Author Emily Kench

The knot is a medium sized dumpy shorebird. On the face of it, it’s nothing special, and its name appears just as plain.

Knot on The Wash, RSPB Snettisham. Photo by Andy Hay

But what’s in a name?  Well this name is thought to be steeped in history. You may have seen a blog on this topic last week, but here is a more in depth look at the origin of the name knot.

King Canute (or King Cnut in Danish), a strapping Viking, ruled the North Sea Empire: Denmark and Norway and eventually England in 1016. During his reign across this widespread kingdom, the successful monarch was worshipped among obsequious courtiers as if he were a God.

To prove a point, as the result of the incessant flattery, King Canute headed to the shores of the North Sea where he set his throne. The incoming tide approached the grandiose royal seat. Used to dishing out the commands, the King ordered the intruding waves to halt; but even the King was unable to control the inevitable phenomena of the rise and fall of the waves.

The true motivations behind the actions of King Canute are a mystery. It is unknown whether he believed he had supernatural powers and was humiliated as a consequence, or as 12th-century English historian Henry of Huntingdon suggests, Canute was reprimanding his courtiers for holding him in such high esteem. In Huntingdon’s account, as the tide powered on wetting Canute’s feet, he spoke of secular power being incomparable to the supreme power of God: his humble protest simply an attempt to prove his earthly state.

So what does the tale of King Canute and the waves have to do with our unassuming knot?

Well, in Scandinavia, the King’s name was pronounced ‘Knud’ or ‘Knut’, a close variation of ‘knot’. These inconspicuous waders are thought to have inherited the name through their own inability to control the tides. Gathered in huge huddles on mudflats on The Wash in west Norfolk, it’s easy to see why. Even in their masses they look wholly vulnerable in the face of the rolling tide.

Flock of knot, photo by Andy Hay

Like Canute, knot ‘leap’ up on an encroaching tide in an attempt to keep their feet dry, creating spectacular clouds of weaving wings. Alone, the knot looks comical, but flying in the air with its own it oozes audaciousness, blending into a tangle of knot. Finally they relinquish, finding their feet again inland, above the tideline.

However, airborne is not how King Canute deemed them at their best. These stout knot have been termed ‘really excellent eating’ and many have claimed that they were a particular favourite of King Canute when fattened up and served with bread and milk, meaning they may have inherited their name from the King’s fondness of this food. In more recent times they remained a choice among old wildfowlers, given that they could bring down large numbers in a single shot.

Now thankfully, knot are no longer a sought after cuisine. Instead, thousands of us flock to see the knot partake in the wader spectacle at RSPB Snettisham on the west Norfolk coast: a site that is internationally important for knot and another 15 species.

Whilst we no longer need to dissuade people from dining on knot, we still need people to feel inspired to give knot and other nature a home.

Knot, photo by Andy Hay

We are currently in our final hours of crowdfunding (you can still donate until 11.59 pm on 13 August) to rebuild the hides lost at Snettisham in a storm surge back in 2013. A bigger, better, storm resilient hide will help to inspire future generations of nature lovers and make people feel passionate about protecting our wildlife here in Norfolk. To help us rebuild Snettisham hide, donate at There are still exclusive rewards on offer and you can even name a knot!


Event Listing:

Wader Watch at RSPB Snettisham

Friday 22 September, 6:45 am

Price: £7 adults £5 children (£1 discount for RSPB members)

Booking essential: 01485 210779

Take your place at the Wader Watch point in the company of our experienced guide and share the excitement of large numbers of waders taking to the air. Watch all the action as swirling black masses soar against the backdrop of The Wash. Move on to the hides and enjoy the chaos and drama that unfolds before your eyes as flocks of noisy birds find space in the lagoons to roost.