The story of Britain’s northernmost cathedral, St. Magnus on Orkney, is wonderfully uplifting. It involves forced conversion, quarreling earls, betrayal, murder, and a dungeon with a witch in it. After that it calms down a bit.
Norway ruled the Orkney islands from the 9th century until the Scots took over in 1468. The Norwegian rulers, the Earls of Orkney, were a bunch of fun-lovin’ guys, including Sigurd the Mighty (ooh, you are a big boy), Thorfinn Skull-Splitter (always the death of the party), and Eric Bloodaxe (careful with that axe, Eric).
It was Sigurd the Stout (too much mead) who Christianized Orkney. He made this decision in 995 after the king of Norway told him, “Either you and your subjects get baptized, or I’ll kill you.”
“You know,” said Sigurd, “I’m suddenly feeling quite Christian.”
“Yes, I thought you might,” said the king.
Magnus vs. Haakon
Magnus Erlendsson was Earl of Orkney from 1108 to about 1115. The Orkneyinga Saga, written in Icelandic, bills the story of Magnus and his cousin Haakon as a tale of good vs. evil. The names add verisimilitude, Magnus suggesting “magnanimous,” whereas Haakon sounds like the cry of a man who’s choking on an oyster.
Unlike the king of Norway, Magnus believed that Jesus’s message was one of mercy and compassion, not bullying and killing. He ticked off the Norwegians by refusing to take part in a Viking raid, preferring to sit tight and sing Psalms.
This led to a dispute over the earldom of Orkney between Magnus and Haakon. I’m guessing it went something like this:
Haakon: Let’s take a meeting on Egilsay. We’ll bring two ships each.
Magnus: Whatever you say, dear cousin.
Haakon: Ha-ha, tricked you! I brought eight ships!
Magnus: [counts ships] I’d say “bloody hell” only I’m too pious.
Haakon: You’re toast, Mags.
Magnus: But killing me will put the sin of murder on your conscience!
Haakon: Bummer. [ponders] Okay, I’ll have someone else kill you. Oy! Standard-bearer!
Standard-bearer: [sticks fingers in ears] La-la, can’t hear you.
Haakon: Will no one rid me of this troublesome cousin? Here, Lifolf. You do it.
Lifolf: But I’m the cook! It’s not in my job description!
Haakon: You see this axe?
Lifolf: Oh, bloody hell. [lifts axe] Sorry, Magnus.
Magnus: I’m praying for your soul. And yours too, Haakon. And – oof!
A fitting burial
In 1135 Magnus was made a saint, and two years later, in the city of Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital, work began on a cathedral to house his remains. Or so the Saga says. But was he really buried there?
In 1917, a casket of bones was discovered inside one of the Romanesque columns. The skull had dents consistent with an axe wound. However, forensic scientists were unable to tell if the blow had been struck by a cook.
St. Magnus is the only cathedral in Britain with a dungeon. Prisoners were slid down on a chute and then left in darkness. In the 17th century, a woman named Jane Forsyth was accused of witchcraft. Before the devout Christians of the time could burn her at the stake, her lover rescued her from the dungeon and they escaped to what Wikipedia calls “remote exile” in Manchester. Whether they ended up supporting United is not known.
Today, St. Magnus rises above the rooftops of Kirkwall and above its bloodstained past. Its walls look almost plaid, thanks to alternating blocks of red and yellow sandstone, and with its soaring columns and stained glass windows, it seems to hold a feeling of great peace. Once inside, you understand why it’s called “the light of the North.”
I’ve been there twice and would happily stay there forever, keeping Magnus company. Of course, I would need a laptop, WiFi access, and a steady supply of chocolate.
I’d like a nickname too. Rhiannon Blog-Writer?