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  Magnus - the Martyr of Orkney

Magnus becomes earl

"St Magnus, Earl of Orkney, was a man of extraordinary distinction, tall, with a fine, intelligent look about him. He was a man of strict virtue, successful in war, wise, eloquent, generous and magnanimous, open-handed with money, sound with advice and altogether the most popular of men."
The Orkneyinga Saga, Chapter 45

By the time Magnus reappears in the Orkneyinga Saga, Sigurd Magnusson had returned to Norway to become joint ruler, leaving Magnus' cousin Hakon in the position of earl.

A few years later, and after making representations to the Norwegian throne, Magnus was granted his share of the earldom. At first there was a good relationship between the two earls, and their reign, from 1105 until 1114, was said to be a just and pleasant one.

However, this "Golden Age" did not last.

The earls' quarrel

The Orkneyinga Saga is not clear on the reason the cousins turned on each other. It simply states that men of "evil disposition" began stirring trouble between Hakon and Magnus.

Hakon, says the saga, was jealous of Magnus’ popularity and was therefore "more disposed to listen to these miserable men".

Whatever their motives, the agitators succeeded in creating enmity between Magnus and Hakon, so much so that they drew up for battle at a "thing" - an assembly - on the Orkney Mainland.

The site of this meeting has been suggested as being Tingwall (from the Old Norse thingvollr - Assembly Field) in the Mainland parish of Rendall.

But a battle was averted.

Neutral parties managed to persuade the two earls to make peace. A further meeting was arranged to finalise this treaty, with the earls to meet on Egilsay at Easter, each bringing only "two ships and an equal number of men".

At the allotted time, and with the agreed number of men, Magnus set out for Egilsay.

Approaching the island in calm water, says the saga, a great wave rose up and struck Magnus' ship. This, it recounts, was taken to be an omen of the earl's death.

“No wonder that you are surprised by this," said Magnus to his men, "Indeed, I take this as a foreboding of my death."

Betrayal on Egilsay