Every school boy used to know the story. Along with Alfred's burning of the cakes it was a staple of school history lessons. These days it is more likely that every school boy does not know the story, since if it doesn't support the modern fashions of ecology, racism, sexism or political correctness then it won't fit into the government sponsored national curriculum.
Danish-born King Canute Sweinson ruled England from 1016 to 1035 and has always been assigned to those annals of history that are in the margins. However there is no doubt that he lived as his bones are in a big black box with his name on it, sitting high up on a shelf in Winchester Cathedral visible by anyone who cranes his neck over towards the nave.
But back to the story of the disobedient waves. It is here that we find that King Canute is one of history's misunderstood men. There are usually two versions of Canute's battle with the sea, none of them right. The first version which is usually reserved for the junior school is that of the foolish king who thought his power was absolute. He sets up his throne on the shore to proclaim his sovereignty over the wind and the waves. "Go back," he tells the sea, "I forbid you to come any further." Alas the foolish old king ends up with water in his socks and egg on his face. Let that be a lesson to you children, we say. Even kings can't control the weather. Moral of the story: Don't be a foolish person like silly old king Canute.
The second version redeems the reputation of the king a little bit. In take two, Canute is responding to the foolishness of his courtiers and he is determined to show them a lesson. All day they have been engaged in the activity they think will get them in the kings favour - flattery. "You are the greatest man that ever lived," one would say. "Great Canute, you are the monarch of all, nothing in this world would dare to disobey you. Even the wind and the waves listen to you." Canute, determined to teach the flatters a lesson in humility sets up his seaside throne in full knowledge of the wetting to come. "There you are," says Canute, "don't come to me with your false flattery." Moral of the story: Don't be a foolish person like King Canute's courtiers.
However as we learn from all good newspaper journalism, real history is a little different and you can usually pick up the truth if you are prepared to go back to the original sources. The earliest surviving version of the story is from Henry of Huntingdon in his Historia Anglorum (History of England), which was written down sometime in the 1120s. Henry has quite a different take on the foolish king story. He says nothing about foolish courtiers or foolish kings.
At the very summit of his power, he ordered his throne to be set on the seaside when the tide was rising. He addressed the mounting waters, "You are under my sway as is the land on which my throne is set and there has never been anyone who has resisted my rule without being punished. I therefore command you not to rise on to my land and you are not to dare to wet the clothes or feet of your master." But the sea rose and wetted the feet of the king without showing any respect. The king then leapt up and said: "Let all men know how empty and trivial is the power of kings. None is worthy of the name except God whom heaven, earth and sea all obey under his laws eternal."Parables are powerful ways of telling truths and Canute was not the daft idiot we take him for. He knew how to tell a story and get his message across. It seems he genuinely believed what he said because Huntingdon tells us that King Canute never again set the golden crown upon his own head, but set it forever above an image of the Lord which is nailed to a cross in honour of God the great king. Whether you go along with Canute's religious views or not is not the point here. What is the point is that here is a cynic in the true sense of the word. He didn't put much faith in the power of King.
Members of the Diogenes club feel some sympathy towards misunderstood people like Canute, which is why I bring up his story here. Diogenes himself was another of history's misunderstood men, and he didn't have any faith in the power of kings either. The story goes that Alexander the Great, fresh from his conquest of Corinth, sought out the famous philosopher and asked if there was any favour he might do for him. "Ask of me any anything you like. Whatever is within my power you shall have," declared the great king. Diogenes replied, "Stand out of my light."
There's one other thing I didn't tell you about the Black Box of King Canute's bones. According to a sign on the wall near the black box, we can't be sure that his bones are in the actual box with his name on. There are in fact six black boxes with different kings names on each one, and Canute's is just one of the six. During the time of the Civil War (that's the English Civil War for our American friends) all the bones of the six kings were dug up, mixed up and when they came to put them back, they didn't know whose bones were whose. Apparently you can't easily tell one bone from another after you're dead. So they made six black boxes and just put some bones in each as best they could. Canute might be laid to rest in his own box, but the likelihood is that there is bit of him everywhere.
It is said that when Alexander the Great first came across Diogenes, he found the philosopher rummaging through a pile of old human bones. Alexander asked him what he was doing. Diogenes explained, "I am searching for the bones of your father, King Philip of Macedon, but I cannot distinguish them from the bones of a slave."
Apparently the rule of kings means little in the long run. And I have a sneaking feeling that Alexander had much the same view. He is reported to have said, "Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be Diogenes."
As it turned out, both Diogenes and Alexander died on the same day in 323 B.C. Alexander was 33 and Diogenes was 90, but whether you could tell their bones apart is doubtful.