Review of “Canute the Great, 995(circ)-1035” by L. M. Larson

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 Their work to excavate sites, edit historical documents, and publish their results have done a lot to make possible many of the biographies that I have read for this site.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.

Review of “Cnut the Great” by Timothy Bolton

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 accomplished series.

Review of “Cnut: The North Sea King” by Ryan Lavelle

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.