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.