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Canute (or Knut) IV (c. 1043 – July 10, 1086), also known as Canute the Saint and Canute the Holy ( ), was King of Denmarkmarker from 1080 until 1086. Canute was an ambitious king who sought the English throne, attempted to strengthen the Danish monarchy, and devoutedly supported the Roman Catholic Church. Slain by rebels in 1086, he is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as patron saint of Denmark.


Canute was the illegitimate son of Sweyn II Estridsson. Before he became king of Denmark, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that Canute was one of the leaders of a Viking raiding expedition against England in 1075. On its return from England, the Danish raiders' fleet stopped in the County of Flanders. Because of its hostility toward William I of England, Flanders was a natural ally for the Danes.

In 1080, Canute succeeded his brother, Harald III, to the throne of Denmark. On his accession, he married Adela, daughter of Robert I, Count of Flanders. She bore him one son, Charles, a name uncommon in Denmark. The boy later became Count of Flanders and was known as Charles the Good, ruling from 1119 to 1127. Like his father, he was martyred in a church by rebels (in Brugesmarker in 1127).

Canute quickly proved himself to be a highly ambitious king as well as a devout one. His reign was marked by vigorous attempts to increase royal power in Denmark. He 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. Ever a champion of the Church, he also issued laws to protect the weak, orphans, widows, and foreigners, and tried to enforce the collection of tithes. These policies led to discontent among his subjects, who were unaccustomed to a king who claimed such powers and who interfered in their daily lives.

But Canute's ambitions were not purely domestic. As the grandnephew of Canute the Great, who until 1035 was king of Englandmarker, Denmarkmarker and Norwaymarker, this Canute considered the crown of England to be rightfully his. He therefore regarded William I of England as a usurper. In 1085, with the support of his father-in-law Count Robert, Canute planned an invasion of England. He assembled a fleet at Limfjordmarker, but it never set sail. Possibly Canute was wary of intervention by Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, with whom both Denmark and Flanders were on unfriendly terms. Certainly Canute was suspicious of his brother Olaf (later Olaf I of Denmark), who sought command of the fleet, and had him arrested and sent to Flanders. The fleet then dispersed, but Canute intended to reassemble it in a year's time.
Before the fleet could reassemble, a peasant revolt broke out in southern Jutland, where Canute was staying, in early 1086. Canute and his men took refuge inside the wooden Church of St. Alban's in Odensemarker. But the rebels stormed into the church and slew Canute, along with his brother Benedict and seventeen of their followers, before the altar on July 10, 1086. 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." For it was the last time a Viking army was to assemble against Western Europe.

Because of his "martyrdom" and advocacy of the Church, Canute quickly began to be considered a saint. Miracles were soon reported as taking place at his grave. In 1101, thanks to the persuasion of Eric III of Denmark's envoys, Pope Paschal II confirmed the "cult of Canute" that had arisen and King Canute IV was canonized as a saint. In 1300, his remains and those of his brother were interred in the new Saint Canute's Cathedralmarker.

His feast day is recognised by the Catholic Church as being on 19 January. However, in Swedenmarker and Finlandmarker his feast day is celebrated on 13 January. This appears to be because he decreed that Christmas be celebrated for 20 days, and 13 January falls 20 days after Christmas Day.

Cultural Influence

Every January 19 in Madridmarker (Spainmarker), thousands of people celebrate San Canuto. Canuto in Spanish also means joint.

Further reading

  • The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Ed., Peter Sawyer. Oxford University Press, New York, 1997. Chapter Seven: "The Danish Empire and the End of the Viking Age" by Niels Lund. The quote is from page 181.
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Ed David High Farmer. Oxford University Press, 2004. See the entry on St Canute.


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