Skip to main content

History of St Magnus of Orkney

The following abridged account of St Magnus is taken from the “Orkneyjar” website (by kind permission). There is further analysis on this excellent site.

The story of Magnus Erlendsson - Orkney's Saint Magnus - begins in 1098 - a time when the Orkney earldom was divided between two brothers, the earls Paul and Erlend. Magnus was the eldest son of Earl Erlend, while his cousin, Hakon, was the son of Paul. In 1098, the Norwegian king,. Magnus "Barelegs", arrived suddenly in Orkney. He unseated both earls and made his illegitimate son, Sigurd, overlord of the islands. Earls Paul and Erlend were instructed to go to Norway, where they both died before winter's end. With Sigurd in place as "king" of Orkney, King Magnus left Orkney on a raiding expedition, making sure he took Hakon and the 18-year-old Magnus with him. Heading down the west coast of Scotland, the raiders travelled as far south as Anglesey.

The raid on Anglesey

According to the sagas, on the voyage south, young Magnus would not fight during the raids. When the Vikings attacked the Welsh rulers of Anglesey, Magnus refused to participate. Instead, we are told he chose to remain on the ship singing psalms - overtly Christian behaviour that did not please the Norwegian King, who already disliked Magnus, who he regarded a coward, intensely.

This episode, although perfectly setting up the saintly image of Magnus, could have a number of explanations.

Firstly, it is highly possible that the account is a later addition, specifically introduced to emphasise Magnus' piety. The lack of references to Magnus in other historical accounts of the raiding voyage has prompted suggestions that his inclusion in the Orkneyinga Saga version of events was purely fictional.

However, if we assume that Magnus was part of the raiding party, his refusal to fight could have been for purely political reasons rather than spiritual. The historian William Thomson points out in his New History of Orkney, that Magnus had a "surprisingly frequent involvment in Welsh affairs".

Whatever the truth, the Orkneyinga Saga goes on to explain that Magnus escaped from the king's ship. Slipping overboard one night, he swam to the shore of Scotland, where he "disappeared" until the death of King Magnus in Ireland in 1102. We know little about this time in hiding.

Magnus becomes Earl

By the time Magnus reappears in the Orkneyinga Saga, Sigurd Magnusson had returned to Norway to become joint ruler, leaving Magnus' cousin Hakon in the position of earl. A few years later, and after making representations to the Norwegian throne, Magnus was granted his share of the earldom. At first there was a good relationship between the two earls, and their reign, from 1105 until 1114, was said to be a just and pleasant one. However, this "Golden Age" did not last.

The earls' quarrel

The Orkneyinga Saga is not clear on the reason the cousins turned on each other. It simply states that men of "evil disposition" began stirring trouble between Hakon and Magnus. Hakon, says the saga, was jealous of Magnus’ popularity and was therefore "more disposed to listen to these miserable men".

Whatever their motives, the agitators succeeded in creating enmity between Magnus and Hakon, so much so that they drew up for battle at a "thing" - an assembly - on the Orkney Mainland. The site of this meeting has been suggested as being Tingwall (from the Old Norse thingvollr - Assembly Field) in the Mainland parish of Rendall. But a battle was averted.

Neutral parties managed to persuade the two earls to make peace. A further meeting was arranged to finalise this treaty, with the earls to meet on Egilsay at Easter, each bringing only "two ships and an equal number of men". At the allotted time, and with the agreed number of men, Magnus set out for Egilsay.

Approaching the island in calm water, says the saga, a great wave rose up and struck Magnus' ship. This, it recounts, was taken to be an omen of the earl's death. “No wonder that you are surprised by this," said Magnus to his men, "Indeed, I take this as a foreboding of my death."

Betrayal on Eglisay

Magnus was the first to arrive on Egilsay, where he waited for the arrival of his cousin. When, later that day, eight warships came into view it became clear that treachery was afoot. Hakon and his men landed on Egilsay the following morning. After first ransacking the church, Hakon sought out Magnus, who had "gone to another part of the island, to a certain hiding place".

After a search, Magnus was found, captured and brought before an assembly of local chieftains. There, the saga stresses, Magnus was concerned only for the welfare of his deceitful cousin's immortal soul. Magnus made three suggestions that would save Hakon from breaking his oath by killing an unarmed man. The first, that Magnus would go on a pilgrimage and never return to Orkney, was rejected, as was the second, that Magnus be exiled to Scotland and imprisoned. The final suggestion was that Hakon should "have me mutilated in anyway you choose, rather than take my life, or else blind me and lock me in a dungeon".

Hakon deemed this acceptable, but the assembly were not so keen. The chieftains leapt to their feet and announced that one of the earls had to die. They had had their fill of joint-rule in Orkney. Hakon smugly informed the dissenters that, as he preferred ruling and was not ready to die, Magnus should be slain. Magnus put forward no argument so "was doomed to death". Informing his followers they were not to die defending him, Magnus stepped forward to accept his fate.

The martyrdom of Earl Magnus

With Magnus’ fate sealed, Hakon ordered Ofeig, his standard-bearer, to execute the eark. But the warrior refused angrily. Enraged, Hakon turned to his cook, Lifolf, and instructed him to kill Magnus. According to the saga, Lifolf wept loudly but Magnus spoke comforting words and forgave him for the acts he must carry out: "Be not afraid, for you do this against your will and he who forces you sins more than you do."

So Magnus knelt before Lifolf and asked to be struck hard on the head, rather than beheaded like a common criminal: "Stand thou before me, and hew on my head a great wound, for it is not seemly to behead chiefs like thieves. Take heart, poor wretch, for I have prayed to God for thee, that He be merciful unto thee."

Lifolf struck the blow and cleaved the Earl's skull in two.

The Orkneyinga Saga declares this act took place "1,091 winters after the birth of Christ" but this date does not tie in with documented events and is definitely incorrect. Magnus was killed many years later - on 16th April in what was most likely 1118.

Initially, Magnus was denied a Christian burial by Earl Hakon and simply buried where he fell.

Miraculous happenings

Shortly afterwards, the miracles began.

The Orkneyinga Saga recounts that the site of Magnus’ murder was originally rocky and overgrown, but after his death "God showed that he had suffered for righteousness' sake" and the area was miraculously transformed into a green field.

Magnus' mother, Thora, pled with Hakon to allow her son a Christian burial. Hakon relented and allowed Magnus’ corpse to be retrieved. It was transferred to Birsay, where it was interred at Christchurch, the church Magnus’ grandfather, Thorfinn Sigurdsson, had built. The exact location of this church remains uncertain today. Although it is generally thought to have either been on Brough o' Birsay or the site of the current St Magnus Kirk on Mainland Birsay. Recent investigations seem to favour the latter. Wherever he was laid to rest, from the day of his burial a bright, heavenly light was said to have been seen above Magnus' grave. This holy light was accompanied by a "heavenly fragrance".

Before long, as the cult of Magnus grew, other stories began to spread, each detailing the miraculous happenings around about the Earl's gravesite. The Orkneyinga Saga recounts in great detail the numerous miraculous healings that resulted from visits to the Magnus' resting place.

Sainthood

Initially, the Bishop of Orkney, William the Old, tried to suppress the growing cult of Magnus, dismissing the alleged miracles and warning that it was "heresy to go about with such tales". But then, in an episode described in the Orkneyinga Saga, Bishop William was suddenly convinced of Magnus’ holiness after being struck blind in his Birsay cathedral. Falling upon Magnus’ grave, and praying, the bishop’s sight was miraculously restored. Intriguingly the bishop's change of heart seems to have coincided with a visit to Norway Although the saga makes no mention of the purpose of this journey, the historian William Thomson suggests that, in Norway, the bishop had met with the future Earl Rognvald, the man who would later found St Magnus Cathedral after the Orkney earldom. If this were so, Bishop William's sudden promotion of the cult of Magnus could have had political reasons - Rognvald's plans to acquire the earldom centred on the popularity of the Magnus cult.

Whatever the reason, 21 years after their burial, Bishop William had Magnus’ remains exhumed, washed and tested in consecrated fire. Their holiness confirmed, Magnus was proclaimed a saint and his remains enshrined above the Birsay kirk's altar.

The relics stayed in Birsay "for a long time" until Magnus supposedly appeared to a Westray man, Gunni, in a dream. Magnus told Gunni that Bishop William should be told that Magnus wished to leave Birsay and move east to the growing town, Kirkjuvagr – the Kirkwall we know today.