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.

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