Sanctus Kanutus rex

From medieval

by Haki Antonsson

St. Knud of Denmark (d. 1086), son of Sven Estridsson, ruled Denmark 1080-1086. He favoured the Church and worked to introduce tithes. His rule was unpopular among farmers and chieftains, and in 1086 a revolt broke out in Vendsyssel. Knud was killed in the church of St. Mary and St. Alban in Odense 10 July 1086. He was canonised by the pope in 1101.

An early Passio (Legenda) is transmitted (described here) as well as a longer work by Ailnothus. The Office and the Mass for St Knud are not yet covered on this website.


Passio Sancti Kanuti Regis et Martiris, “The Passion of St Knud, King and Martyr”, is the earliest preserved work of hagiography known to have been composed in Scandinavia. The short Passio (ca. 3000 words), whose title appears in the only extant manuscript witness, was written at the earliest stage of the cult of King Knud of Denmark.


  • SOLLERIUS, J.B. 1723: Acta Sanctorum, Julii, tomus III, Antwerpen, 122-23.
  • LANGEBEK, J. 1774 SRD 3, 317-22.
  • GERTZ, M.CL. 1907: Knud den helliges martyrhistorie. Særlig efter de tre ældste kilder. En filologisk-historisk undersøgelse, Festskrift udgivet af Kjøbenhavns Universitet i anledning af Hans majestæt Kongens Fødselsdag den 3. Juni 1907, Copenhagen, 6-25.
  • GERTZ, M.CL. 1908-1912: Vitae Sanctorum Danorum, Copenhagen, 62-76.


  • (Danish) OLRIK, H. 1893 (repr. 1968): Danske Helgernes Levned 1, Copenhagen.
  • (Danish) GERTZ 1907 (see Editions)

Date and place

The Passio must have been composed sometime between 1095 and 1101. At the end of his work the author reveals that he was present at the elevatio and translatio of St. Knud’s relics which took place in Odense in the spring of 1095. This indicates that he was, at that point in time at least, a member of the religious community which served the church of St. Mary and St. Albans in Odense. King Oluf Hunger’s death is noted (in August 1095) while there is no reference or allusion to papally sanctioned canonisation of St. Knud that took place in August 1101. The fact that King Erik Ejegod, Oluf’s successor on the throne, is not mentioned may point to a date of composition very soon after the 1095 translation.

The inference that the author was of English, or rather Anglo-Saxon, extraction is primarily based on his enthusiasm for King Knud’s abortive invasion of England and the notable hostility he displays towards the Norman occupiers. It should, however, be noted that if the author was an eye-witness to the translatio of 1095, he could not have been one of the Benedictines monks which King Erik Ejegod brought over from England in 1095/96 to tend Knud’s shrine. English presence or a least influence in Odense before the arrival of these monks, is of course, possible.

Summary of contents

Knud was brought up at the court of his father, Sven Estridssen, where he took to heart the four cardinal virtues. The devil inspires leading men of the realm, and even his own brothers, to deny Knud his rightful crown. Thus Knud is forced out of his kingdom and he seeks refuge in Sweden. With God’s aid, however, he returns and ascends to the throne. During his reign Knud is generous to the poor and protects the weak. Knud’s support of the bishops and priests is noted along with his donation to churches in Roskilde, Dalby and the establishment of a new foundation in Lund dedicated to St. Lawrence. Knud also attempts, against the will of the most powerful men, to implement the collection tithe for the benefit of Christianity. His piety also leads him to plan a military expedition to England with the purpose of liberating the English from the Norman yoke. This plan is also opposed by many of leading men, among those his brother Oluf who coveted the kingship for himself. Knud counters this by sending Oluf to Flanders. A rebellion against Knud’s rule begins in Vendsyssel but gathers strength as the army travels south through Jutland. Knud flees to Fyn but his enemies send a message to the people of that region that unless they kill the king their lands are to be decimated. The people of Fyn respond by flocking to the royal estate in Odense. Deserted by everyone, apart from his brother Benedict and few loyal retainers, Knud retreats to the church of St. Mary and St. Alban in Odense. Pelted with stones and pierced with a spear, Knud dies with his hands outstretched in the shape of a cross before the altar of St. Alban. As a punishment for this deed the whole of Denmark is afflicted by torrential rain, famine and other afflictions. In response the people of Jutland along with their priests and bishops ask the clergy of Odense to elevate the corporal relic of the martyr. They fast for three days and then conduct a trial by fire on the relic. King Oluf dies.

Style and Sources

Passio Kanuti is written in a simple and unadorned style. It strikes a sermon-like note at the beginning where the author admonishes the reader/audience to take to heart the life and passion of the holy Knud. There are occasional quotes or references to biblical material. Thus when Knuds’ brothers force him into exile, he is compared to Joseph. Knud is also likened to David, the God’s chosen one. The Passio includes references or allusions to the Psalms, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and his letter to the Romans. Aside from Biblical material, the only written source which the author used in Passio Kanuti is the so-called Tabula Otheniensis, a copper tablet which contained a short prose account of Knud’s martyrdom and was placed in his shrine at the translatio of 1095. Most notably, both Passio Kanuti and Tabula Otheniensis tell that Knud died with his arms outstretched in the shape of a cross in front of the altar of St. Albans. Regarding possible hagiographic influences on Passio Kanuti we must look outside Scandinavia (no Legend of St. Olaf of Norway is, for instance, known to have been composed in the eleventh century). In light of the author’s possible English origin, Abbo of Fleury’s Passio sancti Edmundi, composed ca. 985, would have provided an obvious model as it tells of a righteous and pious king who is killed unjustly by his enemies.


GERTZ argued that the Passio had been composed in order to provide readings for the office of St. Knud in the early stages of his cult. Accordingly in his edition GERTZ divided the text into 9 parts which correspond to his idea of individual lectiones. It must be stressed that no such clear division is indicated in the work’s single manuscript witness. The sermon-like style of the Passio suggests that the intended audience was a religious community, very likely that of Odense. As vividly expressed in the author’s prologue or preamble the main purpose of the Passio was to provide readings on the feast-day of a new local saint. The Passio portrays Knud as protector and supporter of the Church and the vulnerable while the leading men of the kingdom are portrayed in somewhat unfavourable light. From this perspective the Passio has been seen to express a view-point which favours royal protection for a relatively weak Church (BREENGAARD 1982).

Medieval reception and transmission

Ailnothus of Canterbury in his Gesta Swenomagni regis et filiorum eius et passio gloriosissimi Canuti regis et martyris, composed ca. 1120, makes selective use of Passio Kanuti. Passio Kanuti was used to provide lectiones to the Knud liturgy. For instance, in Breviarium Arhussiense, Breviarium Lundese and Breviarium Nidrosiense.

The sole manuscript wittness to the Passio Kanuti is “Codex Coloniensis”, Cologne, G. B. no 203, chartaceus, a codex that contains a number of other saints’ lives. According to GERTZ Codex Coloniensis could not have been written before 1500 and the scribe of Passio Kanuti followed an exemplar which was at least two centuries older. The first edition of the text was published by the Bollandists 1723 (SOLLERIUS) and this text was reprinted by LANGEBEK in 1774 (see Editions).


  • BREENGAARD, C. 1982, Muren om Israels hus. Regnum og sacerdotium i Danmark 1050-1170, Copenhagen.
  • GAD, T. 1961, Legenden i dansk middelalder, Copenhagen.
  • GERTZ, M.CL. 1907: Knud den helliges martyrhistorie. Særlig efter de tre ældste kilder. En filologisk-historisk undersøgelse, Festskrift udgivet af Kjøbenhavns Universitet i anledning af Hans majestæt Kongens Fødselsdag den 3. Juni 1907, Copenhagen, 64-80.
  • HOFFMANN, E. 1975: Die heiligen Könige bei den Angelsachsen und den scandinavischen Völkern. Königsheiliger und Königshaus (Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschicte Schleswig-Holsteins Band 69), Neumünster.
  • SØRENSEN, P.M. 1986: “To gamle historier om Knud den Hellige – og de moderne,” in Knuds-Bogen 1986, Studier over Knud den Hellige, ed. T. Nyberg et al. (Fynske Studier 15), Odense, 9-20.