A Message from King Canute
The power of kings
by Janice Ross
Suitable for Whole School (Pri) - Church Schools
To consider the Christian belief in the power of God as the king of all kings.
Preparation and materials
- You will need the PowerPoint slides that accompany this assembly (A Message from King Canute) and the means to display them.
- You will also need two adults to act the parts of the Narrator and King Canute in the drama during the ‘Time for reflection’ part of the assembly. If possible, King Canute should be dressed as a Viking or wearing a Viking helmet. Alternatively, you may wish for two older children to act out the drama, but they will need time to rehearse prior to the assembly.
- Invite the children to suggest one word that means ‘summer’ to them.
Listen to a range of responses.
If playing on a beach isn’t mentioned as an answer, give the children some clues to lead them to speak about this as an enjoyable activity in the summer.
- Ask the children what they enjoy doing most at the seaside. Focus some questions to help the children consider paddling, swimming, having picnics, collecting shells, exploring rock pools and so on.
- Ask the children whether any of them have enjoyed building sandcastles. Ask them to describe the castles that they have built.
Listen to a range of responses.
- Show Slides 1-5.
Ask the children what each of the sandcastles has in common. (The answer is that each sandcastle has a moat.)
- Ask the children whether they have ever built a sandcastle with a moat and then tried to keep the sea out as the tide came in. Or maybe they have dug a trench in the sand to try to stop the tide.
Ask the children if they have ever managed to stop the sea!
- Tell the children that you are going to tell them the story of King Canute, a Danish king who lived a thousand years ago. Today, we call him King Canute, but his real name was Cnut the Great. This famous story is about how much King Canute enjoyed the seaside.
King Canute was a Danish king who invaded Britain. He was very powerful and his people looked up to him. One day, he had his men carry him down to the beach, but he wasn’t planning on building sandcastles. He had something he wanted to show his men.
‘Put my throne at the water’s edge,’ he commanded.
Then, King Canute, with his sceptre in his hand, shouted, ‘Sea, stay still! You are not allowed to come any further!’
His men watched silently as a little wave dared to wet the king’s toes. The next wave splashed his ankle. As time wore on, King Canute got increasingly wet, until he leapt backwards out of the water.
- Explain that King Canute is often considered to be a rather arrogant and silly king because of this story. However, he was actually wise and good. He had become fed up with his subjects acting as though he was all-powerful. He wanted them to know that he had no control over elements such as the incoming tide, so he purposely arranged the stunt on the beach knowing that he would fail, to prove to them that he was just a human like them.
King Canute is quoted as saying, ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but he whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.’
Following this event, he is said to have hung his gold crown on a crucifix and never to have worn it again.
Time for reflection
Act out the following short dramatization.
There is a knock at the door and King Canute enters.
Narrator: Welcome, King Canute.
King Canute: I hear that you’re talking about beautiful summer days down by the beach. I can remember a day when I did just that.
Assembly-leader: Yes, King Canute, we know all about that day. You tried to hold the waves back.
King Canute: Indeed I did. I wanted to show my men that even though they may think me a great king, only almighty God could do something like stopping the tide.
Narrator: Oh, King Canute, don’t you know that Danes nowadays have a solution to the incoming tide? For generations, they have been pushing back their shoreline to reclaim land from the sea. They build dykes and drain marshes to protect themselves from the incoming tide.
King Canute: Well I never! How ingenious! So, now they can stop the tide?
Narrator: Well, not quite, not yet.
King Canute: I see.
Assembly-leader: And you perhaps won’t know that researchers have discovered various ways to create energy, one of which uses the power of the tide.
King Canute: Well I never!
Narrator: We’ve also put men on the moon. And we’ve got computers now that can tell us everything.
King Canute: Wow! That is amazing. So, you’ve come a long way!
Narrator: Yes, we’re all very clever now.
King Canute: Hmm . . . and I suppose all your kings and queens are good and wise and there’s peace all over the world?
Narrator: Well, not exactly. In fact, no, we haven’t yet managed to achieve world peace.
King Canute: And I suppose you’re looking after God’s beautiful planet?
Narrator: Well, actually we are facing some problems with pollution and waste. Also, the environment is suffering from climate change.
King Canute: I see. So, I expect you’ve all learned by now what I was trying to illustrate to my people on the beach that day.
Assembly-leader: What was that, King Canute?
King Canute: Let all people know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but he whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.
Assembly-leader: By that, you mean God?
King Canute: Yes.
Assembly-leader: Perhaps we still have a long way to go, King Canute!
Ask the children to close their eyes.
Ask them to imagine a lovely beach on a warm summer’s day.
Ask them to consider where the sea came from . . . where the sand came from . . . where the sun came from . . .
Point out that King Canute, and Christians today, believe that God made the world and is still at work in the world. They believe that God is more powerful than human kings, queens and leaders.
Ask the children to think about the story of King Canute. His story is often told as a story of a slightly mad king who thought he was more powerful than he really was. However, today’s assembly suggests something else: that King Canute was trying to teach people a powerful lesson!
Ask the children, ‘Do you think that King Canute was clever or silly?’ You may wish to ask for a show of hands.
We thank you for the earth, the sea and the sky.
We thank you for how beautiful you have made our world.
Thank you that even though King Canute was a mighty king, he recognized how powerless he was in comparison to you.