High up on a shelf in an old stone cathedral somewhere in the leafy south of England sit some rather unusual caskets.
The occupant of the most significant of these came from a long line of outrageously named heroes. His father was Forkbeard. His grandfather, Bluetooth. And his great-grandfather ruled men under the name King Gorm.
If they hadn’t already existed, Tolkien would surely have had to invent them.
His name is a more British affair: but it has become synonymous with a demonstration which has for a thousand years been sorely misunderstood.
For in that little casket lies King Canute.
Yes, he sat in the waves and commanded them to stop moving inexorably forward; but it was all for a greater cause. Canute the Viking wanted to show his subjects that if you prick a King, does he not bleed?
“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings”, he told his men, “For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey”.
He was preceded by a Saxon. Silly old Aethelred: the Saxon King sought to find immortality for himself and his blood line by ordering the slaughter of all Danish men in England. Not a politic move: Forkbeard and his son were over to revenge their relatives with cut throat speed. And in a continuance of the impossibly colourful names tradition, even his defeated enemy was called Edward Ironside.
Someone should really write a play about this.
He was a fair king, this Canute. He said sorry for the Vikings’ dastardly deeds and built churches by way of recompense. He brought the country together for the first time and because he was also King of Denmark, no-one fancied raiding their own lands. Twenty years of peace, Forkbeard’s son brought, before popping his Viking front seamed shoes and shuffling off this mortal coil.
Winchester was big, back then.Canute arranged to be buried in the old minster later converted to a cathedral. And there his tiny casket lies, a monument to those words he once spoke. Empty and worthless is the power of kings, the little box seems to say.
Is it very uncharitable to chuckle over the fate of a king who sought to prove otherwise?
Henry VIII did not sow seed carefully. And posthumously, he reaped what he sowed, according to a modern historian.
Robert Hutchinson wrote an account of the last days of the corpulent king. He began planning his tomb at the tender age of 27: clearly posterity was always something to be wooed. He gave the project to his friend Cardinal Wolsey. twelve years later and in failing health, Wolsey was accused of treason, and died travelling to the trial.
So Henry picked on that man of steel, Cromwell.
You spot the flaw immediately, Reader, I am sure. For in good time the aforementioned Earl of Essex was executed too. After just 10 years, the job of tomb construction supervisor was vacant once more.
Who would the Royal Hard Hat pass to next?
To his son, it seems: but Edward disliked such fripperies and the project languished. Henry’s daughters could not have been overly motivated either. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign all that stood were a black and white marble base and eight tall brass pillars.
During the Protectorship, the tomb was not protected. Four brass candlesticks from the blousy monument later turned up in a cathedral in Ghent. Finally George IV laid a slab in the floor of St George’s Chapel and had done with it.
Posterity has its own price, Hal.
The nineteenth century: and death became immensely fashionable. It had always walked London’s streets, scythe in hand, but the little parish churches which still used their graveyards became full to bursting with a population explosion: from one million in 1800 to more than two milion in 1850.
It was the private sector who moved in first. They created suburban ‘garden cemeteries’: landscaped swathes of green, green burial ground which enchanted the public so much they flocked to walk there of a Sunday afternoon. In 1832 Parliament passed a bill which gave the go-ahead to seven huge cemeteries in a ring around London; Abney Park, Brompton, Highgate, Kensal Green, Nunhead, Tower Hamlets and West Norwood.
The great and the good planned great marble tributes to themselves with considerably more success than the man with six wives. At Highgate lie Karl Marx and Christina Rosetti, and Bram Stoker’s Lucy Westenra met her vampiric come-uppance in the gothic fictional Dracula. At Kensal Green among a host of great names rest William Makepiece Thackeray and William Wilkie Collins.
One can go to see them online. Cursory research reveals not only leafy green glades but lists of names which take one’s breath away.
We have to end up somewhere, I suppose. For years one of the few options was a church. Canute’s monument is a simple wooden box: Henry’s hopes ended in one plain slab.
It took the Victorians to make a cemetery a lavish, landscaped celebration of those who once lived within the boundaries of a very great city.
And today, as long ago, the leafy walks can lead to a chance brush with a life which, though extinguished, still touches ours today.
A link to Kensal Green Cemetery’s site here
And Highgate here