Knut the Great
|"In this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen."|
- The Encomium Emmae
If you couldn't be raised by wolves or adopted into a powerful, secretive enclave of mystical ninja assassins, the next best thing in the middle ages was to be trained from birth as a badass nut-crunching Viking warrior who slices werewolves' arms off at the elbow and punches people in the neck when they say things that annoy him. I know it's not exactly a startling, ground-breaking revelation to suggest that perhaps the Vikings were pretty much the most face-rockingly hardcore bastards to ever beat a bunch of monks to death with their own iron church bells and then throw them through a stained-glass window onto some pointy rocks, but a little bit of reiteration every now and then never really hurts. This week, that reiteration comes in the form of Prince Knut of Denmark – the man who went from being an insane, mead-swigging berserker to one of the most powerful and successful Kings of Europe's Dark Ages.
Knut's father was the Danish King Svein Forkbeard, and his mother was a Polish princess named Gunhild, a woman who may also have been known by the epithet "the Haughty". Now I don't know about you, but after reading that these peoples' names were Svein Forkbeard and Gunhild the Haughty, the mental image that popped into my head wasn't exactly of two people who were not completely grim, humorless asskickers who settled for anything less than the complete annihilation of their enemies' assholes. These are serious names for seriously hardcore people. Oh, and while we're on the subject of badass names, I'd also like to point out that Knut is alternatively spelled Cnut, Knud, Knutr, and Canute, depending on who you ask. Personally, I decided to go with "Knut", not for any particular historical or linguistic reason, but mostly because it looks like it would be a homophone for "nut" and I like thinking about this guy as being "Nut the Great". Of course, now that I put some more thought into it, "Cnut" could be like "see nut", and as an added bonus it's an anagram for the only word in the English language that Americans still find offensive, but what's done is done and there's no going back now.
Well, Prince See You Next Tuesday was the second son of King Forkbeard, so instead of being groomed for Kinghood himself, he was taken at a young age to a secluded Viking stronghold where the toughest and most badass warriors in Denmark taught him the fine art of cleaving people from head to groin with a battle axe while generally just being crap-your-pants scary all the time. He went on sea raids, honed his powers of double-bladed face-smashing, and served as a brave warrior and commander in the unstoppable medieval Danish army, so you can be pretty damn sure that when the King decided it was time to go across the pond and beat up on the English he decided to take his most hardcore son with him.
You see, in the year 1002 King Ethelred the Unready of England got really sick of the Vikings raiding his towns and torching all of his subjects to death, so he decided to celebrate the obscure festival of Saint Brice's Day by ordering the bloody massacre of all Danes living in England. Svein Forkbeard took quite a bit of umbrage with this decree, especially since his sister and brother-in-law spent the holiday being locked inside of a church and burned to death, so he decided to head over and show Ethelred the Unready that ordering a Viking genocide is kind of a bad idea... unless of course you enjoy having a broadsword rammed so far down your throat that you're stapled to your own throne.
"We come from the land of the ice and snow,
where the midnight sun and the hot springs flow.
the hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
to fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!
on we sweep with threshing oar, our only goal will be the western shore!"
- Traditional Viking Battle Song
Ethelred, who by definition was unready for the righteous asswhomping that Knut and Svein were about to relentlessly lay upon him, finally did something wise and ran for it like a little bitch. The Danes smashed the leaderless armies of England, conquered their cities, went into their bases, and killed all their d00ds without mercy. Svein won several military engagements, conquered the island, and then promptly died suddenly and unexpectedly for some reason, leaving the ranking nobleman in England – the 20 year-old Knut – as the man in charge.
Knut obviously nominated himself for the title of King of England, but the nobility there decided instead to give it to Ethelred's son, a hardass knight named Edmund Ironside. Ironside, a guy so badass he may actually be related to Michael Ironside (it's hardly a common last name), decided to sack up, return to England, raise and army or medieval knights, and battle Knut for control of England. Ed put up a decent fight, but Knut and his Danish berserkers kicked his ass, slaughtering the entirety of the English nobility in one day at the Battle of Assandun by charging down from a hilltop and punching off all of their heads. Knut took over the throne, crowned himself King, and, just to be awesome, went out and married Ethelred's wife – a woman known alternatively as Emma of Normandy and Emma the MILF. She would go on to be the great-aunt of William the Conquerer, which is no small feat of sweetness, and you know that when you can trace your family tree to two guys known as "The Great" and "The Conqueror" you're in pretty good shape.
Anyways, Special K's first order of business was to exile, execute, and/or imprison all of Edmund Ironside's relatives and supporters, mostly because it's never a good idea to have people hanging around swearing blood oaths to avenge their friends' deaths by stabbing you in the balls until you die from it. Then, despite the fact that this new King of England had come from a long line of people who made names for themselves by wading through knee-deep rivers of blood, Knut established a twenty-year period of unprecedented peace in England, where he went around to the different cities and counties building churches and merry-go-rounds and giving everybody high-fives. He ruled fairly and justly, and is now remembered as being a pious and holy man because he gave lots of gold to the Catholic Church, only assassinated people that deserved it, and only took good Christian women to be his mistresses.
This is how I like to picture this guy's life going down.
Well in 1018 Knut's brother Harald – the man who had taken over as King of Denmark after Svein Forkbeard's death – up and died for some reason, and all of a sudden a bunch of jerks in Norway and Sweden thought they could sweep in and invade while Knut was off ruling the hell out of the British Isles. Within days of hearing about King Harald's death, hordes of badass Norsemen spewed forth from the Eye of Terror intent on crushing the people of Denmark and incinerating all of their shit.
They had gravely underestimated the asskicking prowess of Knut the Great.
Knut got a running start and leapt the entire length of the North Sea in one jump, landing in the middle of the combined Norse and Swedish army with his double-bladed axe at the ready. He single-handedly turned back the invasion by kicking ass like Aragorn at Helm's Deep, sent the badass Viking armies running back to their homes, and then went out and conquered all of Norway and most of Sweden just to show them what happens when you screw with the Danes. By the time Knut visited Rome to get drunk with the Pope and celebrate the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, he was already referring to himself as, "King of All the English, and of Denmark, of the Norwegians, and Some of the Swedes." I love that. Maybe Knut didn't want to take credit for the parts of Sweden involving Volvo, IKEA, or this guy, or maybe he was just being delightfully eccentric (the sources are unclear), but it's still awesome. Whatever the case may be, you can be pretty sure that Knut also lived it up in Rome, because back in the Dark Ages the Popes could really party their miters off like whoa.
Knut the Great started off as the second in line to the throne of Denmark, and went on to conquer pretty much every place he could sail his badass longships to. He ruled over Denmark, England, Norway, and part of Sweden, is remembered as a bloodthirsty Viking asskicker and a just and honorable ruler. He died in 1035 at the age of 40 – living fast, dying young, and leaving a good-looking corpse.
Medieval art depicting Knut (right) smiting the shit out of Edmund Ironside.
Canute the Great
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Trans. James Ingram. El Paso Norte Press, 2005.
Duruy, Victor, et al. The History of the Middle Ages. H. Holt, 1891.
Encomium Emmae. Trans. Alistair Campbell. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998.
Forte, Angelo, et al. Viking Empires. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005.
Page, Raymond Ian. Chronicles of the Vikings. Univ. of Toronto Press, 1995.
Stefansson, Jon.&nsbp; Denmark and Sweden. G.P. Putnam, 1917.
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