By 1028, Cnut the Great had brought England, Denmark, and Norway into a vast North Sea hegemony under his kingship. It was an unrivalled achievement that granted Cnut the political clout to deal with the Holy Roman Emperor and Pope as equals. (Despite this, his legacy in the English-speaking world is as an eccentric who attempted to halt the waves – go figure.) Yet only fourteen years earlier, Cnut had been a landless Danish Prince, fleeing England upon the death of his father and before the wrath of the vengeful Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II (the Unready). But Cnut did not leave without sending a message to the Anglo-Saxon king and, in this article, I will focus Cnut’s infamous mutilation of his Anglo-Saxon hostages at Sandwich. More to the point, I will be analysing this event in the context of broader Anglo-Scandinavian concepts of punitive mutilation. Was Cnut unusually brutal? Did this act fall within the norms of or practical politics relating to hostages? Was Cnut operating within a framework of retributive violence associated with Viking raiding? All questions I hope to answer. But first, before we can talk about Cnut the Danish Prince, the vengeful Viking, the mutilator of hostages, we need to talk about his father.
The entwined political histories of Scandinavia and England are particularly complex immediately preceding Cnut’s ascension to the Anglo-Saxon throne: Cnut’s father, Sveinn Tjúguskegg (Forkbeard), was king of Denmark (r. 986 – 1014), Norway (r. 986 – 995, 1000 – 1014), and England (r. 1013 – 1014). This expansion of Danish hegemony, undertaken at the point of a sword, made Sveinn a politically divisive and disruptive figure and the resultant biases of extant sources make it difficult to form a clear picture of the king. The near-contemporary entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle extensively narrate the fear and destitution that characterised Sveinn’s conquest, yet only expend half a sentence in dryly announcing his death: in this year Sveinn ended his days at Candlemas, on 3 February. Sveinn’s English rule had only lasted a matter of weeks: he died sixteen days after his coronation. The Danish king had forced Æthelred into exile upon taking the Anglo-Saxon throne, however Æthelred was immediately returned to the throne at the end of Sveinn’s two weeks on the throne. The brevity of this reign had the effect that, in English sources, Sveinn was depicted as a brutal conqueror, necessarily subordinated to Æthelred and Cnut by virtue of their lengthy rules.
The political situation was equally murky in Scandinavia: Sveinn had lost his Norwegian throne to Olaf I Tryggvason for five years, before reclaiming it by force, while in Denmark, though never officially deposed, the continental sources for his reign indicate he was exiled between 990 and 995. These continental sources are almost universally hostile, with Adam of Bremen in late eleventh-century notably declaring Sveinn to have been an apostate. It is an unsupported claim reflecting the wider political landscape in which Sveinn operated. Although, in this case, Adam’s hostility likely derives from Sveinn’s use of English missionaries in his territories rather than those of the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen. That Sveinn in the late tenth-century had need to invite Christian missionaries to Denmark reflects the territory’s late Christianisation and, with the link between conversion and literacy in mind, Scandinavian records of Sveinn’s career are also late. Thus men like the Icelander Snorri Sturluson and the Dane Saxo Grammaticus, writing in the thirteenth-century, though attempting to preserve something of their native histories, were writing in an entirely Christian milieu. Their chronicles therefore marginalise Sveinn in order to focus upon Olaf, the great evangelising king who temporarily unseated Sveinn from his Norwegian throne, and began the process of Scandinavian Christianisation in earnest (see our article on Olaf and coercive conversion). Though Sveinn was the pivotal political figure of early eleventh-century Anglo-Scandinavian politics, the factionally oriented histories of his reign bring Olaf, Æthelred and Cnut to the fore, leaving Sveinn an ill-defined character of generalised villainy.
Yet, despite the chroniclers’ predilections toward emphasising the brutality of Sveinn’s campaigning and political manoeuvring, it is of note that there is no record of an event of punitive mutilation with which Sveinn can be directly associated. But there are records of political mutilations undertaken under the auspices of Olaf, Æthelred and Cnut, events which chroniclers treat as normalised tactics of practical politics and thus neither an act worthy of censure nor a useful trope within negative propaganda. Apparently, an act of punitive mutilation that was justified within a legal, religious, or social framework was culturally acceptable. This authorial attitude to the practice, when considered alongside the political context for those acts of mutilation perpetrated by Olaf, Æthelred and Cnut, renders them a distinct plausibility as historical events. Therefore, though historically Sveinn was a politically dominant figure of the Anglo-Scandinavian world for thirty years, it is the deeds of his defeated rivals, Olaf of Norway and Æthelred of England, that provide context for Cnut’s own act of torture.
With that background out of the way, we can turn to Cnut and an act of punitive vengeance unrivalled throughout the rest of his recorded life. Sveinn’s death in early 1014 had left his son in an awkward position for, while the Danish fleet had elected Cnut as their leader, the Anglo-Saxon witan immediately recalled Æthelred as king. Cnut planned to campaign in England and assert his claim to the English throne, however Æthelred acted with uncharacteristic decisiveness, crushing Cnut’s Anglo-Scandinavian supporters and forcing the young prince to flee to the safety of Denmark. Cnut and his Danes did not flee alone though, for with them went the Anglo-Saxon hostages that had been turned over to Sveinn for surety. Stopping at Sandwich in the course of his return to Denmark, Cnut put ashore the hostages that had been given to his father, and he cut off their hands, ears and noses.
It was a brutal act, but not unprecedented. The Chronicle records that Æthelred ordered he blinding of a man named Ælfgar in 993, and two others – Wulfeah and Ufegeat – in 1006. These are tersely narrated political accounts which imply that Æthelred was likely responding to direct treachery, thus allowing him to operate within legal bounds. In turn, I have written extensively on the viciousness of Olaf’s program of conversion elsewhere – though the accounts of Olaf’s brutality are heavily fictionalised. Even in the case of Cnut there is an account in the chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg relating to the treatment of hostages by the Danes when the Anglo-Saxons broke the siege of London in 1016 in which these men are mutilated much like the men of Sandwich. In truth though, Thietmar is likely conflating the events of Sandwich and London and there is little evidence of such an event at London. But Cnut’s act of disfigurement at Sandwich is reported universally in later Anglo-Norman histories. It was a deed justified by the act of the witan in returning Æthelred to the throne. The witan had been the body to elect Sveinn as king in 1013, and had provided noble hostages as guarantees of their loyalty. For them to spurn Cnut’s inheritance of the kingdom as the son of Sveinn would have been deemed unacceptable by the Danes, and the return of unharmed hostages deemed as sign of weakness by the Anglo-Saxons.
Punitive mutilation would have seemed an attractive option for the young prince as he fled the shores of a territory he had thought to inherit. Mutilation provided Cnut the opportunity to shame the English by allowing their mutilated nobles to live amongst them as a permanent reminder that they had betrayed their agreement with Sveinn. Yet, despite any justification, and in contrast to the neutral reports of Æthelred’s earlier acts of mutilation in the Chronicle, Cnut’s disfigurement of his hostages does attract criticism. Most notably, William of Malmesbury declared it to be in defiance of law, human and divine, and an outrageous attack upon the innocent. Indeed, the brutality of Cnut’s mutilation of his Anglo-Saxon hostages does display something of the uncompromising nature of Olaf’s recorded acts of torture, yet the nature of the injuries is also a precursor for those Cnut would go on to codify in his law code II Cnut once he gained the English throne.
These legal provisions for punitive mutilation were unlikely to have been unknown to William, and codified mutilation only became more prevalent under Norman rule. As such, it seems likely that for their moralising narratives Norman chroniclers were relying on local traditions decrying the deprivations of Danish raiders. Certainly the records for Cnut’s kingship do not reflect the same hostility. Nonetheless, despite any bias of the historians, these are not the fantastical hagiographical tortures of a proselytising Christian king, but the considered acts of mutilation by a prince seeking to establish both his intent and his reputation. When considered alongside the tortures of Æthelred and Olaf, this considered approach is more commensurate with the political acts of mutilation undertaken by Æthelred. Cnut’s actions fell within a framework of accepted Anglo-Saxon practice, and the contemporary entry within the Chronicle does not reflect the censure of later historians. Yet it should not be forgotten that, in 1014, Cnut was primarily operating within a Scandinavian cultural context as a member of the Danish elite with as yet limited contact with Anglo-Saxon social mores. As such it is likely that, however embellished, records of Olaf’s mutilative practices reflect a commensurate and independent tradition within the Scandinavian cultural context, once again reflecting a common Anglo-Scandinavian cultural heritage.
Cnut’s mutilation of the hostages at Sandwich, justified through his claim to the Anglo-Saxon throne and normalised through his identification as a Viking, displays something of that uncompromising Viking spirit reflected in Snorri’s depictions of Olaf. In contrast, Cnut’s laws exhibit the brutal realities and practicalities of punitive mutilation as a legislative and political expedient that are also on display in Æthelred’s politically motivated acts of disfigurement. As a Danish king of England, Cnut drew on both traditions, yet with seemingly no conflict of character or morals. The long cultural contact among the Anglo-Scandinavian territories Cnut controlled, alongside their common Germanic cultural roots and operation within the same political spheres, meant that Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian cultures had a fundamental cultural compatibility. Commonalities in social custom explain Cnut’s easy integration into the administrative apparatus of Anglo-Saxon England and, when contrasted with the actions of Olaf and Æthelred, neither Cnut’s acts nor laws of punitive mutilation were out of character as either a Scandinavian or English monarch. Though the sources ascribe different motivations and political agendas to the acts of punitive mutilation by Olaf, Æthelred, and Cnut, ultimately every instance is treated without judgement as the normal exercise of political power. Cnut’s mutilation of political hostages and legislation to mutilate recidivists have clear historical precedents and justifications in the literature of both cultures.
- Feature Image: King Cnut the Great, BL MS Stowe 944, f. 6 r.
- Adam of Bremen. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Translated by Francis Tschan. 2nd edn. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
- R.R. Darlington and P. McGurk (eds), The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450 – 1066, vol. 2, trans. Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
- Matthew Firth, ‘Allegories of Sight: Blinding and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England,’ Cerae: An Australasian Journal of MedievalStudies3 (2016): 1 – 33.
- Ian Howard, Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Conquest of England, 991 – 1017, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2003.
- Henry of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People. Edited and translated by Diana E. Greenaway. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
- Ryan Lavelle, ‘The Use and Abuse of Hostages in Later Anglo-Saxon England,’ Early Medieval Europe 14 (No. 3, 2006): 269 – 96.
- David A. Warner (ed. and trans.), Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.
- Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, vol. 1, ed. and trans. R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.
See our bibliography on the Viking World.