On this day a thousand years ago--January 6, 1017,--the monarch who is universally remembered for having ordered the tide not to come in was crowned king of England in old St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Canute had come from Denmark with his father's conquering army in 1013, and schemed and conspired his way to the throne, which he took upon the death of Edmund Ironside. Despite the violence with which he secured the throne, his rule was generally fair and effective, although harsh by modern standards: his Law 53 decreed that an adulterous woman's property was forfeit to her husband, and that she must "lose her nose and ears." He became king of Denmark in 1019, and king of Norway in 1028, holding all three thrones simultaneously.
Because of the story that he ordered the tide not to come in, his name has become a byword for a ruler's failure to understand the limits of his power. To paraphrase Harry Callaghan, "A King's got to know his limitations." "How foolish," we all say,"for a ruler to become so deluded that he believes he can control the tide!" King Canute's name was mentioned after a certain politician said, in one of his triumphal speeches, "I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that . . . this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."
But in the original telling of the story, king Canute did not actually believe he could control the tide. To the contrary, he ordered the tide not to come in as an object lesson--mostly for the benefit of his fawning courtiers, his own entourage--on the limits of royal power.
The story comes down to us from a history of England written by Henry of Huntingdon over a century later. According to Huntingdon, King Canute had his throne brought down to the beach, then he commanded, "Ocean! The land were I sit is mine, and you are part of my dominion. Therefore, rise not--obey my commands and do not presume to wet the edge of my robe." He sat and waited as the tide continued to roll in. After his shoes and ankles were drenched, Canute turned to his gawking courtiers and said, "Confess ye now how frivolous and vain is the might of an earthly king compared to that great Power who rules the elements." In another version, he states, "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws."
The man who will a fortnight hence be sworn in as president of the United States could do with a lot less, "Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?" and a lot more, "He changes times and seasons; He deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning." He would do well to reflect on King Canute's object lesson on the power of kings compared to the power of God.