Jesse: Thank you for tuning in to Time Travel Radio. I’m your host, Jesse Markus. Joining us today is Cnut the Great, the former King of England, Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden, and arguably the greatest Viking who ever lived. Cnut, thanks for being with us on the program.
Cnut: Thanks for having me.
Jesse: Real quick, before we get started, I want to clarify, is it Cnut or Canute? Am I saying that right? There are several spellings, which is correct, or which do you prefer?
Cnut: I guess it depends on who you ask. In Old Norse, my name is Knútr inn Ríki, which is like Cnut the Great. But since Old Norse is dead, today in Scandinavia I am called ‘Knut den Mektige’ or ‘Knud den Store,’ which also just means ‘Cnut the Mighty.’ There are many other spellings, so Cnut or Canute, either one is fine. The important part is you remember the ‘Great.’
Jesse: Okay thanks. Now, I want to get some of the obvious questions out of the way. The Viking Age, which happened roughly a thousand years ago, has long been associated with piracy. You know, savages from the north swarming onto the shores from their longships with fierce swords and horned helmets, that whole scenario. How accurate is this perception?
Cnut: Well Jesse, there are a couple points I would like to bring up already. First of all, I understand nowadays the word Viking really gets thrown around a lot, so I would like to clarify a few things about the true meaning of the word. Also, this idea that we are savages could not be further from the truth, and I think it was the filthy Christians who painted this bad picture of us. Of course, they never talk about our art and craftsmanship. They don’t praise our marine technology. They say we drink blood from skulls, that kind of thing. Not true. We never had horned helmets either, but I admit they look pretty cool.
Jesse: Okay, hang on. I do want to address the Vikings’ reputation for being savage or unclean, but let’s get back to your first point. First, give the listeners some information about this misused word, Viking. In most contexts, it is understood that “Viking” encompasses a wide designation of Nordic people; Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians, who expanded vastly during the Middle Ages, from about 800 to 1100 AD. You disagree with that?
Cnut: Well, this is not wrong, but it is not entirely accurate either.
Jesse: Can you elaborate?
Cnut: Well, you have to understand where the word comes from. Vik is just an old Norse word that means ‘bay, creek or inlet.’ Like when we discovered Iceland, we saw the steam rising from the hot springs, so we called the city Reykjavík, which means ‘smoky bay.’ The Vik, which is the bay along the Skagerrak, or the Norwegian Sea, is where the first Norse merchant-warriors originated. In Old Norse, víkingr just means men from the Vik. Later, víking just came to mean the same as ‘naval expedition’ or ‘naval raid,’ and the víkingr was a person who went on such an expedition.
Jesse: Ah, but this has been disputed. Some point to the Old English word wicing, which comes from a word meaning ‘village’ or ‘camp.’ Temporary camps were certainly a feature of Viking raids. Couldn’t this be the source of the word Viking?
Cnut: Yes, I suppose this is possible. But we are seafarers. We build longships to navigate narrow fjords. You can believe what you want. I am not a linguist, I am the King of England. I do not concern myself with such trifles.
Jesse: Alright, let’s get back to the other point you made. A lot of people believe Vikings are just a rabble of dirty, bloodthirsty savages. You disagree.
Cnut: Yes, I disagree very much. First, we are certainly not dirty, no way. Second, it is true that the Norsemen have done some brutal things, but you must consider the time period. Our deeds were not that heinous when compared to everything else that was happening.
Jesse: But from the beginning to the end of the Viking Age, there is bloodshed everywhere we look. I’m not talking about defeating your foes’ armies; I’m talking about slaughtering defenseless clergy! One of the first recorded attacks was in 793, when Vikings raided a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the coast of England. The monks were killed or carried off as slaves, along with the church treasure. Eventually, the monks abandoned the island completely after Viking raids continued even a century later. How do you respond to that?
Cnut: I believe that raid was only about ten years before Charlemagne beheaded 4,500 Saxons just for practicing their pagan religion. You see, we plunder to improve our way of life. We never slaughtered thousands of people just for not sharing our religious beliefs. As a king, I am very tolerant of religions.
Jesse: But you have to admit that raiding a monastery is still going rather berserk. Not too tolerant at all.
Cnut: It’s funny you should say ‘berserk.’ In fact, this is an Old Norse word, it means ‘bear shirt.’ Some warriors wore such garments and behaved like animals on the battlefield. The raid on Lindisfarne was not done by madmen clothed in wolfskin, foaming at the mouth and biting their shields. No, it was simply some Norsemen claiming some easy booty. And if you look back, that sort of thing has been common, too. I mean, look, the Lombards raided St. Benedict’s tomb in Monte Cassino! But nobody makes these ridiculous cartoons portraying them as filthy, murderous heathens.
Jesse: You seemed a little defensive about people referring to Vikings as ‘dirty.’ Do you have the same justification as the claim about your savagery? Is it simply that everyone back then was filthy, and the Vikings weren’t any worse?
Cnut: Much to the contrary. Like I said, I think it was the dirty Christians who spread this lie. We looked and smelled better than any of the cultures we came in contact with. We made combs, tweezers, and razors. If you look at the archaeological excavations being done, you will see that these kinds of items are among the most common artifacts found. We also made soaps, not just to keep clean, but to bleach our beards, because we are proud of our clean blond hair. We washed our faces every morning, and we even bathed once a week, which was considered excessive back then! In fact, the Old Norse word for Saturday, laugardagur, means ‘bath day.’
Jesse: What was your childhood like, if you don’t mind my asking?
Cnut: For a kid like me, growing up around the turn of the millennium, it was a rather tumultuous period. My father was a Viking leader named Sven Forkbeard, maybe you’ve heard of him. My grampa’s name was Harald Bluetooth, and when he died around 986, my dad became the King of Denmark. He was also the ruler of Norway and, in 1013, he finally became King of England, after a long hard fight to win the throne. But this North Sea Empire didn’t just get handed down to me. No, I fought many battles. I learned my soldiery from a mercenary leader called Thorkel the Tall, along with the legendary Joms Vikings at their stronghold.
Jesse: Who were the Joms?
Cnut: The Joms Vikings were an elite order of fighting men whose membership was very selective. They required strict adherence to a military code of conduct in order to instill discipline and loyalty among its members. The Joms were a force to be reckoned with and I am lucky to have trained with them. I was born to fight, and they knew it.
Jesse: What happened after your dad conquered England?
Cnut: When my dad died in 1014, suddenly I was the King of England, but the English nobles weren’t having it, so they voted to put Ethelred the Unready back on the throne. He was some Anglo-Saxon from the Wessex royal house, and I was pretty pissed about that. So, I set sail with my crew and the hostages we had taken from England. When we got to the shores of Sandwich, we mutilated and slaughtered them. I was pretty upset.
Jesse: Why so angry? You were still King of Denmark, right?
Cnut: No, Dad left that to my brother Harald. I suggested joint rulership, but Harald said no. He said if I gave up my claim to Danish kingship, we could prepare for a second invasion of England. We set sail in the summer of 1015 with 10,000 Danish soldiers. We led a brave and valiant fight, and on Christmas 1016 I enjoyed my coronation as the King of England. Right afterwards you show up in your time machine and bring me to this radio show.
Jesse: Hope it wasn’t bad timing. Congrats on your coronation, by the way. Just a couple more questions and we’ll get you back to the Viking Age. Now, you’ve been a little harsh when you talked about “dirty Christians,” but you yourself have already accepted Christianity as your faith. Is this due to true religious devotion or just a desire to maintain your regime’s grip on its people?
Cnut: I respect Viking religion, especially in my personal life, but yes, I also want a secure nation. Christianity was already an overwhelming force in Scandinavia as well as in England. When I began to conquer and extend my rule, I realized I was in an advantageous position; inasmuch as the Church was the keeper of the people’s health and the state’s general welfare, it was certainly in my interest to adopt Christianity as my official religion. I believe it was a good decision, and Odin will not punish me for it. Any good leader knows how to balance politics and religion.
Jesse: That partly explains your pilgrimage to Rome. Was this to repent your sins or were you just trying to improve relations between your kingdoms and Rome?
Cnut: Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve made no such journey.
Jesse: Oh my, you’re right. That, uh, comes much later. Sorry, well, we’re all caught up to the point in time where we kidnapped you in our time machine, so I can’t ask you any further questions. Cnut, I want to thank you for being with us on the program today. Any additional comments you’d like to make for our listeners at home?