Canute Conquers England Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Danish invaders, led by Canute, conquered England and launched the nineteen-year reign of Canute, a period of benign leadership, relative peace, and strengthened bonds between England and the Christian church in Rome.

Summary of Event

For more than two hundred years, starting about 789, Viking warriors from Denmark and Norway harassed the peoples of the British Isles. Indeed, a familiar prayer uttered by the hapless Britons petitioned God, “From the fury of the Norsemen, good Lord deliver us!” Adding to the slaughter, warrior earls and would-be kings among the resident Saxons battled for the right to rule Britain. A nineteen-year interlude of peace transformed the country when Canute the Great, a Danish Viking who had been baptized a Christian, became the ruler of all of England in 1016. [kw]Canute Conquers England (1016) [kw]England, Canute Conquers (1016) Canute I the Great England;Viking conquest of England;1016: Canute Conquers England[1540] Expansion and land acquisition;1016: Canute Conquers England[1540] Religion;1016: Canute Conquers England[1540] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1016: Canute Conquers England[1540] Sweyn Forkbeard Canute the Great Ethelred II, the Unready Emma of Normandy Edmund Ironside

Historians are not in full agreement about the meaning of the word “viking.” As a verb, the term had been used in the original written sources to mean piracy or a pirate raid; as a noun, it was used to mean a pirate or raider. Whatever the term’s exact meaning, the Vikings Vikings were bold, bloodthirsty plunderers. Roaming the seas in their well-crafted long boats or dragon ships, they primarily attacked the British Isles. In 793, a Viking raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne Lindisfarne;Viking raid on , located off the Northumbrian coast, horrified the Christian world. The invaders slaughtered some of the monks, took others to sell as slaves, and looted the monastery of gold and jeweled religious objects. After this raid, Viking attacks increased in fury and frequency.

The east coast of England took the brunt of the raids as the Vikings sailed their dragon ships up the rivers to harass the inland villagers. The invaders frequently found allies among the resident peoples, particularly the Celts, who joined the Danes in battles against the Saxon rulers of England. In 838, a large Danish force landed in Cornwall, where many of the residents joined the Vikings to fight their enemy, Wessex.

For the next century and a half, the battles between the Vikings and the various peoples of the British Isles see-sawed across England. In the end, the Vikings occupied large sections of the country and established their headquarters in London. Local British resistance continued, however, and the Vikings, now well organized under a sound Danish government at home, launched their forces for the final conquest of England.

Sweyn Forkbeard Sweyn Forkbeard , king of Denmark, led a major thrust against England in 994. He was supported in the field by forces from Norway. The battles raged on for nearly twenty years. In 1013, Sweyn’s army defeated the disorganized and weary Britons, led by Ethelred II, the Unready Ethelred II, the Unready . In a curious twist of fate, Sweyn died on February 3, 1014, just as he had secured this total victory. Command of the Danish troops was turned over to Sweyn’s younger son, Canute, who was unable to prevail against a counterattack launched by the Britons and fled to Denmark.

Born in Denmark around 994, Canute was the younger son of Sweyn Forkbeard. Little is known of his early years before he accompanied his father on a raid to England in 1013, when he was about nineteen years old. Canute’s older brother, Harold, may also have accompanied Sweyn on the raid. In the wake of his success, Sweyn was accepted as king over the Danelaw Danelaw , the Danish-held part of eastern England, where he collected the Danegeld, an enforced contribution of money, precious metals, and jewels taken from resident Britons to support the needs of the Viking occupation forces. After Sweyn’s death in 1014, his followers considered Canute to be heir to their English territory. Believed to be a Viking as able as his father, Canute assembled a fleet and set sail for England in 1015. The ruling structure of England was in shambles, and treachery and distrust prevented effective resistance to the Vikings. After landing his forces, Canute carried the battle to Nottingham and York in the north before moving south to London. After a prolonged siege of London, which ultimately ended in a stalemate, Canute and Edmund Ironside Edmund Ironside signed a peace settlement in 1016 giving Edmund continued control of Wessex while granting Canute control over the lands north of the Thames River. After Edmund’s death later that year, Canute became sole ruler of England.

As king, Canute ushered in a period of peace for his new kingdom, the first the people had enjoyed for several decades. The Saxon English and the Danes managed to live in harmony, although Canute had appointed many Danish officials to govern the land. Saxons and Danes intermarried, and many adopted new names befitting these unions.

Canute assembled a fleet and set sail for England in 1015, conquering the north in 1016 and becoming the sole ruler of England by the end of that year.

(Library of Congress)

Many years of paying the Danegeld had seriously depleted the nation’s finances. Canute imposed widespread taxation to replenish the treasury. As a warrior, Canute recognized that England’s defenses had to be rebuilt to withstand future attacks, and most of the tax revenue was used to improve the system of walls, bulwarks, and ditches.

Canute also sought to strengthen his standing with the English by marrying into the Saxon royal line. In 1017, he married Emma of Normandy, widow of Ethelred II, the Unready. This shrewd stroke of policy pleased the English and appeared to ensure a sound line of succession to the English throne. Canute’s marital arrangements, however, suffered some complications. Canute acknowledged two sons, Sweyn and Harold Harefoot Harold Harefoot (king of England) , whom he had fathered by his Anglo-Danish mistress, Ælgifu of Northampton. Of the children Canute later had with Emma, young Harthacnut Harthacnut was in the line of succession to the English throne. Both Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut were to serve briefly as English monarchs after Canute’s death.

Canute’s governing policy for England lay along two lines. First, he sought to continue a national government that followed that of King Edgar, Anglo-Saxon ruler from 359 to 375, who was considered one of the best of the preceding English monarchs. Second, Canute sought to strengthen relations with the Catholic Church in Rome. Although he had been born a pagan, Canute had been baptized a Christian Christianity;Vikings sometime before he accompanied his father on the 1013 raid against England. Canute gave generous donations to the Catholic Church and traveled to Rome in 1027 to attend the coronation of Emperor Conrad II, whose son Henry had married Canute’s daughter Gunhild.

Canute died at Shaftesbury, England, on November 12, 1035. His son Harold Harefoot ruled as regent for his half brother Harthacnut from 1035 to 1037 and then took the kingship for himself and ruled from 1037 to 1040. Canute’s legitimate son Harthacnut ruled England from 1040 to 1042. Because Canute’s sons lacked their father’s strength and popularity, the English soon restored a Saxon heir to the throne. Harthacnut was succeeded by his Anglo-Saxon half brother Edward the Confessor Edward the Confessor , the son of Ethelred II, the Unready, and Emma of Normandy, who ruled from 1042 to 1066. Edward was succeeded by Harold II, who ruled briefly in 1066. The entire Danish-Saxon dynasty collapsed with the Norman invasion of 1066, led by William the Conqueror William the Conqueror .


In addition to briefly maintaining peace in England, Canute became king of Denmark in 1018 (after the death of his brother Harold) and king of Norway in 1028. As a result, he brought England into a Scandinavian empire that facilitated healthy commerce among the nations.

Canute ruled wisely and was held in high regard by his English subjects, many of whom believed he was all-powerful and could command anything, including the tides of the sea. According to one story, which may well be apocryphal, Canute had his throne placed at the seashore to demonstrate that he was, after all, only a man. In this story, Canute commanded the sea to fall back. The tide continued to rise, however, dampening both Canute’s shoes and the flattery of his courtiers. Their sincere admiration could not be dampened, however, and Canute was extolled as the first Viking king to be ranked as a civilized Christian ruler.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Phoebe-Lou. “From York to Jorvik: The Viking Past Lives on in England.” Atlantic Monthly 275 (March, 1995): 46-50. Describes the role of the Vikings not only as plunderers but also as traders who converted the Saxon town of Eoforwic into an international port they named Jorvik (now York).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christiansen, Eric. “Canute and His World.” History Today 36 (November, 1986): 34-39. A well-rounded view of Canute that presents him as a good Christian monarch who married into the English nobility despite his previous reputation as a murderous Viking outlaw.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Wendy, ed. From the Vikings to the Normans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Discusses the Anglo-Saxon period from the Norse to the Normans. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. Provides a detailed, informative history of the Vikings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawson, M. K. Cnut: The Danes in England in the Early Eleventh Century. New York: Longman, 1993. A solid survey of Canute’s career, with valuable insight into his relations with the Holy Roman Empire and Anglo-Danish government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">May, Robin. Canute and the Vikings. New York: Bookwright, 1985. Brief but authoritative account of the Viking king of England written for a young high school audience.

Categories: History