Monday, March 4, 2013

The Mystery of the Anglo-Saxon King Canute

Bones! Bones! Bones! This post starts a series of three posts on skeletal remains discovered of England's kings: Canute, Richard III, and Alfred the Great.

This post will cover Canute, the 11th century Anglo-Saxon king. According to the Medieval News, forensic scientists will examine "the skeletal remains of Anglo-Saxon royalty that have lain in wooden ‘mortuary chests’ at Winchester Cathedral for more than 350 years." According to the Daily Mail, "the [mortuary] chests have been placed in the Lady Chapel to allow researchers to begin examinations without removing them from consecrated ground." Detective archaeologists from Bristol University will use DNA techniques to identify the remains. The remains of some of the Anglo-Saxon royalty were originally buried at Winchester Cathedral, but their remains were scattered by looters who ransacked it during England's Civil War. They were then willy-nilly stuffed into these chests and reburied at the cathedral.

Canute, one of England's great Anglo-Saxon kings, started life as a Viking, known as Knud in Danish and Knut in Norwegian. He participated in multiple raids of England at the turn of the last millennium, but in 1016, he won a decisive victory over Edmund the Ironside. Shortly thereafter, Edmund died, leaving Canute as the sole king of England. In 1018, King Harald of Denmark died and through familial relations, Canute became king of Denmark, too. Norway fell next, and by mid 1020s, Scotland had fallen, too.

Thus, Canute was the first king to rule over a united British Isles free from internal and external strife. As a result, trade, art, literature, and religious life thrived in the 20 years of peaceful reign that followed. But all these stellar achivements is not why Canute is remembered in history.

He is remembered for these words uttered while he sat on a throne with the waves lapping at his feet: "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey." His courtiers thought Canute could command the tides like God. Now, Canute was a religious man who believed in the power of God as infinitely greater than man's. So to humor his courtiers and to teach them this lesson, he studied the tides, chose a time and location for his throne to be situated at the ocean shore, and as the tide came in, commanded the waves to advance no further. When they didn't, he had made his point that kings might be great in the eyes of man, but were nothing in the face of God's power.