Name: Magnus Erlendsson
Title: Jarl of Orkney
Death: ABT 1116 in Orkney Is., Scotland (beheaded)
Reference Number: 44570
The story of Magnus Erlendsson - Orkney's Saint Magnus - begins in earnest in 1098 - a time when the Orkney earldom was divided between two brothers, the earls Paul and Erlend.
Magnus was the eldest son of Earl Erlend, while his cousin, Hakon, was the son of Paul.
In 1098, the Norwegian king. Magnus "Barelegs". arrived suddenly in Orkney, where he unseated both earls and made his son, Sigurd, overlord of the islands. Earl Paul and Erlend were instructed to go to Norway, where they both died before winter's end.
With Sigurd in place as ‘king' of Orkney, King Magnus left Orkney on a raiding expedition, making sure he took Hakon and the 18-year-old Magnus with him. Heading down the west coast of Scotland, the raiders travelled as far south as Anglesey.
By the time Magnus reappears in the Orkneyinga Saga, Sigurd Magnusson had returned to Norway to become joint king, leaving Magnus' cousin Hakon in the position of earl.
A few years later, and after making representations to the Norwegian throne, Magnus was granted his share of the earldom. At first there was a good relationship between the two earls, and their reign, from 1105 until 1114, was said to be a just and pleasant one.
However, this "Golden Age" did not last.
The Orkneyinga Saga is not clear on the reason the two earls turned on each other. It simply states that men of "evil disposition" began stirring trouble between Hakon and Magnus.
Hakon, says the saga, was jealous of Magnus’ popularity and therefore "was more disposed to listen to these miserable men".
Whatever their motives, these agitators succeeded in creating enmity between Magnus and Hakon, so much so that they drew up for battle at a "thing" - an assembly - on the Orkney Mainland.
The site of this meeting has been suggested as being Tingwall (from the Old Norse thingvollr - Assembly Field) in the West Mainland parish of Rendall.
But a battle was averted.
Neutral parties managed to persuade the two earls to make peace. A further meeting was arranged to finalise this treaty, with the earls to meet on Egilsay at Easter, each bringing only "two ships and an equal number of men".
At the allotted time, and with the agreed number of men, Magnus set out for Egilsay.
Approaching the island in calm water, says the Saga, a great wave rose up and struck Magnus' ship. This, it recounts, was taken to be an omen of the earl's death.
Magnus was the first to arrive on Egilsay, where he waited for the arrival of his cousin. When, later that day, eight warships came into view it became clear that treachery was afoot.
Hakon and his men landed on Egilsay the following morning. After first ransacking the church, Hakon sought out Magnus, who had:
"gone to another part of the island, to a certain hiding place".
After a search, Magnus was found and captured and brought before an assembly of local chieftains. There, the saga stresses, Magnus was concerned only for the welfare of his deceitful cousin's immortal soul.
Magnus made three suggestions that would save Hakon from breaking his oath by killing an unarmed man. The first, that Magnus would go on a pilgrimage and never return to Orkney, was rejected as was the second, that Magnus be exiled to Scotland and imprisoned.
The final suggestion was that Hakon should:
"have me mutilated in anyway you choose, rather than take my life, or else blind me and lock me in a dungeon"
Hakon deemed this acceptable, but the assembly would not allow it. They leapt to their feet and announced that one of the earls had to die. The chieftains had had their fill of joint-rule in Orkney.
Hakon smugly informed the dissenters that, as he preferred ruling, and was not ready to die, Magnus should be slain. Magnus put forward no argument so "was doomed to death".
Informing his followers that they were not to die defending him, Magnus stepped forward to accept his fate.
With Magnus’ fate sealed, Hakon ordered Ofeig, his standard-bearer, to carry out the killing. But the warrior refused angrily.
Enraged, Hakon turned to his cook, Lifolf, and instructed him to kill Magnus.
Lifolf wept loudly but Magnus spoke comforting words and forgave him for the acts he must carry out:
"Be not afraid, for you do this against your will and he who forces you sins more than you do."
Magnus knelt before Lifolf and asked to be struck hard on the head, rather than beheaded like a common criminal:
"Stand thou before me, and hew on my head a great wound, for it is not seemly to behead chiefs like thieves. Take heart, poor wretch, for I have prayed to God for thee, that He be merciful unto thee."
Lifolf struck the blow and cleaved the Earl's skull in two.
According to the Orkneyinga Saga this act took place "1,091 winters after the birth of Christ" but this date does not tie in with documented events and is definitely incorrect. Magnus was killed many years later - on April 14 in either 1115, 1116 or 1117.
Earl Magnus was buried at Christchurch in Birsay, the church his grandfather, Thorfinn Sigurdsson, had built.
St. Magnus was canonized in 1138
Father: Erlend Thorfinnsson b: ABT 1057