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St. Magnus of Orkney (c. 1117)

St. Magnus was the Earl of Orkney in Scotland and related to the royal house of Norway, which exercised sovereignty over the Orkney Islands in that day. The story of St. Magnus' life and martyrdom are well attested. Three Icelanding sagas tell his story, the most famous being the Orkneyinga saga. His life is also recounted in two Latin accounts. Magnus was born around 1080. He was the son of Erlend Thorfinnson, Earl of Orkney. Erlend held the earldom of Orkney under the Norse crown, but was practically independent. Magnus' father and uncle had been among the Norse invaders of England under Harald Hadrada in 1066. In 1098 King Magnus III of Norway came and deposed St. Magnus' father, taking personal possession of the Orkneys and installing his illegitimate son as ruler. St. Magnus entered the service of King Magnus III and served as his personal chamberlain.

St. Magnus had a disposition for piety and gentleness. The warriors of King Magnus' retinue mistook this for weakness and harassed him. At this time, many Norse were still pagans or only Christians in a very nominal sense. He was present in 1098 for the Battle of Angelsey Sound in Wales but refused to take part in what essentially was a Viking raid, preferring instead to stay on the ship and sing Psalms. This disgraced him with the king's retinue and he was obliged to take refuge in Scotland.

St. Magnus returned to Orkney in 1105 to dispute an inheritance issue with his cousin, Haakon. The dispute could not be resolved, and St. Magnus appealed to the new king, Eystein I of Norway. King Eystein made St. Magnus and Haakon joint earls of Orkney in 1114, an arrangement which was obviously doomed to failure. The two sides almost came to blows, but it was agreed that the earls would meet on the island of Egilsay on Easter to work out their differences. Each earl was to bring only two ships. St. Magnus, being good natured and honest, showed up with the requisite two ships. Haakon, however, treacherously brought eight ships full of armed followers.

Magnus took refuge in the island church overnight, praying to God and preparing his soul for whatever lay before him. In the morning he was dragged out of the church by the chieftains loyal to Haakon. St. Magnus offered to go into exile or imprisonment, but the chieftains demanded that one of the earls must die. However, Haakon could find none of his chiefs willing to strike the fatal blow, as it was clear St. Magnus was innocent of any wrongdoing, his only crime consisting in being born with a title to the earldom that Haakon coveted.

In the end, Haakon made his cook deliver the lethal blow. Before death, St. Magnus prayed for his captors and implored God's to forgive them. He was killed with a single blow to the head from an axe the day after Easter, 1117.

St. Magnus was hastily buried in the field where he was executed. According to legend, the rocky area around his grave miraculously became a green field. Magnus' mother Thora was later given permission to have St. Magnus interred at Christchurch in Birsay on Orkney's mainland. A church was later constructed on the spot where he was killed on Egilsay (shown in the photo at the top of this article).

Tale of Magnus' sanctity soon spread about, as well as tales of miracles. William the Old, bishop of Orkney in the 12th century, allegedly spoke condescendingly about miracles attributed to Magnus and was subsequently struck blind until receiving his sight again after praying at St. Magnus' tomb. Not long after, Bishop William authorized the cult of Magnus on the island at constructed the church of St. Magnus near the site of the murder. A cathedral to St. Magnus was constructed shortly thereafter, which became the final repository of his relics. A renovation of the cathedral in 1919 uncovered a box with the skull of St. Magnus within.

Since his death, St. Magnus has been venerated as a martyr, but his status as a martyr has been questioned. Magnus' canonization was done locally, prior to the institution of canonical procedures by Pope Alexander III. It is difficult to see in what sense St. Magnus was a martyr. The occasion of the hostility of Haakon was not the practice of the faith or the defense of a particular virtue, but in a dispute over the rightful possession of the earldom of Orkney. Magnus certainly was pious and saintly, even praying for his persecutors before his execution, but it is hard to see how his death itself was a martyrdom in the proper sense. We should keep in mind that while the Church has adopted the episcopal canonization of Magnus, his title of "martyr" is more an exercise of popular piety than a strict theological title.

The feast day of St. Magnus is also interesting. In the Orkney's his feast day is celebrated on April 16th, the date of his death. It is known as Mansemass and attended with considerable public festivities. But has become more of a popular commemoration than a liturgical one; it is often not celebrated liturgically because it frequently coincides with Easter, Holy Week, or the Easter Octave. In Denmark, where devotion to St. Magnus was very strong, there was an alternate feast day of August 19th. How this date got fixed was due to a confusion between St. Magnus of Orkney and Magnus of Milan. It happened that there was another and earlier St Magnus – an Italian martyr from Milan – who had long occupied August 19 in the calendar of saints. So, for no better reason than the coincidence of their names, our saintly Earl took over his Italian counterpart’s spot on the Danish calendar.