Academic questions authenticity of St Magnus’ remains

The remains of St Magnus, photographed shortly after their discovery. (Picture courtesy Orkney Library Image Archives)

In March 1919, a wooden box containing a skull and bones was found during extensive renovation work in St Magnus Cathedral.

The skull, which showed clear signs of injury, was heralded as that of Saint Magnus – the martyr of Orkney, who was murdered at Easter 1117.

Even the men who examined the remains, in 1925, – Professor R. W. Reid of Aberdeen University and Rev Dr George Walker – were left in no doubt as to the identity.

“Those acquainted with the circumstances of the murder of St Magnus could have little hesitation in believing that the skull bore the veritable mark of his death wound and that these were the relics of the saint.” said Dr Walker, before adding that the examinations “entirely proved the identification”.

The bones were later re-interred in St Magnus Cathedral, where they remain today.

But are the remains actually those of the Orkney saint?

Not necessarily, says the eminent archaeologist Professor Don Brothwell, who covers the subject in a paper published on a website honouring retiring Orkney Archaeological Trust chairman, Daphne Home Lorimer MBE.

Professor Brothwell challenges the widely held belief that the remains in the pillar in the Cathedral belong to the historical Magnus Erlendsson. After studying 1925 reports on bones, Professor Brothwell has concluded that the damage to the skull does not match the Orkneyinga Saga’s account of the murder of Magnus on Egilsay in 1117.

As such it is either not Magnus’ skull, or the saga’s version of events is not correct.

The Orkneyinga Saga states that Earl Hakon’s cook, Lifolf, who was standing in front of the kneeling Magnus, struck the killing blow. The narrative recounts:

“Then, when [Magnus] was led to execution, he said to Lifolf: “Stand before me, and hew me a mighty stroke on the head, for it is not fitting that high-born lords be put to death like thieves.”

The position of Lifolf in relation to Magnus would undoubtedly influence “the form and position of bone damage on the skull”, and according to Professor Brothwell the two “wounds” do not “fit with axe blows from the front of the individual.”

In his paper, Professor Brothwell explains: “Neither of these two possible injuries, if they are indeed trauma evidence, could have been received from axe blows directed down from the front, and this calls into question either the authenticity of the skull or the position of the executioner.”

Professor Brothwell’s full paper One hundred and fifty years of human skeletal studies in Orkney is available here.

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