Magnus Olafsson, born in 1024, was the son of a woman known as Álfhild the King’s Hand-Maid. Álfhild’s nickname refers to King Olaf II of Norway (or Saint Olaf, r. 1015-1028), and he was the father of her son. Young Magnus was a child born out of wedlock, and his father, King Olaf, was apparently was not present for the birth. In the king’s absence, so the tale claims, the most prominent member of Olaf’s entourage that attended Magnus’ birth was an Icelandic poet named Sigvat the Skald.
As the story goes, Magnus seemed sickly when he was born. The condition of the child was so concerning that Álfhild, her midwives, Sigvat the Skald, and an attending priest, all feared that the newborn boy might not live long. This fear allegedly caused the group to name and baptize the infant even though King Olaf was not present. Sigvat the Skald, a keeper of heroic and noble tales, reportedly proposed naming the child after a famous ruler from centuries past. The figure that came to the poet’s mind was reportedly Charlemagne, known in Old Norse as Karlamagnús, and in Latin as Carolus Magnus. Working off of this inspiration, the group agreed to call the child Magnus, and they baptized him, just in case the worst should come for the sickly newborn.
Magnus Olafsson survived his sickness and when King Olaf II eventually awakened, he was informed that he now had a son. As the story goes, the king was understandably a bit perturbed when he learned that his son was named without his own kingly involvement. Sigvat the Skald was summoned to answer for what had occurred. As Olaf II was a Christian king and eventually considered a saint, he had little problem with the baptism, but he still wanted an explanation for the name. Sigvat’s alleged response was recorded by the poet’s fellow Icelander, Snorri Sturlusson (c. 1179-1241), who promoted the tale of Sigvat the Skald’s involvement in Magnus’ naming in his Heimskringla, a collection of sagas about the kings of Norway. Sigvat reportedly told King Olaf, “I named him after King Karla-Magnús, for him I knew to be the greatest man in the world” (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 122). Saint Olaf apparently received this explanation well, and therefore accepted the name for his son without complaint. Whether or not this was really the way, or the reason, why Magnus was named, it makes an interesting story. Magnus Olafsson would go on to become King Magnus the Good of Norway (r. 1035-1047) and Denmark (r. 1042-1047).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Hardecanute and Magnus the Good, by Halfdan Egedius (c. 1877–1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.