Skull of St. Cnut resting on the silk pillow © Schousboe

Cnut the Holy in Odense Cathedral

For nine centuries, the Cathedral in Odense has held the relics of a Danish King, Cnut the Holy and his brother Benedict. Both were murdered inside St. Albans in AD 1086.

Drawing from 1886 f Yellow silk pillow © National Museum, Copenhagen
Drawing from 1886 of Yellow silk pillow © National Museum, Copenhagen

Cnut the Holy was the fourth son of Svend Estridsøn(1019 – 1074), King of Denmark, and nephew of Cnut the Great. Cnut the Holy was elected King in 1080 after his elder brother, Harold Hen (1041 – 1080) had died. Cnut had already been in play in 1074, but at the traditional moot at Isøre, where royal elections continued to take place until 1163. However, his brother, Harold, had been preferred, allegedly because he was more malleable. According to later chronicles and sagas, Cnut fled to Sweden with three ships. From this base, he is said to have been involved in several expeditions against the Slavs in the Baltic. Before that, he had earned his reputation as a skilled warrior on two expeditions to England. In 1069 – 70 he supported the rebellion in Northumbria against the Conqueror, and in 1075 he sailed to England as head of a fleet of more than 200 ships. The aim must have been to retake the empire of his father’s uncle, Cnut the Great. Afterwards, our Cnut sailed to Flanders where he entered into marriage with Adela, daughter of the count, Robert the Frisian – another of the Conqueror’s embittered opponents. With Adela, he had four children, Karl, Cecily, and Ingegerd.

In the summer of 1085, the King is said to have called the Danish ”people” to muster their ships at Aggersborg in the Limfjorden, which at that point was open water from Kattegat to the North Sea. Once more, the plan was to sail for England and oust the Conqueror. One ally was his father-in-law. Unfortunately, the King had to hasten to Schleswig to bring the governor there, his brother, Oluf, to heel. According to later sources, the brother had rebelled, and Cnut was obliged to have him brought as a prisoner to Flanders. Meanwhile, the men on the ships, who were dallying in the North, were keen to get back to their farms and manors in time for the harvest.

According to later chronicles, the fleet broke up, and the people left, leaving the King with his ditched plans. At this point, the sources differ somewhat. Was the gathering of the ships to be considered a standard expedition decided in unison by the King and part of the nobles? Or was it (as was the case later on) to be understood as a “defensive” expedition to which the King had the right to muster an army? The murky sources do not agree on the answer to this question. Instead, the sources indicate that the different actors – the King, the nobles, and the freemen – had different opinions as to how the matter should have been dealt with. In the end, Cnut decided to fine the nobles and free men, who had left the gathering at Aggersborg to return to their manors and farms. At Børglum, the King was attacked and had to flee Jutland ending up in Odense. In the end, he was murdered in front of the high altar together with his brother and seventeen nobles from his retinue.

Soon after, miracles were reported, and in 1101 his brother succeeded in having Cnut canonised. The sources to the events are manifold and present us with a fascinating picture of a king, walking a tight line between the old and the new world – the Viking and the Medieval World.

The Relics

Eagle Textile from the Cathedral in Odense © National Museum, Copenhagen
The Eagle Silk.  Originally it measured 195-230 cm x 110 cm. It is a heavy samite silk, perhaps woven in Sicily, coloured blue with wode and indigo, while the red is made from Rubia tictorum and Caesalpinia sappan. Photo: National Museum Niels Elswing 1993.

One of the precious texts – less a vita than a chronicle – tell us how his brother, Erik Ejegod, organised a formal event where the King and his brother were taken from the stone sarcophagus and reinterred in two shrines, which were covered in gold and embellished with yellow and blue stones. Before this, the bones were wrapped in precious silks.

Today, the two shrines and the holy bones of both King and brother are exhibited in the crypt of the Cathedral in Odense. After the Reformation, though the shrines must have been hidden until 1582 when demolition of a side-chapel and the crypt revealed the shrines. We possess a description from this time recording both the skeletons, the silks, and the “Epitafium”, an inscribed plaque of lead recounting in short-form, the main events of the martyrdom and sanctification of the King. Later in 1694, the shrines were once again dug out of their hiding place behind the altar. Finally, in 1879, they were permanently taken out of their hiding, cleaned up and set on display.

At this time, the shrines were revealed to have been robbed of nearly all their finery. Also, the skeletons were not intact, nor was there much left of the precious textiles, which had adorned the shrines. Furthermore, the significant pieces of textiles were found in the shrine of Benedicts and not in that of St. Cnut.

At this point, the curators decided to move the textiles – a yellow silk pillow and a red samite coverlet with eagles – to that of St. Cnut. Likely, his textiles – reported in 1582 to have been of yellow silk with embroideries as well as of golden weave – were removed from the shrine of the King. Later, the textiles were wrongfully assigned to that of the shrine of the royal saint.

New technical analysis

Recently, a team of historians, archaeologists, and scientist have undertaken a biochemical analysis of the textiles and the remains, currently on display in their original wooden coffins. This analysis has led to precise dating of the textiles, which fall into the range of Ad 1045-1155.

One of the remarkable results of the present study is thus the dating of the textiles, which fit precisely with the time of the enshrinement. Believed to have been gifts from Cnut’s widow, who later married Duke Roger in Sicily, the textiles, without doubt, belong together with the bones, which have been radiocarbon dated to the same period as well as the dendrochronologically dated shrines. All sets of dates fit perfectly, and the new conclusion is that what we have in front of us are indeed the remains of the slaughtered King and his brother, the shrines from ca. 1100 and the fragments of the silks and textiles, in which they were wrapped.

Unfortunately, however, the technical analyses show that the present exhibition of the skeletons inside the shrines endangers the remains for the future.


St Cnut resting on the silken pillow of Benedict’s. ©


Danish King got enshrined in his own clothes – but appeared with his brothers’
By Birgitte Svennevig
Press Release, SDU 1.10.2020

Textiles and environment in the showcase containing Saint Canute the Holy († AD 1086): Radiocarbon dating and chemical interactions
By Poul Grinder-Hansen, Ulla Kjær, Morten Ryhl-Svendsen, Maria Perla Colombini, Ilaria Degano, Jacopo La Nasa, Francesca Sabatini, Johannes van der Plicht & Kaare Lund Rasmussen
In: Heritage Science (2020) Vol 8. Article 95, pp. 1 – 19.


Cover Life and Cult of Cnut the Holy

The Eagle Silk cover













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