The Life Of St. Magnus And His Supernatural Revenge


Around 1098, the Norwegian crown placed Orkney under direct royal control, but Hakon Paulsson, the son of a formal jarl of the region, was appointed to govern Orkney within a year or two after Sigurd the Crusader became king of Norway in 1103. Jarl Hakon Paulsson was portrayed as a willing retainer of the Norwegian kings in the Orkneyinga saga. Yet, Hakon had a cousin called Magnus Erlendsson who was less enthusiastic about being ordered around. Instead of behaving like Hakon Paulsson and serving his Norwegian liege, Magnus Erlendsson fled to Scotland and found shelter with King Edgar (r. 1097-1107). Magnus’ stay in Scotland, however, was only temporary and he decided to return home not long after Jarl Hakon Paulsson was appointed as jarl of Orkney.

Like Hakon, Magnus Erlendsson’s father was also a former jarl of the islands and he intended to press his claim. Multiple jarls coexisting in Orkney was nothing new—according to the Orkneyinga saga, the practice of dividing the governance of Orkney into halves and thirds was at least a century old by that time. When Magnus Erlendsson arrived in Orkney, he had powerful friends that flocked to back his claim, and the island population seemed accepting to the idea of a second jarl. Hakon Paulsson was undoubtedly less than enthusiastic about sharing power with his cousin, but he was convinced to accept the Norwegian crown’s decision on whether Magnus Erlendsson should become a jarl. The claimant sailed to Norway around 1107 and, to Hakon’s disappointment, Magnus Erlendsson was recognized as a rightful jarl of Orkney.

As Jarl Magnus was later considered a saint, it is not surprising that he was described as a tremendously virtuous man. He reportedly avoided war at all cost—his self-imposed exile to Scotland was allegedly done so that he would not be forced to go on Viking raids with his liege. Yet, when it came to upholding law, Jarl Magnus was a staunch defender of the people, going to great lengths to hunt down thieves and murderers. He strove to help the poor and was never stingy with his wealth. As for Magnus’ personal life, he married a Scottish noblewoman, but he publicly behaved with such purity and restraint that the people of Orkney swore that he remained chaste during the entirety of the marriage.

After several years of joint rule, Jarl Hakon and Jarl Magnus found that they no longer could coexist. For unknown reasons, the faction of Hakon Paulsson began a civil war against the supporters of Magnus Erlendsson. Both sides eventually agreed to a peace meeting on Egilsay, which was set to occur just after Easter. Both jarls agreed to arrive on the island with only two ships. Magnus Erlendsson followed the prearranged agreement to the letter, sailing with a pair of ships and a limited amount of guards. Jarl Hakon, however, arrived with eight ships and captured Magnus without a fight. With his rival in his grasp, Hakon showed no mercy and ordered that Magnus be executed. According to legend, Hakon had a difficult time forcing his soldiers to carry out the order against such a virtuous man—one executioner was said to have refused the job outright and the replacement headsman allegedly began to cry as he prepared for his task. Nevertheless, Jarl Magnus, himself, was said to have consoled the executioner, forgave him for his sin, and encouraged him to swing true. In 1117, apparently with soldiers singing hymns in the background, Jarl Magnus Erlendsson was executed and Hakon seized the whole of Orkney. After the deed was done, Jarl Magnus’ body was brought to Mainland, Orkney, and entombed at Christ Church.

Magnus was proclaimed a saint in Orkney before the end of the century. Interestingly, although he had been a very peaceful man during life, the tales of St. Magnus’ postmortem miracles became quite vengeful, especially against anyone who mistreated him during life or neglected his shrine and relics after his death. Here are several accounts of St. Magnus’ supernatural payback that are mentioned in the Orkneyinga saga:

1) Although St. Magnus had forgiven his executioners during life, he apparently changed his mind after his death. According to the Orkneyinga saga, “the story goes that in general the men most deeply involved in the betrayal of the Holy Jarl Magnus died cruel and violent deaths” (chapter 52). Jarl Hakon Paulsson, however, must have been forgiven by St. Magnus, for he lived a long life and died of natural causes in his bed.

2) On another occasion, the spirit of St. Magnus apparently believed that his body was not being properly venerated and was disappointed that none of his relics had been displayed in the church. Therefore, Bishop William of Orkney was said to have been supernaturally stricken with blindness and he only regained his sight after swearing that he would prepare relics of Saint Magnus and place them in a prominent location in the sanctuary. St. Magnus even supposedly helped out the churchmen as they excavated his body: “When they started digging they found that the coffin had already almost reached the surface” (Orkneyinga saga, chapter 57). With the remains exhumed, Bishop William picked the choicest relics and placed them with honor above the altar in Christ Church.

3) A certain man of Shetland named Thord Dragon-Jaw reportedly refused to stop working on the day of St. Magnus’ Mass. When the over-achiever stopped for a while to have a drink, he went completely insane. Thord’s employer, Bergfinn, was convinced that the madness was St. Magnus’ doing. Therefore, dutiful Bergfinn donated silver to the shrine of St. Magnus on Thord’s behalf and also held a three-night vigil for his crazed employee. Eventually, the silver and vigils placated St. Magnus and Thord was cured after six or more days of insanity.

4) Another Shetlander named Sigrid made the same mistake as Thord Dragon-Jaw and St. Magnus once again retaliated. As the story goes, the dreaded St. Magnus’ Mass was approaching and poor Sigrid had not finished her daily allotment of sewing. She was convinced that she could finish before nightfall, but, alas, when the final string was sewn, it was already dark. St. Magnus struck her with madness as punishment for disregarding his holy day. Sigrid’s friend, Thorlak, brought her to the shrine of St. Magnus and cast lots to decide whether she should offer money to the shrine, free a slave, or go on pilgrimage to Rome in exchange for being cured. The cast determined that St. Magnus preferred the pilgrimage option and Sigrid was immediately cured. Once she had come to her senses, Sigrid immediately left for Rome.

5) St. Magnus did not abide theft in life and continued to despise thieves after death. According to the Orkneyinga saga, a man named Gilli and an unnamed accomplice from Orkney stole gold from the shrine of St. Magnus. In response, the saint unleashed his wrath on the thieves. Gilli reportedly drowned at sea, but the accomplice was attacked by St. Magnus’ signature holy madness. The madman, who uncontrollably mumbled confessions about his crime, was brought to the shrine of St. Magnus and vows were made on the man’s behalf that if he recovered, he would go on a pilgrimage to Rome. St. Magnus apparently accepted the promise and the man’s madness was lifted.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A scene of Olaf Tryggvason, by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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