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  Magnus - the Martyr of Orkney

The martyrdom of Earl Magnus

With Magnus’s fate sealed, Hakon ordered Ofeig, his standard-bearer, to execute the earl. But the warrior refused angrily.

Enraged, Hakon turned to his cook, Lifolf, and instructed him to kill Magnus.

According to the saga, Lifolf wept loudly but Magnus spoke comforting words and forgave him for the acts he must carry out:

"Be not afraid, for you do this against your will and he who forces you sins more than you do."

So Magnus knelt before Lifolf and asked to be struck hard on the head, rather than beheaded like a common criminal:

"Stand thou before me, and hew on my head a great wound, for it is not seemly to behead chiefs like thieves. Take heart, poor wretch, for I have prayed to God for thee, that He be merciful unto thee."

Lifolf struck the blow and cleaved the Earl's skull in two.

The Orkneyinga Saga declares this act took place "1,091 winters after the birth of Christ" but this date does not tie in with documented events and is definitely incorrect. Magnus was killed many years later - on April 16, in 1115, 1116, 1117 or even 1118. Click here for more.

Initially, Magnus was denied a Christian burial by Earl Hakon and simply buried where he fell.

Miraculous happenings

Shortly afterwards, the miracles began.

The Orkneyinga Saga recounts that the site of Magnus’ murder was originally rocky and overgrown, but after his death "God showed that he had suffered for righteousness' sake" and the area was miraculously transformed into a green field.

Magnus' mother, Thora, pled with Hakon to allow her son a Christian burial. Hakon relented and allowed Magnus’ corpse to be retrieved. It was transferred to Birsay, where it was interred at Christchurch, the church Magnus’ grandfather, Thorfinn Sigurdsson, had built.

The exact location of this church remains uncertain today. Although it is generally thought to have either been on the Brough of Birsay or the site of the current St Magnus Kirk on Mainland Birsay. Recent investigations seem to favour the latter.

Wherever he was laid to rest, from the day of his burial a bright, heavenly light was said to have been seen above Magnus' grave. This holy light was accompanied by a "heavenly fragrance".

Before long, as the cult of Magnus grew, other stories began to spread, each detailing the miraculous happenings around about the Earl's gravesite.

The Orkneyinga Saga recounts in great detail the numerous miraculous healings that resulted from visits to the Magnus' resting place.