There is every likelihood that Orkney would be significantly different today had it not been for Magnus Erlendsson, son of Earl Erlend, subsequently sanctified as Saint Magnus and still a central figure in Orcadian culture.
The story is told in the historically reliable Orkneyinga Saga, written in Icelandic around 1250, of how Magnus and his cousin Hakon came to rule jointly over the Orkney earldom on behalf of the Norwegian kingdom from 1105 until 1114. According to the Saga, at this stage the amicable relationship between the two cousins turns to discord as Hakon becomes increasingly jealous of the popularity of Magnus who is described lavishly in Chapter 45 of the Saga thus:
St Magnus, Earl of Orkney, was a man of extraordinary distinction, tall, with a fine, intelligent look about him. He was a man of strict virtue, successful in war, wise, eloquent, generous and magnanimous, open-handed with money and sound with advice, and altogether the most popular of men…
The Saga continues to pour praise upon Magnus so it is of little surprise that Hakon was encouraged by his supporters to be rid of his celebrity kinsman. Norwegian Earls did not die peacefully in their beds – if not in battle, then nearly all were slain variously by their uncle, brother, cousin, son or other claimant upon their earldom.
After growing unrest the two cousins were persuaded by ‘men of goodwill’ to meet to discuss peace terms on the off-lying island of Eglisay, after Easter in the year 1116, 1117 or 1118 (the exact date, April 14th, is known but not the precise year). Each party was to bring two ships and an equal number of men. When Magnus saw Hakon approaching with eight warships he knew to expect treachery and ordered his men not to defend him, saying, “I am not risking your lives to save my own, and if there is to be no peace between me and my kinsman, then things must go according to the will of God.”
The next morning Magnus went to the church on Eglisay and prayed devoutly before going to another spot to continue his prayer. Haakon and his men arrived and confronted Magnus. Hakon’s chieftains were tired of the joint rulership and declared that one of them must die. Magnus offered no defence. Hakon ordered his standard-bearer Ofeig to behead Magnus, but he refused. Hakon next ordered his cook, Lifolf, to perform the execution but he wavered until Magnus comforted him. Magnus then said, “Stand right in front of me and strike me a hard blow on the head. It’s unfitting for a chieftain to be beheaded like a thief. Take heart, poor fellow, and don’t be afraid. I’ve prayed God to grant you his mercy.”
Lifolf delivered the blow as instructed and cleaved Magnus’s skull. Magnus was initially buried where he fell, but Hakon later accepted the plea of Magnus’s mother, Thora, to afford her son a Christian burial. His body was thus exhumed and buried at the church of Christchurch in Birsay on Orkney Mainland. The exact location of Christchurch is uncertain but is likely to underpin the foundations of the present-day St Magnus Kirk in Birsay. Christchurch was built by Magnus’s grandfather Earl Thorfinn around 1064. Birsay, in the far north-west of Orkney Mainland, was then the effective capital of Orkney whereas today it is a small rural community.
The Saga records that the place on Eglisay where Magnus was executed was rocky and overgrown with moss, but soon afterwards the spot turned into a fair meadow. The Saga then recounts the many apparitions and miraculous healings associated with Magnus’s grave. Several years later in 1135 William the Old, Bishop of Orkney, personally experienced a series of miraculous events and visions as a result of which he sanctified Magnus’s remains. Soon afterwards he was persuaded to transfer Saint Magnus’s relics to St Olaf’s Kirk on the shore of the then small market town of Kirkwall and the bishop led a great procession there from Birsay. Earl Rognvald, nephew of Saint Magnus, then came to power and in 1137 he founded the great cathedral in Kirkwall, after which he had the holy relics of Saint Magnus transferred to it where many more miracles were recorded.
Centuries later, in March 1919, a wooden box containing a skull and bones was found in a pillar during renovation work at St Magnus Cathedral.
The contents were examined and declared in 1925 to be indeed the remains of Magnus Earlsson based upon the injurious damage evident to the skull. The bones were subsequently reinterred and a cross marks their place in the pillar. Debate about the identity of these bones continues to this day, although most of the arguments against are based upon the absence of a precise correlation between the injuries to the skull and the description of Magnus’s execution by Lifolf as recorded in the Saga. Although valuable as a general historical record, in my view the Saga can hardly be relied upon to give a forensically accurate account of events that happened in a distant field over 130 years earlier.
Lending some weight to the case for these being the remains of Saint Magnus is the fact that the remains of Earl Rognvald are interred in a matching pillar on the opposite side of the cathedral nave. Intriguingly, Rognvald died in battle and it is recorded that he lost his jaw in the process. Rognvald’s remains do include a jaw bone; unfortunately it is not his own!
A ‘cenotaph’ was erected in 1937 to commemorate the spot where Magnus was murdered on Eglisay. Although some naturally dispute the location, there is no doubt it looks like a fertile spot in an otherwise rough field, occasionally attended by a grass cutter no doubt.
If ever there was a topic for a future post it is St Magnus Cathedral, as there is so much to say about this magnificent building which belongs not to “The Church”, but to the people of Orkney.