When you break the big laws, you do not get freedom; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws. — G. K. Chesterton

Story of the English - Helene Guerber

King Canute and the Waves

King Ethelred was a weak, ignorant, and timid monarch, and as he was never able to determine wisely what was best to do, he was surnamed the Unready. Three times during his reign the Danes invaded his territory, and three times he paid them large sums to go away. This money was raised by a yearly tax, called the Danegeld, or Danes' money, and the Danish king, Sweyn (swan), promised to keep the peace as long as it was paid.

Ethelred promised to treat all Danes kindly and to pay the Danegeld regularly, but he soon regretted his promise, and made a plot to have all the Danes in the kingdom murdered on St. Brice's day, in the year 1002. This massacre was carried out, and as King Sweyn's sister perished with the rest, he soon came over to England to avenge her death.

After some resistance on the part of the Anglo-Saxons, Sweyn became master of the country, and Ethelred the Unready fled to France with his wife Emma, who was a daughter of the Duke of Normandy. But the Danish king died the very next year, and, although an attempt was made to place his son Canute upon the throne, the Witenagemot sent for Ethelred, who again became king.

The Saxon monarch had learned nothing by his former misfortune, so before long the Danes came back, and war was waged between Canute and Ethelred's son Edmund Ironsides. After some time, the two forces met at Assandun in battle, and when the fight was over it was agreed that the land should be divided between the Saxon and Danish kings, and that the one who lived longest should be sole ruler. Ethelred having died during the struggle, Edmund Ironsides and Canute became kings. But the former did not live very long, and after his death Canute reigned alone.

Canute had been very stern and cruel at first, so as to make the people afraid to disobey him; but when he became sole King of England he tried to please his subjects. Many of the Danes were sent home, the English were made his officers, good laws were established, and peace and order reigned throughout the land.

As Canute was not married, he took Emma, Ethelred's widow, for his wife, became a Christian, and went on a pilgrimage to Rome, to receive the pope's forgiveness for his sins. About ten years after becoming sole King of England, Canute conquered Norway, and because he thus ruled two kingdoms, he was regarded as a very powerful king.

Besides being brave, Canute was wise and just, so he had plenty of admirers; and his courtiers, hoping to please him, often remarked that he was sole lord of land and sea. This flattery was distasteful to Canute, so he made up his mind to give his courtiers a lesson.


One day, at low tide, he bade his servants place his throne far down upon the beach; and accompanied by his courtiers, in their richest robes, he went down there and took his seat. Grouped around him, and still paying their stupid compliments, the courtiers kept a watchful eye upon the waves, for they did not wish to get their clothes wet.

When the tide turned they ventured to suggest to the king that he have his throne set farther up on the beach. Canute carelessly said that he did not want to move, and that as they vowed he was lord of land and sea, he would bid the waves stand still. But although he stretched out his sceptre and ordered the water not to come near him, the waves rose higher and higher, till the spray drenched the courtiers' fine clothes and forced them and the king to beat a hasty retreat.

When they were beyond the reach of the tide, Canute gravely told his courtiers that God alone was master of the sea, and made them feel so ashamed of their senseless talk that they never ventured to flatter him again.


Front Matter

Early Times
The Druids
The Britons
Caesar in Britain
Queen Boadicea
The Great Walls
The Great Irish Saint
The Anglo-Saxons
Brave King Arthur
The Laws of the Saxons
The Story of St Augustine
Three Great Men
The Danish Pirates
King Alfred and the Cakes
Alfred conquers the Danes
A King's Narrow Escape
The King and the Outlaw
The Monasteries
An Unlucky Couple
St Dunstan
King Canute and the Waves
A Saxon Nobleman
Lady Godiva's Ride
The Battle of Hastings
The Conquest
Lords and Vassals
Death of William
The Brothers' Quarrels
Arms and Armour
The "White Ship"
Matilda's Narrow Escapes
Story of Fair Rosamond
Thomas a Becket
Murder of Thomas a Becket
Richard's Adventures
Richard and the Saracens
The Faithful Minstrel
Death of Richard
The Murder of Arthur
The Great Charter
The Rule of Henry III
A Race
Persecution of the Jews
The Conquest of Wales
A Quarrel with France
The Coronation Stone
The Insolent Favourite
Bruce and the Spider
Death of Edward II
The Murderers punished
The Battle of Crecy
The Siege of Calais
The Age of Chivalry
The Battle of Poitiers
The Peasants' Revolt
Richard's Presence of Mind
A Tiny Queen
Henry's Troubles
Madcap Harry
A Glorious Reign
The Maid of Orleans
The War of the Roses
The Queen and the Brigand
The Triumph of the Yorks
The Princes in the Tower
Richard's Punishment
Two Pretenders
A Grasping King
Field of the Cloth of Gold
The New Opinions
Death of Wolsey
Henry's Wives
The King and the Painter
A Boy King
Lady Jane Grey
The Death of Cranmer
A Clever Queen
Elizabeth's Lovers
Mary, Queen of Scots
Captivity of Mary Stuart
Wreck of the Spanish Armada
The Elizabethan Age
Death of Elizabeth
A Scotch King
The Gunpowder Plot
Sir Walter Raleigh
King and Parliament
Cavaliers and Roundheads
The Royal Oak
The Commonwealth
The Restoration
Plague and Fire
The Merry Monarch
James driven out of England
A Terrible Massacre
William's Wars
The Duke of Marlborough
The Taking of Gibraltar
The South Sea Bubble
Bonny Prince Charlie
Black Hole of Calcutta
Loss of the Colonies
The Battle of the Nile
Nelson's Last Signal
The Battle of Waterloo
First Gentleman of Europe
Childhood of Queen Victoria
The Queen's Marriage
Wars in Victoria's Reign
The Jubilee