King Canute vs The King

Statue of a King holding a crown above his head

King Canute on the Seashore is an adaptation from a story done by James Baldwin. This story is taken from the book, The Book of Virtues, edited by William J. Bennett.

“Long ago, England was ruled by a king named Canute. Like many leaders and men of power, Canute was surrounded by people who were always praising him. Every time he walked into a room, the flattery began.

‘You are the greatest man that ever lived,’ one would say.

‘O king, there can never be another as mighty as you,’ another would insist.

‘Your highness, there is nothing you cannot do,’ someone would smile.

‘Great Canute, you are the monarch of all,’ another would sing. ‘Nothing in this world dares to disobey you.’

The king was a man of sense, and he grew tired of hearing such foolish speeches. One day he was walking by the seashore, and his officers and courtiers were with him, praising him as usual. Canute decided to teach them a lesson.

‘So you say I am the greatest man in the world?’ he asked them.

‘O king,’ they cried, ‘there never has been anyone as mighty as you, and there never be anyone so great, ever again!’

‘And you say all things obey me?’ Canute asked.

‘Absolutely!’ they said. ‘The world bows before you, and gives you honor.’

‘I see,’ the king answered. ‘In that case, bring me my chair, and we will go down to the water.’

‘At once, your majesty!’ They scrambled to carry his royal chair over the sands.

‘Bring it closer to the sea,’ Canute called. ‘Put it right here, right at the water’s edge.’ He sat down and surveyed the ocean before him. ‘I notice the tide is coming in. Do you think it will stop if I give the command?’

His officers were puzzled, but they did not dare say no. ‘Give the order, O great king, and it will obey,’ one of then assured him.

‘Very well. Sea,’ cried Canute, ‘I command you to come no further! Waves, stop your rolling! Surf, stop your pounding! Do not dare touch my feet!’

He waited a moment, quietly, and a tiny wave rushed up the sand and lapped at his feet.

‘How dare you!’ Canute shouted. ‘Ocean, turn back now! I have ordered you to retreat before me, and now you must obey! Go back!’

And in answer another wave swept forward and curled around the king’s feet. The tide came in, just as it always did. The water rose higher and higher. It came up around the king’s chair, and wet not only his feet, but also his robe. His officers stood before him, alarmed, and wondering whether he was not mad.

‘Well, my friends,’ Canute said, ‘it seems I do not have quite so much power as you would have me believe. Perhaps you have learned something today. Perhaps now you will remember there is only one King who is all-powerful, and it is he who rules the sea, and holds the ocean in the hollow of his hand. I suggest you reserve your praises for him.’

The royal officers and courtiers hung their heads and looked foolish. And some say Canute took off his crown soon afterward, and never wore it again.” (Bennett 67-68)

King Canute sounds like a very wise king. This story was first recorded “by the twelfth-century chronicler Henry of Huntingdon (writing c.1140, a century after Cnut’s death).” (Greenway 367-9)

“Apparently Canute was trying to prove a point about Kings and God: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.” (FCS)

After teaching his royal officers and courtiers about their foolish flattering speech, King Canute “never wore the golden crown on his neck, but placed it on the image of the crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king.” (Greenway pg 367-9)

As a family, we purchased the book William Bennett edited, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, after it was published in 1993. It was one of the first literary purchases we made for our family library. Every day during lunchtime, I would read a couple of pages from The Book of Virtues to our children. Our oldest was four years old at the time. I desired to expose the children to great literature and this book contained a wide variety of poems and stories.

King Canute on the Seashore is one of my favorite stories from The Book of Virtues because of King Canute’s wisdom in addressing his royal attendees excessive flattery and praise. King Canute rightly instructed them that there is only one king worthy of praise and that’s The True King, King Jesus.

With King Canute vs The King, King Canute knew there was really no contest. King Canute knew he ruled the people of England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden for a limited time, while King Jesus rules and reigns over all the earth and over all of heaven for all time.

Prayer:

Lord, we desire to worship and adore You, and You alone. Forgive us for giving and receiving the foolish flattery of men. As we remember all You did for us on the Cross; we mourn our part in Your death; we rejoice in Your victorious resurrection over sin, death, hell and the grave; and we give blessing and honor and glory and power to You, King Jesus. Amen.

References:

Bennett, William J. [Editor]. The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories [Hardcover] Simon & Schuster, NY Copyright 1993. Chapter 1: Self-Discipline, pg 67-68. [Adapted from James Baldwin] [Fair use exemption]

Greenway, Diana. Historia Anglorum, edited and translated. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp 367-9. Retrieved in October 2020 from https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2013/11/cnut-and-waves.html

The King of High Tides. Retrieved in October 2020 from First Class Sailing (FCS) www.firstclasssailing.com/blog/the-king-canute-dispute/

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