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The image is familiar, this great king sitting on his throne on the beach and commanding the sea to go back. And of course the sea doesn't take any notice. What this proves is that even if he's a king, the powers of nature don't obey his commands.
But, King Canute is misrepresented by common belief. He was not some egocentric fool trying to hold back the sea by his command, but was in fact very modest.
King Canute lived in an age when it was traditional for people to be "subjects" and to pay homage to the monarch, and his followers worshipped him and would say things like "Oh great majesty, the very sea obeys your mighty command". He got so sick of this sort of thing that he commanded that his king's court be moved to the beach and he would PROVE that the sea did NOT obey his commands.
"Go back, sea!" he commanded, and the tide continued coming in as expected. And Canute put it to his courtiers that the sea was NOT obeying him and that they should admit that no king has power to command the forces of nature by word. He insisted they stay there until they admitted it. He risked himself and his court being drowned rather than allow the nonsense to continue. In the end the followers were forced to agree and to state that the king did not have the power to command the sea.
King Canute, or C'nut, or Cnut, or Cnud? The name variations may be because of the way history tends to meander along without dictionary. King Canute was a Viking and the writing was in Runes. Besides, it was a thousand years ago.
For more about the life and history of Canute, see...
www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/vikings_2.htm - link removed because they have been found to have got this wrong!
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13524677 - includes some citations of people embarrassing themselves by getting King Canute wrong!
...and probably a few others which will be added.
Notice how tabloid journalists and antisocial networking sites get this wrong, spreading ignorance. Yet, it doesn't take a lot of research to find the truth. King Canute was modest and deliberately proved his obsequious flatterers wrong.
If you came here by a search engine and found this page interesting, there's a lot more to know here: [response]