Eadric of Mercia, whose aid had given him the crown, was felled by an axe-blow at the King's signal; a murder removed Eadwig, the brother of Eadmund Ironside, while the children of Eadmund were hunted even into Hungary by his ruthless hate. But from a savage such as this Cnut rose suddenly into a wise and temperate king. Stranger as he was, he fell back on "Eadgar's law," on the old constitution of the realm, and owned no difference between conqueror and conquered, between Dane and Englishman. By the creation of four earldoms, those of Mercia, Northumberland, Wessex, and East Anglia, he recognized provincial independence, but he drew closer than of old the ties which bound the rulers of these great dependencies to the Crown. He even identified himself with the patriotism which had withstood the stranger. The Church had been the centre of national resistance to the Dane, but Cnut sought above all its friendship. He paid homage to the cause for which aelfheah had died, by his translation of the Archbishop's body to Canterbury. He atoned for his father's ravages by costly gifts to the religious houses.
He protected English pilgrims against the robber-lords of the Alps. His love for monks broke out in the song which he composed as he listened to their chant at Ely: " Merrily sang the monks in Ely when Cnut King rowed by " across the vast fen-waters that surrounded their abbey. " Row, boatmen, near the land, and hear we these monks sing".
Cnut's letter from Rome to his English subjects marks the grandeur of his character and the noble conception he had formed of kingship. "I have vowed to God to lead a right life in all things," wrote the King, "to rule justly and piously my realms and subjects, and to administer just judgement to all. If heretofore I have done aught beyond what was just, through headiness or negligence of youth, I am ready with God's help to amend it utterly." No royal officer, either for fear of the King or for favour of any, is to consent to injustice, none is to do wrong to rich or poor " as they would value my friendship and their own well-being." He especially denounces unfair exactions: "I have no need that money be heaped together for me by unjust demands." " I have sent this letter before me," Cnut ends, " that all the people of my realm may rejoice in my well-doing; for as you yourselves know, never have I spared nor will I spare to spend myself and my toil in what is needful and good for my people".
Cnut's greatest gift to his people was that of peace. With him began the long internal tranquillity which was from this time to be the special note of our national history. During two hundred years, with the one terrible interval of the Norman Conquest, and the disturbance under Stephen, England alone among the kingdoms of Europe enjoyed unbroken repose. The wars of her Kings lay far from her shores, in France or Normandy, or, as with Cnut, in the more distant lands of the North. The stern justice of their government secured order within. The absence of internal discontent under Cnut, perhaps too the exhaustion of the kingdom after the terrible Danish inroads, is proved by its quiet during his periods of absence. Everything witnesses to the growing wealth and prosperity of the country. A great part of English soil was indeed still utterly uncultivated. Wide reaches of land were covered with wood, thicket, and scrub; or consisted of heaths and moor. In both the east and the west there were vast tracts of marsh land; fens nearly one hundred miles long severed East Anglia from the midland counties; sites like that of Glastonbury or Athelney were almost inaccessible.
The beaver still haunted marshy hollows such as those which lay about Beverley, the London craftsmen chased the wild boar and the wild ox in the woods of Hampstead, while wolves prowled round the homesteads of the North. But peace and the industry it encouraged were telling on this waste; stag and wolf were retreating before the face of man, the farmer's axe was ringing in the forest, and villages were springing up in the clearings. The growth of commerce was seen in the rich trading-ports of the eastern coast. The main trade lay probably in skins and ropes and ship masts; and above all in the iron and steel that the Scandinavian lands so long supplied to Britain. But Dane and Norwegian were traders over a yet wider field than the northern seas; their barks entered the Mediterranean, while the overland route through Russia brought the wares of Constantinople and the East. "What do you bring to us?" the merchant is asked in an old English dialogue. " I bring skins, silks, costly gems, and gold," he answers, "besides various garments, pigment, wine, oil, and ivory, with brass, and copper, and tin, silver and gold, and such like." Men from the Rhineland and from Normandy, too, moored their vessels along the Thames, on whose rude wharves were piled a strange medley of goods: pepper and spices from the far East, crates of gloves and gray cloths, it may be from the Lombard looms, sacks of wool, iron-work from Lieége, butts of French wine and vinegar, and with them the rural products of the country itself - cheese, butter, lard, and eggs, with live swine and fowls.
Cnut's one aim was to win the love of his people, and all tradition shows how wonderful was his success. But the greatness of his rule hung solely on the greatness of his temper, and at his death the empire he had built up at once fell to pieces. Denmark and England, parted for a few years by the accession of his son Harald to the throne of the last, were re-united under a second son, Harthacnut; but the love which Cnut's justice had won turned to hatred before the lawlessness of his successors. The long peace sickened men of this fresh outburst of bloodshed and violence. " Never was a bloodier deed done in the land since the Danes came," ran the popular song, when Harald's men seized aelfred, a brother of Eadmund Ironside, who had returned to England from Normandy. Every tenth man was killed, the rest sold for slaves, and aelfred himself blinded and left to die at Ely! Harthacnut, more savage even than his predecessor, dug up his brother's body and flung it into a marsh; while a rising at Worcester against his hus-carls was punished by the burning of the town and the pillage of the shire.
His death was no less brutal than his life; " he died as he stood at his drink in the house of Osgod Clapa at Lambeth." England wearied of kings like these: but their crimes helped her to free herself from the impossible dream of Cnut. The North, still more barbarous than herself, could give her no new element of progress or civilization. It was the consciousness of this and the hatred of such rulers as Harald and Harthacnut which co-operated with the old feeling of reverence for the past in calling back the line of aelfred to the throne.