CNUT: THE BUILDER OF KINGDOMS

Thursday, February 5, 2009


The end of the Viking age was marked by the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity and the assertion of royal power over unruly subjects. By the eleventh century Denmark and Norway were conventional kingdoms much like others in Western Europe. The growing power of the kings can be seen in this massive fortress in Denmark built by Cnut, who was also king of England.


It was not until the end of the tenth century that Viking armies attacked England again. This time they were not individuals or groups of raiders acting on their own initiative but organized armies, led at first by Olaf Tryggvason of Norway and later by Svein and his son Cnut, kings of Denmark. They all hoped to use the wealth of England to establish their authority in their home kingdoms and indeed Cnut ended by making England, not his native Denmark, the real centre of power. In 991 Olaf defeated the East Anglians under the ealdorman Byhrtnoth at Maldon in Essex, a defeat commemorated in one of the greatest AngloSaxon poems. Olaf's triumph enabled him to return to Norway with a massive 22,000 pounds of silver and establish himself as king (and build, as we have seen, the great ship, Long Serpent). Other rulers saw the easy pickings which were to be had from England under the feeble rule of Ethelred, nicknamed the 'Unready' (which actually means badly advised).


The new enemy was Svein Forkbeard of Denmark, who had first raided England as an ally of Olaf of Norway. He attacked again in 1007, at first merely taking Danegeld and then returning home. By 1013, however, he seems to have decided on a policy of the conquest of the whole kingdom. In this he was aided by many Anglo-Saxons, who felt that his strong rule would be preferable to the chaos they were currently enduring. Svein died in 1013 and was succeeded by Cnut who had himself crowned and who turned out to be one of England's greatest kings. But by this time he and his men could hardly be described as Vikings. Rather, he was a Christian monarch with a strong army, a chancery and all the trappings of settled government: the Viking age was over.


Heroic memories and ideals lived on and we will leave the Vikings with the heroic image of Cnut's fleet setting out for England:


The king Cnut, bidding his mother and brother farewell, again sought the bounds of the encircling shore where he had gathered a brilliant show of two hundred ships. Indeed there was so great a supply of arms that a single one of those ships could have furnished weapons in the greatest abundance if all the rest had lacked them. For there were so many types of shields that you would have thought that the hosts of all nations were at hand. Further, there was such elegant decoration on the keels that to the dazzled eyes of observers viewing from a distance, they seemed to be made of flame rather than of wood. For if at any time the sun mingled with them the radiance of its beams, here would flash the glitter of armour, there the fire of the hanging shields; burning gold on the prows, gleaming silver in the varied decorations of the vessels ... What adversary could gaze upon the lions, terrible in the glitter of their gold, upon the men of metal, menacing with their gilded brows, upon the dragons flaming with refined gold, upon the bulls threatening slaughter, their horns gleaming with gold - all these on the ships - and not feel dread and fear in the face of a king with so great a fighting force? Moreover, in this great armada, none among them was a slave, none a freed-man, none of low birth, none enfeebled by age. All were noble, all strong in the power of maturity, all fully trained in any type of warfare, all of such fleetness that they despised the speed of cavalry.


This was perhaps the high point of the seaborne armies that had conquered and ravaged much of western Europe for two centuries; but their weaknesses were to be cruelly exposed by the mailed Norman knights at Hastings in 1066.

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