Born around 1075 the son of one of the two earls of the Orkney Islands, Magnus Erlingsson was a pirate in early life but was converted to the Christian faith. Later captured by Magnus Barefoot, king of Norway, he was compelled to take part in raids along the west coast of Britain. At Anglesey he refused to fight and remained in the ship, reading his psalter. He soon escaped to the court of Malcolm the Third, king of Scotland, and lived as a penitent in the king’s house. When Magnus Barefoot died, he returned to Orkney to share the earldom with his cousin Haakon Paulson.
The two earls ruled jointly but uneasily for some years, but eventually Haakon claimed sole sovereignty. In 1116, a council was summoned for Easter, and Haakon arrived with a large force of fighting men, refusing to allow Magnus the choice either of flight or of exile. According to the Saga, Magnus accepted violent death as a sacrifice, praying for his murderers.
The Cathedral Church of St Magnus in Kirkwall was built on the instructions of Earl Rognvald Kolsson, Magnus’ nephew. The martyr’s remains were translated there from the Church of St Olaf in Kirkwall (Kirkjuvagr), where the had lain since an earlier translation from Christchurch in Birsay. His relics were rediscovered at Kirkwall Cathedral in 1919.
- Prepared from material from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints and Celebrating the Saints.
Almighty God, by whose grace and power your holy martyr Magnus triumphed over suffering and was faithful even to death: Grant us, who now remember him in thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to you in this world, that we may receive with him the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Magnus is commemorated in the sanctoral calendar of the Scottish Episcopal Church.