Archive for April 23rd, 2009

St Magnus of Orkney

Earl Magnus Erlendsson of Orkney ruled between 1108 and c. 1115, his life-story being well-attested (albeit in documents that come under the heading of Norse sagas rather than biographical histories in the modern sense) in the Shorter and Longer Magnus’ Saga and in the Legend of St Magnus.

In order to understand the story of Magnus, we need to know something of his immediate genealogy. Magnus’s grandparents on one side were Earl Thorfinn and Ingiborg Finnsdottir (whose father was related to Kings Olav II and Harald II of Norway) who gave birth to twin sons, Erlend and Paul.

Remains of St Magnus, uncovered in St Magnus Cathedral in 1919

Remains of St Magnus, uncovered in St Magnus Cathedral in 1919

One of these sons, Erlend Thorfinnsson became Earl of Orkney, and in 1075 he gave birth to Magnus. Magnus served King Magnus III of Norway, who in 1098 deposed Erlend (young Magnus’s father) and Paul (his brother) when taking possessing of the Orkney Islands.

However, Paul’s son (and Magnus’s cousin), Haakon Paulsson, was appointed to act as regent on behalf of Sigurd, a Prince of Norway, and Haakon was created an earl in 1105.

Magnus Erlendsson, meanwhile, was struggling to strike the right balance between the political and military expectations which attended on in his circumstances with his burgeoning Christian piety. On one occasion (in 1098) Magnus sailed with Haakon and the wonderfully named King Magnus Barelegs to pillage (with all that that involved) the islands off the west coast of Scotland, including: Lewis, Uist, Skye, Tiree and Mull.

The party then decided to sail down the west coast of Britain and raid Wales, but Magnus Erlendsson, who seems to have had friends in Wales, proclaimed “I have no quarrel with any man here”, and, refusing to participate in the Welsh raid, remained on deck praying the Psalms in a very loud voice.

His fellow Vikings perceived this is both cowardly and treacherous, and, while the ship was at anchor, Magnus prudently made his way to shore and went into hiding, eventually taking refuge in the courts of King Malcolm and Queen Margaret of Scotland, where the Catholic faith was not only tolerated but positively nurtured.

When Haakon Paulsson became Sigurd’s regent in 1005, Magnus Erlendsson, motivated either by duty or by ambition (or, more likely, by a combination of the two), returned to Orkney with a view to disputing the succession. He was assisted in this by King Eystein II of Norway who established him as Earl of Orkney and arranged for him to rule jointly with Haakon.

This arrangement was initially successful, but, inevitably, the rivalry between the two factions grew more and more divisive, and a Thing (assembly) was organized in order to resolve the escalating dispute. It was agreed that the two Earls should bring two ships to the isle of Egilsay and there make peace, but the duplicitous Haakon arrived with eight ships and took Magnus captive.

Magnus volunteered to accept either prison or exile, but the chieftains, probably calculating that, even if one of them were exiled, the existence of two earls was always going to by a catalyst for political machinations and even civil war, decreed that one or other of the earls should die.

Haakon deputed his standard-bearer, Ofeigr, to execute Magnus, but Ofeigr was so appalled at what was happening that he refused, so the task eventually fell to a certain Lifolf, who was, in effect, Haakon’s personal chef. Praying for his executioners, Magnus was killed by a blow to the head with an axe shortly after Easter on April 16th, and was buried at the place of his execution – a rocky landscape which, after his burial, was miraculously transformed into a green pasture.

St Magnus Cathedral today

St Magnus Cathedral today

He was subsequently re-buried in a Church at Birsay (on the north west of the Orkney mainland), and a cultus soon developed, accompanied my numerous manifestations of the miraculous. When the Bishop of Orkney, William the Old, who regarded aspects of thr new cultus as frankly heretical, condemned the stories of miraculous cures which were growing up around the shrine, he was himself struck blind, before receiving a miraculous cure of his own after praying at Magnus’s tomb.

Rognvald Kali Kolsson, who was a nephew of Magnus, determined to honour his uncle by building a stone minster at Kirkwall (now St Magnus Cathedral), and the relics of St Magnus were transferred there in 1137.

Magnus has often been venerated as a martyr, even though he died because of local politics (and family feuding) rather than for his faith. In truth, his sanctity consists in the fact that, in the midst of all the casual cruelty of the Dark Age Viking world, he bore witness in his own life to the higher ideals of Christian piety and nobility – a light in the darkness shining even at this most wild and distant edge of Christendom.


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