A nice article from the Beeb this morning that gently corrects the modern misunderstanding of King Canute and the tide:

[W]as the legendary Viking leader and 11th Century King of England so deluded to really assume he had the powers to turn back the tide?

Almost certainly not. While the histories of the time are unreliable, it seems probable that King Canute was not a madman who thought he could control the tide.

The first written account of the Canute episode was in Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People) by chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, who lived within 60 years of the death of Canute (1035 AD).

According to the story, the king had his chair carried down to the shore and ordered the waves not to break upon his land.

When his orders were ignored, he pronounced: “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless and there is no King worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven and earth and sea obey eternal laws,” (Historia Anglorum, ed D E Greenway).

Canute set out to demonstrate that the waves would hit him, just like everybody else, says Professor Simon Keynes of the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge.

But most modern-day analogies of Canute turn history on its head.

“They are mostly misused in order to illustrate something being swamped like King Canute.

“It is often used about politicians who consider themselves so powerful they can stop the tide of something, such as rising wages – as arrogant as King Canute,” says Prof Keynes, who says he used to collect examples from the newspapers of those so-called Canute moments.

“Everyone always gets it wrong. The latest debate is a nice example of how legend becomes distorted when it is told and retold,” says Prof Keynes. “Every now and then someone points out that the reference is wrong, but commentators continue to do it and historians such as myself wince.”

Indeed, although trying to fight against the modern usage would be like, um, trying to stop the tide.

Ah, well.  Fellow port-swillers will just have to content themselves with a look of knowing smugness the next time they hear somebody get it wrong.

This reminds me of another famous story about a ruler and the waves.  It is popularly assumed that the Emperor Caligula was mad as a hatter, mostly because the historian Suetonius, who is the primary source for the period, was an inveterate gossip-monger who collected every libel and rumor on which he could lay his hands.  One of the stories about Caligula is that after becoming convinced that he was Jove incarnate, he marched the Legions to the English Channel, there to wage war against his brother god, Neptune.  The legend goes that he had his troops line up in battle order on the beach, march out into the surf and cast their spears, and later that he had them collect sea-shells as the spoils of war.

Well, nobody really knows what happened or why, but back in high school I heard an interesting theory from a classicks prof at the University of Texas who was absolutely convinced that Caligula was not crazy.  (The prof, a tall, rangy Brit, looked a little mad himself, frankly.)  He posited that Caligula had been contemplating an invasion of Britain, but that his army, terrified of the idea of crossing the Channel to land on an unknown shore full of scary natives, threatened to mutiny if he went forward with the plan.  Caligula, knowing he couldn’t force the issue, then staged the mock battle with the water in order to shame his troops.

I always thought that explanation every bit as plausible as the more popular version of events, but of course it wouldn’t fit in so well with the historickal caricature.