The story of St Magnus is well known, especially after the recent 900th anniversary of his martydrom. Fr Stuart Chalmers reflects on the story of the patron saint of Orkney.
“Nobilis humilis, Magne, martyr stabilis” “Oh noble, humble and steadfast martyr Magnus…” So begins the 12th century hymn to St Magnus, Earl and martyr of Orkney, who died on Easter Sunday, 16 April 1117, in the pursuit of peace, following his faith and his love of Christ to the last.
Magnus Erlendsson was the first son of Erlend Thorfinnson, Earl of Orkney and Thora, a daughter of Sumarlidi Ospaksson. Magnus’ father was a twin, which was the root of the problem that would eventually lead to the civil war which Magnus sought to bring to an end. Erlend and his brother Paul ruled jointly as Earls of Orkney and remained on friendly terms until their children grew to adulthood, owing to the rivalry between Paul’s son Haakon and Erlend’s other son, Erling. Both Haakon and Erling were talented men, but were described in the Magnus Saga of 1200 as quarrelsome and arrogant. Magnus, on the other hand, was “a quiet sort of man”. Haakon considered himself to be the most highly-born of the cousins and so wanted to be seen as the foremost among his kin. Erling refused to accept this, and while the fathers sought to reach a settlement, it was clear they were still biased towards their own sons, and so eventually the earldom was divided into two distinct territories.
When Haakon left on a long journey to Scandinavia, staying for some time with Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, peace reigned in Orkney, as Haakon’s father, Paul, had largely handed over control to Earl Erlend and his sons. In this atmosphere of peace, the people were not keen on Haakon returning. Faced with such antipathy, Haakon asked King Magnus for help to obtain the earldom for himself. King Magnus agreed, but tricked him by using the campaign of 1098 as an opportunity to take back possession of the Orkney for himself, to his own ends. He deposed both Erlend and Paul and sent them to Norway as prisoners and instead of making Haakon Earl, he took Haakon, Magnus and Erling as hostages to serve him, and appointed Sigurd, his eight-year-old son as nominal earl. Sigurd’s rule was aided by a council, with Haakon as a member of this group.
King Magnus then set out on a raiding expedition along the west coast of Scotland and into the Irish Sea. Magnus was brought along with his cousins, but he refused to fight the Welsh in the Viking raid on Anglesey, “because he had no quarrel with any man there,” and in keeping with his reputation for piety and gentleness, he stayed on board the ship during the Battle of Menai Straits, singing psalms. The Norwegians viewed his piety as cowardice, but it was a sign of his true courage and great trust in God to remain at prayer in the midst of the battle. His brother Erling died while campaigning with King Magnus.
Magnus was then forced to take refuge in Scotland, but returned to Orkney in 1105, when he was granted the earldom and he ruled Orkney jointly in peace with his cousin Haakon until 1114. However, eventually the followers of the two earls fell out and the two sides were ready to do battle, but peace was negotiated and on the condition that the two Earls would meet instead on the Island of Egilsay at Easter, each bringing only two ships. Magnus kept his side of the bargain, but Haakon arrived with his protection which filled eight ships. Magnus stayed in the church overnight, but was captured in the morning and to bring peace, he offered to go into exile or prison. However, the chieftains were tired of joint rule and they demanded that one earl must die. Haakon gave the command to Ofeigr, his standard bearer to execute Magnus, but he refused. In the end, Haakon made his cook Lifolf kill Magnus by striking him on the head with an axe. Magnus prayed for his executioners before he died.
Magnus was first buried where he died. According to his legend, the rocky area around his grave miraculously became a green field. Later, Haakon granted the wish of Thora, Magnus’ mother, that he be buried in a church, and Magnus’ body was transferred to Christchurch at Birsay. The death of Magnus also had a powerful effect on heart of his brutal cousin Haakon. In time, he went on pilgrimage to Rome, seeking absolution from his sin from the Pope, and the went on to the Holy Land, plunging himself in the River Jordan. When he returned, he built a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Orphir and ruled justly. As the Saga says, “he grew to be a fine administrator and brought firm peace to the land.”
Following numerous reports of miraculous healings, including the Bishop of Orkney recovering his sight after praying at the grave of the martyr, Magnus was declared a saint and a church named after him was built on the site of his martyrdom. Later, when St Magnus’ nephew, Rognvald Kolsson was made Earl of Orkney, he called for the building of a “stone minster at Kirkwall” in memory of his uncle. This magnificent building, dating from 1137 became St Magnus Cathedral, which stands to this day, and when the cathedral was ready for dedication, the relics of St Magnus were transferred there. In 1919, the relics of a damaged skull and bones were discovered inside a column of the church, and they remain there marked by a simple cross on the column.
During a pilgrimage to mark the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Magnus, the pilgrims visited Egilsay and Birsay and reflected on the life and impact of Magnus, ending their spiritual journey with a Mass in St Magnus Cathedral. The celebration built upon a growing interest in Orkney’s saint, who has inspired much creativity in the island, including literary works by George Mackay Brown and music by Peter Maxwell Davie and Clive Strutt. Magnus died as a martyr for peace, and in his death he brought forth a harvest of change in his surroundings, healing the people of hatred and division. His example of self-sacrifice, peace and firm faith is a lesson that can teach every generation, but it is a great lesson and guide to us now, in a time when the world struggles with so much conflict.
George Mackay Brown’s novel Magnus concludes with a description of the healing of an old blind woman at the shore of Birsay, near the church where Magus lay, as the monks chant a litany of saints:
“The old one got to her feet. She turned her glimmering face this way and that. Her finger pointed at the incoming ocean… A plover. A teeock. Jock dropped his half-sucked chicken bone into the sand. It’s a lark, Mary. That’s what I said, a lark. I know a lark when I see one… What’s this scarecrow in front of me? It’s me you’re looking at, Mary. […] Jock stood up at the murmurous church. He crossed himself. His lips moved. […] Saint Columba of the islands, pray for us. Jock kicked out the fire. He shouted up at the kirk. Saint Magnus the Martyr, pray for us… Jock the tinker said it before any of you.
May we make Jock’s prayer our own: Saint Magnus the Martyr, pray for us!
Fr Stuart Chalmers is currently the Spiritual Director at the Royal Scots College in Salamanca. A priest of the Diocese of Aberdeen, he had been the Vicar General until his appointment to the Royal Scots College.
Fr Chalmers studied an the Pontifical Scots College from 1990 until 1997 and after time in Inverness, Stonehaven and Aberdeen, returned to Rome to study for his PhD in moral theology.