Cnut the Great
by Dr. Timothy Bolton
Head of Western Manuscripts and Miniatures,
Book Editor: Heather McCallum
‘Cnut the Great’ by Dr. Timothy Bolton was published in 2017 (February in the UK and March in the USA) and in paperback in 2019. The paperback seems to have had an original cover, at lest for publicity purposes, and a second with which it was finally issued. The used cover is a change for the format of having the paperback headed by the title, the series name and a gold crown in a white space. With this book the white space has been removed and the image is similar, though smaller, than the hardback cover and the font more regular with a crisper look.
We are fortunate in getting English Monarchs biographies of not one but two pre-Norman kings in very close proximity, Æthelred II being the other one.
Dr. Bolton is an honorary fellow of both Cardiff and Aberdeen Universities, and lives in Stockholm, Sweden. His home in the land of the ice and snow is particularly apt for an author of this biography on Cnut. He has held a teaching post at the University of Oslo and currently is the head of Western Manuscripts and Miniatures at Bloomsbury Auctions. As such he is in an unrivalled position to examine fully the scant documentation of the 11th Century.
Cnut is one of the better known kings of the period and there is no shortage of titles already available for this king. However, being a Yale title this is a definitive work with new insights about aspects of the reign. A taste of this can be found by the author on the Yale UK Blog page.
In his introduction Dr. Bolton writes that he sees Cnut as an active figure, not a passive one. His aim is to present a case different from the more common English perspective in which Cnut is seen as a Scandinavian (ie. Viking) barbarian in need of education by his more civilised English advisors. He writes about his subject with a rare confidence and authority, which is even more admirable given the early period of the study. He notes that the Scandinavian sources need “extremely sensitive handling” which hasn’t always been the case. In this regard his work with manuscripts gives him an advantage in seeing Cnut as no other biographer has before.
His opening comment on Cnut’s youth is that almost all modern historians have “shied away from it” as little can be known for certain, before he dives in unhesitatingly to give a fascinating story of this period. What unfolds is a persuasive account of Cnut’s early years, a young life existing in a complex and elusive political structure. The first half of the book takes Cnut’s life up to the conquest of England, and his rule as king and an international statesman is examined in the second. Dr. Bolton navigates this with ease, rather like the Norsemen of the period, around the bank and shoal of time, describing the turbulent politics and personalities in which Cnut was a major player.
The final chapter summarises the six years between the reigns of Cnut and Edward the Confessor, a period when Cnut’s two sons were on the throne. A similar narrative of these years can be found in chapter two of Frank Barlow’s biography of Edward the Confessor, the next book in this sequence, where Barlow sets the scene of the end of the House of Denmark and the resumption, for all too short a date, of the House of Wessex. In his Acknowledgements page Dr. Bolton thanks two key staff at Yale: Heather McCalum and Rachael Lonsdale. As is normal with Yale books there is no other reference regarding oversight of the book by Yale editors and, since Ms. McCallum is the more senior of the two (and the editor for the 2016 book on Æthelred), she is credited here as being the series editor of this English Monarchs title.
Book Number: 31
Hardback - 9780300208337
Paperback - 9780300243185
The influence of Simon Keyes extends from the Yale book on the previous king, Æthelred II. Dr. Bolton acknowldeges Keynes as his supervisor in the preface of his previous work on Cnut, 'The Empire of Cnut the Great' (Brill, 2009) and the earlier work of Keynes is an important research stepping-stone for Dr. Bolton in both books. Keynes was to be the English Monarchs biographer of Æthelred, a book ultimately written by Dr. Levi Roach.
In reviewing this book (with his review of Æthelred), Andrew Wareham (University of Roehampton, London) wrote in History: the journal of the Historical Association, April 2018, Volume 103 (355) complimented Bolton who he found “avoids repetition from his 2009 book The Empire of Cnut the Great, and the two books will compliment each other rather than overlap.” The book has an “...eye-catching narrative by using striking turns of phrases and dealing with historiographical debates in a pungent fashion.”
Alice Hicklin in The Journal of British Studies, Volume 57 (1), January 2018, found that Dr. Bolton presented a very readable overview of Danish society into which Cnut was born and his conquest of England, though she disliked the “striking turn of phrase” enjoyed by Andrew Wareham. She questioned the way some of the sources are selectively used and the “...at times bewildering levels of detail and investigation into peripheral people or questions disrupt the narrative and leave the reader perplexed as to their significance.” She concludes "a valuable addition to scholarship, bringing together previously scattered or neglected evidence to create a holistic view of the king and his times.”
Jay Paul Gates (John Jay College, City University of New York) writes in Speculum Volume 93, number 3 (2018), "This book’s greatest strength is that it weaves a historical narrative from what seem loose threads, showing Cnut actively maneuvering in response to pressures and opportunities, and offering insight into his probable reasoning." Perceptively, he addes that the "...bibiography represents English and Scandinavian scholarship in nearly equal numbers, elaborating a more unified picture of Cnut."
This new book compliments nicely the 2016 release of Æthelred. The publication of these titles is a treat for enthusiasts of the very earliest English kings. As noted in the entry for Æthelred II, with the publication of this book the series provides an uninterrupted account of each era from Æthelstan to John, and with the forthcoming Henry III book the continuity will extend to James VI and I.
Cover: From Matthew Paris’ 'The Life of King Edward the Confessor', late 13th Century. It depicts Cnut and Edmond Ironside in battle. Held by the University of Cambridge library.
* The ebook version in Amazon USA is an eTextbook, not the standard Kindle.
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Discontinued/Unused 2019 Paperback