St. Canute IV of Denmark led a checkered life that combined good and less attractive elements.
Canute (also called Cnut, Knud and Knute) was born in the mid-11th century, one of several illegitimate children of King Sweyn III Estrithson of Denmark.
Although English monks had worked in Denmark for more than 200 years, the country was only nominally Christian when Canute became king in 1081, following the two-year reign of his brother, Harald the Slothful. Canute was determined to change that.
He defeated his enemies and began expanding the church into these conquered territories. After a victory, Canute would lie before a crucifix, place his crown on the ground and offer himself and his kingdom to Christ.
Canute married Adela, who was either a sister or daughter — sources differ — of Count Roberts II of Flanders. They had a son, St. Charles the Good, and twin daughters.
As king, Canute rid the seas of pirates and enacted strict laws for administering justice that included curbing the power of earls. He built churches, including the cathedral and school at Lund. He supported missionaries — giving them the same authority as lords — and their work in Livonia, Samogitia and Courland. He also instituted a tithe to the churches and worked to end pagan practices.
In his private life, he prayed often, fasted, wore hair shirts and practiced other disciplines. He gave the church of Roschild — still the burial site of Danish kings — his crown.
In 1085, Canute, who was nephew to the English King Canute (1016-1035), decided to invade England and unseat William the Conqueror, the Norman king who had ruled England since 1066. Ten years earlier, Canute also had planned to attack, but the plan had fizzled.
This time, Canute’s own brother, Olaf, tapped into public dissatisfaction with the tithe, plans to go to war and earls angered by his efforts to curb their powers. Canute was forced to escape with a small band of followers to the island of Funen or Fionia.
Canute, his brother Benedict and 17 followers were surrounded and killed on July 19, 1086, as he knelt before the altar of St. Alban Church in Odense, Schleswig.
English monks supported his sainthood cause, which Pope Paschal II approved in 1101 at the request of King Eric III of Denmark.
Sources: “Butler’s Lives of the Saints”; catholic.org; saints.sqpn.com; saintpatrickdc.org; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; and wikipedia.org.
Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.