Magnus’s grandfather was Thorfinn Sigurdsson, also known as Thorfinn the Mighty and Earl Thorfinn. He had twin sons, Erlend and Paul, who after Thorfinn’s death went on to serve as joint Earls of Orkney. In 1098, King Magnus Barelegs of Norway took possession of Orkney and replaced Erlend and Paul as earls with his illegitimate son Sigurd. Later that same year Magnus and his cousin Håkon accompanied King Magnus Barelegs on a Viking raid on Anglesey in Wales. Håkon appears to have acquitted himself well during the Battle of Anglesey Sound, but Magnus, by now a man of considerable piety, refused to fight and was judged to be a coward by the Norwegian king. As a result, Magnus had to take refuge in mainland Scotland. He returned to Orkney in 1105, where his cousin Håkon had been appointed Earl of Orkney. An appeal to King Eystein I of Norway, who had succeeded Magnus Barelegs in 1103, saw Magnus appointed as joint Earl of Orkney alongside his cousin Håkon. Things seem to have gone well until 1116, when the supporters of the two cousins fell out. The two sides met at the Thing (assembly) and it was agreed that in order to avoid all-out civil war the two earls would meet each other on the island of Egilsay after Easter, each bringing only two ships of supporters. The two sides would fight it out, and the winner would become the sole Earl of Orkney. Magnus duly arrived on Egilsay with two ships, only for Håkon then to turn up with eight ships full of warriors prepared to support his cause. Magnus hid on the island overnight, but the following day was captured by Håkon’s men. Magnus offered to accept exile or prison, but Håkon’s supporters wanted to ensure that there was no chance he would ever return to challenge Håkon again. It was decided that Magnus should be killed. Håkon’s standard bearer, Ofeigr, refused to execute Magnus, and Håkon made his cook Lifolf kill Magnus by striking him on the head with an axe, though only after Magnus had prayed for the souls of his executioners. Magnus was buried where he had been killed. The place then miraculously turned into a green field. Magnus was subsequently reburied at Christchurch at Birsay, on Orkney’s mainland, built by his grandfather Thorfinn. This has since been replaced by St Magnus Church. More miracles followed and a cult soon began to grow. In 1136 Bishop William of Orkney sanctified Earl Magnus, making him Saint Magnus. It is likely that St Magnus Church on Egilsay was built at this time near the site of the murder, probably as a replacement for an earlier church. Magnus’s nephew, Rognvald, became Earl of Orkney in 1137 and promised to build “a stone minster at Kirkwall” in memory of Saint Magnus. The original church comprised the choir of today’s St Magnus Cathedral, and on its completion St Magnus’s remains were brought from Birsay and interred in a column. After his death and subsequent sainthood, St Rognvald was also interred in the cathedral. During extensive restoration work in 1919 a skeleton was found behind stonework whose skull carried a wound consistent with the axe-blow said to have killed Magnus. Rognvald’s bones had been found and re-interred during earlier work on the building in the 1800s.
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. [Luke 23:46]
“Saint Magnus, pray for us” is the concluding line of George Mackay Brown’s autobiography For the Islands I Sing. Geographically, those islands are the archipelago that make up Orkney, where Magnus is an honoured part of their history. But he belongs also to the wider Norse commonwealth (his statue stands at Nidaros cathedral in Trondheim, Norway.) Born, it is believed in 1080, he came from a noble family – his grandparents were Earl Thorfinn and Ingibjiorg Finnsdottir and, through them, they were related to Norwegian kings. His fame and saintly status rely in measure on his martyrdom, the miracles that followed and the foundation of the cathedral that bears his name by Rognvald, set in the centre of Kirkwall.
Earl Magnus took off his tunic and gave it to Lilof [his reluctant executioner]…He prostrated himself on the ground, committing his soul to God and offering himself as a sacrifice. He prayed not only for himself and his friends, but for his enemies and murderers, forgiving them with all his heart for their crimes against him. He confessed his own sins before God, praying that his soul might be washed clean by the spilling of his blood, then placed it in God’s hands [asking that] he might be greeted by God’s angels and carried by them into the peace of paradise…He crossed himself and stooped to receive the blow. So his soul passed away to Heaven. [Orkneyinga Saga c.50]
St Magnus offered his transient power and riches in this world for the glory of God’s kingdom, not for himself only but on behalf of the people of Orkney and the north, and of all people everywhere: So we now offer thankfully the fruits of our various labour.
St Magnus Prayer in Ron Ferguson: George Mackay Brown. The Wound and the Gift
The Rev’d Dr Jack Dyce is Emeritus Professor of Nordic Theology at the Scottish College and a member of Port Glasgow URC