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Ealles Englalandes Cyningc: Cnut’s Territorial Kingship and Wulfstan’s Paronomastic Play

Jay Paul Gates

Department of English, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

In 1018, the year following his accession, the Danish conqueror Cnut met with the English witanto establish the terms by which the English would accept him as king and to produce a new set of laws. A few years later, c. 1020/21, Cnut and his council issued a second set of laws comprised of two parts: a religious and a secular portion, respectively given the titles I and II Cnut by scholars, and which I will refer to as the unified I–II Cnut.1 As a foreign-born ruler, Cnut had disrupted the English social and political landscape. Now, with the help of his witan—especially Wulfstan, Archbishop of York—Cnut appropriated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of lex scripta, a move with significant consequences for the history of English law and national identity. In the prologue to his new legislation, Cnut speaks as “ealles Englalandes cyningc.”2 With this seemingly unremarkable phrase, he overturns English legal tradition. Underlying this title is a rhetorical claim to stabilize and unify all of England—Anglo-Saxon and Dane—as a single nation, an outcome that had not been possible since the beginning of the Scandinavian settlement of England in the mid-ninth century. To achieve this, I–II Cnut redefined kingship in terms of territory rather than ethnicity or culture, thus laying a foundation, not just for his right to rule, but for the construction of a new notion of national community.

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