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The 11th-century king Cnut/Knut/Canute of Denmark, Norway, and England is today best known for the story of how he sat on the beach commanding the waves to turn back. The original account of this story, written in the 12th century by Henry of Huntingdon, uses it to illustrate Cnut's humility:

[W]hen at the summit of his power, he [Canute] ordered a seat to be placed for him on the sea-shore when the tide was coming in; thus seated, he shouted to the flowing sea, "Thou, too, art subject to my command, as the land on which I am seated is mine; and no one has ever resisted my commands with impunity. I command you, then, not to flow over my land, nor presume to wet ihe feet and the robe of your lord." The tide, however, continuing to rise as usual, dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leaped backwards, saying: "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws."

The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon (1154) VI.17. Translated by Thomas Arnold (1879).

But later accounts twisted it around so as to portray Cnut as a foolishly proud ruler, as if he really believed he could stop the waves. The tale has become an almost proverbial example of hubris.

How and why did the moral of the story change? I'd like to know both the nature of the change (if possible, some kind of timeline of accounts of the story?) and also the reason for it (e.g. did it start off as just a misunderstanding by a later storyteller, or could there have been some political motive?)

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Summary

  1. The post says, “The original account … uses it to illustrate Cnut’s humility.” But note that Henry of Huntingdon only wrote that Cnut was humble afterwards, not that he intended this beforehand. His version did not explain the king’s motive at all, leaving a gap that later historians filled.

  2. Cnut’s motive seems to have been introduced into the story accidentally and in stages: (i) Henry of Huntingdon’s introduction “when at the summit of his power”, which fixed the episode chronologically, was reinterpreted as its cause. (ii) The king’s pride in his power was reworded to emphasize the moral. (iii) The king’s pride was explicitly given as the reason for his attempt to command the tide. (iv) Flattering courtiers were introduced to explain the king’s overweening pride. (v) The flattering courtiers remained but the king’s motive was changed to rebuking them.

  3. While the evolution of the story is interesting, I doubt that the proverbial use of the story of Cnut trying to stop the tide has spread via this kind of written tradition. Instead, what I suspect has happened many times is that someone has alluded to the story as a vivid instance of the fact that events exceed our power to control them, without assigning any particular motive to the king; and someone else has heard the allusion and found that the easiest way to interpret it was if it was Cnut who believed he could stop the tide. Thus the popular version has undergone a process of continual reinvention, no matter how often historians explain that it has no historical basis.

  4. I found it hard to find written versions of story (as opposed to proverbial uses) in which Cnut really believed that he could command the tide. This must be because this version is not remotely credible as history. No man who had made as many sea-voyages as Cnut could have believed he had any power over the tide, and no historian who cared about the plausibility of their account could have accepted it uncritically.

  5. In nearly all modern versions of the story, Cnut’s motive in staging the scene was to rebuke his courtiers for their flattery. But this motive does not appear in any of the early sources, and although it is an improvement on the idea that Cnut believed he could command the tide, it is not particularly credible either, as Charles Dickens pointed out:

    We may learn from this, I think, that a little sense will go a long way in a king; and that courtiers are not easily cured of flattery, nor kings of a liking for it. If the courtiers of Canute had not known long before, that the King was fond of flattery, they would have known better than to offer it in such large doses. And if they had not known that he was vain of this speech […], they would not have been at such great pains to repeat it. I fancy I see them all on the sea-shore together; the King’s chair sinking in the sand; the King in a mighty good humor with his own wisdom; and the courtiers pretending to be quite stunned by it!

    Charles Dickens (1852). A Child’s History of England, Chapter V.

Gaimar

Henry of Huntington is not the only source for the story! In the 1130s, Geoffrey Gaimar wrote a chronicle of the English people in Anglo-Norman rhyming couplets:

Donc fu Cnuth de treis regnés sire;
Poi trovot ki l’osout desdire.
E nepurquant si fut desdit,
E son comandement despit.
A Londres ert desur Tamise;
Li floz veneit près de l’eglise
Ki Westmuster ert apelé.
Li reis à pié s’est aresté […]

His version of the story is different in detail from Henry’s:

Then Cnut was lord of three kingdoms; he found few who dared to disobey him. And nevertheless he was disobeyed, and his command despised. He was in London on the Thames; the tide was flowing near the church which is called Westminster. The king stood afoot at the strand; on the sand the tide came struggling onward; it advanced much, and came near the king. Cnut held his sceptre in his hand, and he said to the tide, “Return back; flee from me, lest I strike thee.” The sea did not retire for him,—more and more the tide rose; the king remained, he waited, and struck the water with his sceptre. The river retired not for that, so it reached the king and wetted him. When the king saw he had waited too long, and that the tide did not regard him, he withdrew himself back from the strand; then standing upon a stone, he stretched out his hands towards the east. Hear what he said while his people were listening:—“Him who made the sea to rise, men ought indeed to believe and adore. He is a good King, I am a poor creature; I am a mortal man, but He lives for ever; His command annihilates everything; I pray Him that He may be my Protector. To Rome I will go to petition Him; of Him I will hold all my lands.”

Geoffrey Gaimar (1130s). Estoire des Engleis, lines 4695–4728. English translation from The Gentleman’s Magazine (1857).

Gaimar wrote no more about the king’s motives than Henry, but by setting the story before Cnut’s visit to Rome (rather than afterwards, as later writers did) he made it possible to imagine a different and more plausible motive. Perhaps someone had objected to Cnut’s pilgrimage to Rome on the grounds that he would be subjecting himself to the Pope, and Cnut replied that he would only be subjecting himself to God, to whom he was already subject, as demonstrated by his inability to command the tide. The Old Palace of Westminster (which Cnut had ordered constructed) was at that time on an island in the Thames and it would only have been a few steps from the church to the river bank.

Gaimar’s version does not seem to have been much read: I could not find any version of the story that derived from it. This is no doubt because there are only four surviving manuscripts and the poem was not printed until the mid-19th century.

Early Latin sources

Later versions derived instead from five sources in Latin. Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, written 1129–1154, is quoted in the question. The other four are:

Each of these was closely derived from the text in Henry of Huntingdon. Paris, Higden and Brompton made minor changes to the Latin wording, but added nothing to Henry’s version. Rudburn, however, had another source, which gave the story’s location:

And when he gracefully prospered in the kingdom he had conquered, he ordered a seat to be placed for him on the sea-shore; as some say, at Southampton, according to the author of Concordantiis Historiarum under the letter K, the tide was coming in.

Thomas Rudburn (c. 1454). Historia Maior Wintoniensis. My translation.

(‘K’ stands for ‘Kanutus’.) The work referred to, a concordance of English history, written by a monk of Winchester, is now lost. Where did this monk get “Southampton” from? Perhaps he was reporting a local tradition, Southampton being the nearest point on the coast to Winchester.

Unfortunately, nothing is known about De Concordantiis Historiarum Angliae other than the handful of facts preserved by Rudburn. We only know that it was written by someone from Winchester because Rudburn says so: “For this same author wrote a great deal about the Church of Winchester, in which he was formerly brought up” (Ipse enim Auctor multa scribit de Ecclesia Wyntoniensi, in qua quondam nutritus erat).

Evolution of the story

Henry of Huntingdon introduced the story with the phrase “when at the summit of his power” (cum maximo vigore), which fixed the story chronologically. But it would have been easy to read this introduction causatively, understanding ‘when’ as ‘because’ (cum has both meanings in Latin); and if you understood it this way then you would have been tempted to modify “at the summit of his power” in order to clarify the moral. The first chronicler to do so was Robert Fabyan:

Then let us return to Canute, of whom it is read, that after his coming from Rome, he began somedeal to presume in pride, and let more of himself than good wisdom would. In time of which exaltation of his mind, he went unto the Thames side, and beheld how the water swelled or flowed: and so standing near the water, the water touched his feet. Then he charged the water that he should flow no higher, and that, in no wise, he should touch his lord’s clothes; but the water kept his course, and wet, at length, the king’s thighs: wherewith the king abashed, started back and said, “All earthly kings may know that their powers be vain, and that none is worthy to have the name of a king but he that hath all things subject to his hests, as here is shown, by working of his creature by this water.

Robert Fabyan (1516). The New Chronicles of England and France part VI. Spelling modernized.

Note that Fabyan linked the introduction to the story using “in time of which”, not “therefore”, and so his version remained ambiguous as to the king’s motive.

Fabyan gave his source as Henry of Huntingdon, so where did he get “Thames” from? It seems unlikely that he had read Gaimar, otherwise he would surely have mentioned the detail of the church at Westminster. Perhaps instead, since he lived in London, he was reporting a local tradition.

Raphael Holinshed went one step further than Fabyan:

[W]hen he came home (as some write) he did grow greatly into pride, insomuch that being he caused his chair to be set there, as near to the Thames, or rather (as other write) upon the sea strand, near to Southampton, and perceiving the water to rise by reason of the tide, he cast off his gown, and wrapping it round together, threw it on the sands very near the increasing water, and sat him down upon it, speaking these or the like words to the sea: “Thou art (saith he) within the compass of my dominion, and the ground whereon I sit is mine, and thou knowest that no wight dare disobey my commandments; I therefore do now command thee not to rise upon my ground, nor to presume to wet any part of thy sovereign lord and governor.” But the sea keeping her course, rose still higher and higher, and overflowed not only the kings feet, but also flashed up unto his legs and knees. Wherewith the king started suddenly up, and withdrew from it, saying withall to his nobles that were about him: “Behold you noble men, you call me king, which can not so much as stay by my commandment this small portion of water. But know ye for certain, that there is no king but the father only of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom he reigneth, and at whose beck all things are governed. Let us therefore honour him, let us confess and profess him to be the ruler of heaven, earth, and sea, and besides him none other.”

Raphael Holinshed (1577). Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, volume 2 chapter 13. Spelling modernized.

Holinshed wrote that his sources are Henry of Huntingdon and ‘Matthew of Westminster’, but this can’t have been the whole story, because neither of those sources mentioned the location. Holinshed must surely have consulted Fabyan (who located the event on the Thames) and Rudburn (who located it at Southampton). It seems likely that he followed Fabyan’s introduction, but replaced “In time of which” with “insomuch that” in order to better link the introduction and the story, perhaps not even realising that he was making a connection that was not previously there.

John Norden introduced flattering courtiers as an explanation for why Cnut believed he could command the tide:

[A]fter his return from Rome into England, who in regard of his quadruplicity of kingdoms, esteemed himself, more than a man mortal: for his Sycophants had so bewitched him with their enchanted flatteries, that he deemed himself no less then a God. And in this proud conceit on a day he passed by the Thames, which ran by that palace, at the flowing of the tide, & making stay near the water, the waves cast forth some part of the water towards him, this Canute conjured the waves by his regal command to proceed no farther: the Thames unacquainted with this new God, held on it course, flowing as of custom it used to do, and refrained not to assail him near to the knees: whereat this high conceited man as one amazed, began to tremble, starting back protesting that he was but a man, though a mighty king. And that he that governed those waters, was only worthy to be called a king, and all mortal men, most mighty kings, ought to subject them unto him.

John Norden (1593). Speculum Britanniae, part first. Spelling modernized.

Richard Baker retained the courtiers, but removed the idea that the king believed their flatteries:

One strange act is recorded, which he did for convincing his fawning flatterers, who used to tell him that his powers were more than humane; For being one time at Southampton, he commanded that his Chair of State should be set on the shore when the Sea began to flow, and then sitting down there in the presence of his many attendants, he spake thus to that Element: I charge thee that thou presume not to enter my Land, nor wet these Robes of thy Lord that are about me. But the Sea giving no heed to his command, but keeping on his usual course of Tide, first wet his skirts, and after his thighs, whereupon suddenly arising, he thus spake in the hearing of them all: Let all the worlds Inhabitants know, that vain and weak is the power of their Kings; and that none is worthy of the name of King, but be that keeps both Heaven and Earth and Sea in obedience.

Richard Baker (1643). A Chronicle of the Kings of England. Spelling modernized.

Baker included a general bibliography but did not give line or chapter sources, so I don’t know which sources he consulted, but ‘Southampton’ and ‘Chair’ suggest Holinshed, and ‘thighs’ suggest Fabyan.

David Hume included the courtiers and made it explicit that the king knew he could not command the tide:

Canute, who was the greatest and most powerful prince of his time, sovereign of Denmark and Norway, as well as of England, could not fail to meet with adulation from his courtiers; a tribute which is liberally paid even to the meanest and weakest princes. Some of his flatterers breaking out, one day, in admiration of his grandeur, exclaimed that every thing was possible for him: Upon which the monarch, it is said, ordered his chair to be set on the sea-shore, while the tide was making; and as the waters approached, he commanded them to retire, and to obey the voice of him who was lord of the ocean. He feigned to sit some time in expectation of their submission; but when the sea still advanced towards him, and began to wash him with its billows, he turned to his courtiers, and remarked to them, that every creature in the universe was feeble and impotent, and that power resided with one Being alone, in whose hands were all the elements of nature, who could say to the ocean, Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther, and who could level with his nod the most towering piles of human pride and ambition.

David Hume (1762). The History of England, volume I chapter III.

Hume gave as his sources Ranulph Higden, John Brompton, ‘Matthew of Westminster’ and Henry of Huntingdon, but none of these mentioned the courtiers, so it is hard to avoid suspecting that he was also influenced by Baker.

Many versions of the story derived from Hume’s, for example that of Charles Dickens:

The old writers of history relate how that Canute was one day disgusted with his courtiers for their flattery, and how he caused his chair to be set on the sea-shore, and feigned to command the tide as it came up not to wet the edge of his robe, for the land was his; how the tide came up, of course, without regarding him; and how he then turned to his flatterers, and rebuked them, saying, what was the might of any earthly king, to the might of the Creator, who could say unto the sea, “Thus far shalt thou go, and no further!”

Charles Dickens (1852). A Child’s History of England, Chapter V.

and the Ladybird book:

Canute’s courtiers had said that the sea would obey him. So Canute ordered back the sea and got very wet proving how stupid were their flatteries

Brenda Ralph Lewis (1954). Kings and Queens of England Book 1. Illustrated by John Leigh-Pemberton and Peter Robinson.

Envoi

I don’t want to give the impression that everyone in the early modern period was incapable of basic scholarship. The historians I selected above were those that contributed to the game of whispers, but contrast them with John Milton:

I must not omit one remarkable action done by him, as Huntingdon reports it, with great scene of circumstance and emphatical expression, to show the small power of kings in respect of God; which, unless to court-parasites, needed no such laborious demonstration. He caused his royal seat to be set on the shore, while the tide was coming in; and with all the state that royalty could put into his countenance, said thus to the sea; “Thou, sea, belongest to me, and the land whereon I sit, is mine; nor hath any one, unpunished, resisted my commands; I charge thee come no farther upon my land, neither presume to wet the feet of thy sovereign lord.” But the sea, as before, came rolling-on, and, without reverence, both wetted and dashed him. Whereat the king quickly rising “wished all about him to behold and consider the weak and frivolous power of a king, and that none indeed deserved the name of a king, but he whose eternal laws both Heaven, earth, and sea obey.” A truth so evident of itself, as I said before, that, unless to shame his court-flatterers, who would not else be convinced, Canute needed not to have gone wet-shod home.

John Milton (1670). The History of Britain.

You’ll see that Milton managed to correctly reference his source, accurately quote it, and separate his own commentary from it. Would that all historians had done so!

  • Great answer! On first reading, I interpreted Gaimar's story as ascribing Cnut's motive to pride, and anger at those who disobeyed him (going directly from "few who dared to disobey him [...] his command despised" to the tide story), but it could equally well be leaving the motive unwritten, if "his command despised" refers to the tide incident itself rather than his subjects. – Rand al'Thor Mar 24 at 15:57
  • One question: is anything more known about Concordantiis Historiarum, such as an approximate date? Is it possible that this now-lost version might have derived from Gaimar's instead of HoH's? – Rand al'Thor Mar 24 at 15:58
  • @Randal'Thor: The command that Cnut gives to the tide is the only command in the passage, so surely this is one that was disobeyed. But the ambiguity shows how easy it was for later historians to confuse post hoc with propter hoc. – Gareth Rees Mar 24 at 16:17
  • Nothing is known about Concordantiis Historiarum Angliae other than the handful of facts preserved in Rudburn. We only know that it was written by someone from Winchester because Rudburn says so: Ipse enim Auctor multa scribit de Ecclesia Wyntoniensi, in qua quondam nutritus erat. The concordance said that the story happened at Southampton, whereas Gaimar said it happened at Westminster, so it is unlikely that one derived from the other. – Gareth Rees Mar 24 at 16:23

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