Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney

Saint Magnus, Earl Magnus Erlendsson of Orkney, 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 blotted his record with the Norwegians by refusing to fight on a Viking raid on Anglesey, Wales, because of his religious convictions, instead staying on board 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 II of Norway, who granted him the earldom 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 on 16 April 1115) with his two ships, but then Haakon treacherously turned up with eight ships. Magnus 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. 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", then was struck blind at his church and 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.

In the Faroes, the St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkjubøur was built about 1300 at the time of Bishop Erlendur. It is quite sure that the church was used for services (though it never was finished, or has been destroyed later), for estimated relicts of Saint Magnus were found here in 1905. Kirkjubøur is one of the most important Faroese historical sites and expected to become a World Heritage Site. In total there are 21 churches in Europe dedicated to St Magnus.

Saint Magnus is the subject of the novel "Magnus" by Orcadian author George Mackay Brown, which was published in 1973, and "St Magnus, Earl of Orkney" by John Mooney. There are also two Icelandic sagas of St Magnus's life as well as the account in the Orkneyinga Saga. In addition to this there are several devotional works in Gaelic and Latin about St Magnus. In 1977 Peter Maxwell Davies wrote a one-act opera, The Martyrdom of St. Magnus, based on Mackay Brown's novel.


Orkneyinga Saga, Íslensk fornrit nr. 34, Hið íslenska fornritafélag, Reykjavik, 1965.

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