Cnut the Great by Timothy Bolton

Cnut the Great by Timothy Bolton offers a critical review of Cnut and the reign in Northwestern Europe during the late 10th and early 11th centuries.   Bolton begins with an overview of Danish society in the 11th and 10th centuries to correlate Cnut’s childhood experiences with his world of existence. The author analyzes Cnut’s background by examining the dynasty established by his grandfather and father in Denmark.   Cnut was born in a family with a well-formed political structure. His grandfather, Harald Bluetooth reigned over Denmark while his father Sweyn Forkbeard ruled Norway and Denmark.  Cnut was introduced to martial art at a tender age under the mentorship of Thorkell the Tall. The following account of Cnut’s father conquest in England offers a vivid analysis of the formative nature of events in 1013 and their effects on Cnut’s prowess and affluence in 1016 after the England Conquest.  Cnut gained control over England through massive executions of English superiority and implementation of administrative changes.

Bolton dives deep into the sources and evidence to depict Cnut’s prowess in fighting the competing interests at his court.  Cnut gave lands, titles to his followers and granted others the privilege to live near to the king and punished others by sending them to exile and execution.   Cnut also promoted noble English men and balanced his reign across all cities.  After Thorkell the Tall’s exile, Cnut focused his mission on Denmark and Norway to establish his reign.   Despite resistance in Denmark, Cnut strengthened his reign in Denmark and after that returned to England in 1020 AD.  Cnut formed sound relations with the church and offered aid to the clergy.  Bolton postulates that Cnut ventured into Scotland with a considerable army and fought for the allegiance of Scottish Kings.  He later sailed to Norway, and after successfully defeating Olaf Haraldson, Cnut became the king of Norway. 

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As a result, he became the king of England, Denmark, and Norway. The author relies on the pottery, coinage, confraternity literature, and 30th-century proses sagas to offer a comprehensive analysis of modern Scandinavia.  Cnut was an influential King who united English and Danish Kingdoms and had a significant effect on English trade and economy.  In the last chapter, Bolton offers a fascinating summary of the six years between Cnut’s reign and Edward Confessor.  Harthcnut, Cnut’s son succeeded his father after Cnut’s death in 1035AD. Sadly, Harthcnut’s death within a decade of Cnut’s departure brought an end to the hereditary rule.  As a result, Edward Confessor, Harthcnut’s half-brother assumed the reign and restored the dynasty of House of Wessex in England.

Cnut the Great by Timothy Bolton fits best as a work of history due to its vivid exploration of Cnut’s life and reign in England.  Bolton cites various articles related to the Anglo-Scandinavian elite in the 11th century.  The author uses multiple and complex sources of evidence to develop a narrative of Cnut’s life, adequately depicting Cnut’s prowess as a hegemonic king across various territories.   The author relies on northern sources, precisely modern Scandinavia sources such as poetry books, chronicles, and Norse sagas, to provide an engaging account of Cnut. Bolton’s mastery of English written sources offers a finely tuned history of the strategies used by Cnut in wielding power across territories. Bolton mainly explores the Scandinavian history, which makes the book a great source of history.  The author makes certain and bold deductions particularly the value of prose saga evidence and sets the rationale for using this evidence.  Thought-provoking additions in the book, such as the presentation of England conquest enhances readers’ understanding of Cnut. Scant evidence hinders the author from exploring Cnut’s early years.  Nevertheless, the author succeeds in noting Cnut’s character specifically his skills in conquering battles, cultural identity and negotiation.

 Bolton’s writing style makes it challenging to read the book. The old-fashioned way of writing attracts undesirable tendencies such as a focus on ethnic conflicts between Scandinavians and English in North-western Europe prompt the reader to handle the book with great nuance and caution. The author expresses an angry attitude towards literature cited throughout the work.   Also, Bolton selectively cites existing scholarship about Cnut’s studies, inscrutably compelling the reader to give minimal attention to Cnut’s education.   The author provides an undue focus for some works and critics and limiting other seminal works to brief footnotes.  Bolton’s use of one voice against modern scholars throughout the work weakens the book. 

Although some chapters in the book present a fascinating and original analysis of Cnut’s relationships with other dynasties, the ideas presented prove problematic and unconvincing for the reader.  I agree with Bolton’s argument that Cnut was a competent and powerful king because he fought ruthlessly and boldly until he achieved what he desired.   Cnut the Great serves as a value addition to history, integrating scattered and neglected evidence to develop a holistic view of Cnut and his reign.  The biography offers a comprehensive and insightful analysis of Cnut’s life that prompts repeated reading.   Cnut remains an inspiration for cultural historians to what a credible history book fostered in the English tradition can gain out of source material.