Sveinsson Knut, Canute the Great, King of England from 1016, King of Denmark from 1018 and King of Norway from 1030 until he died in 1035, was perhaps the most successful and effective of the early rulers of England. He brought to the general population firm government, justice, and security from internal disorder and external threat. Yet all his bravery in battle, efficiency in administration and shrewdness in statecraft are forgotten and he is scornfully remembered simply as the foolish king who thought he could turn back the sea-tide. One wonders how many other outstanding characters, and crucial episodes, in the historical account have been misrepresented. I notice that the malignantly evil reputation of Richard III of England, whose burial place was discovered a few years ago under a concrete parking lot, is at last being comprehensively reassessed.
It is so easy to give a man a bad name. A word here, a whisper there, and a reputation lies in ruins. And the tendency for all gossip to stress the bad and never pass on the good gives strong support to the ceaseless round of unfavourable reporting. It is regrettable, I suppose, but juicy scandal about one’s fellow man is much more interesting than endless tales of his good deeds and flawless reputation, just as accounts of disaster and imminent ruin are always better copy than dull reports of how things are actually going quite well.
This tendency to backbite and pass the bad news on isn’t so bad if it is confined to the daily round of ordinary living. Those who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous gossip can always fall back on the cry “History will absolve me.” But the trouble comes when history, far from absolving, preserves a man’s bad name, undeserved, forever more. Some of the Borgias were excellent rulers and connoisseurs of the finest art but all now are simply maligned as poisoners just because of a little weakness among a few members of the family.
It is sad to see a good man traduced in history. Therefore it always upsets me when I see, which I commonly do, a vile calumny visited for the umpteenth time on one of history’s more sensible rulers. For the sake of the historical record this serious error, constantly repeated by commentators seeking to describe the impossibility of resisting the inevitable, should not be allowed to go uncorrected. The error involves the previously mentioned King Canute who is always used as a symbol for those who stubbornly seek to hold back irresistible change. The image of a foolish King Canute commanding the waves to roll back has sunk into the popular mind as a symbol of stupidity and arrogance. The facts of what really happened are very different and illustrate a much more interesting lesson which we all need to remember.
Canute, as we have seen, was in fact a wise man and an excellent king. But he found himself increasingly surrounded by a horde of advisers who were nothing better than yes-men, sycophants and flatterers. All day long he heard a chorus that irritated him more and more: “You are great, oh King, and can do no wrong”; “Your wisdom knows no compare, Oh King”; “What you shall say will be the law, Most Royal Highness”; “Yours but to command, Great King, and it is done”; “No one but you can lead the way, incomparable King”; “The land is blessed with you in charge, Oh peerless leader.” And so on and on and on.
Finally Canute lost patience and decided to teach a little object lesson. So he called his principal advisers together and had them drag his throne down to the sea-shore and set it on the sands when the tide was out. Then he sat down on the throne and when the tide began to come in, as tides tend to do, in a loud voice Canute sternly commanded the waves not to wet his illustrious feet. But, as you may have guessed, the waves paid no heed. Whereupon Canute gave his advisers a look full of meaning and got up in his soaked sandals and went back inside his palace without a word.
In the circumstances it is hard that history has saddled him with a reputation for stupidity and arrogance. The lesson we should learn from King Canute does not concern the arrogance and obtuseness of power. It is a warning against the insidious dangers at the top of paying attention to flattery and cosy counselling. But I expect the reason why King Canute never got the credit he deserves is very simple: advisers are much more likely than kings to write history and his advisers, soon after he was safely dead, made certain that the little lesson they were taught by him was soon twisted to make a very different tale.
The lesson wise Canute taught his courtiers is one that needs to be learnt by the advisers to all rulers. There is a magnificent biography of Queen Elizabeth I by the historian David Starkey. In 1558 on the Queen’s accession she appointed Sir William Cecil to the key post of Secretary of the Privy Council, the body through which the monarch governed her realm. In making the appointment, which was to last for forty years, she instructed Sir William as follows:
“I give you this charge, that you shall be of my privy Council, and content yourself to take pains for me and my realm. This judgement I have of you, that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gift, and that you will be favourable to the state, and that, without respect of my private will, you will give me that counsel that you think best. And if you shall know anything necessary to be declared to me of secrecy, you shall show it to myself only, and assure yourself I will not fail to keep taciturnity therein.”
Such advice would not be out of place from any ruler to any close counsellor in any age. “Without respect of my private will, you will give me that counsel that you think best.”