens pedes regis & crura, since reverentia madefecit. Rex igitur resiliens ait. Sciant omnes habitantes orbem vanam & frivolam regum esse potentiam, nec regis qempiam nomine dignum praeter eum, cuius nutui coelum terra mare legibus obediunt aeternis, [Rex igitur Cnut nunquam postea coronam auream cervici sua imposuit, sed super imaginem Domini, quae cruci affixa erat, posuit eam in aeternum, in laudem Dei regis magni:] Cuius misericordia Cnut regis anima quiete fruatur.

(Henry of Huntingdon, Chronicle)

When King Cnut had reigned for twenty years, he died at Shaftesbury and was buried in the ancient monastery at Winchester. About the power of this king a little should be stated. For no English king ever had such wide-ranging authority. For he was at once the lord of all Denmark, of all England, of all Norway, and also of  Scotland.

Indeed, apart from a number of wars in which he shone greatly, he conducted himself gracefully and magnificently in three matters:

The first is, that he married his daughter to the Roman Emperor with unutterable splendor.

The second, that going to Rome he arranged a reduction by a half in toll dues along the road that leads though Gaul to Rome.

The third, that with the greatest vigor he commanded that his chair should be set on the shore, when the tide began to rise. And then he spoke to the rising sea saying “You are part of my dominion, and the ground that I am seated upon is mine, nor has anyone disobeyed my orders with impunity. Therefore, I order you not to rise onto my land, nor to wet the clothes or body of your Lord”. But the sea carried on rising as usual without any reverence for his person, and soaked his feet and legs. Then he moving away said:  “All the inhabitants of the world should know that the power of kings is vain and trivial, and that none is worthy the name of king but He whose command the heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws”. Therefore King Cnut never afterwards placed the crown on his head, but above a picture of the Lord nailed to the cross, turning it forever into a means to praise God, the great king.  By whose mercy may the soul of King Cnut enjoy peace.