Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Canutus, King of Denmark, Martyr

[Saint Knud]Article

A.D. 1086.

Saint Canutus, Knut, the fourth of that name, king of Denmark, was natural son of Swein III whose great uncle Canutus had reigned in England. Swein having no lawful issue, took care of the education of Canutus, who being endowed with excellent qualities both of mind and body, answered perfectly well the care of his preceptors and governors. It is hard to say, whether he excelled more in courage, or in conduct and skill in war; but his singular piety perfectly eclipsed all his other endowments. He scoured the seas of pirates, and subdued several neighbouring provinces which infested Denmark with their incursions. The kingdom of Denmark was elective till the year 1660; wherefore, when Swein died, many pitched upon our saint, whose eminent virtues best qualified him for the throne; but the majority, fearing his martial spirit, preferred his eldest natural brother Harold, the seventh king of that name, who for his stupidity and vices, was commonly called the Slothful. Canutus retired into Sweden to King Halstan, who received him with the greatest marks of kindness and esteem; but the king could never induce him to undertake any expedition against Denmark; on the contrary, the Christian hero employed all his power and interest in the service of his country. Harold dying after two year’s reign, Canutus was called to succeed him.

Denmark had received the Christian faith long before; some say in 826, but wanted a zealous hand at the helm, to put the finishing stroke to that good work. Saint Canutus seems to have been pitched upon by providence for this purpose. He began his reign by a successful war against the troublesome barbarous enemies of the state, and by planting the faith in the conquered provinces of Courland, Samogitia, and Livonia. Amidst the glory of his victories, he humbly prostrated himself at the foot of the crucifix, laying there his diadem, and offering himself and his kingdom to the King of kings. After having provided for its peace and safety, and enlarged its territories, he married Eltha, or Alice, daughter of Robert, earl of Flanders, by whom he had a pious son, Saint Charles, surnamed the Good, afterwards also earl of Flanders. His next concern was to reform abuses at home. For this purpose, he enacted severe, but necessary laws, for the strict administration of justice, and repressed the violence and tyranny of the great, without respect of persons. He countenanced and honoured holy men, granted many privileges and immunities to the clergy, to enhance the people’s esteem of them; and omitted nothing to convince them of their obligation to provide for their subsistence by the payment of tithes. His charity and tenderness towards his subjects made him study by all possible ways to ease them of their burdens, and make them a happy people. He showed a royal munificence in building and adorning churches, and gave the crown which he wore, of exceeding great value, to the church of Roschild, in Zealand, his capital city, and the place of his residence where the kings of Denmark are yet buried. He chastised his body with fasting, discipline, and hair-cloths. Prayer was his assiduous exercise. When William the Conqueror had made himself master of England, Canutus sent forces to assist the vanquished; but these troops finding no one willing to join them, were easily defeated in the year 1069. Sometime after, being invited by the conquered English, he raised an army to invade this island, and expel the Normans: but through the treacherous practices of his brother Olas, or Olaus, was obliged to wait so long on the coast, that his troops deserted him. The pious king, having always in view the service of God, and judging this a proper occasion to induce his people to pay tithes to their pastors, he proposed to them either to pay a heavy fine, by way of punishment for their desertion, or submit to the law of tithes for the pastors of the church. Their aversion to the latter made them chose the tax, to the great mortification of the king, who, hoping they would change their resolution, ordered it to be levied with rigour. But they, being incensed at the severity of the collectors, rebelled. Saint Canutus retired for safety into the isle of Fionia, and was hindered from joining his loyal troops, by the treachery of one Blanco, an officer, who, to deceive him, assured his majesty, that the rebels were returned to their duty. The king went to the church of Saint Alban, the martyr, to perform his devotions, and return God thanks for that happy event. This the rebels being informed of by Blanco, they surrounded the church with him at their head. In the meantime the holy king, perceiving the danger that threatened his life, confessed his sins at the foot of the altar, with great tranquillity and resignation, and received the holy communion. His guards defended the church doors, and Blanco was slain by them. The rebels threw in bricks and stones, through the windows, by which they beat down the shrines of certain relics of Saint Alban and Saint Oswald, which Saint Canutus had brought over from England. The saint, stretching out his arms before the altar, fervently recommended his soul into the hands of his Creator: in which posture he was wounded with a javelin, darted through the window, and fell a victim to Christ. His brother Benedict, and seventeen others, were slain with him, on the 10th of July, 1086, as Ælnoth, a contemporary author testifies, who has specified the date of all the events with the utmost exactness. His wicked brother Olas succeeded him in the kingdom. God punished the people during eight years and three months of his reign with a dreadful famine, and other calamities; and attested the sanctity of the martyr, by many miraculous cures of the sick at his tomb. For which reason his relics were taken up out of their obscure sepulchre, and honourably entombed towards the end of the reign of Olas. His successor, Eric III a most religious prince, restored piety and religion, with equal courage and success, and sent ambassadors to Rome, with proofs of the miracles performed, and obtained from the pope a declaration, authorizing the veneration of Saint Canutus, the proto-martyr of Denmark. Upon this occasion a most solemn translation of his relics, which were put in a most costly shrine, was performed, at which Ælnoth, our historian, was present. He adds, that the first preachers of the faith in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, were English priests; that the Danes then zealously embraced the Christian religion, but that the Swedes still continued more obstinate, among whom Eschil, an Englishman, received the crown of martyrdom, whilst he was preaching Christ to certain savage tribes.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Canutus, King of Denmark, Martyr”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 18 January 2013. Web. 21 September 2014. <>