Copy Book Archive

Turning the Tide King Canute enacted a memorable demonstration of the limits of government power.
King Cnut (Canute) 1016-1035
Music: Frank Bridge

© David Dixon, Geograph. Licence: CC-BY-SA 2.0. Source

About this picture …

The Tower of Refuge in Douglas Bay, on the south coast of the Isle of Man, was begun in 1832 with the backing of Sir William Hillary, founder of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It sits atop St Mary’s Isle, a notorious hazard for shipping at the time, and was stocked with food and fuel for those cast adrift in the sea; happily, the diminutive but striking castle had the effect of preventing further disasters, and it has never had to be used.

Turning the Tide
This famous story is regarded as a fable by many but it is a very early one, being already established only a century or so after the time of King Canute (Cnut), who reigned from 1016 to 1035. It is important to be clear that Canute was not trying to prove he could ‘turn back the tides’. He was trying to prove that he couldn’t.
Translated from the Latin

AT the high-point of his reign, King Canute ordered his throne to be set upon the seashore as the tide was coming in, and then addressed the rising waters.

‘You and the land on which my throne is standing are subject to me. No one has ever defied my royal commands and gone unpunished. I command you, then, do not rise on my land, nor dare to splash either limb or robe of your lord!’

The sea however continued its customary rise, disdainfully splashing his feet and legs.

‘Let all the world’ he said, skipping backwards, ‘know that the power of kings is a vain and trifling thing. No king is worthy of that title except that King whose commands heaven, earth and sea obey, according to eternal laws.’

After this, Canute never again wore his crown upon his head, but set it upon an icon of the Lord’s crucifixion, in praise of God the Great King.

For a very different attitude to the sovereignty of Creation, see Xerxes Scourges the Hellespont.


In the early 11th century, King Canute placed his throne on the beach, and commanded the rising tide not to invade his realm. When it took no notice, Canute drew the moral that a king’s power is not as great as some think. Thereafter, he left his crown hanging on an icon of Jesus Christ, as the only true King. (60 / 60 words)


From ‘Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People’ by Henry of Huntingdon. Follow this link for the Latin and also for a different translation, by Diana Greenway.

Suggested Music

The Sea

Sea Foam: Allegro vivo

Frank Bridge (1879-1941)

Performed by the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Britten.

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How To Use This Passage

You can use this passage to help improve your command of English.

IRead it aloud, twice or more. IISummarise it in one sentence of up to 30 words. IIISummarise it in one paragraph of 40-80 words. IVMake notes on the passage, and reconstruct the original from them later on. VJot down any unfamiliar words, and make your own sentences with them later. VIMake a note of any words that surprise or impress you, and ask yourself what meaning they add to the words you would have expected to see. VIITurn any old-fashioned English into modern English. VIIITurn prose into verse, and verse into prose. IXAsk yourself what the author is trying to get you to feel or think. XHow would an artist or a photographer capture the scene? XIHow would a movie director shoot it, or a composer write incidental music for it?

For these and more ideas, see How to Use The Copy Book.

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