King Canute was once ruler of England from 1016–1035. Before him no English King ever had such wide-ranging authority. For he was at once the lord of all England, of all Denmark, of all Norway, and also of Scotland.
The members of his court were continually full of flattery. “You are the greatest man that ever lived…You are the most powerful king of all…Your highness, there is nothing you cannot do, nothing in this world dares disobey you.”
The king was a wise man and he grew tired such foolish speeches. One day as he was walking by the seashore Canute decided to teach them a lesson.
“So you say I am the greatest man in the world?” he asked them.
“O king,” they cried, “there never has been anyone as mighty as you, and there never be anyone so great, ever again!”
“And you say all things obey me?” Canute asked.
“Yes sire” they said. “The world bows before you, and gives you honour.”
“I see,” the king answered. “In that case, bring me my chair, and place it down by the water.”
The servants scrambled to carry Canute’s royal chair over the sands. At his direction they placed it right at the water’s edge.
The King sat down and looked out at the ocean. “I notice the tide is coming in. Do you think it will stop if I give the command?”
“Give the order, O great king, and it will obey,” cried his entourage
“Sea,” cried Canute, “I command you to come no further! Do not dare touch my feet!”
He waited a moment, and a wave rushed up the sand and lapped at his feet.
“How dare you!” Canute shouted. “Ocean, turn back now! I have ordered you to retreat before me, and now you must obey! Go back!”
In came another wave lapping at the king’s feet. Canute remained on his throne throughout the day, screaming at the waves to stop. Yet in they came anyway, until the seat of the throne was covered with water.
Finally Canute turned to his entourage and said, “It seems I do not have quite so much power as you would have me believe. Perhaps now you will remember there is only one King who is all-powerful, and it is he who rules the sea, and holds the ocean in the hollow of his hand. I suggest you reserve your praises for him.”
Thenceforth King Canute never wore his crown of gold, but placed it for a lasting memorial on a statue of Our Lord nailed to the Cross, to the honor of God the Almighty King, through whose mercy may the soul of Canute, the King, enjoy everlasting rest.