Cnut, or Canute, was king of
England, Denmark, Norway and, for a time, part of Sweden. He had gained the
throne through ruthlessness and determination, and governed his dominions with
an iron hand. In importance, he was second only to the Holy Roman Emperor and he
was respected throughout Europe. Such a king was bound to be surrounded by a
host of admiring courtiers. In one version of a very famous story, their
flattery began to irritate the imperious but practical-minded Cnut.
“O King.” they would declare, bowing low before him. “Your might is so great, your influence is so powerful – you could accomplish anything. Had you the desire, you could even halt the incoming tide.”
“Very well,” declared the king at last. “Let us put your claims to the test. Carry my throne down to the shore.”
Somewhat dismayed, the courtiers hastened to carry out the king’s command.
The throne was unloaded from a
cart and set upon the shingle, a little way from the incoming waves. King Cnut seated himself in
it and called his
courtiers to take up their positions about him.
There was a long pause, during which the king frowned at the sea and the courtiers glanced from one to the other in growing trepidation, and shivered in the winds that caught at their robes.
Suddenly King Canute raised his hand and thundered out:
“Waves – I Cnut, son of Sweyn, command ye to be still! I ruler of the three lands, Britain, Denmark, and Norway, command ye to halt!”
A long line of waves crashed upon the shore. A second travelled further up the beach and broke around the king’s throne, wetting his knees and covering the courtiers in a shower of spray.
Cnut turned and surveyed his crestfallen
companions. For a moment a shadow of a smile passed across his face.
“Let us return to the castle,” he said. “It seems that the waves dare to disobey my commands.
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