Canute IV
Legendary painting of the death of Canute IV of Denmark in the Church of Saint Albanus
King of Denmark
PredecessorHarald III
SuccessorOlaf I
Bornc. 1042[1]
Died10 July 1086
St. Alban's Priory, Odense
SpouseAdela of Flanders
IssueCharles I, Count of Flanders
Cecilia Knutsdatter
Ingegerd Knutsdatter
FatherSweyn II of Denmark
ReligionRoman Catholicism

Canute IV (c. 1042 – 10 July 1086), later known as Canute the Holy (Danish: Knud IV den Hellige) or Saint Canute (Sankt Knud), was King of Denmark from 1080 until 1086. Canute was an ambitious king who sought to strengthen the Danish monarchy, devotedly supported the Roman Catholic Church, and had designs on the English throne. Slain by rebels in 1086, he was the first Danish king to be canonized. He was recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as patron saint of Denmark in 1101.



Canute was born c. 1042, one of the many sons of Sweyn II Estridsson[1] by an unknown mistress. He is first noted as a member of Sweyn's 1069 raid on England,[2] and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that Canute was one of the leaders of another raid against England in 1075. When returning from England in 1075, the Danish fleet stopped in the County of Flanders.[3] Because of its hostility towards William I of England, Flanders was a natural ally for the Danes. He also led successful campaigns to Sember and Ester, according to skald Kálfr Mánason.[2]

When Sweyn died, Canute's brother Harald III was elected king, and as Canute went into exile in Sweden,[2] he was possibly involved in the active opposition to Harald.[3] On 17 April 1080, Harald died,[4] and Canute succeeded him to the throne of Denmark. On his accession, he married Adela, daughter of Count Robert I of Flanders. They had one son, Charles, who was born in 1084, and twin daughters Cæcilia (who later married Erik Jarl) and Ingerid (who later married Folke the Fat), who were born shortly before his death (ca. 1085/86).[2][5] Ingerid's descendants, the House of Bjelbo, would ascend to the throne of Sweden and Norway and Canute IV's blood returned to the Danish throne in the person of Olaf II of Denmark.

King of Denmark


Canute quickly proved himself to be a highly ambitious king as well as a devout one. He enhanced the authority of the church, and demanded austere observation of church holidays.[2] He gave large gifts to the churches in Dalby, Odense, Roskilde, and Viborg, and especially to Lund.[2] Ever a champion of the Church, he sought to enforce the collection of tithes.[1] His aggrandizement of the church served to create a powerful ally, who in turn supported Canute's power position.[2]

Ecclesiastical map of Denmark from the tenth to twelfth century

In May 1085, Canute wrote a letter of donation to Lund Cathedral, which was under construction, granting it large tracts of land in Scania, Zealand, and Amager.[6] He founded Lund Cathedral School at the same time.[2] Canute had gathered the land largely as pay for the pardon of outlawed subjects. The clerics at Lund got extended prerogatives of the land, being able to tax and fine the peasantry there. However, Canute kept his universal royal rights to pardon the outlaws, impose fines on subjects who failed to answer his leding call to war, and demand transportation for his retinue.[6]

His reign was marked by vigorous attempts to increase royal power in Denmark, by stifling the nobles and keeping them to the word of the law.[2] Canute issued edicts arrogating to himself the ownership of common land, the right to the goods from shipwrecks, and the right to inherit the possessions of foreigners and kinless folk. He also issued laws to protect freed thralls as well as foreign clerics and merchants.[1] These policies led to discontent among his subjects, who were unaccustomed to a king claiming such powers and interfering in their daily lives.[2]

Aborted attempt on England


However, Canute's ambitions were not purely domestic. As the grandnephew of Canute the Great, who had ruled England, Denmark and Norway until 1035, Canute considered the crown of England to be rightfully his and regarded William I of England as a usurper. In 1085, with the support of his father-in-law, Count Robert, and Olaf III of Norway, Canute planned an invasion of England and called his fleet in leding at the Limfjord.[2] The fleet never set sail, as Canute was preoccupied in Schleswig by the potential threat of Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor with whom both Denmark and Flanders were on unfriendly terms. Canute feared an invasion by Henry, whose enemy Rudolf of Rheinfelden had sought refuge in Denmark.[2]

The warriors of the fleet, mostly made up of peasants who needed to be home for the harvest season, got weary of waiting and elected Canute's brother Olaf (the later Olaf I of Denmark) to argue their case. That raised the suspicion of Canute, who had Olaf arrested and sent to Flanders. The leding was eventually dispersed, and the peasants tended to their harvests.[2]



Before the fleet could reassemble, a peasant revolt broke out in Vendsyssel,[1] where Canute was staying, in early 1086. Canute first fled to Schleswig and eventually to Odense. On 10 July 1086, Canute and his men took refuge inside the wooden St. Alban's Priory, in Odense. The rebels stormed into the church and slew Canute, along with his brother Benedict and seventeen of their followers, before the altar.[1] According to the chronicler Ælnoth of Canterbury, Canute died following a lance thrust in the flank.[7] He was succeeded by Olaf as Olaf I of Denmark.


Statue of Saint Canute at St. Peter's Church, Næstved

Because of his martyrdom and advocacy of the Church, Canute quickly began to be considered a saint. Under the reign of Olaf, Denmark suffered from crop failure, which was seen as divine retribution for the sacrilegious killing of Canute. Miracles were soon reported as taking place at his grave,[8] and his canonization was already being sought during the reign of Olaf.[1]

On 19 April 1101, persuaded by the envoys from Eric I of Denmark, Pope Paschal II confirmed the "cult of Canute" that had arisen, and King Canute IV was canonized.[6] He was the first Dane to be canonized.[1] 10 July is recognised by the Catholic Church as his feast day. In Sweden and Finland he is historically, however, partially associated with St. Knut's Day, which in reality was celebrated in the memory of the death of his nephew, Canute Lavard.[9][10]

In 1300, his remains and those of his brother Benedict were interred in Saint Canute's Cathedral, built in his honour, where his remains are on display.[1]



The reign of Canute has been interpreted differently through the times; from a violent king who tyrannized his subjects, to a strict but fair ruler who devotedly supported the Roman Catholic Church and fought for justice without regard to his own person.[3] He was never a thoroughly popular saint in Denmark, but his sainthood granted the Danish monarchy an aura of divine legitimacy.[1] The cause of the rebellion which killed Canute is unknown, but has been speculated as originating in fines issued to the peasants breaking the leding of 1085 as specified in the Chronicon Roskildense, or as a result of his vigorous tithe policy.[3]

The document of his donation to Lund Cathedral was the oldest comprehensive text from Denmark, and provided broad insights into Danish post-Viking Age society.[6] The donation might have had the aim of establishing the Danish Archdiocese of Lund according to Sweyn II Estridsson's wishes,[2] which was finally achieved in 1104. Canute's son Carl became Count of Flanders from 1119 to 1127, ruling as Charles the Good. Like his father, Charles was slain in a church by rebels (in Bruges, 1127), and later beatified by the Catholic church.[2] According to Niels Lund, Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Copenhagen, Canute's abortive invasion of England "marked the end of the Viking Age."[citation needed]

In 2008, an X-ray computed tomography was taken of Canute, which showed that he was right-handed and of a slender build. It also specified his cause of death as a thrust to the sacrum through the abdomen, negating Ælnoth's account. He had no injuries indicating he fought against multiple enemies, which can be seen as supporting an account saying he faced his death without a struggle.[7]


In parts of Spain, Canute's feast day has reportedly become a tongue-in-cheek "holiday" for the marijuana legalization movement, appropriating the Spanish version of his name, Canuto, which coincidentally is also the word for a marijuana cigarette.[11]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Stefan Pajung, Knud den Hellige ca. 1042–1086,, Aarhus University, 22 January 2010
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Bricka, Carl Frederik, Dansk Biografisk Lexikon, vol. IX [Jyde – Køtschau], 1895, pp. 260–263.
  3. ^ a b c d Knud 4. den Hellige at Gyldendals Åbne Encyklopædi
  4. ^ Bricka, Carl Frederik, Dansk Biografisk Lexikon, vol. VII [I. Hansen – Holmsted], 1893, p. 74.
  5. ^ Line, Philip (2007). Kingship and State Formation in Sweden: 1130–1290. Brill. pp. 499–500.
  6. ^ a b c d Knud den Helliges gavebrev 1085 Archived 23 July 2012 at the Wayback Machine,, Aarhus University, 6 June 2010
  7. ^ a b CT-scanning af Knud den Hellige afslører nyt om kongemord Archived 13 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine, Ingeniøren, 8 March 2008
  8. ^ Farmer, David Hugh (1997). The Oxford dictionary of saints (4. ed.). Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press. p. 87. ISBN 9780192800589.
  9. ^ Axelsson, M: Tjugo dagar efter jul, published 13 January 2007 (in Swedish)
  10. ^ The Scandinavian Remedy: The murder at Haraldsted (3 January 2009) Archived 16 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine, retrieved 8 January 2012.
  11. ^ Rincón, Reyes (20 January 2003). "En honor a San Canuto". El País (in Spanish).

Further reading

Canute the SaintHouse of EstridsenBorn: c. 1042 Died: July 10 1086 Regnal titles Preceded byHarald III King of Denmark 1080–1086 Succeeded byOlaf I