The doubtfully authentic story of King Canute and the waves tells about the piety and humility of King Canute the Great, and was recorded in the 12th century by Henry of Huntingdon.
Henry of Huntingdon tells this story as one of three examples of the great king’s “graceful and magnificent” demeanor (outside from his outstanding valor in battles), the other two being the negotiation of a reduction in tolls on the roads across Gaul to Rome at the Imperial Coronation of 1027, and the marriage arrangement between his daughter to the later Holy Roman Emperor.
This story about him ordering the waves is frequently alluded to in contexts where the seemingly futile nature of his order of an inexorable event is pointed out, misrepresenting Canute as believing that he had supernatural powers himself, and that doing this would prove it. But Huntington’s account implies the exact opposite.
In the story, Canute was annoyed with his flattering courtiers who considered him to be a supernatural being with supernatural powers. According to Henry, Canute decided to demonstrate to his courtiers that he has no control over the elements of nature, and in doing so, convey that secular power is nothing compared to the supreme power of God. Therefore, he set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the incoming tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes.
Needless to say, the tide rose as usual and dashed over his feet and legs, obviously paying no heed to the orders of a royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’
Canute then hung his gold crown on a crucifix on Westminister Cathedral.
In order to honor ‘God, the almighty King’, he never wore it again.
It is widely believed that this incident occurred in Thorney Island. Now known as Westminister, Canute set up a royal palace here during his reign over London.
In contrast, a sign on Southampton city centre’s Canute road reads, “Near this spot AD 1028 Canute reproved his courtiers”. Bosham in West Sussex also claims to be the site of this episode, as does Gainsborough in Lincolnshire.