When it comes to biographies of Cnut, the interested reader has the good fortune to have nearly a half-dozen books from which to choose. All of them have their strengths and reward reading – but in terms of selecting the one book is the best value for one’s time, which is the one to choose?
For those new to the era, both Ryan Lavelle’s and M.
J. Trow’s contributions recommend themselves. The two biographies offer
extremely accessible examinations of their subject, with Trow’s study stronger
on Cnut’s Scandinavian background and Lavelle’s account better for those
interested primarily in Cnut’s time on the throne. By contrast M. K. Lawson’s 1993 Cnut: England’s
Viking King works far better as a book for those who are already familiar
with the basics of Cnut’s life and who want to learn more about how he reigned
over England, though in the end it really says more about how Cnut governed
rather than it does about the man himself.
By contrast L. M. Larson
does a great job in explaining both Cnut’s background and his time on the
throne in his book Canute the Great. Yet as well as it has held up over
the decades, as a book first published over a century it lacks all that we have
learned about 11th century England since then. As a result it offers
only a partial understanding of Cnut compared to what’s available for readers
now, and for the reader seeking just one book on Cnut it should be bypassed in
favor of the more up-to-date studies available.
And when it comes to
up-to-date studies, it’s hard to top Timothy Bolton’s superb contribution on
Cnut for the Yale English Monarchs series. It stands out not just for the depth
of knowledge Bolton brings to his subject, but a sense of the biographical art
that shines through on nearly every page. It’s not only the best biography of
Cnut available, it’s one of the best biographies of any medieval figure
that I have ever read, and will definitely enrich anyone who gives the book the
time it deserves. If you have time to read only one biography of Cnut, Bolton’s
is the one to get.
One of the things that distinguishes M. J. Trow’s Cnut: Emperor of the North is that of
the five Cnut biographies I have read it’s the only one written by someone who
is not an academic. Meirion James Trow is a former secondary school teacher who,
in addition to writing several books on various historical subjects, is the
author of over two dozen crime novels, including a series centered on Arthur
Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade.
Given Trow’s experience as a writer it wasn’t a
surprise to discover that his account of Cnut is not just a readable book about
the king but one of the most accessible books I have read for this entire project.
This isn’t just in terms of Trow’s style, which is straightforward and clear,
but his approach to his subject as well. Rather than simply focus on Cnut, Trow
begins by chronicling England’s relations with the Vikings in the decades
before Cnut’s arrival, after which he focuses on Cnut’s father Sweyn Forkbeard
and his activities in the kingdom. It provides an excellent background to the
period for anyone unfamiliar with the subject, and it’s one of the book’s great
The problem, though, is that Trow’s narrative never
fully coheres around Cnut. It takes Trow nearly a third of the book to get to
Edmund Ironside’s death and Cnut’s consolidation of control, at which point the
author spends a chapter describing his new realm. The second half of Trow’s
book is a series of primarily thematic chapters in which he examines Cnut’s
religious activities, his lawmaking, activities in Scandinavia, and so on. It’s
an approach similar to Lawson’s book, and like Lawson’s book much of the focus
is lost on Cnut himself, making it more about the times in which he lived.
This seems in part a consequence of Trow’s sources.
While drawing from a range of published works about Cnut and his era, he relies
exclusively on English-language histories and English translations of primary
source materials. He is especially dependent on Laurence Larson and M. K.
Lawson’s previous biographies of Cnut, which he references frequently and
quotes from repeatedly. While he makes good use of these materials, they leave
a sense that Trow is heavily dependent upon them for his understanding of Cnut
and has nothing especially new to say about his subject.
Taken together, these issues shape the limits of what
Trow accomplishes with his book. More a Cnut-centric history of 11th
century England than a true biography of him, it’s an excellent introduction to
the era for anyone new to the subject, but one that should be supplemented by
more in-depth works about Cnut’s life and reign that have been written before
One of the things that I’ve learned as a result of my
reading project is just how much excellent research has been undertaken about
Anglo-Saxon England over the past several decades by historians and
archaeologists. Their work to excavate sites, edit historical documents, and
publish their results have done a lot to make possible many of the biographies
that I have read for this site. Without their labors, there simply wouldn’t be
as much to read about the kings of 10th and 11th century
England that we have today.
Yet for all of the scarcity of biographies of
Anglo-Saxon monarchs before then there were
a few published before the recent research that make our relatively rich
selection of choices possible. Among this scant handful is a biography of Cnut
written by Laurence Marcellus Larson, a Norwegian-American historian who taught
at the University of Illinois and who authored a range of books on U.S.,
British, and early Scandinavian history. His book was published in 1911 as part
of a series entitled “Heroes of the Nation” that sought to tell the stories of
“representative historical characters about whom have gathered the great
traditions of the nations to which they belonged, and who have been accepted,
in many instances, as types of the several National ideas.” Based on that
description I was expecting that I what I was getting was a heroic celebration
of Cnut; what I found instead was a book that provided an impressively well-developed
description of his life and reign.
Larson begins his book with a chapter covering Cnut’s
background and the Jelling dynasty.
This was especially welcome for the information it provided on Sweyn Forkbeard,
Cnut’s father and a king of England for whom biographical treatments are nonexistent.
From there Larson moves on to discuss the two invasions by the Danes and Cnut’s
conflict with Edmund Ironside, before settling into a narrative account of
Cnut’s reign and the major events associated with it. His book made for a sharp
contrast with the more recent biographies I read, as Larson provides a less
analytical and more descriptive account than the authors of the other Cnut
biographies. Larson’s approach may be a little old-fashioned academically
speaking, but it did establish for me a sense of the timeline of Cnut’s reign
more easily than did the others.
As I read it, though, I was struck by the sources
Larson relied on for his details. As a scholar of early Scandinavia, Larson is
well versed in the skaldic sources and other records of the period. What’s
missing from his book is the archaeological evidence that might confirm,
embellish, or qualify many of the details they contain. Larson is up front
about the limits of his sources, and he frequently qualifies his statements
about the facts because of them. Yet this judiciousness continually underscored
for me how much more we know about Cnut’s times thanks to the scholarly labors
undertaken in the century since Larson published his book, the fruits of which
were evident throughout the other Cnut biographies I read.
Larson can hardly be faulted for not knowing what was at
that time undiscovered, but it does point to the core limitation of his book.
While still valuable for its narrative structure, particularly in terms of its
coverage of Cnut’s forbearers, it can only give us a partial picture of what we
know today about Cnut and the world in which he lived.
One of the challenges I have with some of the books I
am reading for this site is approaching them without expectations. I’m starting
to recognize my need to address this, especially as it’s one that I expect will
grow over time as I become familiar with certain authors and series and develop
assumptions that apply to any related volumes that I read. I expect this to be
especially true with the biographies in the Yale English Monarchs series. The
successor to the English Monarchs series started by the University of
California Press in the 1960s, its volumes are coming to represent the gold
standard for me in terms of studies of English monarchs, thanks to the high
level of scholarship and editorial quality that they display. This proved as
true for Timothy Bolton’s biography of Cnut as it did for Sarah Foot’s study of
Æthelstan and Levi Roach’s account of Æthelred’s life and times.
As the author of an earlier study on Cnut’s empire
Bolton comes to the task of writing a biography of the king already well-versed
in his subject and the context of the period, all of which helps to inform his
study of the man. This comes across in his introduction, in which he addresses
the challenges of writing a biography of Cnut. This was especially interesting
reading for me, given all of the previous books I’ve read on Anglo-Saxon
monarchs, as not only does he briefly recount the modern historiography of Cnut
and provides a description of the extant documentary, archaeological, and
literary materials for any study of his life, but he includes as well a
meditation on the art of biography that is one of the best things I have read
for my project and defined well his approach to his subject.
From there Bolton turns his attention to Cnut himself.
He breaks down the king’s life into three
distinct stages, the first of which, which encompasses Cnut’s life prior to his
assumption of the throne, provided the examination of his Danish background
that I have sought ever since I started reading about him. Here Bolton spends a
considerable amount of space simply detailing the information contained in the
available sources and explaining what it reveals, which I appreciated greatly
for the understanding it provided into how he assessed the evidence and came to
the conclusions he did. While he qualifies many of his judgments, Bolton is
refreshingly open about this and never puts more weight on his sources than
they can bear.
With the Danish invasions of 1013 and 1016 Cnut embarked
on what Bolton views as the second phase of his life, which encompassed his
first twelve years on the English throne. Here he details the range of Cnut’s
efforts to establish a foundation for his reign. This was an active time during
which Cnut worked not just to secure his hold on England but remained active in
Scandinavian politics as well. Here as with his Danish background Bolton goes
into much more into his role in Scandinavia than Lawson and Lavelle did in
either of their books, showing how for Cnut his realm became an empire divided
by a sea rather than two separate kingdoms. It’s a perspective that helped me
appreciate how distorting an English-only focus on Cnut’s reign can be, even if
it is the one best supported by the documentary record.
Cnut’s return to England in 1029 signals for Bolton the
final stage of his life. After years spent coping with rebellions and war Cnut
enjoyed a period of relative peace and security that lasted for the remainder
of his reign. This gave him the time to focus on governing his realm, and Bolton
sees in his activities and his choice of courtiers evidence of his development
of a new Anglo-Scandinavian identity for his subjects. Bolton’s speculations as
to what might have happened had this development continued for longer are
especially intriguing, suggesting as they do a very different kingdom that
might have developed had not the ties been disrupted by his death in 1035 and
that of his sons soon afterward.
It’s this combination
of careful scholarship and plausible speculation that make Bolton’s biography
such an excellent book. While Cnut’s personality rarely comes across in its
pages, this reflects more the challenges inherent in writing about the lives of
people who lived a millennia ago rather than any failing on the author’s part. What
Bolton has accomplished is likely to be the standard by which all future Cnut
biographies are judged, one that is a worthy addition to an already
As I noted in my introduction to Cnut, I approached
Ryan Lavelle’s contribution to the Penguin Monarchs series with a degree of
anticipation shaped by his previous book on Æthelred. In it, Lavelle spent
several pages describing his Scandinavian opponents, which I found very helpful
in understanding the external threat facing that ill-advised king. Having
devoted as much attention to the Scandinavians in a book on Æthelred as Lavelle
did, I expected his biography on Æthelred’s Danish successor to provide more on
his background than I had received in Lawson’s book.
I quickly discovered that this was not to be the case.
After briefly recounting the famous tale of Cnut’s confrontation with the waves
Lavelle skips over his subject’s early years to begin his account of Cnut’s life
by detailing Cnut’s role in the conquest of England. While a little
disappointing, it make sense considering the constraints Lavelle faces: for a
series of compact books about the lives of English monarchs, narrative economy
is undoubtedly an important concern. And Lavelle provides his readers with a
very economical account of Cnut’s reign that draws upon recent archaeological
discoveries as well as the more traditional sources to describe Cnut’s
activities within the context of his time. Only the most basic background is
provided, as Lavelle keeps his focus resolutely upon Cnut’s actions and what
they reveal about him.
The result is a good overview of Cnut’s life that fits
well with the amount of information available. Like most biographers of
Anglo-Saxon monarchs Lavelle has to speculate about motives and intentions for
which no records or accounts remain. Lavelle writes with a firmness of tone
that suggests an assuredness in his command of the material: though having to
engage in guesswork, he is confident about the conclusions he draws from the
surviving sources. This gives his book an added degree of readability, as he
explains Cnut’s undertakings, offers plausible explanations for his choices,
and moves on. And his scope is quite impressive for a book of this size,
addressing not just the political developments and military activities of
Cnut’s life, but his piety, relations with the religious establishment, and his
family life to boot.
By presenting all of this in a chronological account
of Cnut’s reign, Lavelle’s book serves as an excellent introduction to his
subject. I suspect I would have gotten more out of Lawson’s book (which Lavelle
generously praises in his list of “Further Reading”) had I started with this
one, but with the grounding I now possess I look forward to reading the
remaining books about Cnut with the sense of events that Lavelle provides.