King Canute (Cnut) (1016-1035)
Turning the Tide : King Canute enacted a memorable demonstration of the limits of government power.
Turning the Tide

From ‘Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People’ by Henry of Huntingdon. Follow this link for the Latin and also for a different translation, by Diana Greenway.

This famous story is regarded as a fable by many but it is a very early one, being already established only a century or so after the time of King Canute (r. 1016-1035). It is important to be clear that Canute was not trying to prove he could ‘turn back the tides’. He was trying to prove that he couldn’t.

AT the high-point of his reign, King Canute ordered his throne to be set upon the seashore as the tide was coming in, and then addressed the rising waters.

‘You and the land on which my throne is standing are subject to me. No one has ever defied my royal commands and gone unpunished.

‘I command you, then, do not rise on my land, nor dare to splash either limb or robe of your lord!’

The sea however continued its customary rise, disdainfully splashing his feet and legs.

‘Let all the world’ he said, skipping backwards, ‘know that the power of kings is a vain and trifling thing.’

‘No king is worthy of that title except that King whose commands heaven, earth and sea obey, according to eternal laws.’

After this, Canute never again wore his crown upon his head, but set it upon an icon of the Lord’s crucifixion, in praise of God the Great King.

From ‘Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People’ by Henry of Huntingdon. Follow this link for the Latin and also for a different translation, by Diana Greenway.

For a very different attitude to the sovereignty of Creation, see Xerxes Scourges the Hellespont.

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