Review of “Cnut: England’s Viking King” by M. K. Lawson

When Michael Kenneth Lawson’s book originally was published in 1993 (as Cnut: The Danes in England in the Early Eleventh Century), it was the first new biography of Cnut since L. M. Larson’s Canute the Great came out in 1912. Because of this, Lawson was able to benefit from the considerable amount of scholarly work on Anglo-Saxon England in the intervening decades on the era, which not only allowed for a more informed interpretation of Cnut’s life but a more Anglo-centric account of his reign as well.

The focus is evident throughout Lawson’s short work. Beginning with Cnut’s re-conquest of England in 1016 he concentrates on describing how Cnut governed England during his nearly two decades as king. This he does in three chapters that explain, successively Cnut’s foreign policy, his relationship with the English church, and the practical operations of his government over the course of his reign. From them emerges a picture of a successful and pious ruler whose achievement was limited by his relatively early death and that of his sons as well.

Lawson makes his arguments convincingly through his mastery of the available sources, and works well within their limits. Yet his book disappoints in two respects. The first is that his account is a little too Anglo-centric. As the ruler of a large part of Scandinavia Cnut was more than just the king of England, and any account of his reign needs to reflect this. While Lawson’s focus may reflect the available evidence, by not addressing the Scandinavian aspects with anywhere near the same degree of thoroughness his examination of Cnut’s monarchy provides a somewhat distorted picture of his subject’s issues and priorities. The other problem is with Lawson’s approach to his material, which is more thematic than chronological. By focusing his chapters on specific aspects of Cnut’s rule, he ends up explaining his reign rather than describing it. While there are advantages to this approach, for my first book on Cnut I was hoping for something with more of a chronological structure that would give me a sense of Cnut’s life as he lived it.

As a result, Lawson’s book works better as a study of Cnut’s governance of England than it does as a biography of him. In this respect it fits the pattern that I’ve come to appreciate about biographies of Anglo-Saxon monarchs, as the limitations of the sources really constrain what authors can do with their subject. In Lawson’s case his choices led him to produce a less well-rounded study of Cnut than he really needs, though his final product helps his readers understand how a Scandinavian king successfully ruled his English realm.

On to Cnut!

Image of Cnut from a 14th c. manuscript

Of all of the monarchs of the Anglo-Saxon era, Cnut is the one whose reign fascinates the most. The second king from the Jelling dynasty to occupy the throne of England, over the course of his nearly two decades as king he built an Anglo-Scandinavian empire that straddled the North Sea, encompassing not just England and Denmark but Norway as well. It’s fascinating to contemplate just how different the history of Europe, if not the entire world, might have turned out had this empire survive Cnut’s untimely death in 1035, instead of fracturing despite his son Harthacnut’s best efforts to keep it together.

Given the number of biographies about Cnut, I get the impression that I’m not alone in my interest in him. As with Æthelred there are a good number of books about his life and reign, giving me plenty to read. The one I plan on starting with is M. K. Lawson’s 1993 book Cnut: England’s Viking King. This was the first biography published about Cnut in over eight decades, and as such it seems a good work on which to base my understanding of the king.

Once I finish Lawson’s book I’m going to read Ryan Lavelle Cnut: The North Sea King. Given Lavelle’s coverage of the Danes in his earlier biography of Æthelred, I’m especially looking forward to reading his analysis of Cnut, as he seems especially well-suited to highlight the Scandinavian side of Cnut’s reign. Hopefully this expectation won’t bias my assessment of his book, either for better or for worse, as I may be unrealistic in setting a bar for it even before I have cracked its cover.

Next up will be Timothy Bolton’s volume on Cnut for the Yale English Monarchs series. This is another one which I approach with certain expectations, in this case ones set by the quality of the volumes in the series that I’ve previously read. At the same time it will be interesting to see whether the series’ remit to cover English monarchs means a slighting or exclusion of the coverage of the Scandinavian dimension of Cnut’s reign, which seems impossible to ignore for a complete understanding of his rule.

After Bolton’s book I’m going to read L. M. Larson’s 1912 book Canute the Great. In terms of the books that I’ve read for this project it’s something of an anomaly – a biography of an Anglo-Saxon king that’s over a century old. It’s also a book that’s now in the public domain, so it deserves reading as the most accessible of the Cnut biographies out there. Judging from its appearance in various endnotes it seems to have held up well, but I look forward to seeing the ways in which it might differ from the other books, both in style and in substance.

Finally I will wrap up my exploration of Cnut biographies with M. J. Trow’s 2005 book Cnut: Emperor of the North. This one stands out for the author’s background, as Trow is not just a history teacher, but a prolific author of mystery novels as well. Why he chose to write a biography of Cnut will be one of the first questions that I look forward to finding an answer to when I read it.

Just One Book On . . . Æthelred

Æthelred is the first king of England about whom a reader faces a real choice in terms of a range of biographies. Unlike the either/or option anyone faces when learning about Æthelstan, there are four Æthelred biographies from which to choose. Each of them provides a different approach to their shared subject – but if you want to read only one, which one should you read?

For anyone new not just to the subject of Æthelred but to the late Anglo-Saxon era, both Ryan Lavelle’s and Ann Williams’s studies of Æthelred recommend themselves, as their books provide solid backgrounds of the period. The two compliment each other nicely in other respects, as Williams does a good job of describing Æthelred’s court – which was an important tool of government – while Lavelle’s book is particularly strong on the Scandinavian challenge that defined Æthelred’s later reign. But both are better studies of England during Æthelred’s reign than of Æthelred himself, so someone seeking a biography of the king is best served turning to one of the other choices.

This leaves the Æthelred biographies written by Levi Roach and Richard Abels. Both share in common their origins as books written for series devoted to the monarchs of England, and both are good studies of the king and his reign. Roach’s book is especially notable for its thoroughness and his forgiving assessment of his subject, and is certainly worthwhile reading for how well the negative press about Æthelred. Yet Roach’s revisionist approach is a little too imbalanced in the opposite direction, especially as it obscures why Æthelred enjoys the longstanding reputation he possesses in the first place. It’s definitely a book anyone interested in Æthelred should read, but not necessarily the first book they should pick up.

By contrast, while Abels provides a sympathetic description of Æthelred’s reign, it’s one that is balanced with analysis that makes it clear how Æthelred earned his longstanding reputation as a king. Moreover, he does this in a book that in terms of is length seems ideally sized for the amount of material available to him, as it allows Abels to supply the details about his subject without losing sight of the overall arc of Æthelred’s life and the events of his era. All of this makes Abels’s book the one to get if you have the opportunity to read only one biography about England’s famously ill-advised monarch.