Review of “Harthacnut: the Last Danish King of England” by Ian Howard

Harthacnut is among the more unjustly forgotten kings in English history. The younger son of Cnut the Great, he succeeded his father as king of Denmark upon Cnut’s death in 1035. While also due some portion of the English throne, events in Denmark prevented him from traveling there, allowing his half-brother Harold (known as Harold Harefoot) to take control over England, which he ruled from 1037 until his death in 1040. With Harold’s death Harthacnut asserted his claim over England, arriving with what amounted to an occupation force of Danes. Yet Harthacnut’s reign was brief, as he died just two years later while drinking a toast to a bride at a wedding.

Harthacnut’s brief but eventful reign is the stuff from which novels are written, yet to date only Ian Howard has undertaken a biography of him. Howard brings an unusual background to the project, as he became a scholar of 11th century Anglo-Danish history after retiring from a successful career in business. In this respect he reminded me of Peter Rex, another author of royal biographies who turned to writing books about the late Anglo-Saxon era only after a career spent on other concerns.

The similarity between the two men extends to the challenge they faced in writing their respective biographies, in terms of a relative lack of material from which to construct an account of their subject’s life and reign. Whereas Rex faced this challenge because of the years of peace enjoyed by Edgar, for Howard it’s one born in large part of the brevity of Harthacnut’s reign. For all of its excitement, Harthacnut simply didn’t have the time enjoyed by his father to leave much of a documented imprint.

An additional factor undoubtedly played a role as well, as Harthacnut was more of a Danish king than an English one. Howard makes this point subtly throughout his book, showing how the young prince spent more time in Denmark than in England and detailing how the recurring challenges he faced there as king forced him to postpone his plans to go to England be crowned until the temptation to assume the throne became too much for Harold Harefoot to resist. This he covers mainly through English-language materials, raising the question of whether a more complete account of Harefoot’s life would have been possible had Howard employed Danish sources to the extent that some of Cnut’s biographers did. While it’s doubtful it would be as useful for understanding Harthacnut’s rule over England, it would help in many ways to get a fuller understanding of him as a king.

One of the ways Howard fills this gap in his coverage created by Harthacnut’s absence from England is by detailing the events of the drawn-out succession crisis following Cnut’s death in 1035. Here he gives particular attention to Emma’s activities as queen mother, featuring her in a way that the biographers of her husbands Æthelred and Cnut did not. It was surprising to discover how central she was to the politics of the period given the background role she generally played in the previous works I had read about the monarchs of the period. It definitely piqued my interest in her, and I plan on following up at some point with a biography focused on her rather than on one of her husbands or her sons.

Yet Howard’s coverage of Emma only highlights just how little there is for the biographer to say about Harthacnut’s time as England’s ruler. His efforts in this respect are commendable, as they give us the sort of biographical study all too often lacking for monarchs of the Anglo-Saxon era. Hopefully it is one that can inspire further study, particularly of his rule in Denmark and the broader perspectives that can offer about Harthacnut as a king. Until then, though, Howard’s useful but somewhat limited study stands alone for anyone searching for a book about this understudied monarch.