Norse history is littered with kings, earls, murder, blood feuds and complicated claims to thrones and lesser titles. In amongst this confusion of succession lies a year of drama in Orkney, which resulted in the martyrdom of one of its earls. A year when the joint rule by Earl Hakon and Earl Magnus came to a violent end.
We are told the detail of the events that took place almost a thousand years ago, in the Norse sagas. In this case, it is the Orkneyinga Saga, or the history of the Earldom of Orkney, which covers 350 years of Norwegian rule in the islands and which was written contemporarily, often with the help of skalds or song-makers. The veracity of the sagas may be questioned by some academics, but the martyrdom of Magnus has also passed from generation to generation by Orcadian storytellers. And of course place names, such as St Magnus Kirk1 and St Magnus Cathedral, date from Norse rule and reflect the history. We can be fairly sure that an earl called Magnus did indeed die on Egilsay as a result of a power struggle. The saga gives us a great story, whatever the actual truth of the matter.
Orkney was ruled for most of its history by Norway. It occupied a crucial position off the north coast of Scotland for the Norwegian ships that harried England, Ireland and Wales from the 9th to the 12th Centuries2.
What did it take to be a successful Earl of Orkney? Fearless leadership in battle for certain; martial honour above all other; ruthless decisiveness; and a glorious death to end it all. It is therefore a surprise that the earl who is remembered with most reverence and most glory, was a man who walked a very different path.
Hakon and Magnus before Earldom
Hakon and Magnus grew up in Orkney. Their fathers, brothers Paul and Erlend, were joint Earls of Orkney: each ruling half of the islands. It was a period of peace and prosperity. Hakon developed into a proud fighter and warrior. Magnus preferred books to fighting and turned to the church for his strength.
Upon the death of their fathers, the Earldom passed to Sigurd, the son of King Magnus of Norway. During this time Hakon accompanied the King on various expeditions down the west coast of Britain and lived up to his reputation as a fierce and fearless warrior.
Magnus joined the king on one expedition and refused to fight against English noblemen with whom he said he had no quarrel. Rather than join battle, he sang psalms and prayed. He was no coward, but did not believe in fighting for its own sake. The king's wrath was incurred and Magnus fled into Scotland. He only reappears in the sagas after the king's death.
Joint Rule of the Earldom of Orkney
When King Magnus died, Sigurd succeeded to the Norwegian throne and Hakon was given the Earldom of Orkney.
Hakon ruled alone for a while3, until Magnus arrived from Scotland and claimed possession of his patrimony, with the blessing of the new King. Hakon initially refused to give up any of Orkney, but as the local noblemen wouldn't fight Magnus, he had to cede half of the islands. They ruled as their fathers had done.
Hakon and Magnus ruled Orkney in harmony for seven years; defending their Earldom from invaders and marauders with success. They appeared to have had a good understanding and Orkney flourished under their joint rule.
It seems that Magnus was the more popular of the cousins. The Orkneyinga Saga tells of a blameless life, a wise man, eloquent, strong-minded, magnanimous, and more beloved than any other man. He was generous to the deserving but severe with robbers and raiders. He punished rich and poor impartially for wrong-doing. His justice was fair and consistent. To cap it all, he was God-fearing. He married a Scots girl and lived with her for ten years without touching her, to honour a bond between him and God. When he was tempted to break his bond, he plunged into a tub of freezing water and prayed for divine guidance.
Hakon became increasingly jealous of Magnus' popularity, fuelled at least in part by men of evil dispositions, Sigurd and Sighwat Sokki, who spread inflammatory rumours in the courts of both Earls. It resulted in Hakon and Magnus both taking troops to the regular meeting of Orkney noblemen on the Mainland. Battle was only averted by the intervention of noblemen who, as friends of both earls, managed to broker a truce.
To seal the bond of their reconciliation and continued cooperation, Hakon and Magnus arranged to meet on the island of Egilsay. They agreed to take only two ships each and few men. Magnus stuck to this arrangement and was on the island, praying, when Hakon arrived with eight ships and men armed to the teeth. His intent was clear.
It is recorded that Magnus had no concern for his own life, but wanted to save his cousin from the consequences of a shocking crime. He offered to leave on pilgrimage, never to return to Orkney. Hakon refused. He offered to submit to imprisonment in Scotland. Hakon refused. Finally he said Let me be maimed as you like, or deprived of my eyes, and throw me into a dark dungeon. Hakon was set to accept this offer, but his noblemen objected, saying that one or other of the Earls had to die that day. Hakon replied he would rather rule than die. Magnus' fate was sealed.
In one more twist to the story, Hakon ordered his standard bearer to kill Magnus. He refused, knowing that the killer of such a popular man would be an outcast in Orkney. It was to his cook, Lifolf, that Hakon turned, knowing that he would not dare refuse the order. As Lifolf wept, Magnus prayed for him, forgave him, then prayed for the souls of his enemies, Earl Hakon included. Lifolf took up his axe and brought it down on Magnus' forehead.
What Happened Next
The place where Earl Magnus was slain had been rocks and moss, but after his death, grass grew strongly, indicating to the saga-writer that it was the death of a holy and righteous man. Hakon permitted the body to be buried in the church on the Brough of Birsay, which had been built by their Grandfather, Thorfinn. Soon after the burial a holy light was seen above the church and the sick were cured when they prayed at the grave. Pilgrimages started from all over Orkney.
Earl Hakon took over the rule of all of Orkney and extracted huge fines from those who had been loyal to Magnus. After a while, he made a pilgrimage to Rome and perhaps he saw the error of his ways, because against all the odds, he returned to Orkney to become a just and popular ruler, much lamented when he died, many years later.
The cult of Magnus spread well beyond Orkney's shores. He died on April 16th 1117 and that day is kept as the day of his martyrdom. In the 12th Century saints could be chosen by popular acclaim; the canonisation process did not need a process at Rome. By 1136 he was a saint, authorised by the Bishop of Orkney. In 1137 the building of St Magnus Cathedral, which stands in the centre of Kirkwall today, was started by Earl Rognvald, Magnus' nephew. It was erected with the express purpose of receiving the relics of St Magnus, which were transferred there when it was ready for use.
There was no firm evidence that the bones of St Magnus really did reside in St Magnus Cathedral until 1919, when extensive cathedral renovation was going on. Some loose stones were removed from a pillar, with the intention of re-mortaring them. Within a cavity behind these stones there was a box containing most of a human skeleton. The state of the skull conformed with the story in the sagas about St Magnus' death wound to the head. St Magnus' relics had been found. They were replaced and the stones fixed back in place.
The relics of St Magnus still lie in his cathedral. The place is marked by a small plaque. The cathedral is a beautiful building of red sandstone with a copper roof. It stands proudly above the skyline of Kirkwall.
The church on the Brough of Birsay, where St Magnus was first buried and where the miracles occurred, is now a ruin, but continues to be a place of pilgrimage. It lies at the base of the slope of the Brough, facing towards the Orkney Mainland, windswept and isolated.
Brown, George Mackay Magnus The Hogarth Press 1973
Brown, George Mackay Portrait of Orkney John Murray Publishers Ltd. 1981
Sutherland D. R. Saint Magnus In Orkney Stories, Matthew Gloag and Son Ltd 1995
The Orkneyinga Saga Edmondstone and Douglas 1873