Just one book on . . . Cnut

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.

Review of “Cnut: Emperor of the North” by M. J. Trow

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.

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.

Review of “Cnut: England’s Viking King” by M. K. Lawson

When Michael Kenneth Lawson’s book originally was published in 1993 (as Cnut: The Danes in England in the Early Eleventh Century), it was the first new biography of Cnut since L. M. Larson’s Canute the Great came out in 1912. Because of this, Lawson was able to benefit from the considerable amount of scholarly work on Anglo-Saxon England in the intervening decades on the era, which not only allowed for a more informed interpretation of Cnut’s life but a more Anglo-centric account of his reign as well.

The focus is evident throughout Lawson’s short work. Beginning with Cnut’s re-conquest of England in 1016 he concentrates on describing how Cnut governed England during his nearly two decades as king. This he does in three chapters that explain, successively Cnut’s foreign policy, his relationship with the English church, and the practical operations of his government over the course of his reign. From them emerges a picture of a successful and pious ruler whose achievement was limited by his relatively early death and that of his sons as well.

Lawson makes his arguments convincingly through his mastery of the available sources, and works well within their limits. Yet his book disappoints in two respects. The first is that his account is a little too Anglo-centric. As the ruler of a large part of Scandinavia Cnut was more than just the king of England, and any account of his reign needs to reflect this. While Lawson’s focus may reflect the available evidence, by not addressing the Scandinavian aspects with anywhere near the same degree of thoroughness his examination of Cnut’s monarchy provides a somewhat distorted picture of his subject’s issues and priorities. The other problem is with Lawson’s approach to his material, which is more thematic than chronological. By focusing his chapters on specific aspects of Cnut’s rule, he ends up explaining his reign rather than describing it. While there are advantages to this approach, for my first book on Cnut I was hoping for something with more of a chronological structure that would give me a sense of Cnut’s life as he lived it.

As a result, Lawson’s book works better as a study of Cnut’s governance of England than it does as a biography of him. In this respect it fits the pattern that I’ve come to appreciate about biographies of Anglo-Saxon monarchs, as the limitations of the sources really constrain what authors can do with their subject. In Lawson’s case his choices led him to produce a less well-rounded study of Cnut than he really needs, though his final product helps his readers understand how a Scandinavian king successfully ruled his English realm.

On to Cnut!

Image of Cnut from a 14th c. manuscript

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.

Where to begin?

As I explain in my description of this site, my goal is to read biographies of all of the ruling kings and queens of England and Great Britain, from the beginning right down to the present day.

Which brings up an interesting question, where should such an effort begin?

Part of the problem is that for many of the early monarchs of post-Roman Britain we simply don’t have any biographies of them, in large part because we don’t have the sources to support them. For many of those kings, what we know could barely make for a paragraph-length entry in an encyclopedia, much less a book. As a result, there’s not much to review.

One obvious place to begin a project such as mine is with Alfred the Great. He was one of the outstanding kings of British history, and one that I would like to learn much more about. In the end, though, I decided not to start with him. This was in part because though Alfred was a momentous king, in the end he only ruled over a portion of England, not the complete territory. Plus, it felt a little unfair to his predecessors to begin with him just because he benefited from so much attention during his time and afterward.

Ultimately these two factors defined where I am starting my project. My first two reviews are going to be of books that encompass the entire late Anglo-Saxon monarchy, including the kings not covered in a biography. After that, I will focus on the first king who ruled over all of the territory of England as we know it today: Alfred’s grandson, Æthelstan. From him I will cover each of his successors, skipping the six — Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig, Edward the Martyr, Sweyn Forkbeard, and Harold Harefoot — about whom no biography is available. Once I get to Edward the Confessor, though, there will be an unbroken line of kings about whom I will have plenty to read. It will be a long way to the end, with plenty to learn in the process!