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Law Code of King Cnut

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Law and Democracy
This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Legal Concepts

When King Cnut came to rule England in 1016 it was a place torn apart by successive Danish invasions and rival would be kings. It was important that if Cnut was going to be successful he would have to resort to some very harsh measures to quell his rivals. This he did by having the Saxon would be kings either outlawed or killed. Having done this Cnut looked to the laws of the land to help him broker an agreement between the Danes and the English. He saw a very great need, if he was going to succeed as ruler, to control the ‘smash and grab’ tactics of the Danes and develop the Kingdom of England into something that could be sustained. He set this out quite baldly in the Charter of King Cnut, where he seeks to reassure the English. This from the Charter of King Cnut written about 1020 which sets out the general spirit of his legislation of 1018.


‘and then went I myself into Denmark, with the men that went with me, from whence most harm came to you; and that have I with God’s help taken precautions for that never henceforth should enmity come to you from thence whilst ye men rightly hold, and my life lasteth.’

Charter of King Cnut 1020
Law Code of King Cnut
King Cnut and Queen Emma present the gold cross. Their gift to the Minster at Winchester 1020

At Oxford in 1018 the Danes and the Saxons reached an agreement to accept the laws of King Edgar the Peaceful who had ruled from 959 – 975. These Anglo Saxon laws would form the basis for a new code, the Law Code of King Cnut. It is obviius that he is loking for a set of laws that draws the people under one kingdom with King Cnut at its head. He makes no distinction between the Danes and English or indeed any other.


‘Now I beseech my archbishops and all my suffragan bishops that they all be attentive about God’s right, every one in his district which is committed to him; and also my ealdormen I command that they help the bishops to God’s right and to my royal authority and to the behoof of all the people. If any be so bold, clerk or lay, Dane or English, as to go against God’s law and against my royal authority, or against secular law, and be unwilling to make amends, and to alter according to my bishops’ teaching, then I pray Thurcyl my earl, and also command him, that he bend that unrighteous one to right if he can’

Charter of King Cnut 1020

Who wrote the law code of King Cnut?


The code that emerged was composed by Archbishop Wulfstan and we know that because the manuscript is littered with his very distinctive handwriting. It is an adapted version of Æthelred’s Enham code of 1008 which was considered to be the best law code which in turn was borne out of the Edgar code and other law codes that existed including canon law. It seems to be very much the document that Archbishop Wulfstan wanted it to be. He had already addressed the lawlessness of the English people when he wrote the ‘Sermon of the Wolfe’. He saw the need for the people to be controlled centrally by the King and cohorts, by a series of laws. In the manuscript in the British Library his distinctive handwriting can be seen in the margins of the work.

Law Code of King Cnut
Sermon of the Wolf

Archbishop Wulfstan was a very intelligent and canny man. He saw that if the kingdom were to move forward in a controlled and peaceful way that Cnut would need his support. He had been very critical of Cnut and his forces but reached out to the new king and became one of his administrators. In this way he could influence and mediate between the two sides and provide a firm path for King Cnut to follow.

Law Code of King Cnut

The Law Code of King Cnut held by the British Library.

This is the earliest surviving copy of laws issued in Cnut’s name at a meeting at Winchester around 1020 or 1021. The location of Winchester is because Wessex remained the seat of government and was ruled directly by King Cnut himself.  It was also home to a magnificent Scriptorium established by King Alfred.

Law Code of King Cnut
Anglo Saxon Corhampton Church Hampshire built 1020c

What does the law code of King Cnut say?

‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence and the law of God promoted.’

So begins the Law Code of King Cnut

The law sets out how justice will be administered and by whom. It deals with punishments for committing adultery, for perjury and sorcery. It says how the coinage may be reformed and the responsibilities for the repair of fortifications and bridges. This so trade can continue free of fear of attack. The worst crime that of murder was punishable by death or outlawry. Treason also carries the ultimate penalty. It deals with what is to happen if someone dies intestate, that is without having made a will.


‘And if any one depart this life intestate, be it through his neglect, be it through sudden death; then let not the lord draw more from his property than his lawful heriot. And according to his direction, let the property be distributed very justly to the wife and children and relations, to every one according to the degree that belongs to him. ‘

Law Code of King Cnut

And he is generous but only to a point when it comes to hunting.


‘And I will that every man be entitled to his hunting in wood and in field, on his own possession. And let every one forego my hunting: take notice where I will have it untrespassed on, under penalty of the full ‘wite.’

Law Code of King Cnut
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