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When did Earl Magnus Die?

The year of Earl Magnus's death has puzzled historians for years.

The dating evidence given in the Orkneyinga saga is blatantly incorrect - each section contradicting the other.

“The death-day of earl Magnus is two nights after Tiburce mass. He had then been earl over the Orkneys seven winters, he and Hacon both together.

"There had then passed since the fall of king Olaf seventy-four winters. Sigurd and Eystein and Olaf were the kings over Norway.

"There had been passed since the birth of Christ one thousand and ninety and one winters.”

From this passage, we have a number of possible dates.

King Olaf died in 1030, but his “fall” could also relate to him losing the Norwegian throne in 1028.

So, depending on the interpretation of “fall”, this gives either 1104 or 1102.

The “seven winters” gives another two dates - 1112 or 1115, depending on whether Magnus was made earl in 1105 or 1108.

The final date, based on Christ’s death, is 1091 and can be discounted immediately as being far too early.

1102 and 1104 are also too early because they predate Magnus’s acquisition of the earldom.

1112 is more promising but is also too early and doesn't fit with the historical facts we do know about Magnus.

That leaves 1115. Could that be the date?

Firstly, we must calculate the date of Easter, because we know the Egilsay meeting took place after Easter Sunday.

Also, according to the saga account, Magnus died two days after the Feast of Saint Tiburce, or Saint Tiburtius. Tiburce/Tiburtius day is April 14, so we get the date of April 16 as the date of the earl’s death.

In 1115, Easter Sunday was on April 11.

Three days before Saint Tiburce’s day and five days before a known date for the earl’s murder. So it is possible that, after marking Easter, Magnus set out for Egilsay on Easter Monday and that the following day, Haakon’s men captured him.

Although the saga account has it that Magnus was killed the same day as he was captured, it is not a reliable historical account, so it could be that there were a few days of “debate” before Magnus fell beneath Lifolf’s axe.

So 1115, is a possibility.

A number of other years have been proposed - 1116 and 1117 being the most common.

1117 is an oft-quoted year - indeed, the Penguin edition of the Orkneyinga saga, in a footnote, clearly states that April 16, 1117 was the date of Magnus’s death.

I suspect this was first suggested as it ties in with an account incorporated in the Longer Magnus Saga. This recounts a sermon allegedly delivered in Kirkwall, 20 years after Magnus’ death, by one “Master Robert”.

This sermon, if it is indeed historically valid, is thought to have been delivered at the founding of the cathedral in 1137. So, 1137-20 years gives us 1117.

But once again, the Easter dates don’t fit.

Easter 1117, fell on March 25. If the Egilsay meeting, which, the saga says, took place “immediately after the Easter celebrations”, took place in late March, that’s more than two weeks before the recorded date of Magnus’s death.

In 1116, Easter Sunday was April 2.

So if the delegation to Egilsay set out “in Easter Week”, there’s a two-week gap before the accepted April 16 date for Magnus’s death.

So there we have it. All but one of the “favoured” dates are not possible. So where now?

In 2004, Orcadian historian Gregor Lamb suggested 1118.

This conclusion, he said, hinged: “on the phrase ‘immediately after Easter’ and the word ├żegar, ‘immediate’ is indeed the word used in the original saga.”

In 1118, Easter Sunday fell on April 14, which also happened to be St Tiburtius’ Day. Then two days later was Tuesday, April 16.

This date, said Mr Lamb, also ties in with the tradition that important meetings - or things -took place on Tuesday.

“Great Thing meetings were invariably held on Tuesday, the third day of the week and there is no reason why the day chosen for this [Egilsay] meeting should have been an exception to the rule.”

So the year fits with the saga account at least.

Magnus and his retinue arrived in Egilsay on Easter Monday - April 15, 1118 - where the earl went to church to pray.

The following morning, April 16, Haakon’s men ransacked the church before going in search of the earl.

The rest, as they say, is history. 

Section Contents
Saint Magnus
  Magnus becomes Earl
  Betrayal on Egilsay
  The Martyrdom of St Magnus
  When did Earl Magnus Die?
  The resting places of Magnus's body
The Relics of St Magnus
Saint Magnus Cathedral
St Magnus Kirk, Egilsay

See Also
The Orkneyinga Saga

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