Many of us know about the story of King Canute (or probably Cnut) and his attempt to hold back the tides. Although we English typically only give one king the suffix “the Great” (Alfred), Cnut himself is also known as “the Great” (perhaps more for his non-English endeavours). So it seems a touch unlikely that such a king would imagine he could control the waves by verbal command; if anything he might want to make fun of his courtiers by trying the impossible to indicate he was human.
It is a popular tale with the Church too – it’s a great example of over-weaning pride which is one of the seven deadly sins. And Cnut as a Dane, probably was not the most popular king with the church, as Danes had only recently given up going viking and pillaging churches and monasteries (in the words of a fictional viking: “they gather all their gold and silver into one building. And then so conveniently mark those buildings with crosses.¨).
But there is a far more prosaic explanation for the tale in which the Church uses a human disaster to laugh at people’s efforts to improve themselves.
Before the raw sewage pollution in the 19th century put an end to it, the South coast was home to a massive oyster fishing industry that existed in the region for at least two thousand years. Indeed, oysters were one of the staple food sources for the poor until the 19th century.
One of the ways that shallow water oyster fisheries can be improved is by building dyke-like structures that allow the high tide in, but keep some of the tide from escaping at low tide. As it happens, a place in West Sussex called Bosham happens to be ideal for this, and there is supposedly much archaeological evidence to show that these “dykes” had been built there repeatedly over the centuries.
As anyone who lives by the sea knows, to build sea structures, you have to over-build and even then, exceptional storms will cause damage, and there is also archaeological evidence to show that the “dykes” at Bosham were washed away in exceptional storms every few hundred years.
As it happens, Bosham was a royal estate in the time of Cnut (one of his daughters is supposedly buried at the pictured church), and it is all too likely that an exceptional storm would have destroyed the oyster beds whilst Cnut was holding Bosham. Thus the Church had an opportunity to use an economic disaster to poke fun at king they were probably not too fond of.