Who was King Canute?

If you cast your eyes across The Royal Mint’s 1,100 years of history and catalog of commemorations, you’ll find stories of kings and queens, whose battles and conquests shaped Britain’s heritage, told on our coinage. Their remarkable stories live on centuries after their reign, passed down from generation to generation, retold and remembered on coinage stuck today.

One of the first coins to state explicitly that it was minted in London was the Alfred the Great penny, a significant coin in Royal Mint history that dates back to 871. From thereon, for over 1,100 years, The Royal Mint has struck coins for every monarch. Now, in 2017, we are celebrating a 1,000 year anniversary on a Royal Mint coin for the very first time, marking the coronation of King Canute. While The Royal Mint produced the coinage of King Canute in 1017, this is the first time that he has been commemorated on UK coins. As we celebrate this remarkable anniversary, we find out more about the Viking Conqueror who became an English king.

King Canute coin

Viking conqueror, English King.

A Viking warrior, son of King Swein ‘Forkbeard’ of Denmark, Canute was a conqueror with no clear connection to the royal dynasties that had ruled England for centuries. Long before the Norman Invasion of 1066, Canute the Great crossed the North Sea and seized the throne of England. At the Battle of Assandun, Canute captured the English throne from Æthelred II’s son, Edmund ‘Ironside’, and from here, began a period of conquest across northern Europe. After capturing the English throne, Canute continued to conquer northern Europe, and before the end of his reign his empire included Denmark, Norway and also part of Sweden.

While his conquests were infamous, King Canute is often remembered through the story of ‘Canute and the waves’. Legend has it that he sat on his throne at the water’s edge and ordered the waves to turn back, supposedly speaking the words;

” Let all inhabiting the world know the power of kings to be empty and worthless and that there is no other king worthy of the name but He at whose will heaven, earth, sea obey by eternal laws”

This tale has often been interpreted as a sign on Canute’s arrogance, his attempt to prove that his power was so great he could control the seas. However, the earliest form of the story portrays him as a humble king, proving he was only human and that he could not control the tide!

 

Whilst his attempt to ‘tame the waves’ failed, Canute successfully turned the tide of the costly and brutal Viking raids that had plagued England for 100 years. He married King Æthelred II’s widow Emma, legitimising his claim to the English throne and, because he ruled the Viking homelands, was able to protect England against further attacks and bring 20 years of political stability.

In 1018 he collected £72,000 in ‘Danegeld’ from a nationwide tax, and several thousand more from the wealthy city of London, then paid off his soldiers and sent most of them home. He kept a small army of men in England and maintained the peace, which allowed trade, art and Christianity to flourish. Canute also encouraged respect for the established English laws and regard for individual rights. As a Christian, and as part of his deliberate self-promotion as a peaceful ‘English’ king, he also made many generous gifts to the church.

king canute coin
King Canute £5 coin

When Canute died in 1035, aged about 40, he was buried in Winchester’s Old Minster (the predecessor of the present cathedral), alongside the old Anglo-Saxon kings. Though his heirs failed to hold together his Anglo-Scandinavian empire, and Canute’s conquest is now largely overshadowed by the Norman invasion of 1066, his reign and achievements paved the way for the growth of the nation of England we recognise today.

For 2017, a UK £5 coin, designed by Royal Mint designer Lee R. Jones, has been struck to mark the 1,000-year anniversary of King Canute’s coronation. Rather than approaching the design from the familiar viewpoint of medieval art, Lee has created a fresh and clean design that reflects the fact that Canute was a powerful and ancient Nordic king with a great story.

king canute coin
Sketch of King Canute £5 coin designed by Lee Jones, Royal Mint designer

“My natural style is to distill a message to its simplest most effective form so i started with clean, graphic strokes using fine line and marker pens. The design is influenced by the prows of Viking long ships; there is a certain proud, determined nature to them that suits the character of Canute. I also included the particular type of crown Canute is seen wearing in manuscripts, keeping the foundation of the iconography he is associated with.” Lee Jones, Royal Mint coin designer

The King Canute £5 coin is available in all finishes; Silver Proof, Silver Proof Piedfort, Gold Proof and Brilliant Uncirculated. King Canute can also be found in good company in the 2017 Annual Sets, along with the coins of 2017 that mark the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen, Sir Isaac Newton’s substantial influence on science, mathematics and minting, The House of Windsor and a £2 coin that honours the aviators of the First World War.

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