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Reading Beowulf in the eleventh century


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Cnut's 1020 letter


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

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Skaldic verse



Old English text (from F. Liebermann, ed., 1916, Die Gesetze Der Angel Sachsen Volume 1, pp.273-275)

1. Cnut cyning gret his arcebiscopas ond his leodbiscopas ond Þurcyl eorl ond ealle his eorlas ond ealne his þeodscype, twelfhynde ond twyhynde, gehadode ond læwede, on Englalade freondlice.

Modern English translation (mine, based on Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents volume 1: c.500-1042 no.48, p.415)

1. King Cnut greets his archbishops and his local bishops, and Earl Thorkell and all his earls, and all his people, whether men of a twelve hundred or a two hundred wergild, ecclesiastic and lay, in England, with friendship .


2. Ond ic cyðe eow, þæt ic wylle beon hold hlaford ond unswicende to Godes gerihtum ond to rihtre woroldlage.

2. And I tell you that I will be a noble lord and an unflinching defender of God’s right and of just worldly law.

3. Ic nam me to gemynde þa gewritu ond þa word, þe se arcebiscop Lyfing me fram þam papan brohte of Rome, þæt ic scolde æghwær Godes lof upp aræran ond unriht alecgan ond full frið wyrcean be ðæe mihte, þe me God syllan wolde.

3. I have recalled to my mind those letters and messages which Archbishop Lyfing brought me from the pope in Rome: that I should everywhere raise up God’s praise and suppress wrong and establish absolute peace, by that power which it has pleased God to give me.


4. Nu ne wandode ic na minum sceattum, þa hwile þe eow unfrið on handa stod; nu ic mid Godes fultume þæt totwæmde mid minum scattum.

4. Since I did not spare my pennies as long as hostility was ready at hand, I have now with God’s support put an end to it with my pennies.


5. Þa cydde man me, þæt us mara hearm to fundode, þonne us wel licode; ond þa for ic me sylf mid þam mannum þe me mid foron into Denmearcon, þe eow mæst hearm of com; ond þæt hæbbe mid Godes fultume forene forfangen, þæt eow næfre heonon forð þanon nan unfrið to ne cymð, þa hwile þe ge me rihtlice healdað ond min lif byð.

5. Then I was warned that even greater danger was approaching us than we liked at all; then I went myself with those men who accompanied me to Denmark, from where the greatest harm had come to you, and with God’s support I have taken measures so that never henceforth shall danger reach you from there as long as you honour me rightly and my life lasts.


6. Nu ðancige ic Gode ælmihtigum his fultumes ond his mildheortnesse, þæt ic þa myclan hearmas, þe us to fundedon, swa gelogod hæbbe, þæt we ne þurfon þanon nenes hearmes us asittan, ac us to fullan fultume ond to ahreddingge, gyf us neod byð.

6. Now I thank Almighty God for his support and his tenderness, that I have so settled the great dangers which were approaching us that we need fear no danger to us from there; but full help and deliverance will come to us, if we have the need.


7. Nu wylle ic, þæt we ealle eadmodlice Gode ælmihtigum þancian þære mildheortnesse, þe he us to fultume gedon hæfð.

7. Now it is my will, that we all humbly thank God Almighty for the tenderness which he has shown in support.


8. Nu bidde ic mine arcebiscopas ond ealle mine leodbiscopas, þæt hy ealle neodfulle beon ymbe Godes gerihta, ælc on his ende, þe heom betæht is; ond eac minum ealdormannum ic beode, þæt hy fylstan þam biscopum to Godes gerihtum ond to minum kynescype ond to ealles folces þearfe.

8. Now I pray my archbishops and all my local bishops, that they must all be zealous about God’s rights, each in the area which is entrusted to him; and also I bid all my ealdormen that they help the bishops towards God’s rights and for royal dignity and to meet the needs of the whole people.


9. Gif hwa swa dyrstig sy, gehadod oððe læwede, Denisc oððe Englisce, þæt ongean Godes lage ga ond ongean mine cynescype oððe ongean woroldriht, ond nelle betan ond geswican æfter minra biscopa tæcinge, þonne bidde ic Þurcyl eorl ond eac beode, þæt he ðæne unrihtwisan to rihte gebige, gyf he mæge.

9. If anyone dares, ecclesiastic or laymen, Dane or Englishman, to defy God’s law and my royal authority or the secular law, and he will not make amends and desist according to the teaching of my bishops, I then ask, and also command, Earl Thorkell to cause the evil doer to do right, if he is able to.


10. Gyf he ne mæge, þonne wille ic, mid uncer begra cræfte þæt he hine on earde adwæsce oððe ut of earde adræfe, sy he betera sy he wyrsa.

10. And if he cannot, then it is my will that with the skill of us both he shall destroy him in the homeland or drive him out of the homeland, whether he be of high or low rank.


11. Ond eac ic beode eallum minum gerefum, be minum freonscype ond be eallum þam þe hi agon ond be heora agenum life, þæt hy æghwær min folc rihtlice healdan ond rihte domas deman be ðæra scira biscopa gewitnesse ond swylce mildheortnesse þæron don, swylce þære scire bioscope riht þince ond se man acumen mæge.

11. And also I charge all my reeves, on pain of losing my friendship and all that they possess and their own lives, that everywhere they maintain my people justly, and give just judgements with the witness of their own shire bishops, and practise such mercy therein as seems just to the bishops of the dioeces and can be supported.


12. Ond gyf hwa þeof friðige oððe forena forlicge, sy he emscyldig wið me þam ðe þeof scolde, buton he hine mid fulre lade wið me geclænsian mæge.

12. And if anyone gives asylum to a thief or interferes on his behalf, he is to be liable to the same penalty to me as the thief, unless he can clear himself of liability to me with the full process of exculpation.


13. Ond ic wylle, þæt eal þeodscype, gehadode ond læwede, fæstlice Eadgares lage healed, þe ealle men habbað gecoren ond to gesworen on Oxenaforda;

13. And it is my will that all the nation, ecclesiastical and lay, shall steadfastly observe Edgar’s laws, which all men have chosen and sworn to at Oxford.


14. for ðam þe ealle biscopas secgað, þæt hit swyþe deop wið God to betanne, þæt man aðas oððe wedd to brece.

14. For all the bishops say that the breaking of oaths and pledges is to be very deeply atoned for with God.


15. Ond each y us furðor lærað, þæt we sceolon eallan magene ond eallon myhton þone ecan mildan God in lice secan, lufian ond weorðian ond ælc unriht ascunian, ðæt synd mægslagan ond morðslagan ond mansworan ond wiccean ond wælcyrian ond æwbrecan ond syblegeru.

15. And also they teach us further that we must with all our strength and all our might earnestly seek, love, and honour the eternal merciful God, and shun all evil doing, namely [the deeds of] homicides and murderers, and perjurers and wizards and sorceresses, and adulterers, and incestuous deeds.


16. Ond eac we beodað on Godes ælmihtiges naman ond on ealra his haligra, þæt nan man swa dyrstig ne sy, þæt on gehadodre nunna oððe on mynecenan gewifige;

16. And also we command in the name of God Almighty and of all his saints, that no man is to be so presumptuous as to take to wife a woman consecrated to a life of chastity or a nun.


17. ond gyf hit hwa gedon hæbbe, beo he utlah wið God ond amansumod fram eallum Cristendome ond wið þone cyning scyldig ealles þæs þe he age, buton he ðe raðor geswice ond þe deopplicor gebete wið God.

17. And if anyone has done so, he is to be an outlaw before God and excommunicated from all Christendom, and to forfeit to the king all that he owns, unless he desists quickly and atones very deeply to God.


18. Ond gyt we furðor maniað, þæt man Sunnandæges freols mid eallum mægene healde ond weorðige fram Sæternesdæges none oð Monandæges lyhtinge, ond nan man swa dyrstig ne sy, þæt he aðor oððe cypinge wyrce oððe ænig mot gesæce þam halgan dæge.

18. And moreover we admonish that the Sunday festival is to be observed and honoured with all one’s might from Saturday noon until dawn on Monday, and that no one is to be so presumptuous as either to practise any trade or to attend any meeting on that holy day.


19. Ond ealle men, earme ond eadige, heora cyrcan secean ond for heora synnum þingian ond ælc beboden fæstan geornlice healdan ond þa halgan georne weorðian, þe us mæssepreostas beodan sceolan,

19. And all men, poor and rich, are to go to their church and make supplication for their sins, and to observe zealously every appointed fast, and honour readily those saints whose feasts the priests shall enjoin on us.


20. þæt we magan ond moton ealle samod þurh þæs ecean Godes milheortnesse ond his halgena þingrædene to heofena rices myrhðe becuman ond mid him wunian, þe leofað ond rihxað a butan ende. Amen.

20. so that all together through the mercy of the eternal God and the intercession of his saints we can and may come to the bliss of the heavenly kingdom and dwell with him who liveth and reigneth ever without end. Amen.