PW: St Magnus of Orkney

Today is the feast day of St Magnus of Orkney, the only Viking saint that I know of in early medieval Britain. Unusually, Magnus was an Earl of Orkney, and a well known raider. He came from a family that had ruled Orkney in at least the previous generation. He was a kinsman of the kings of Norway and served in the king’s court as a youth. It is believed that as a young man and perhaps a young earl Magnus participated in all of the usual Viking raiding activities. Magnus was generally esteemed for his piety and Christian behavior.

His most celebrated moment of Christian defiance came one year when the new King of Norway decided that he was going to raid Wales. Magnus disagreed with the king’s reasons and refused to take part in the actual raid. He was compelled to sail to Wales with the king but when it came time to wade ashore, he refused. To prove that he wasn’t afraid of battle, he stood on the prow of his boat and sang the psalms while arrows flew past him and the raid raged around him. After a short exile in Scotland, Magnus regained his earldom.

Life in Orkney was not easy. Magnus was embroiled in a feud with his cousin Haakon who wanted to unite the rule of the isles under himself. Magnus held his own until they decided to meet for a parley when he was betrayed by his cousin in 1115. They had arranged to meet on an island with a set number of supporters but Haakon arrived with double that number and took Magnus prisoner. According to legend the men who accompanied them demanded that only one earl leave the island alive — clearly they had had enough of the feud– so Haakon ordered Magnus to be executed by his cook. To be executed by someone with as low standing as a cook was a final insult to his cousin.

Initially buried where he was killed, his body was moved into a church during the tenure of Haakon upon the pleading of Magnus’ mother. A cult grew around Magnus almost immediately and he was considered by the people of Orkney to be a martyr.

Magnus is certainly someone I would like to know more about. One of these days I need to get around to reading the sagas that mention him. It seems to me that there may be some vague similarities between the veneration of Magnus and Oswald of Northumbria. At the very least neither of them had typical martyrdoms. Indeed, Magnus maybe more similar to Oswine except for the vital bit that Magnus’ family continued to rule Orkney after him. Magnus’ nephew, his sister’s son, appears to have succeeded his cousin as Earl of Orkney and he was the one who built St Magnus Cathedral (and here). Typical hereditary rule does not come into play here as the kings of Norway had a significant say in who was earl, although they seem to be choosing their man from among the same kindred.

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