In 2017 Orkney will mark the 900th anniversary of the death of St Magnus. Between April and December people from Orkney and beyond will come together through a durational programme of activity to celebrate the life of St Magnus. The anniversary will play host to a number of one-off projects, whilst many of Orkney’s best known festivals will be curating special activity and events linked with the St Magnus story. This website will bring all of this together in one place so that you can find out what’s going on and how to get involved. The website will be regularly updated as projects are developed so please check for the latest information.
Who was St Magnus?
Born in 1080, Magnus Erlendsson was Earl of Orkney from rougly 1106 to 1117. Magnus was the second son of Erlend Thorfinnsson, who ruled Orkney with his brother Paul. In 1098, King Magnus Barelegs of Norway took possession of the islands and deposed Erlend and Paul, installing his illegitimate son, Sigurd as ruler.
From Orkney, King Magnus Barelegs set out on raiding expeditions, taking Magnus Erlendsson and Paul’s son, Haakon with him. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Magnus had a reputation for piety and gentleness. He refused to fight in a Viking raid in Anglesey, Wales, because of his religious convictions, and instead stayed on board the ship singing psalms.
In 1105 he returned to Orkney, ruling jointly and amicably with Haakon until 1114. It is unclear why the cousins fell out, but later, the two sides met at an 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 at Easter, each bringing only two ships and the same number of men.
Magnus arrived with his two ships however Haakon treacherously arrived with eight. Magnus took refuge in the island’s church overnight but was captured the following day. An assembly of chieftains, tired of joint rule, 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.
He was buried on the spot where he died and according to legend, the rocky area around his grave miraculously became a green field. Later Thora, Magnus’ mother, asked Haakon to allow her give her son a proper burial. Haakon gave his permission and Magnus’ bones were ceremonially carried to Birsay and buried in the Bishops Church. It was here, at his grave, that numerous reports of miracles and healings first took place. His sanctity was established and he was made a saint.
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 1919 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.