Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Statue of St. Magnus on the wall of Nidaros Cathedral

Saint Magnus, Earl Magnus Erlendsson of Orkney, sometimes known as Magnus the Martyr, was the first Earl of Orkney to bear that name, and ruled from 1108 to about 1115. His story is told in two sagas, Magnus' saga the shorter and longer and one legend, Legenda de sancto Magno.

Magnus's grandparents Earl Thorfinn and his wife Ingibiorg Finnsdottir had two sons, Erlend and Paul, who were twins. Through Ingibiorg's father Finn Arnesson and his wife, the family was related to the Norwegian Kings Olav II and Harald II.

Born in 1075, Magnus was the son of Erlend Thorfinnsson, Earl of Orkney, and he first served Magnus III of Norway as skutilsvein (approx. Chamberlain), who took possession of the islands in 1098, deposing Erlend and his brother, Paul. Paul's son, Haakon Paulsson, then became regent on behalf of the Norwegian prince, Sigurd, who made Haakon earl in 1105.

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Magnus had a reputation for piety and gentleness, and was rejected by the Norwegians, refusing to fight in a Viking raid on Anglesey, Wales, because of his religious convictions, instead staying on board his ships during the Battle of Menai Strait, singing psalms. He was obliged to take refuge in Scotland, but returned to Orkney in 1105 and disputed the succession with his cousin Haakon.

Having failed to reach an agreement, he sought help from King Eystein I of Norway, who granted him the earldom of Orkney and he ruled jointly and amicably with Haakon until 1114.

Their followers fell out, and the two sides met at the Thing (assembly) on the Orkney mainland, ready to do battle. Peace was negotiated and the Earls arranged to meet each other on the island of Egilsay, each bringing only two ships. Magnus arrived with his two ships, but then Haakon treacherously turned up with eight ships.

Magnus took refuge in the island's church overnight, but the following day he was captured and offered to go into exile or prison, but an assembly of chieftains insisted that one earl must die. Haakon's standard bearer, Ofeigr, refused to execute Magnus, and an angry Haakon made his cook Lifolf kill Magnus by striking him on the head with an axe. It was said that Magnus first prayed for the souls of his executioners.

According to the sagas, the martyrdom took place after Easter, on April 16. The year is often given as 1115, but this is impossible: 16 April fell before Easter that year.

Magnus was first buried on the spot he died. According to his legend, the rocky area around his grave miraculously became a green field. Later Thora, Magnus' mother asked Haakon allow her to bury him in a Church. Haakon gave his permission and Magnus was then buried at Christchurch at Birsay.

There were numerous reports of miraculous happenings and healings. William the Old, Bishop of Orkney, warned that it was "heresy to go about with such tales" and was then struck blind at his church but subsequently had his sight restored after praying at the grave of Magnus, not long after visiting Norway (and perhaps meeting Earl Rognvald Kolsson).

Magnus's nephew, Rognvald Kali Kolsson, laid claim to the Earldom of Orkney, and was advised by his father Kol to promise the islanders to "build a stone minster at Kirkwall" in memory of his uncle the Holy Earl, and this became St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. When the cathedral begun in 1137 was ready for consecration the relics of St Magnus were transferred, and in 1917 a hidden cavity was found in a column, containing a box with bones including a damaged skull. These are held without (much) doubt to be the relics of St Magnus.

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