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Ailnoth of Canterbury (12th Century):

The Deeds of King Svend-Magnus and his Sons and the Passion of the Most Glorious Cnut, King and Martyr (Gesta Swenomagni regis et filiorum eius et passio gloriosissimi Canuti regis et martyris)

Note to the reader: please note that this translation is not complete and is largely a transcription of some (very) rough work I did in the first months of my Ph.D. I have cleaned it up in some places while typing it up, but there are probably still some errors in it as I have not checked all of it against the Latin. I never translated the last few chapters and have only included summaries here. Nonetheless, it is meant only to serve as a rough and ready guide to the text in the absence of anything better in English. The page numbers in brackets refer to the edition of M. Cl. Gertz, Vitae sanctorum Danorum. [See also Wikipedia: Ælnoth of Canterbury]

[The text begins with a letter addressed by Ailnoth to King Niels, of which only the small amount Ailnoth says about himself will be given here: ‘Ailnoth, the least of the ministers of the divine office, from the metropolitan city of Canterbury in England, but now having lived in Denmark for nearly 24 years...’]

I. The Kingdoms of the North, consigned to the remote parts of the earth, were for a long time in thrall to pagan worship, up until that time when divine clemency extracted them from the depths of error and infidelity. For after almost all the other kingdoms of the west, which Julius Gaius [Caesar], once son-in-law of Pompey the Great, subjected to the Roman Empire, had bent their necks to Christian laws, these nations, who, on the opposite side from the Franks or Gauls and Saxons, reside in the northern regions: the Swedes and the Goths, the Norwegians and the Icelanders, so much later accepted the signs of the faith, because the teachers of the faith were greatly fearful of them and avoided them, both on account of the lack of the necessities of life and of the savageness of the barbarians and their inbred harshness. But the Danes, who are the nearest to the Gauls and Saxons, are held to be more powerful than the aforementioned peoples, since they cultivate their land by more useful necessary means, and they took up the faith of the Trinity (p. 83) when the other [Scandinavians] had only just heard of it, and ennobled their borders by the force and counsel of noble kings, and by both noblemen and ministers of the divine office, the churches of God there were augmented in those days everywhere, and they have served the faith they took up with reverence to this day. For to touch on something from the accounts of the ancients, Poppo, the priest of venerable memory, bearing the ardour of a white-hot iron in his unburnt right hand and bearing the ignited rods of iron in his uninflamed palms, declared Christ, the Son of God, to be the true and only god by evident proof,1 contented to protect and guard the faith, which the Danish people accepted and is to this day undiminished, with the favour of Jesus Christ. But the Swedes and the Goths, when their affairs are, according to their wishes, flowing and succeeding prosperously, seem to venerate the faith of Christianity in name; but when the wind of adversity blows be it in the infertility of the soil, or the dryness of the air, or the force of the wind’s blasts, or an incursion of enemies or a burning of fire, the religion of faith, which hitherto they seemed to venerate in word, they then not only with words but with deeds and persecutions of the Christian faithful they proceed, and attempt to expel them entirely from their borders. There Bishop Eskillinus of pious memory, coming from the most noble territory of the English, preaching the Gospel of faith to the wild and indomitable peoples, for his testimony of truth by the savagery and madness of the barbarians was removed from the transitory world, and went, with angels collecting him, to the one above to live forever. Those to the north, who on account of the situation of their lands are called Northmen [i.e. Norwegians], and the Icelanders (p. 84) who also on account of the vehemence of the winter there and the chain of long-lived ice are called glaciales both in their home and the Danish and Norwegian language, observe the rites of the Christian religion, but because of the infertility of their land and the difficulty of living they mingle that same religion of faith with as many solemn days of fasting as with eating of illicit foods during Lent. For from the north, as the Lord said through a prophet,2 evil poured forth over the face of the entire world. Therefore these nations we have been speaking of, as scarcely ever in the cold of their old binding infidelity, were made solid in stability through the fervour of kindled faith, that the bonds of infidelity might be entirely loosened, something which is impossible for mortals as long as they try to ignore even the sacraments of faith with human reason, and prefer their laws to the justice of God and neglect to drag themselves away from their old customs, whether religious or secular, out of shame and fear in face of the divine. But... when the north wind rises, then when the cold of torpor and iniquity has been routed, let the south wind come and flow through the garden of the church of the faithful... let the warmth of spiritual grace flow into the hearts of the believers... [Ailnoth muses on this theme for the rest of the chapter].

II. After many wars and battles between Magnus [the Good of Norway], who ruled the north and west, and Svend (who was also called Magnus)3 who ruled the east and south,4 both fierce fighters, after the memorable battle of Nissan (Nitzę) between Harald Fairhair and the same Svend-Magnus5 for control of Denmark, Magnus went the way of all flesh and Harald was driven out of the confines of Denmark, and Svend-Magnus won the rule of his native soil and ruled most nobly for as long as he lived. Who, just as that famous hero of the Trojans, famous Priam, preferring a worthy outward form in his rule, while according to divine decree he was wise in heart and brave in strength, strongly protected his people as much by divine aid as by strength and wisdom of counsel from incursion of foreign peoples, and with peace restored by arms and great force, he inspired fear in the people of the region. But also, since he was not lacking in the study of the liberal arts and not unwise in the reading of holy texts, he did not neglect to promote the practice of religion (p. 86): indeed he promoted churches in places where they already were, by his royal authority, and where they hitherto had not been, he built them, and led the work of augmenting and venerating the clergy and priests. He aided orphans and widows, the poor and travellers, and especially poor royal clerics with stipends. [Ailnoth reflects on supporting the Church.]

(p. 88) III. Among the aforementioned works of piety, Svend-Magnus, like that strongest of Kings and most skilled of poets, David [excursus on David for several lines], with his enemies conquered on all sides and his scheming enemies strewn upon the ground, (p. 89) with the realm’s peace attained and its security having obtained quiet peace, yielding to seductive luxury of appetite, he begot numerous progeny to succeed him in ruling the realm; some he set to studying divine wisdom, others he ordered to be educated in separate places by the nobility. In that place called Suddethorp (that is: muddy farm, when he had gone out by the way of no return, they gave him a royal funeral and took him to the island, which because it is encircled by the sea is called Seland in the Danish language, to the main place, which of old was called Rooskeld (that is: the source of the Ro), and there in the church of the holy and indivisible Trinity and St. Lucius the martyr, in the magnificent stone floor, built by Svend himself for the episcopal seat, they buried him honourably, as was due. This was done in the year of the incarnation of our Lord 1074,6 which was the 28th year of his reign, on the 4th of May, the Lord and master Jesus Christ reigning in all eternity.

IV. Therefore the renowned King Svend, having pacified the nations surrounding the peoples of his realm on all sides, and having built many eminent churches of God in many important places out of the zeal of his own religion, and fittingly adorned those built by others with his own royal gifts, and having augmented both the bishops (p. 90) and the ministers of religious worship, when he left behind human company and entered the secret kingdom of eternal life, he left to his heirs not only the magnificent royal coffers of the realm and the security of the peace he won, but also the wisdom of his virtues for them to imitate, as monuments of his works. But the two young kings, Harald and Cnut, also sometimes called Canute, disagreed on who should rule the realm. Harald, since he was the first-born and seemed more modest in his actions, by the election of the entire people was chosen for the kingship and was proclaimed King of Denmark, and wished long life. The fierce Cnut may well have found this annoying, but he chose to endure his brotherly anger rather than, like those Theban princes who both burnt in the flames of an eternal funeral-pyre on account of their desire to rule, allow himself and his brother to fight. For though unaware of his sanctity, he expected help to come, through which he would later be taken up in eminent glory. As our Lord God, who resting in the heights looks upon lowly things and sees deep things from afar, saved the exaltation of his elect for a later time, since he appointed him to be honoured not only in temporal but in eternal rule. But to get on with the story, Harald, having attained the (p. 91) rule of his fathers, began to be eager to favour the wishes of his people to such an extent, and to impose on them such laws and judgements by his royal authority such as they themselves wanted and had chosen, to be passed down to posterity. To this day the Danes seek approval of these laws from all kings they have elected and intend to elect, and they praise Harald as the provider of public peace and freedom with praise for the laws and favours granted by him. But in the sixth year of his reign, having gone out on the way of his father (i.e. died), that famous place, called valley-settlement (Dalby in Danish) received him to await the future resurrection and commended him in a proper funeral to mother earth.

V. [Ailnoth begins the task of writing about Cnut with some pious sentiments.]

(p. 92) VI. While certainly all the famous progeny of the Glorious Svend-Magnus emulated diligently their father’s virtues by their innate prudence, most notably our Cnut – whom the apostolic see, with the Pope presiding and many nobles and men of religious orders in attendance, declared he should be called Canute, either from the sense of wisdom7 or his sincerity of life and honesty8 or because he was to be numbered among the Canon of saints – just as a ruby shining out among precious tones, he tried not only to imitate his father’s zeal, but to leave behind deeds of his own as monuments to posterity. The wisdom of honest ways with the pleasant grace of youth: from which, under the auspices of divine providence, he at length proceeded to the heights of rulership. His mind was keen, and his figures showed that this was a many worthy of ruling, with lively eyes, strength of spirit and of limbs, and his faculty of mind was proved by that of his speech... the Lord made in him a worthy follower, whom he took from the office of royal dignity and through martyrdom made a companion of the saints.

(p. 93) VII. After his brother’s departure from the world, promoted to the rule of kings provided him by divine grace, he delivered himself to the good graces of those faithful in the Lord, that with his protecting aid he might be armed against the incursions of all foes, whether terrestrial or spiritual. He aided the hungry and the poor, he clothed the naked and the sick, he graciously succoured orphans and widows and sustained pilgrims and the needy with stipends of mercy. Men of religious orders he honoured as lords and fathers, and he adorned the sacristies of spiritual ministrations with gifts of royal munificence. He assiduously frequented the holy churches of the saints throughout the course of the day to hear the divine offices, and what he took in with his attentive listening he put away in the precious chest of his heart. To this the Holy Spirit inspired him, that his memory might remain for all time.

VIII. Shunning the lasciviousness of so many kings (such as even Solomon himself – on account of which later ten parts of his kingdom were torn away and only two allowed to rule themselves, from the anger of God) by the counsel of the wise he chose for himself a most noble wife, the niece of the Emperor. By such an honour led from the western shores, according to the repute of her name, which was Ethela (that is, noble) accepting this noble woman nobly and despising the immodesties of concubines he contented himself with only her embraces in marriage, with Jesus Christ and his angels as witness. But also, which was once said of the blessed Job, he most diligently investigated useful things he did not know, investigating them often with wise and religious men, and assiduously considered how in his days he might augment the Christian faith in his realm. Furthermore (p. 94) he examined with sagacious zeal many things handed down from antiquity still observed in the present, which should be corrected for divine justice rather than practised for the favour of the masses. He determined to check these practices through the inspiring grace of the eternal judge; but the wildness of the savage people and their inbred harshness delayed the execution of his will in his days. And since, as Truth attests, each who does evil and hates the light and does not want to come to the light, that his deeds be not revealed, those, who would rather cling to their depraved usages and lie in sin than relinquish their unjust observances when the reason of justice has been heard, it came about that the people complained in their assemblies that he was embarking on a foolish journey and placed most weight on new and unheard-of ideas.9 As they did not follow the light of God’s leadership, but were spurred on by another spirit’s10 prickings, they discussed how they might best shake off the yoke of his rule from their savage and as yet still unbent and contemptuous necks. Men given over to the flesh could not see that the spirit of knowledge had filled the king’s heart. While the king sought to pull them out of the slavery of sin and lead them back to the freedom of justice, they heard him, but did not understand him; although they saw him, it was as if they were blind, and they counted him more as a destroyer of their ancient peace and tranquillity, who wished to rob them of their previous freedom.11 Therefore they compounded their wickedness and went out;12 yea, they went out, because they preferred their own statutes to divine justice and refused to accept the law of the Church. Thus they were separated from the society of the just, thrown out from their own borders and considered part of the body of the wicked, because they voluntarily made themselves slaves to sin. Thus they fell into the trap which they themselves had laid for the (p. 95) innocent, and into the grave which they had dug themselves, just as the Jews, because they could not endure him who chastised their errors. But we will save the account of their perdition for the proper time and return now the good qualities of our hero.

IX. Growing therefore into a servant of God and a true king in the fear of God (since to serve God is to rule and to rule in vice is to be a slave), shaking off his former acts and ignorance and the misdeeds of his youth through thoughtful reflection with himself and the religious men who attended him, namely those where were then chaplains of the royal court, now venerable bishops, Gerold and Arnold... [the rest of the chapter continues on Cnut’s willingness to hear and understand the word of God, his giving of alms, modesty and tendencies towards asceticism].

(p. 96) X. But since, according to the Word of Truth, a city placed on high cannot be hidden, and the light of the lantern should be carried aloft rather than obscured in a hidden place, the fame of the most noble ruler’s virtues, prudence and constancy spread far and wide, even to the Scots and Orcadians and the Irish, who inhabit the almost furthest reaches of the west, and also among the English and Gauls and Saxons he was held to be most famous. He was not unknown in Italy; and even among the Franks, who are also called Romans – a very warlike people – his name was spoken of in tones not only of admiration, but also of fear.

XI. The most noble English race (which is said to have its origins in the Old Saxons, as described by their historian the Venerable Bede) with the most valiant King Harald being slain by the warlike treacheries of William, Duke of the Normans, and this same William thereupon seizing the kingdom by force, had long been oppressed by the laws of the Romans or Franks. Just then they began to hope for the restoration of their former liberty,13 if only the most noble prince Cnut, with the forces of his armies, would decide to come to the shores of Britain to avenge the murder of his kinsman King Harold at the hands of these same Romans. Furthermore, their famous earls, thanes, satraps and noble persons of all ranks had been either destroyed by the sword or sent away to prisons or deprived of the honours of their familial wealth and titles along with their hereditary claims; many were driven from their native soil, the rest oppressed as though they were in public servitude; unable to endure the ferocity of their tyrant, they decided to seek external aid, as the foresightful cunning of their enemies had not left them any earl or prince who might lead them to the recovery of their freedom. Therefore they sent messengers over with ever-increasing frequency to beg the aid of the most excellent ruler Cnut, desiring to win back the rule of England from the enemy invaders rather than to endure the dominion of their ferocity by suffering any longer the rule of an enemy tyrant. Moved by their distress and entreaties, the most pious hero Cnut decreed that he would aid them in their troubles, that he might both restore that most noble race to their former liberty14 and punish the insolence of the Romans or Franks by avenging the death of his kinsman. Therefore he ordained a great fleet be prepared and ordered his men by public proclamation to be prepared for anything. But He who arranges and judges all, (p. 98) whose justice is a great abyss, and whose plans no mortal can fathom, whether to defer the chastening of his people or to reserve the glory of the most noble martyr-king for his own people rather than foreigners, impeded the course of human will: he allowed the Danes to make their protomartyr from their prince of patrons, their king. I say protomartyr, because in no relations of men of earlier times have we learnt of anyone from their people to have been distinguished with martyrdom before, none among them so slain for constancy and for serving justice. Therefore, crowned in glory and honour he sits forever at the right hand of the eternal king. But these things are known to God.

XII. Day by day the fleet was being prepared, and noble and common alike hastened with every effort to reach that noble land [England], rich in the fruits of the earth and in wealth. But when the rumour of the expedition had filled all England, William – a warlike hero and not inexperienced in the art of defence– began to fortify towns and fortresses, to build castles surrounded with walls and ditches, to rebuild the walls of cities and place watchmen in them, and to post guards at the various seaports. He called up and army of Gauls and Bretons as well as men of Maine and so filled the cities that a man could hardly get a seat at his own hearth. The English meanwhile, as William had learnt, (p. 99) were greatly eager for the arrival of the Danish army, and so he ordered them to shave their beards and don clothes like that of the Romans, and to make themselves look like Frenchmen (whom as we have said, are also called Romans) in all respects, so as to deceive the eyes of the invaders. Which very few did. But that is what happened in England.

XIII. When the fleet had been prepared, the force of the Danes was borne over the waves with sails unfurled to the shores by the western port,15 where the arrival of the royal fleet was awaited. But the king was in that most famous place which takes its name Ethebi16 from the Lady who formerly owned it, named Ethe,17 or Hethebi from its location among the plains, which means ‘the settlement of the plain’ in Danish. He was detained there in discussion with wise and prudent men, to determine how the enterprise undertaken for the benefit of many might come to a fitting conclusion with the aid of Jesus Christ.18 But, as once the Israelite people, while Moses delayed to talk with God, requested Aaron to make gods for them, which caused them to wander in the desert, and those who had requested this were deprived of their sight by God’s wrath, likewise the masses grew impatient of waiting, further delays, and endless lingering on the shore, and began to grumble that this was harming their private (p. 100) affairs19 and saying that they would either return to their own business or else elect themselves another leader for the expedition as Cnut was preoccupied with other things, or that a messenger should be sent to the king with the advice that he should hasten with his feet swifter than before. Moved by their frequent noise and daily complaints, the princes sent messengers to the king and ordered them to give the complaints of the ready army to his ears. Of this legation, Oluf,20 brother of the glorious king, was made the unhappy spokesman, and approached the king with his companions, stated the demands of the army, and speaking freely showed the causes of their complaints. Therupon the king after detailed and intense discussion with Robert,21 most noble duke of the western peoples, close to him through his daughter (Queen Ethela), sent Oluf to Flanders and reiterated his orders to the army through intermediaries. But as autumn was upon them, when the messengers had made their hurried way to the army, the whole multitude cut their speech short and shouted that if he would allow them to return to their own affairs and private business, they would have the entire fleet ready in the spring at whatever place the king chose. The king gave his assent to this and with the intervention of the nobles and magnates they (p. 101) happily hauled up their anchors from the sand and hoisted their sails high into the winds, seeking the deep sea, and calling down prosperity on the king they ploughed the sea with the hull and carried back desired things to their households.22

XIV. After the army had returned to its own affairs, the religious prince continued to act with the same pious zeal as before: he promoted the reverence of divine worship and justice for the clergy, instituted by royal edict the observance of the chief and legitimate days of fasting, just as they are observed throughout the entire Christian world, and to the very limits of his power he strove to suppress all practices contrary to God; he allowed slaves who had been manumitted and redeemed by the price of their own labour and sweat to live in a state of freedom, he judged foreigners and visitors from anywhere with equity and equal justice as long as they were not harmful to any of his people (although the Danes hated this, I believe it is hardly contrary to God’s will); and he sought to subdue the Danes’ obstinate rebelliousness against his legal and religious decrees, and to tame their savage necks with the rod of royal justice.

XV. [The Devil, incensed by Cnut’s piety, incites his people against him.]

(p. 102). XVI. But to return to our purpose, the executors of royal business, or tax-collectors, began exaggerating things more than was just, using faulty scales so that they could inflate the cost of everything, and as people say colloquially, ‘they allowed the worth of unciae barely to reach the value of a solidus’.23 People say that they were perverting justice, and attempted to oppress both noble and common with force and power. This insolence (p. 103) provoked many; the nobles were inflamed by anger and hatred, and all society [was provoked] to oppose the royal prince in counsel and arms, both him in person and his agents anywhere, to avenge the wrongs done to the public, as they saw it. The sowers of insanity and impiety ran about, inciting the minds not only of those inclined to wickedness, but also of the innocent and simple, to make them their accomplices in sin and disrupt the rule of justice and truth as much as they could. Alas! Abundant iniquity arose, charity cooled and became lukewarm; justice was suppressed and crime extolled. The people were incited to every wrong, and just like a beast ready to gulp down food, they thirsted for the blood of the king. They sharpened their wounded souls with arms and cruelty. [Ailnoth discusses furor in the form of a poem.]

(p. 104) XVII. The King, who was in the regions south of the river called the Lime,24 dealing with royal business as usual, was taken to the maritime region which is called Wendel in the Danish language,25 which means ‘changeable’; he decided to rest there in the royal residence, which from the name of the former Lady of the place, one Burhlina, is now called (with the a vowel changed) Burhlanis,26 and go about with an attendant, demanding that the doings of the royal tax-collectors be looked into. At his arrival, both the nobles and the masses, incited by the counsel of the impious, called a meeting and mutually incited their minds to iniquity, condemning the idea of yielding to decency or to royal institutions of thinking themselves less than the king. Thus, while they hated authority, they were opposed to God, since according to the apostolic verdict, he who resists power, resists the decree of God.27 But there lurked among him the one who, since he despised being subject to God, fell to the depths of Hell from the highest seats of Heaven.

(p. 105) XVIII. There is a bridge called the horned bridge,28 where the entire multitude came together, armed and with their minds poisoned by iniquity, and night and day they plotted in councils against the religious prince, deciding unanimously to either drive him from their borders or – a horrible thought! – banish him (as it were) from the land of the living. On the appointed day, the king approached them with his men in order to see their goings-on, and when the obstinacy of their will was known he returned to discuss the matter with his men. But with too few troops to deal with what he had discovered, on account of the insolence of the maddened crowd, and desiring to calm the conspiring multitude and to safeguard the welfare of his own men, according to the precept of the Lord, ‘if you are persecuted in one city, flee to another’,29 he decided to yield the place, and to depart quietly lest there be a greater tumult.

XIX. Having left the northern parts he went to the western borders;30 and he took all who were loyal to him to the place now called, as of old, Acresburh (that is, ‘city of the field’),31 and stayed there not long with the most reverend bishop Henry in the episcopal manor32 nearby and stayed there with a large following. When the departure of the king (p. 106) was made known, mobs of plunderers broke into the king’s estate in bands, drove his stewards out of their houses, and cast their greedy glances everywhere; they grabbed whatever they could lay their hands on, rooting through everything like pigs, trampling whatever was left over of the royal property which they could not take with them under their feet. What more is there to say? The mob, as we can read in David,33 with the counsel of malignity confirmed, the entire multitude went on its way; some pursued the king on foot, others on horseback, and they let it be known that either the memory of the religious prince should be extinguished from the world, or he should be toppled from his throne. But the most reverend bishop, who, as we have said before, had kept the glorious king with him, when he could hear the maddened legion arriving, approached the seditious masses with prudent men, and with a placating speech urged that they refrain from this insolence, undertaken on the counsel of the mad, lest they come to be held in infamy by the entire world, putting right and wrong before them with great ability.

XX. But since the enemy hostile to truth and piety had filled them with perversion and unrest, the Holy Spirit fled away (p. 107) and could not rest on the angry restless crowd, just as the Jews once, not bearing Stephen’s debating with them, were torn apart in their hard hearts and ground their teeth against him,34 thus shaking at the sane counsels of the reverend bishop they shouted with insane clamour, and with a charge being made they hastened to beset the reverend bishop: they sprinkled the sand of the shore with spears, sent their voices high into the air, and fearing lest the crowd obey him preaching truth and urging useful things, set about dissuading people from all the inconvenient things he had proposed.

XXI. That confirmation of this malignant speech be given, with the exhortations of the most illustrious man spurned and his arguments discarded, and with those complicit in the ferocity having been multiplied slowly through the street, the seditious legion ready for every evil in the aforementioned town, where the ministers of the royal wealth or overseers were in residence, they swiftly hastened, and that the fame of this insolence be spread throughout Jutland, they fought. And why should I hesitate? Concerning the stupidity of the madmen in attacking; some, unarmed, were drawn forward through the streets and slaughtered before the gates; some fell into the river; an even the magnates they hounded down, until the last way of flight was closed by their arms, and the enemy and the sword stood before them at the gates. Both sides fought it out, there fighting towards the inside from out, these from within to defend their own. But with the multitude (p. 108) o those breaking in continually growing and even those without clothes leaping into the fight nude, others wounded and gored as if by beasts yet pressed on; some fled from houses destroyed on either side; some gave up the fight and went to the ships, and transferred the king to the other side of the river. Thus with all the king’s thanes and servants driven away, all the furniture was torn up, the bedclothes torn off, the outbuildings searched, the guesthouses investigated, and even the floor was dug up; and whoever greedily snatched something or hungrily gulped something down would fight over it with his neighbour in shameless avarice. Thus the ignoble and greedy were enriched, while the noble were deprived of their property by the enemy force and those wounded were despoiled of what they had acquired.

XXII. By such furies of tenacious obstinacy was the mob agitated, that they sought to drive out all justice from their borders; and in order that there should be no refuge left for the religious prince, and lest they leave some witness to convict them of their vices, they fought against them with the instigators of their madness, with the Devil and howling winds accompanying the. But just as he who taught piety... [Ailnoth bemoans the impiety of the Danes in a lengthy poem].

(p. 111) XXIII. There is a most famous place nearly in the middle of Jutland, which on account of its eminence or the frequency of ancient sacrifices there or the memory of the most famous idol once there which was called ‘Wig’ is called ‘Wigberg’ (or ‘the high place of Wig’ or ‘the mountain of war’ or ‘sacrifices’) in Danish,35 where not the smallest multitude from all the parts of Jutland regularly convenes to discuss common affairs and to discuss and uphold the truth and firmness of the laws; and what is there decided by the common consensus of the gathered multitude becomes valid everywhere throughout the whole of Jutland. The most noble hero arrived there with his companions, and made enquiries as to whether he might find anyone still holding pious faith, and not only found no one, but also found that there were traps laid for him. For the northern people who began the uprising, and as we have said before, were driven on by the infernal furies, spread their banners of madness in all directions and offered the pious prince (p. 112) a safe haven nowhere. Alas! While the fox can find refuge in his hole and the birds of the air build themselves nests, the servant of the Son of Man Jesus Christ had nowhere to lay his head. From tumultuous Viborg he came to the port by the fjord which is called Sle,36 and went with his followers, who were tired from their land-journey, by sea over to Fyn.

XXIV. With the ships quickly prepared and the necessary provisions having been carried on board, the magnificent ruler, about to leave behind the fury of the Jutes and Jutland itself, embarking upon the rolling waves with his domestic companions and a new guard of fresh recruits, was borne to the shores of Fyn; where, while he did not find the security of a peaceful present that he sought, he did merit to be marked with the palm [of martyrdom] and the perpetual memory of glorious triumph. But you, ancient seducer, who brought this about by your malicious arts only with the permission of God, you who were once noble and magnificent, on account of the contempt born of your immense pride, were then thrown down from the heights of Heaven and afterwards seduced our ancestors in the form of a serpent with the promise of divinity... [Ailnoth upbraids the Devil for the rest of the chapter].

(p. 113) XXV. When the king’s arrival had been divulged, in order that what divine providence had decreed not be postponed any longer, with the messengers going about night and day, the counsels of iniquity united the masses to drive the religious ruler from the realm, or – a horrible thing to say! – bring about his departure from life. Cnut set out for the chief place, soon to be that of his battle, triumph and rest, which is called Othenswi,37 with his brothers Erik, most glorious king after him,38 and the most famous Svend,39 and Benedict40 also, his companion of labour and battle, and his retainers with him, there to await the outcome of events and to make what plans they could. The seditious mob grew as the days went by, and sent not only messengers but also spies to the royal court to investigate their plans and to try to use every opportunity to drive away the king. The leader and instigator of this criminal riot was called Pipero,41 the most notable among them, astute in mind, able in eloquence, he approached the innocent prince fraudulently, to offer faith in deceit, not hiding the wrathful intentions of the enraged mass, which he (p. 114) first incited and provoked. And sitting at the royal table next to the king (according to the Davidic saying: ‘who ate my bread, made stronger his case before me’),42 he was not only fed at the royal feast and given drink from the cup and honoured with gifts, just as when the teacher of Truth [Christ] gave the dipped bread to the traitor Judas and said ‘what you will do, do quickly’, he betrayed the religious ruler with a fake kiss of peace and an envenomed heart, just as Judas sold the author of light to the Pharisees for silver, so Pipero, with the light of day left behind (that is: with the probity of faith rejected), ensnared by the darkness of infidelity, just as night follows night, to impart not wisdom but foolishness he returned to the hostile mob, denounced the king to them by perverting rather than honestly reporting what he had heard from him, and told them how they might lay hands on him by deceit. Alas! [Ailnoth mourns the treachery and rage of the Danes and compares it to that of the Jews against Christ for the rest of the chapter.]

(p. 116): XXVI. The seditious multitude, following their leader and his madness, ran to the place of the royal seat in a growing mass, intent on every evil. The thunder of horses and clamour of people and the clash of arms filled the air; the running and charges of men shook the ground; a dust rose from the soil and was spread high and wide into the air and the surrounding daylight was spotted with nightlike shadows, and sight clouded by for entwined itself in the minds of the blinded. Then with the evening approaching, the devoted hero, to hear the evening service and commend himself and his followers to he maker of all, visited the church of the dear martyr Alban, not (p. 117) far away, alone with is faithful an aiders of his labours, and his accomplices not only of battle but of spoil, as we must believe, with the rest looking out for traps as best they could and counselling him in the present life. But the hostile mob met them everywhere and broke into and occupied not only the royal buildings but the inner courts as well. Even the holy places, where the religious ruler with his men was, they tried to break into: some broke down the doors of the church, others brought in fire; others stood by to seize the living and stand over the fallen. But with the fire extinguished by the water of divine virtue, the most unconquered troops stopped the enemies from within at the doors, not slothfully checking their advance with arms and most gloriously striking out for their king. The most devoted king meanwhile asked the eternal king, not with Herodian deceit but with Davidic humility of what crimes he was accused, while truly confessing to the true God; and not only making true and sincere confession but arming himself with the communion of life, he offered gifts of gold and silver upon the altar, with his companions doing the same in turn, and lest a way lie open to the enemies, blocked it with arms. But he conspiring multitude gathering from all corners and pressing on the walls of the church all around, the monstrous Pipero stopped outside before the doors: he called the king’s most faithful attendant forward to single combat, ad if he should not have the strength or courage to meet him, then to stand aside. The attendant (p. 118) vigorously met him and both were wounded with hard alternating blows, but finally he fell to the ground gloriously, while Pipero, who had more wounds on his body, lived on a short while longer. For upon being taken from the church to his home he was invaded by a ferocious demon and began to attack everything nearby with his hands and his mouth as well, to foam at the mouth, to cry out horribly, to shout meaningless incomprehensible noises, and to plainly admit his crimes, until finally he bit off his own tongue and departed terribly from his miserable life.

XVII. But the tenacious enemy in obstinate insolence remained in the church and threw stones and arrows through the open space: the king was pelted with stones (as Stephen was) and wounded by arrows (as was Sebastian) and the church was filled with his blood and with that of his wounded (and soon to be dead) companions, and if I may say, consecrated again by the price of their martyrdom. Truly, that the king be shown to be a devoted imitator of the sufferings of Christ, just as the Lord Jesus was placed on the cross in the midst of criminals, thus amidst the mob of the hostile multitude he asked for water to be given to him amidst the raging weapons, as he was thirsty. Which someone, moved by piety, drew and ave to him through the window, while another with a thrown spear knocked the cup from his hands; the water poured out and the respite of sating his thirst was removed from the king’s reach; but none could deprive him of the reward of piety. But the one who did this went mad not a long time after, and was afflicted with terrible thirst so that he stuck his head into a well and drowned, his knees sticking out above monstrously as proof of divine vengeance as his wicked spirit fell to the depths of Hell. [The martyrdom continues.]

XXVIII. [Cnut dies.]

XXIX. [Cnut’s brother Benedict is torn to pieces. The rebels fear to leave anyone alive who might take revenge. The Danes in their pride think themselves better than all other peoples. Their misdeeds are punished with famine.]

XXX. [The dead are buried in the church floor.]

XXXI. [Cnut’s wife, Ethela, who has fled to her native Flanders, wants Cnut’s body moved their but a miracle shows it should remain in Odense.]

XXXII. [Cnut’s relics are elevated. His brother Oluf Hunger dies. Erik Ejegod returns to the country to reign – note we don’t seem to be told at what point he left Cnut’s following or how he escaped. Plenty returns.]

XXXIII. [Cnut is canonised as a saint by Pope Paschal.]

XXXIV. [The messengers return from Rome with the news of this.]

XXXV. [A suitable reliquary is prepared.]

XXXVI. [Knud is translated to his new shrine; Ailnoth himself was a witness of this.]

(p. 135) Epilogue: I, Ailnoth, the least of priests, educated in England but expatriated43 in Denmark for many years... [Ailnoth addresses pious words to St Cnut himself.]


1 Cf. Adam of Bremen and Widukind.

2 Jeremiah 1:14.

3 Magnus was Svend Estridsen’s baptismal name, hence also the name ‘Swenomagnus’ in the title of Ailnoth’s work.

4 Cf. what Ailnoth was saying about north and south in the previous chapter.

5 Harald Fairhair is the name given by eleventh century Chronicles to Harald Hardrada; it was probably not applied to the ninth-/tenth-century king of Norway until later.

6 Svend actually died in 1076, the year given in English records.

7 Canities: Ailnoth is punning on the name ‘Canutus’.

8 Candor: see above.

9 Nouis et inauditis adinuentionibus: cf. the Roskilde Chronicle’s talk of Cnut’s ‘new and unheard-of law called nefgiald

10 i.e. the Devil’s.

11 Pristina libertas: cf. later the discussion of William the Conqueror in ch. 11.

12 cf. John 13:20; Judas went out, left the apostles and betrayed Jesus.

13 Pristina libertas: cf. ch. 8.

14 Pristina libertas.

15 Probably Vestervig on the western outlet of Limfjord.

16 Hedeby.

17 A false etymology, though an interesting one, possibly related to Saxo’s story of Queen Hede. Hedeby (Old Danish Haithabu) means the ‘settlement at the heaths’, as the next proposed etymology states more correctly; cf. Old English æt hæþum in Ohthere and Wulfstan’s voyages.

18 Probably in fact due to problems in Saxony; according to the Annalista Saxo in 1085 some notable opponents of the Emperor Henry IV took refuge in Denmark. This would have made it difficult for a Danish king to leave the country.

19 Quite rightly; in addition to being away from their farms they would have been using up the rations they had gathered for the expedition, dramatically reducing the time they would have to launch a successful campaign in England.

20 Cnut’s successor as king, later known as ‘Oluf Hunger’ due to the famine during his reign.

21 Robert I ‘the Frisian’, Count of Flanders.

22 Latin hexameter, not taken from any source I can find.

23 Jonathan Grove, personal communication.

24 Limfjord.

25 Vendsyssel.

26 Børglum.

27 Romans 13:2.

28 Horne (Gertz); others have identified with Kragestrand.

29 Matthew 10:23.

30 On the revolt breaking out in the very north of Jutland, see the discussion of North as the source of evil at the beginning of the text.

31 Aggersborg.

32 Villa episcopi: Biskopstorp, later Bejstrup.

33 Psalm 19:5.

34 Acts 7:54.

35 Viborg.

36 Hedeby/Slesvig.

37 Odense.

38 Erik Ejegod, 1095–1103.

39 Of whom little is known; perhaps the Danish prince Svend recorded as dying on Crusade in 1104.

40 Again, little is known about him other than his presence here.

41 Called Eyvindr Bifra in Knýlinga saga but these both seem to be distorted names pointing to uncertainties in the tradition (Albrectson) or perhaps contamination with some other legend. Pipero certainly does not look anything like a normal Danish name.

42 Psalm 40:10.

43 Peregrinatus, implying a sense of pilgrimage or holy exile.


Source: Ailnoth of Canterbury, Gesta Swenomagni regis et filiorum eius et passio gloriosissimi Canuti regis et martyris (The Deeds of King Svend-Magnus and his Sons and the Passion of the Most Glorious Cnut, King and Martyr), translated by Laura Gazzoli. Published at IHSP by permission.

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© Paul Halsall, January 2023
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