Believe it or knot

King Canute showing his sycophantic followers that even a great king is not so powerful that he can stop the tide from coming in.

I came across an article the other day about a record level of knot landing on the Norfolk coast at the RSPB reserve at Snettisham. Around 140,000 of them have been seen, compared to the previous record set there in the winter of 1990-91 where 120,000 were spotted. The numbers caused quite a stir within the bird-watching community, and films of their sweeping murmurations are well worth a watch online.

The reason the story caught my eye was because I had just been researching my column by reading my dad’s Countryman’s Diary from this week in 1980 where he talks about the knot. The coincidence struck me because, being only familiar with more recognisable members of our avian population, I had no idea there was even a bird called a knot. And suddenly, here were two articles about it, written 40 years apart, and which I picked up on the same day. I think that is what we might call serendipity.

For those of you who don’t know, a knot is a chubby, short-legged wading bird about 25cm in length from the sandpiper family. A curious feature is that its plumage changes colour according to the season and at this time of year, it has grey upper plumage, and a white lower body, whereas in summer it has a more browny upper body, with a brick red chest. It undertakes one of the longest migrations of any animal, starting from its Arctic breeding grounds and heading south to the coasts of Europe, Africa and Australia, stopping to grace us with its presence en route. 

As my dad mentions in his 8th November 1980 column, there are two theories as to how it got its peculiar name, one of which is that it comes from its hoarse cry of ‘knut knut’. I’ve had a listen online and I’m not sure that’s how I’d describe it, though. The other suggestion is that this bird, in Latin known as calidris canutus, is named after the famous King Canute because it is always found at the very edge of the sea, just like in the story of the king and the tide. 

King Canute (or Cnut) was a famous Viking warrior and ruled in England from AD1016 to AD1035. According to Henry of Huntingdon, who wrote ‘Historia Anglorum’, a 12th century account of England from its beginnings until 1154, King Canute wanted to demonstrate the danger of vanity to his sycophantic courtiers. So he set his throne by the sea and declared that he was going to order the tide to stay out so as not to get his robes and feet wet. 

Obviously, the tide continued to come in, so the king leapt up and declared: “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.” He then hung his crown on a crucifix, never to wear it again. The message was that there was no one more powerful than god, not even a king.

Henry of Huntington’s account, the first version of which was written less than 100 years after Canute’s death, was intended to demonstrate that as well as being a great warrior, the king was also intelligent and humble. He won the affection of his English subjects, and had a reputation for reconciling the warring English and Danes.

Today, however, when someone is described as behaving like King Canute, it is an insult. The insinuation is that they are behaving arrogantly in trying to stop something happening that is inevitable. The fact that Canute was supposedly doing the exact opposite has been lost in the mists of time. 

The legend has cropped up in a few high profile news stories in recent years, possibly the most famous occurring in 2011 when footballer Ryan Giggs was seeking injunctions against newspapers wanting to print details of an extra-marital affair. Media lawyer Mark Stephens declared he was ‘trying to stop the unstoppable tide of information as it flows through the internet. He has become the King Canute of football.’

It’s a shame the original message contained in the tale, true or otherwise, has been lost, as it is the version of the story that I for one much prefer. 

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 6th October and the Gazette & Herald on 4th October 2020

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