Canute IV of Denmark
Canute IV, later known as Canute the Holy or Canute the Saint , ( – July 10, 1086) was King of Denmark from 1080 until 1086. Canute was an ambitious king who sought to strengthen the Danish monarchy
Monarchy of Denmark
The monarchy in Denmark is the constitutional monarchy of the Kingdom of Denmark, which includes Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.As a constitutional monarch, the Queen is limited to non-partisan, ceremonial functions...

, devotedly supported the Roman Catholic Church
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

, and had designs on the English throne. Slain by rebels in 1086, he was the first Dane to be canonized
Canonization is the act by which a Christian church declares a deceased person to be a saint, upon which declaration the person is included in the canon, or list, of recognized saints. Originally, individuals were recognized as saints without any formal process...

. He was recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as patron saint
Patron saint
A patron saint is a saint who is regarded as the intercessor and advocate in heaven of a nation, place, craft, activity, class, clan, family, or person...

 of Denmark in 1101, under the name of San Canuto.


Canute was born , as one of the many illegitimate sons of Sweyn II Estridsson
Sweyn II of Denmark
Sweyn II Estridsson Ulfsson was the King of Denmark from 1047 to 1074. He was the son of Ulf Jarl and Estrid Svendsdatter. He was married three times, and fathered 20 children or more, including the five future kings Harald III Hen, Canute IV the Saint, Oluf I Hunger, Eric I Evergood and Niels...

. He is first noted as a member of Sweyn's 1069 raid of England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great...

 reports that Canute was one of the leaders of another raid against England in 1075. When returning from England in 1075, the Danish fleet stopped in the County of Flanders
County of Flanders
The County of Flanders was one of the territories constituting the Low Countries. The county existed from 862 to 1795. It was one of the original secular fiefs of France and for centuries was one of the most affluent regions in Europe....

. Because of its hostility towards William I of England
William I of England
William I , also known as William the Conqueror , was the first Norman King of England from Christmas 1066 until his death. He was also Duke of Normandy from 3 July 1035 until his death, under the name William II...

, Flanders was a natural ally for the Danes. He also led successful campaigns to Sember and Ester
Esters are chemical compounds derived by reacting an oxoacid with a hydroxyl compound such as an alcohol or phenol. Esters are usually derived from an inorganic acid or organic acid in which at least one -OH group is replaced by an -O-alkyl group, and most commonly from carboxylic acids and...

, according to skald
The skald was a member of a group of poets, whose courtly poetry is associated with the courts of Scandinavian and Icelandic leaders during the Viking Age, who composed and performed renditions of aspects of what we now characterise as Old Norse poetry .The most prevalent metre of skaldic poetry is...

 Kálfr Mánason.

When Sweyn died, Canute's brother Harald III
Harald III of Denmark
Harald III Hen was King of Denmark from 1074 to 1080. Harald III was an illegitimate son of Danish king Sweyn II Estridsson, and contested the crown with some of his brothers. He was a peaceful ruler who initiated a number of reforms. Harald was married to his cousin Margareta Hasbjörnsdatter, but...

 was elected King, and as Canute went into exile in Sweden
Sweden , officially the Kingdom of Sweden , is a Nordic country on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northern Europe. Sweden borders with Norway and Finland and is connected to Denmark by a bridge-tunnel across the Öresund....

, he was possibly involved in the active opposition to Harald. In 1080, Canute succeeded Harald to the throne of Denmark. On his accession, he married Adela
Adela of Flanders
Adela of Flanders , also known as Ailanda, was a mediaeval Danish Queen and Italian Duchess and regent, Queen Consort of King Canute IV of Denmark, and Duchess consort of Duke Roger Borsa of Apulia, and then minor regent of Apulia in 1111–1115 as mother and guardian of William II of Apulia...

, daughter of Count Robert I of Flanders
Robert I, Count of Flanders
thumb|Robert I of FlandersRobert I of Flanders , known as Robert the Frisian, was count of Flanders from 1071 to 1092.-History:...

. She bore him one son, Karl
Charles I, Count of Flanders
Blessed Charles the Good was Count of Flanders from 1119 to 1127. He is most remembered for his murder and its aftermath.-History:...

 (a name uncommon in Denmark) in 1084, and twin daughters Cæcilia (who married Erik Jarl) and Ingerid, born shortly before his death (ca. 1085/86).

King of Denmark

Canute quickly proved himself to be a highly ambitious king as well as a devout one. He enhanced the power position of the church, and demanded austere observation of church holidays. He gave large gifts to the churches in Dalby
Dalby is a Scandinavian place name meaning "valley settlement", during the Viking Age, the name was brought to England and it later also became an English surname...

, Odense
The city of Odense is the third largest city in Denmark.Odense City has a population of 167,615 and is the main city of the island of Funen...

, Roskilde
Roskilde is the main city in Roskilde Municipality, Denmark on the island of Zealand. It is an ancient city, dating from the Viking Age and is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network....

, and Viborg
Viborg, Denmark
Viborg , a town in central Jutland, Denmark, is the seat of both Viborg municipality and Region Midtjylland. Viborg is also the seat of the Western High Court, the High Court for the Jutland peninsula...

, and especially to Lund
-Main sights:During the 12th and 13th centuries, when the town was the seat of the archbishop, many churches and monasteries were built. At its peak, Lund had 27 churches, but most of them were demolished as result of the Reformation in 1536. Several medieval buildings remain, including Lund...

. Ever a champion of the Church, he sought to enforce the collection of tithes. His aggrandizement of the church served to create a powerful ally, who in turn supported Canute's power position.

In May 1085, Canute wrote a letter of donation to Lund Cathedral
Lund Cathedral
The Lund Cathedral is the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Scania, Sweden. It is the seat of the bishop of Lund of the Church of Sweden.- History :...

 which was under construction, granting it large tracts of lands in Scania
Scania is the southernmost of the 25 traditional non-administrative provinces of Sweden, constituting a peninsula on the southern tip of the Scandinavian peninsula, and some adjacent islands. The modern administrative subdivision Skåne County is almost, but not totally, congruent with the...

, Zealand, and Amager
Amager is a Danish island in the Øresund. The Danish capital, Copenhagen, is partly situated on Amager, which is connected to the much larger island of Zealand by five bridges.-History:...

. He founded Lund Cathedral School at the same time. Canute had gathered the land largely as pay for the pardon of lawless
Lawless may refer to:*Alex Lawless , footballer*Blackie Lawless , musician*Emily Lawless , author*Jack Lawless , musician*Lucy Lawless , actress*Tom Lawless , baseballer...

 subjects. The clerics at Lund got extended prerogatives of the land, being able to tax and fine the peasant
A peasant is an agricultural worker who generally tend to be poor and homeless-Etymology:The word is derived from 15th century French païsant meaning one from the pays, or countryside, ultimately from the Latin pagus, or outlying administrative district.- Position in society :Peasants typically...

ry there. However, Knud kept his universal royal rights to pardon the lawless, fine subjects who failed to answer his leding call to war, and demand transportation for his retinue.

His reign was marked by vigorous attempts to increase royal power in Denmark, by stifling the nobles and keeping them to the word of the law. Canute issued edicts arrogating to himself the ownership of common land, the right to the goods from shipwrecks, and the right to inherit the possessions of foreigners and kinless folk. He also issued laws to protect freed thrall
Thrall was the term for a serf or unfree servant in Scandinavian culture during the Viking Age.Thralls were the lowest in the social order and usually provided unskilled labor during the Viking era.-Etymology:...

s as well as foreign clerics and merchants. These policies led to discontent among his subjects, who were unaccustomed to a king who claimed such powers and who interfered in their daily lives.

Aborted attempt on England

But Canute's ambitions were not purely domestic. As the grandnephew of Canute the Great
Canute the Great
Cnut the Great , also known as Canute, was a king of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden. Though after the death of his heirs within a decade of his own and the Norman conquest of England in 1066, his legacy was largely lost to history, historian Norman F...

, who ruled England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, Denmark
Denmark is a Scandinavian country in Northern Europe. The countries of Denmark and Greenland, as well as the Faroe Islands, constitute the Kingdom of Denmark . It is the southernmost of the Nordic countries, southwest of Sweden and south of Norway, and bordered to the south by Germany. Denmark...

 and Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...

 until 1035, Canute considered the crown of England to be rightfully his. He therefore regarded William I of England
William I of England
William I , also known as William the Conqueror , was the first Norman King of England from Christmas 1066 until his death. He was also Duke of Normandy from 3 July 1035 until his death, under the name William II...

 as a usurper. In 1085, with the support of his father-in-law Count Robert and Olaf III of Norway
Olaf III of Norway
Olaf Kyrre , or Olaf III Haraldsson, was King of Norway from 1067 to 1093. He was present at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England in 1066 where his father, Harald Hardrada, saw defeat and was killed in action...

, Canute planned an invasion of England and called his fleet in leding at the Limfjord
The Limfjord is a shallow sound in Denmark that separates the island of Vendsyssel-Thy from the rest of the Jutland Peninsula. It extends from Thyborøn Channel on the North Sea to Hals on the Kattegat. It is approximately 180 kilometres long and of an irregular shape with several bays, narrowings,...

. The fleet never set sail, as Canute was preoccupied in Schleswig
Schleswig or South Jutland is a region covering the area about 60 km north and 70 km south of the border between Germany and Denmark; the territory has been divided between the two countries since 1920, with Northern Schleswig in Denmark and Southern Schleswig in Germany...

 due to the potential threat of Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor
Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor
Henry IV was King of the Romans from 1056 and Holy Roman Emperor from 1084 until his forced abdication in 1105. He was the third emperor of the Salian dynasty and one of the most powerful and important figures of the 11th century...

, with whom both Denmark and Flanders were on unfriendly terms. Canute feared the invasion of Henry, whose enemy Rudolf of Rheinfelden had sought refuge in Denmark.

The warriors of the fleet, mostly made up of peasants who needed to be home for the harvest season, got weary of waiting, and elected Canute's brother Olaf (the later Olaf I of Denmark
Olaf I of Denmark
Olaf I of Denmark was king of Denmark from 1086 to 1095, following the death of his brother Canute IV the Holy. He was a son of king Sweyn II Estridsson, and the third of Sweyn's sons to rule. He married Ingegard, the daughter of Harald III of Norway, but did not have any children...

) to argue their case. This raised the suspicion of Canute, who had Olaf arrested and sent to Flanders. The leding was eventually dispersed and the peasants tended to their harvests, but Canute intended to reassemble within a year.


Before the fleet could reassemble, a peasant revolt broke out in Vendsyssel
Vendsyssel is the northernmost traditional district of Denmark and of Jutland. Being divided from mainland Jutland by the Limfjord, it is technically a part of the North Jutlandic Island. Vendsyssel is part of the North Denmark Region....

, where Canute was staying, in early 1086. Canute first fled to Schleswig, and eventually to Odense
The city of Odense is the third largest city in Denmark.Odense City has a population of 167,615 and is the main city of the island of Funen...

. On July 10, 1086, Canute and his men took refuge inside the wooden St. Alban's Priory in Odense. The rebels stormed into the church and slew Canute, along with his brother Benedict and seventeen of their followers, before the altar. According to chronicler Ælnoth of Canterbury
Ælnoth of Canterbury
Ælnoth or Ailnoth was an Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk from Canterbury who settled in Denmark, and is known as author of a legend of the Danish king Saint Canute , who had been killed in Odense in 1086 and was canonized by the Pope 1100 or 1101....

, Canute died following a lance
A Lance is a pole weapon or spear designed to be used by a mounted warrior. The lance is longer, stout and heavier than an infantry spear, and unsuited for throwing, or for rapid thrusting. Lances did not have tips designed to intentionally break off or bend, unlike many throwing weapons of the...

 thrust in the flank. He was succeeded by Olaf as Olaf I of Denmark
Olaf I of Denmark
Olaf I of Denmark was king of Denmark from 1086 to 1095, following the death of his brother Canute IV the Holy. He was a son of king Sweyn II Estridsson, and the third of Sweyn's sons to rule. He married Ingegard, the daughter of Harald III of Norway, but did not have any children...



Because of his martyrdom and advocacy of the Church, Canute quickly began to be considered a saint. Under the reign of Olaf, Denmark suffered from crop failure, which was seen as divine retribution
Divine retribution
Divine retribution is supernatural punishment of a person, a group of people, or all humanity by a deity in response to some human action.Many cultures have a story about how a deity exacted punishment on previous inhabitants of their land, causing their doom.An example of divine retribution is the...

 for the sacrilege
Sacrilege is the violation or injurious treatment of a sacred object. In a less proper sense, any transgression against the virtue of religion would be a sacrilege. It can come in the form of irreverence to sacred persons, places, and things...

 killing of Canute. Miracle
A miracle often denotes an event attributed to divine intervention. Alternatively, it may be an event attributed to a miracle worker, saint, or religious leader. A miracle is sometimes thought of as a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature. Others suggest that a god may work with the laws...

s were soon reported as taking place at his grave, and his canonization was already being sought during the reign of Olaf.

On April 19, 1101, persuaded by the envoys from Eric III of Denmark
Eric III of Denmark
Eric III Lamb was the King of Denmark from 1137 until 1146. He was the grandson of Eric I of Denmark and the nephew of Eric II of Denmark, whom he succeeded on the throne. He abdicated in 1146, as the first and only Danish monarch to do so. His succession led to a period of civil war between...

, Pope Paschal II
Pope Paschal II
Pope Paschal II , born Ranierius, was Pope from August 13, 1099, until his death. A monk of the Cluniac order, he was created cardinal priest of the Titulus S...

 confirmed the "cult of Canute" that had arisen, and King Canute IV was canonized as a saint under the name San Canuto. He was the first Dane to be canonized. 19 January is recognised by the Catholic Church as his feast day. In Sweden and Finland
Finland , officially the Republic of Finland, is a Nordic country situated in the Fennoscandian region of Northern Europe. It is bordered by Sweden in the west, Norway in the north and Russia in the east, while Estonia lies to its south across the Gulf of Finland.Around 5.4 million people reside...

, however, his feast day, St. Knut's Day
St. Knut's Day
Tjugondag jul , or Tjugondag Knut is a traditional festival celebrated in Sweden and Finland on January 13. It is not celebrated in Denmark despite being named for Saint Canute, the patron saint of Denmark. The days between Christmas and Tjugondag jul are filled with holidays...

, is celebrated on 13 January. This appears to be because he decreed that Christmas be celebrated for 20 days, and 13 January falls 20 days after Christmas Day.

In 1300, his remains and those of his brother Benedict were interred in Saint Canute's Cathedral
Saint Canute's Cathedral
St. Canute's Cathedral , also known as Odense Cathedral, is named after the Danish king Canute the Saint , otherwise Canute IV. It is a fine example of Brick Gothic architecture. The church's most visited section is the crypt where the remains of Canute and his brother Benedict are on display.-...

, built in his honour, where his remains are on display.


The reign of Canute has been interpreted differently through the times; from a violent king who tyrannized his subjects, to a strict but fair ruler who devoutedly supported the Roman Catholic Church and fought for justice without regard to his own person. He was never a thoroughly popular saint in Denmark, but his sainthood granted the Danish monarchy an aura of divine legitimacy
Divine Right of Kings
The divine right of kings or divine-right theory of kingship is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God...

. The cause of the rebellion which killed Canute is unknown, but has been speculated as originating in fines issued to the peasants breaking the leding of 1085 as specified in the Chronicon Roskildense
Chronicon Roskildense
Chronicon Roskildense a small Danish historical work, which except for few yearbooks, is the oldest known attempt to write a coherent account of Danish history by a Danish author, from the time of the introduction of Christianity in Denmark to the author's own time...

, or as a result of his vigorous tithe policy.

The document of his donation to Lund Cathedral was the oldest comprehensive text from Denmark, and provided broad insights into Danish post-Viking Age
Viking Age
Viking Age is the term for the period in European history, especially Northern European and Scandinavian history, spanning the late 8th to 11th centuries. Scandinavian Vikings explored Europe by its oceans and rivers through trade and warfare. The Vikings also reached Iceland, Greenland,...

 society. The donation might have had the aim of establishing the Danish Archdiocese of Lund according to Sweyn II Estridsson's wishes, which was finally achieved in 1104. Canute's son Carl became Count of Flanders from 1119 to 1127, ruling as Charles the Good. Like his father, Charles was martyred in a church by rebels (in Bruges
Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium. It is located in the northwest of the country....

, 1127). According to Niels Lund, Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Copenhagen
University of Copenhagen
The University of Copenhagen is the oldest and largest university and research institution in Denmark. Founded in 1479, it has more than 37,000 students, the majority of whom are female , and more than 7,000 employees. The university has several campuses located in and around Copenhagen, with the...

, Canute's abortive invasion of England "marked the end of the Viking Age." For it was the last time a Viking army was to assemble against Western Europe
Western Europe
Western Europe is a loose term for the collection of countries in the western most region of the European continents, though this definition is context-dependent and carries cultural and political connotations. One definition describes Western Europe as a geographic entity—the region lying in the...


In 2008, an X-ray computed tomography was taken of Canute, which showed that he was right-handed and of a slender build. It also specified his cause of death as a thrust to the sacrum
In vertebrate anatomy the sacrum is a large, triangular bone at the base of the spine and at the upper and back part of the pelvic cavity, where it is inserted like a wedge between the two hip bones. Its upper part connects with the last lumbar vertebra, and bottom part with the coccyx...

 through the abdomen
In vertebrates such as mammals the abdomen constitutes the part of the body between the thorax and pelvis. The region enclosed by the abdomen is termed the abdominal cavity...

, negating Ælnoth's account. He had no injuries indicating he fought against multiple enemies, which can be seen as supporting an account saying he faced his death without a struggle.

In Spain, Canute's feast day has become a tongue-in-cheek "holiday" for the marijuana legalization movement, appropriating the Spanish version of his name, Canuto, which coincidentally is also the word for a marijuana cigarrette.


Further reading

  • The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Ed., Peter Sawyer. Oxford University Press, New York, 1997. Chapter Seven: "The Danish Empire and the End of the Viking Age" by Niels Lund. The quote is from page 181.
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Ed David High Farmer. Oxford University Press, 2004. See the entry on St Canute.
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