It happened today - November 12, 2015
On one of those “It Happened Today” style sites, Nov. 12 is the date “King Canute of Norway” died in 1035. I think we can do a bit better than that. It’s the date King Canute of England, and the tides, died.
I’m a bit conflicted about Canute, or Knut, or “Knútr inn ríki” or however you’d like to mispronounce his name. I don’t care for the Danish invaders who created such havoc in Saxon England and so weakened the House of Wessex that it semi-perished in 1066.
I’ve never quite recovered from the death of Edmund Ironside in 1016 that might have replaced the genuinely wretched Aethelred the Unready with another glorious king in the tradition of Edgar the Peaceful, Athelstan the Magnificent and Alfred the Great. But it must be admitted that the Danes including Canute’s father, the colourfully named Sveyn Forkbeard, were to some extent welcomed because Aethelred was so awful; cruel, treacherous, weak and despicable.
It is a core maxim of their constitution, and ours, that rulers must be good, not simply to the manner born. And Canute was legitimately a very good king or even “the great”, the translation of “inn ríki” from Old Norse (or so I believe from Wikipedia; it could mean “the doughnut” and I’d be none the wiser).
Hey, some may say. What about the tides? Wasn’t he the arrogant chump who thought he could command the waves?
No. And that’s the point. His obsequious courtiers told him he was so great, so beloved of God, so generally regal and magnificent, that he actually could stop the tide. To which Canute brusquely demanded an empirical test. (No, people weren’t credulous superstitious fools in those bad old days.) He had a chair carried down at low tide, sat in it, ordered the advancing waves to halt and when instead they poured cold salty water into his boots he rebuked his advisors, telling them as king he could get flattery anywhere, any time, free of charge, and what he needed wasn’t yes sire men but people willing to tell him when he was wrong, what he could not or should not do, when he was being an arrogant fool, because otherwise he could not govern properly.
Canute’s successors were a scurvy lot, Harold Harefoot swiped the throne from his half-brother Harthacnut (or Hardicanute or Halfacanute) and swiftly perished,possibly by drinking himself to death. Harthacnut took the throne, had Harefoot’s body dug up, mutilated and flung naked into a mudflat. Aaaah, sibling rivalry.
More stuff happened and finally William the Conqueror grabbed the crown, after which it took 150 years for Magna Carta to nail the Norman kings back into the Saxon box of limited government, the lid of which the executive has been trying to pry off ever since. But as the elite and the people rallied around the cause of limiting government, they consistently remembered the humility and wisdom of Canute, King of England.
We could use a dose of it today too, frankly. Stephen Harper never had it, nor does Kathleen Wynne or Barack Obama. And we are still waiting to see what Justin Trudeau is like in power.