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 strengths.
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 and since.