When researchers examined the medieval shrine of King Cnut the Holy of Denmark in the cathedral in Odense, they found well-preserved sumptuous textiles, but not the ones he was originally buried with.
Cnut IV and his brother Benedikt were murdered in Odense in AD 1086, and in 1100 Cnut was canonised. Both men were buried in the church in which they were killed, both with fine silks and linens according to historical sources. Analysis of some well-preserved textiles from both of their wooden coffins, published in Heritage Science, found that they are of the same age, dating to 1045-1155, which corresponds with the date of their deaths. The silks were perhaps sent to Denmark from southern Italy by Adela, Cnut’s widow. Silk weaving was not well-established in Europe outside the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century, and so the fabric was a highly prized import.
Cnut’s textiles, though, are not the ones intended for the king. The rich silks of his shrine were described in sources in 1536, but decades later both tombs were placed vertically and walled up after the Protestant reformation. After this concealment, Cnut’s shrine was re-examined in 1694 and 1833, but no textiles were mentioned. And in 1874, when the shrines of Cnut and Benedikt were prepared for display once more, researchers were puzzled to find no valuable textiles with Cnut – they had perhaps been stolen.
So where did the textiles studied come from? Benedikt, it was found in 1874, still had lavish fabrics, more valuable than those that remained with his brother. And so the researchers had moved the best textiles, including the ‘Eagle Silk’ and a pillow with birds, deemed more fitting for a king, over to Cnut’s shrine, where they are displayed with his remains under a glass lid.
‘They are exquisite and beautiful, but King Cnut’s textiles must have been even more exquisite’, noted Kaare Lund Rasmussen from the University of Denmark.