Page images



prince of Cumberland, although backed by the forces of Scotland, to renew the fealty due to the English crown, which Duncan had professed to owe only to the kings of English race.

Canute, therefore, to a certain degree, restored the lustre of the British crown, and commanded the respect of the German emperor, who granted free entrance and protection to the English pilgrims to Rome. But the type of man was low. He had the cunning of a fox, the passions of a child, and the vindictive memory of a savage; he murdered the friend who had saved his life, for using a few bitter words, and for beating him at chess. He might have anticipated the union of England and Normandy by a great Scandinavian federation, of which England should be the nucleus: he contented himself with assigning a sort of patriarchate to the English church over Denmark, and with giving a few foreign bishoprics to Englishmen; but so ordered his vice-royalties, that after his death his three sons were able severally to seize the countries they governed. He established order and peace in England, and freed the country from the presence of the Danish army. Though a heavy sum was paid for their departure, the benefit was incalculable; and Canute deserved the gratitude which rewarded him. But he had not the power of organization which William the Conqueror possessed; Canute left the country as he found it, parcelled it into little sovereignties, with no common name or system, which might blend together the hostile nationalities. To have made the immediate feudatories of the crown fourteen hundred instead of three, would have been a work that might have compensated the bloodshed of Ethelred's reign, and the murders of his own accession: Canute continued to govern by dukes; and by one of his great peers the Anglo-Danish dynasty was overthrown.

Following the common policy of usurpers, Canute allied himself with the strong church party; a proof among others that the monastic movement was still supported by the public opinion of the best men of the times. In fact, the English church was again doing missionary work among the heathen ; the labours of its clergy in Sweden and Norway will serve to



excuse their literary sterility, and cemented the union of Britain with the north; the very Danes in England were carried away by the contagion, and joined in propagating the faith, or founding monasteries. Canute's own pilgrimage to Rome, 1026 A.D., with scrip and staff in hand, is a striking proof how much his policy was influenced by respect for the faith of his subjects, though it did not prevent him from restoring paganism in Norway two years later. Once, he even interfered at some political risk to transfer the body of St. Ælfeg from London to Canterbury; the bridges and banks of the Thames were lined with the royal hus-carles, while others of the troops were ordered to occupy the sturdy Londoners with scuffles at the city gates; under cover of this strategy, the translation was happily accomplished, and the royal barge, with gilt dragons on its prow, carried off the imperishable remains to Plumstead, where the army of Kent secured them from farther pursuit.1 In one important particular the king's connection with the church was productive of unmixed good: he forbade that Christian men should be sold too readily out of the land into service among the heathen. More substantial benefits to the church as a corporation were the stringent enforcement of Peter's pence and of tithes; and an enactment that the guilty priest was to receive sentence from his bishop or from the pope; it is the first establishment of an ecclesiastical jurisdiction in criminal matters. The gratitude of cloistered chroniclers has rewarded the king with a reputation which his moral character certainly did not deserve. Yet the sternest critic of Canute may wish to believe the beautiful story of the rebuke given to his courtiers' flattery, when he showed how little the waves regarded his royalty; it is hard to know that the legend has a Welsh original.


1 Osbern, De Trans. S. Elpheg., Anglia Sacra, vol. ii., pp. 145, 146. Canute's Laws, Ecc., 5, 29. He forsakes his law of kin when he submits to monastic law.-Sec. 41, 42, 43, 29. If a man in holy orders defile himself with a crime worthy of death, let him be seized and held to the bishop's doom according as the deed may be.-A. S. Laws, vol. i., pp. 363, 401, 403.

3 In the Welsh story, the trial on the sea-shore is made by several princes to see who shall be supreme king; and Maelgwn, the Lancelot of romance, triumphs by means of a chair with waxed wings under it.-Welsh Laws



least Saxon poetry has made the story its own by its beautiful conclusion: Canute, bowing before a greater King than himself, takes the crown from his head, never more to be worn there, and places it over the twisted thorns of a crucifix.

The civil government of Canute was that of a feudal sovereign; and we seem to be reading the record of Norman times in his enactments about purveyance, heriots, and the rights of wardships and succession. The institution of the murdrum, an extension of the Frank-pledge system from property to life, by which the district was made responsible for the were of lives lost within it if it could not give up the offender, was introduced in this reign to secure the Danes when their army had left England. The first codification of stringent forest laws, for estates everywhere, but especially for the royal parks, is due to Canute, who must have had a Norse passion for the chase; four thanes were appointed in every province to control the jurisdiction of "venery and vert;" and the free Englishman who killed a stag was to be punished with loss of liberty, the serf with loss of life. Modern sportsmen will be scandalized to hear that foxes were treated as vermin whom any man might slay. Bishops and barons were allowed the range of the royal preserves, but were to pay for any stag they might kill. Only a gentleman might keep grey-hounds on the borders of the forest; and then their fangs must be drawn. It is clear that Canute, like William the Conqueror, is open to the reproach of loving "the tall deer as if he were their father."

On the death of Canute, 1035 A.D., several claimants appeared for the vacant crown. The eldest son of Canute was Harold Harefoot, whom the Danish party and the citizens of London, now in the Danish interest, supported; but the

vol. ii., book v., cap. 2, pp. 49, 51. The story as told of Canute occurs first in Henry of Huntingdon, who was well versed in British legend.

1 Leges Edw. Conf., c. 16; A. S. Laws, vol. i., p. 449.

2 Const. de Forest., 1, 11, 24, 26, 27; A. S. Laws, vol. i., pp. 426, 427, 429. 3 A. S. Chron., A., 1036. Elegerunt eum Dani et Lundoniæ cives qui am pene in barbarorum mores propter frequentem convictum transierant.Malmesbury, lib. ii., p. 318.



Saxons disliked the prospect of a Danish king, and declared that Harold was a cobbler's son, and that Canute's first wife had been barren. The Saxon nobles inclined towards Hardicanute, the son of Canute and Emma, who appeared to conciliate Danish and English interests, but who at this critical moment was absent in Denmark, where he was acknowledged king. But the Saxon people wished for the Etheling Alfred, Emma's eldest son by Ethelred, who was still the legitimate heir, and whom it was believed in Normandy Canute had promised to designate his successor in half of the kingdom, as the price of peace with Robert the Devil.1 In this confusion of interests, with the nobles demoralized by long anarchy, and with no statesman of settled views at the helm, Harold easily procured his acknowledgement in the provinces north of the Thames, while the kingship of Wessex and Kent was entrusted to Emma in custody for her son, who was still under age; Godwin, the earl of Kent, was her minister; and the body-guard of Canute, the hus-carles, were in her service.3 Matters seem to have remained thus for a few months, but Emma's power was uncertain, and Harold contrived to seize the greater part of the royal treasure at Winchester. Suddenly the Æthelings Alfred and Edward arrived in England with a body of several hundred Frenchmen and Normans, who had partly been furnished by their brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne. It is quite possible that Emma, disliking her perilous position, or preferring Alfred, educated in the Norman court, to her Danish son, Hardicanute, had sent for the Ætheling; but it is probable that he had not been invited by any large party among the nobles, who were more than half Danish, and who had nothing to gain from a prince with foreign


1 Wendover, vol i., p. 474; Flor. Wig., vol. i., p. 257. 2 Gul. Gemit., lib. v., cap. 12.

3 A. S. Chron., A., 1036.

4 Whether Edward landed is a little uncertain. One account represents him as repulsed from Southampton.-Gul. Gemit., lib. vi., cap. 8. The Encomium Emma says that he did not attempt to leave Normandy.-Duchesne, p. 175. The Saxon Chronicle, however, and Florence of Worcester, represent both as coming over.



favourites. Still Alfred was a dangerous rival to a king with an uncertain title, and Harold proposed a conference to adjust their claims. The Ætheling set out with six hundred men as an escort; he was surrounded and seized in Guildford; his followers cruelly put to death or enslaved; and he himself blinded and sent to the monastery of Ely, in which he presently died. By whom the foul crime was perpetrated, is one of the darkest riddles of history. Six years later, Earl Godwin and Lyfing, bishop of Worcester, were denounced by Elfric, archbishop of York, as guilty of this treason; and Godwin seems to have admitted the charge, as far as surprizing the Etheling's retinue and seizing his person were concerned, while he strenuously denied any share or consent in his mutilation or death. The answer is not unlikely to be true. Godwin's interests lay in supporting Hardicanute, with whom he was remotely connected by marriage; he may very likely have thought it expedient to prevent the beginnings of civil war; we need not suppose that he conducted the expedition against Guildford himself; he probably, on a promise that Alfred should have no harm done to him, agreed to leave his followers to their fate, perhaps ordering the gates of Guildford to be opened to Harold's soldiers, perhaps only keeping back the Saxon forces to which Alfred looked for support. If this view of the transaction be true, and it is in keeping with Godwin's politic character, it accounts for the long concealment of the earl's complicity; it gives the reason why Harold never molested him; it explains why Hardicanute was willing to condone the offence, and why Edward, at a time when he would not forgive was yet never able to punish it; it allows us to reconcile Godwin's position as Emma's minister and support in Saxon chronicles, with the infamy which Norman writers attach to his name. Our judgement would be a little clearer, could we decide certainly whether Alfred was on his way from Winchester to London, or

1 Non sui consilii nec suæ voluntatis fuisse quod frater ejus cæcatus fuisset, sed dominum suum regem Haroldum illum facere quod fecit jussisse cum totius fere Angliæ principibus et ministris dignioribus regi juravit.-Flor. Wig., vol. i., p. 195.

« PreviousContinue »