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Charles Dickens > A Child's History of England > Chapter V

A Child's History of England

Chapter V


CANUTE reigned eighteen years. He was a merciless King at first.
After he had clasped the hands of the Saxon chiefs, in token of the
sincerity with which he swore to be just and good to them in return
for their acknowledging him, he denounced and slew many of them, as
well as many relations of the late King. 'He who brings me the
head of one of my enemies,' he used to say, 'shall be dearer to me
than a brother.' And he was so severe in hunting down his enemies,
that he must have got together a pretty large family of these dear
brothers. He was strongly inclined to kill EDMUND and EDWARD, two
children, sons of poor Ironside; but, being afraid to do so in
England, he sent them over to the King of Sweden, with a request
that the King would be so good as 'dispose of them.' If the King
of Sweden had been like many, many other men of that day, he would
have had their innocent throats cut; but he was a kind man, and
brought them up tenderly.

Normandy ran much in Canute's mind. In Normandy were the two
children of the late king - EDWARD and ALFRED by name; and their
uncle the Duke might one day claim the crown for them. But the
Duke showed so little inclination to do so now, that he proposed to
Canute to marry his sister, the widow of The Unready; who, being
but a showy flower, and caring for nothing so much as becoming a
queen again, left her children and was wedded to him.

Successful and triumphant, assisted by the valour of the English in
his foreign wars, and with little strife to trouble him at home,
Canute had a prosperous reign, and made many improvements. He was
a poet and a musician. He grew sorry, as he grew older, for the
blood he had shed at first; and went to Rome in a Pilgrim's dress,
by way of washing it out. He gave a great deal of money to
foreigners on his journey; but he took it from the English before
he started. On the whole, however, he certainly became a far
better man when he had no opposition to contend with, and was as
great a King as England had known for some time.

The old writers of history relate how that Canute was one day
disgusted with his courtiers for their flattery, and how he caused
his chair to be set on the sea-shore, and feigned to command the
tide as it came up not to wet the edge of his robe, for the land
was his; how the tide came up, of course, without regarding him;
and how he then turned to his flatterers, and rebuked them, saying,
what was the might of any earthly king, to the might of the
Creator, who could say unto the sea, 'Thus far shalt thou go, and
no farther!' We may learn from this, I think, that a little sense
will go a long way in a king; and that courtiers are not easily
cured of flattery, nor kings of a liking for it. If the courtiers
of Canute had not known, long before, that the King was fond of
flattery, they would have known better than to offer it in such
large doses. And if they had not known that he was vain of this
speech (anything but a wonderful speech it seems to me, if a good
child had made it), they would not have been at such great pains to
repeat it. I fancy I see them all on the sea-shore together; the
King's chair sinking in the sand; the King in a mighty good humour
with his own wisdom; and the courtiers pretending to be quite
stunned by it!

It is not the sea alone that is bidden to go 'thus far, and no
farther.' The great command goes forth to all the kings upon the
earth, and went to Canute in the year one thousand and thirty-five,
and stretched him dead upon his bed. Beside it, stood his Norman
wife. Perhaps, as the King looked his last upon her, he, who had
so often thought distrustfully of Normandy, long ago, thought once
more of the two exiled Princes in their uncle's court, and of the
little favour they could feel for either Danes or Saxons, and of a
rising cloud in Normandy that slowly moved towards England.

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