About Orkney
 About the Site
 Search Site 
  Magnus - the Martyr of Orkney

The relics of St Magnus

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 in 1116, 1117 or 1118.

The experts who examined the remains in 1925 - Professor R. W. Reid of Aberdeen University and Rev Dr George Walker of Aberdeen's East Parish Church - 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?

Perhaps not, says the eminent forensic anthropologist Professor Don Brothwell, who covered the subject in a paper published on the website honouring retiring Orkney Archaeological Trust chairman, Daphne Home Lorimer MBE.

Professor Brothwell's paper 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 the bones, Professor Brothwell concluded that the damage to the skull does not match the Orkneyinga Saga's account of the murder of Magnus on Egilsay.

As such, it is either not Magnus' skull, or the saga's version of the earl's death is incorrect.

This statement caused some controversy in March 2004, after an article on the subject appeared in The Orcadian newspaper. The general consensus of opinion? How dare the authenticity of the remains be questioned!

But all of the objectors seemed to miss one vital point - Professor Brothwell was actually calling to account the veracity of the Orkneyinga Saga's account of the murder.

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."

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

In his paper, Professor Brothwell writes:

"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."

From the damage to the skull, Professor Brothwell suggests that a sideward blow to the head felled the man. As the victim was knocked sideways, fell and rolled over he was struck again.

Saga questions

Anyone with a passing interest in Norse sagas knows the dangers of treating them as accurate historical documents. The saga writers had their own agendas - whether playing down unsavoury deeds or glorifying others, the compilers of the sagas were not above embellishing a good story.

Saint Magnus himself is a fine example of this.

Most of the details of St Magnus' life found in the Orkneyinga Saga were based on an earlier written account of the saint's life, or Vita, and a separate document listing the miracles ascribed to St Magnus. The Vita, which is now lost, was like most other Saint's Lives and generally dwelled on the piety and godliness of the saint in question.

The ecclesiastic source for the Orkneyinga Saga's version of events is clear from the way it emphasises the earl's saintliness in the face of all adversity. It is the Orkneyinga Saga that declares Earl Magnus knelt meekly before his executioner to receive a single blow.

But this version of the execution differs from later accounts – The Greater Magnus Saga – which is more graphic, has the earl standing to receive the blow, before falling to his knees after being struck twice in the head.

However, the two Magnus Sagas, the Lesser and Greater Magnus Saga, date from c1250 and 1300 respectively, and although the account seems to match the wounds on the cathedral skull, it is also possible that it may have been written after the relics were unearthed and transported from Birsay to Kirkwall .

The Magnus Sagas contain information from the lost Vita as well as details allegedly from a sermon delivered by one “Master Robert” around 1137 - 20 years after the death of the saint. Who this Master Robert was is unclear. Although it has been suggested he was a literary invention, it is just as likely that he was a real person, writing shortly after Magnus' death in Egilsay.

So while this Master Robert may well have had his own agenda, are the Magnus Sagas a truer account of the exploits of Magnus?

They certainly paint a slightly different picture of the sainted earl.

While the Orkneyinga Saga account is clearly meant to emphasise the Earl's “holiness”, the Magnus Sagas do not shy away from his less-than-saintly deeds and escapades as a younger man - although it does make excuses for him.

For example, The Greater Magnus Saga recounts how Magnus, in true Viking fashion, spent several years raiding, raping and plundering. This, its declares, was due to the company the young Magnus kept, but beneath the hagiographical gloss it does seem to hint at a truer picture of life at the time.

So is the Magnus Saga a more reliable account of Magnus' life and death? Perhaps, and then again, perhaps not. As always, caution is needed.

The later accounts, regardless of how authentic or historically accurate they may appear to be, could simply be a means of highlighting to the opposite sides of Magnus' character – the “nasty” side before he “accepted God”, and the later saintly persona.

The reader has to remember that the sagas are embellished history, with the odd story thrown in for good measure. As such it is impossible to differentiate what is true history and what is later embellishment.

But one fact remains.

In the relatively short time between Earl Magnus' burial in Birsay and the relocation of his remains to the new cathedral in Kirkwall , it seems very unlikely that a "fake" set of bones would have to be found to satisfy the needs of the devoted.