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Magnús Erlendsson, earl of Orkney [St Magnus]free

  • Barbara E. Crawford

Magnús Erlendsson, earl of Orkney [St Magnus] (1075/6–1116?), patron saint of Orkney, was the son of Erlend Thorfinnsson, earl of Orkney [see under Paul (d. 1098/)], and Thora, daughter of Sumerlidi Ospaksson of Iceland, whose union is the first evidence for close connections between Iceland and the Orkney earldom family. Magnús was thus a relative of the saintly bishop Jon of Holar. He is said to have led a blameless childhood and to have had a good schooling, which enabled him to learn 'holy writings'. While his father, Erlend, and uncle, Paul, got on well together as joint earls of Orkney, their sons became rivals and enemies. Hákon Paulsson [Hákon Pálsson] (d. c. 1126) eventually went into exile in Sweden leaving Erlend and his sons ruling Orkney. It is said in Longer Magnus Saga that Magnús, in his early manhood, kept evil company with viking marauders, participating in their plunder and killings, but his eulogy in Orkneyinga Saga says he was 'hard and unsparing towards robbers and vikings. He put to death the many men who plundered the bonder [farmers] and common people' (Orkneyinga Saga, chap. 45). It is difficult to get any realistic impression of the character of Orkney's national saint through the standard hagiographical descriptions. He was:

a man of extraordinary distinction, tall, with a fine intelligent look about him … a man of strict virtue, successful in war, wise, eloquent, generous and magnanimous, open-handed with money and sound with advice, and altogether the most popular of men.

Orkneyinga Saga, chap. 45

The events that took place during the first major military expedition to the west of Magnús Barelegs, king of Norway, in 1098 were as portentous for Magnús Erlendsson as for his father and uncle, Paul and Erlend, who were deprived of their power and sent to Norway, where they died. Magnús and his brother Erling, along with their cousin Hákon (who, according to Orkneyinga Saga, was responsible for encouraging King Magnús to embark on this conquering expedition) were taken into the king's (hirð'war-band')—Magnús being made cup-bearer—and accompanied the raiding expedition through the Hebrides to north Wales. There, at the battle of Menai Strait against Hugh de Montgomery, earl of Shrewsbury, Magnús acted directly against the interest of his overlord and did not participate in the battle. A key tradition in the later cult depicts him refusing to leave the central ‘room’ in the king's ship, and reading from his psalter he remained there throughout the ensuing battle. He naturally earned the king's displeasure and wisely slipped away from the ship one night, as it was anchored off the Scottish coast. He is said to have spent some years in exile at the court of the Scottish king, with a bishop in Wales (or maybe Cumbria), and with friends in England.

Magnús's absence and the death of his brother Erling left Hákon Paulsson in an advantageous position for claiming his heritage, and he obtained the title of earl and grant of authority over all the earldom from kings Sigurd and Eystein of Norway a year or two after Magnús Barelegs's death on his second expedition west in 1103. Magnús Erlendsson soon after this returned to Orkney and persuaded Hákon to give up half the earldom, which was confirmed to him by a grant from Eystein. The two ruled together for seven years it is said and a poem composed in their honour recorded joint expeditions against troublesome chieftains, one of them in Shetland. Magnús at some point (perhaps when in exile) married a girl 'from the noblest family there in Scotland' (Orkneyinga Saga, chap. 45), but according to the later hagiographical interpretation he succeeded in preserving his chastity for ten years. A much later tradition records his wife's name as Ingarth.

Events leading up to Magnús's death are elaborated in the saga accounts with details of a kind suitable for heightening the tension surrounding the doomed earl's progress towards his martyrdom. Basically the circumstances appear to develop from the usual friction between rival earls who could not agree on a harmonious division of power and lands within the islands. The supporters of the earls are mentioned as being the cause of their quarrels, and also as being concerned to enforce agreements, although surprisingly there is no reference to the role of either the bishop or any other churchmen in the events as recorded. Peace meetings were held, one in Lent at the place of assembly in the mainland (probably Tingwall), and the second at Easter on the island of Egilsay (probably because it was one of the bishop's residences). The themes of foreboding and treachery are skilfully interwoven in the saga account, with Hákon arriving prepared for a military encounter, and with a greater number of ships than had been agreed. There was no fighting, however, and Magnús is presented as the innocent victim, who spent some time in the church on the island before being seized. One saga account implies that he had attempted to hide before giving himself up and making an offer to Hákon—either that he would leave Orkney permanently or even that he be mutilated and imprisoned. As recounted—on the cited authority of the Hebridean Holdbodi, who was one of Magnús's companions—Hákon would have agreed to Magnús's imprisonment, but was forced by his followers to execute him as they insisted that one of the two earls should be killed. '“Better kill him then” said Hakon. “I don't want an early death: I much prefer ruling over people and places”' (Orkneyinga Saga, chap. 49). The martyrdom was therefore something of a judicial execution, the outcome of a peace meeting that probably went wrong, with a vociferous majority of the local chieftains supporting Hákon as sole ruler.

The description of Magnús's killing, by an axe-blow to his head delivered by Lifolf, Earl Hákon's cook, has been dramatically confirmed by the discovery of skeletal material in St Magnus's Cathedral in Kirkwall. The remains of two individuals were found hidden inside two piers, and the skull of one of them (contained within a small wooden cist which was probably the interior of the saint's shrine) bears the marks of a head wound. Initially the murdered earl was buried at Christchurch, Birsay, in the church built by his grandfather, Earl Thorfinn (II) Sigurdson—this was permitted by Earl Hákon only after Magnús's mother, Thora, pleaded with him to allow her to bury her son, as described in one of the most moving passages in the whole of Orkneyinga Saga. The death-day of the murdered earl was 16 April, probably 1116, and it was not long before a cult developed around his memory. The miracles done in his name are recorded in the 'List of miracles' (Jarteinabok) which forms chapter 57 of Orkneyinga Saga, while the pilgrimage undertaken by Hákon 'some years later' (Orkneyinga Saga, chap. 52), to Rome and the Holy Land was probably carried out as penance for the crime. The convincing of Bishop William (d. 1168) and the furthering of Magnús's cult by his nephew Earl Rögnvald [see under Harald Maddadson] were important stages in the establishment of the sanctity of the murdered earl, and after some twenty-one years his remains were enshrined on 13 December 1137, eventually being housed in the new cathedral built at Kirkwall by Earl Rögnvald.

This process can be regarded as having been deliberately manipulated for the advantage of the rival line of the earldom family. But Earl Hákon himself was not disadvantaged by the murder of his cousin, and the compiler of Orkneyinga Saga, or a later reviser, gives a stout defence of Hákon's period of rule, saying that he 'grew to be a fine administrator and brought firm peace to the land, making new laws for Orkney which the farmers found they liked much better than the ones they'd had before' (Orkneyinga Saga, chap. 52).

Hákon's sons, Harald Smooth-Tongue [Haraldr inn Sléttmáli] (d. 1131) and Paul the >Silent [Páll inn Ómálgi] (d. c. 1137), who were apparently the issue of different marriages, took over the earldom when their father died about 1126. Harald died in 1131, according to Orkneyinga Saga by putting on a poisoned shirt which his mother Helga had prepared for Paul. But there was no external threat to Paul's position for some years, and he was remembered as a popular and unwarlike ruler. In 1137, however, Rögnvald, the son of Magnús's sister Gunnhild, came over from Norway to claim Magnús's half of the earldom, and won support through the growing popular belief in the sanctity of his murdered uncle. Paul was captured and deposed, and seems to have died soon afterwards. The establishment of the cult of St Magnus in the islands put the earldom on a level with the Scandinavian kingdoms, each of which had produced a royal saint in the same period, or earlier. The murdered Earl Magnús became venerated throughout Scandinavia, and his fame earned for the earldom's ruling family, and for their cathedral in Kirkwall, the saint's resting-place, much meritorious renown.


  • H. Pálsson and P. Edwards, eds. and trans., The Orkneyinga saga: the history of the earls of Orkney (1978)
  • H. Palsson and P. Edwards, trans., Magnus' saga: the life of St. Magnus, earl of Orkney, 1075–1116 (1987)
  • B. Dickens, ‘St Magnus and his countess’, Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society, 13 (1934–5), 51–2
  • J. Mooney, St Magnus, earl of Orkney (1935)
  • GEC, Peerage, new edn, 10, appx A
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)