King Canute (or Knut) the Great seized the throne of England following the deaths of King Æthelred the Unready and Edmund Ironside in 1016. After seeing to things in England, Canute then asserted his claim over Denmark between 1018 and 1019 (his father had been King Svein Forkbeard of the Danes) and he later usurped power in Norway by deposing King Olaf II Haraldsson (Saint Olaf) in 1028.
In addition to taking the English throne, King Canute also claimed the queen. Canute married Queen Emma, the widow of Æthelred the Unready, in the year 1017. Although Emma returned to England, her sons Ælfred and Edward (fathered by the late Æthelred), remained in exile. Not long after the marriage, presumably 1018 or 1019, King Canute and Emma had a son named Hardecanute, who would eventually inherit much of his Canute’s domain. Hardecanute was soon shipped off to Denmark, where he was tutored and prepped for kingship. By 1028, King Canute had enough trust in Hardecanute’s loyalty and talents to affirm the young prince as a governor or minor king in Denmark.
Yet, not all of Hardecanute’s siblings had been exiled and one half-brother, in particular, posed a significant challenge to Hardecanute’s future. While Hardecanute was seeing to his responsibilities in Denmark, a half-brother named Harold “Harefoot” was making powerful friends in England. Harold was born from Ælgifu of Northampton, who was favored by King Canute before he married Emma, and although Hardecanute seemed to be the favored prince, Harold managed to build himself a formidable faction of English thanes and earls. When King Canute died in 1035, Hardecanute easily assumed the full kingship over Denmark, where he had been the region’s effective ruler since at least 1028. Yet, England was another matter—it became a political warzone, with Earl Leofric of Mercia leading a party in favor of King Harold Harefoot, while Earl Godwine of Wessex and Queen Emma rallied to the cause of Hardecanute. Yet, Hardecanute’s long absence from England was used as a political weapon by Harold, who, in contrast, was a familiar face to the English noblemen. In the end, Emma and Earl Godwine could only contain Harold to the rank of co-king of England, or possibly regent. Yet, by 1037, Harold had gathered enough strength to do away with political pretenses—he declared himself the sole king of England and forced Queen Emma to leave Britain.
Harold’s reign was bittersweet. On the one hand, he successfully defended his kingdom’s frontiers against attack, albeit he reportedly took considerable casualties on the Welsh front. On a more negative note, his reign also saw a gruesome assassination—Ælfred (son of Æthelred and Emma) was said to have been kidnapped while in England to see his mother; he was then reportedly mutilated and left to slowly die from his wounds. Additionally, the threat of an invasion by Hardecanute always loomed over England in the years after Harold’s proclamation of sole rule. Nevertheless, Harold Harefoot died in 1040, before any conflict could erupt between the half-brothers. After Harold’s death, Hardecanute, who was lurking beyond the English Channel with a fleet of sixty ships, crossed over to England and assumed control of the vacated throne.
King Harold I Harefoot was buried in Westminster after his death. Yet, Hardecanute had unfinished business with the man who usurped his throne and exiled his mother. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hardecanute was willing to go to incredible lengths to get payback against his troublesome sibling. Not long after arriving in England, Hardecanute reportedly “caused the dead Harold to be dragged up, and had him cast into a fen” (ASC 1040). The act of tossing his half-brother’s remains into a wetland was a poor start to what would be an ungraceful and unpopular reign in England. In his short period of rule, Hardecanute earned himself a reputation for brutality and oath breaking before he died of drinking problems in 1042. He was succeeded by his half-brother, Edward the Confessor, a fellow son of Queen Emma.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of King Canute from the Young People’s History of England, c. 1870s, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.