Is this scathing analysis of the last Danish monarch who sat on the English throne justified, or is there more to the story of Harthacnut than this Anglo-Saxon propaganda?

Son of a great 

Poor old Harthacnut. For centuries, he has lived in the long shadow of his famous father, Cnut the Great

By the time Cnut had reached middle age, he had created what later historians called the North Sea Empire, uniting the crowns of Denmark, England, and Norway under his rule. 

In many ways, this was the political highpoint of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100), as Cnut ruled over this maritime empire that stretched from the Arctic Circle to the Irish Sea, down to the edge of central Europe. 

Under his iron rule, Cnut had forged an empire that encompassed the traditional Viking homelands of much of Scandinavia, along with the new Viking settlements across the British Isles. 

Cnut cast aside his first wife, Ælfgifu, and married Emma of Normandy in late 1016. With the English kingdom firmly under his grip, Cnut is believed to have married in a political move to try and enlarge his kingdom. 

Normandy, the northwest tip of France, had a proud Viking history – having been established with the help of the Viking adventurer Rollo - and Cnut was no doubt eager to entrench himself further with other European royalty.

Their marriage soon produced a son – Harthacnut (in mid-1017), whose name means something akin to "tough knot." 

According to later medieval chronicles, Cnut decided that any sons from his second marriage would take precedence over sons from a previous marriage. 

Young Harthacnut then became the heir apparent to his father's empire. 

In the time of Harthacnut, Copenhagen stood as a crucial stronghold in Denmark, a kingdom he inherited amidst a backdrop of political strife and ambition. Photo: Maykova Galina / Shutterstock

Fractures and fights 

During the 1020s, fractures began to emerge in Cnut's North Sea Empire. 

Political machinations saw Harthacnut become a pawn of Danish nobles who – with Cnut away in England – decided to announce their support for Harthacnut as the sole ruler of Denmark. 

Cnut then had to rush back to Denmark to quell the would-be rebellion, sparing his son's life in the process. 

Further north, Cnut had entrusted another son, Svein, to rule Norway with his first wife, but when a rival claimant to the throne, Magnus I, invaded, the two had to flee to Harthacnut's court in Denmark. 

As his empire began to fracture, Cnut passed away in 1035, signaling the decline of the Viking Age's zenith. 

Ascending to the throne of Denmark following his father's death, it was expected that Harthacnut would then make the short trip across the North Sea to stake a claim on the English throne. 

However, with his northern flank threatened, he remained in Denmark, his power base, and appointed his stepbrother, Harald Harefoot, as his regent in England. 

There is much academic speculation about whether Harthacnut intended to rule England alone or to share it with his stepbrother, as coins have been found in England minted with the images of both. 

He also planned to aid his brother, Svein, in securing the Norwegian throne and claiming his father's northern prize. An invasion was planned and organized despite Svein's death. 

An ensuing peace treaty between Harthacnut and Magnus I ensured that Norway slipped out of the empire. 

However, his eyes were firmly fixed on the bigger prize across the North Sea in England. 

This silver English penny, featuring the distinctive arm and scepter design, was minted during the reign of Harthacnut between 1040 and 1042. Photo: The Portable Antiquities Scheme (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Securing the English throne 

Following their expulsion from England, Harthacnut's mother, Emma, lived in exile in Bruges. 

Her first marriage had been to Æthelred, the King of the English, which produced a son, Alfred Ætheling – another stepbrother of Harthacnut. 

While in exile and with her second husband's empire slowly disintegrating, Emma sought to secure the English throne for her son. 

She appears to be behind a conspiracy – historians are divided on whether Harthacnut played a role – that resulted in the murder of Alfred Ætheling, clearing the path to the English throne for her son. 

Whether Harthacnut was involved or not, it provided a perfect pretext for an invasion of England to secure the kingdom that Harthacnut's father had so brilliantly won. 

As his father had done over two decades earlier, Harthacnut sailed across the North Sea to secure his claim on the English throne, arriving in mid-June 1040 with a huge flotilla of some 62 warships. 

Unlike previous English kings, Harthacnut ruled autocratically, without the advice of his council, alienating the local political elite. 

This situation only worsened when heavy-handed taxation was imposed on the English population, funding a larger fleet to secure his kingdoms across the North Sea. 

Mounting tensions neared rebellion when a poor harvest further fueled the disgruntlement of the local English population under this "foreign" king.

The tension escalated when two of Harthacnut's tax collectors were beaten up in Worcester, leading the king to have the town burnt down – with only an advance warning from a noble sparing much of the population from the flames. 

Yet, despite alienating much of the population, Harthacnut was savvy enough to maintain the support of the Church, a significant local source of power, legitimacy, and finance, by generously donating to many abbeys and parishes. 

Winchester Cathedral stands on the site where King Harthacnut, the last Danish ruler of England, was buried in 1042 at around the age of 24. Photo: Richard Melichar / Shutterstock

Sickness and death 

Utilizing medieval chronicles, it appears that Harthacnut suffered from a recurring illness, which some historians have speculated to be tuberculosis. 

This was such common knowledge that when he secured his claim to the English throne, many disgruntled nobles knew they just had to bide their time before a "change in top management" occurred. 

Legacy was on Harthacnut's mind when, in 1041, he made another stepbrother, Edward the Confessor, his heir apparent, acting on his mother's advice, whom later chronicles portray as continually pulling the strings from afar. 

In a death that seems to have inspired the widely popular series Game of Thrones, Harthacnut was said to have dropped dead after drinking a large toast to a newlywed couple in June 1042. 

There is some speculation that he may have been poisoned, with the obvious suspect being Edward the Confessor. 

However, given Harthacnut's fragile health, coupled with the vast amounts of alcohol he was said to consume, it is more likely that Harthacnut was responsible for his own demise. 

His death would, in many ways, spell the end of Viking influence on English history. Harthacnut would be the last Danish king of England. 

However, he would not be the last Viking king to claim the English throne, as Harald Hardrada, who saw himself as a successor and heir of Harthacnut, would emerge two and a half decades after Harthacnut's death in 1066. 

While Harthacnut is often overlooked by historians in favor of his more famous father and successor, the fact that he reigned in Denmark for seven years and secured the English throne for two makes him a formidable character. 

Somewhat lost in the story of England, he should be remembered as the burning tail end of the Viking supernova that dominated England and much of Europe for the previous three centuries.

For more information on Harthacnut's mother, Emma of Normandy, visit the BBC History website here

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