When should we celebrate St Magnus?

by Dr Ben Whitworth

In 2017, Orkney is marking the ninth centenary of the death of Saint Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney and martyr. Under the ‘Magnus 900’ banner, there will be church services, pilgrimages (some of them following the new St Magnus Way walking route), talks, concerts, art exhibitions and performances, re-enactments, an evening class, and even a marathon. A busy weekend of events is scheduled around April 16. But why do we call that St Magnus’ Day? And why do we think Magnus died in 1117?

The sixteenth of April has long been celebrated in honour of Magnus, the Earl who was murdered by his cousin Haakon, at what should have been a peace meeting, on the isle of Egilsay. The day is called ‘Magnus messo’ in an early Icelandic law book, and Mansemas (or Mansemass) is the traditional Orcadian name for the day. There’s a Mansemas Hill on Rousay; Hugh Marwick noted that it gives a view of the martyrdom site on Egilsay.

St Magnus’ feast day is on April 16 because it was the day he died. Some will perhaps share the view expressed by Ron Weasley when he was invited to a ghost’s deathday party:

‘Why would anyone want to celebrate the day they died?’ said Ron, who was halfway through his Potions homework and grumpy. ‘Sounds dead depressing to me …’ (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).

The saints, in Catholic belief, are those who unite themselves so closely with God in this life that, upon the death of their mortal bodies, their souls are received immediately into his presence in heaven. ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints’ (Psalm 115). In the Latin of the medieval Church, the day of a saint’s death is described as his ‘passing-over’ (transitus), or even his ‘birthday’ (natale).

Most years, then, the liturgy of St Magnus – that is, a Mass in his honour, and a series of services throughout the day – was performed on April 16; but not every year. Easter is a moveable feast, and Magnus’ natale can quite often become tangled up with the holiest days of the year: Holy Week and Easter Week. The Catholic Church has complicated rules for dealing with this sort of clash. In 2017, April 16 is Easter day, and it will not be until April 24 that the Magnus liturgy is offered in Orkney’s Catholic parish church and chapels.

Magnus’ name is also associated with two other dates in the calendar. As well as their natale, important saints are commemorated on the day of ‘translation’. This is a term we normally use in connection with language, but it just means ‘carrying across’: a translator is someone who carries meaning across from one language to another. When we talk of the translation of a saint, we are using the word literally. It means the moving of the saint’s bodily remains from one place to another. Again, this may seem a surprising thing to celebrate, but certain movings of a body can be loaded with special significance. We know that Earl Magnus’ relics were moved several times after his death: from Egilsay to Birsay, for burial; from Birsay to St Olaf’s church in Kirkwall; from there to the new St Magnus Cathedral; and from his opulent shrine, dismantled at the Reformation, into a secret hiding place inside a stone pillar. Pilgrims on the St Magnus Way will retrace some of these journeys.

But the translation that mattered, the one that was worth celebrating with a feast day of its own, was probably the shortest journey of all, and took place entirely within the kirk at Birsay. About twenty years after his death, Magnus’ bones were exhumed from his grave, and transferred to a shrine, possibly displayed above the altar. This simple action transferred Magnus from the category of an ordinary Christian sinner, for whose soul the Church prayed, to that of a saint. This kind of translation could be carried out only by the bishop. The centralised system of Papal canonisation had not yet developed – that would come a couple of generations later – and so Magnus’ translation effectively was his canonisation. Its anniversary was celebrated ever afterwards as a second St Magnus’ Day.

The translation took place on December 13. This was already a fairly important day in the calendar: the feast of St Lucy, a virgin martyr who died in Sicily, but who was surprisingly popular in Scandinavia. St Lucy’s day is still marked in the North, and the day’s beautiful ceremonies and song (not to mention the delicious Lussekatter saffron buns) are happily familiar to us here in Orkney.

There was an alternative St Magnus’ Day in August – at least this feast was celebrated in Denmark, where the Orkney martyr enjoyed considerable popularity. Here, they perhaps felt that the April feast day coincided too often with Easter, and that it was better to avoid a clash between two such popular saints as Lucy and Magnus. It happened that there was another and earlier St Magnus – an Italian martyr – who had long occupied August 19 in the calendar of saints. So, for no better reason than the coincidence of their names, our saintly Earl took over his Italian counterpart’s spot on the Danish calendar. The epicentre of the Magnus cult in Denmark was Roskilde; perhaps it was sailors from Orkney and Shetland who brought his fame into Roskilde’s sheltered harbour. There was a St Magnus altar in Roskilde Cathedral, and the August feast day was kept with great solemnity within the city walls.

Now the second question: in what year did St Magnus die? A conclusive answer is impossible.

Early records of St Magnus’ life and death include the Orkneyinga Saga (c. 1200), the Longer and Shorter Magnus Sagas (possibly fourteenth century), the Icelandic Annals (a group of fourteenth-century manuscripts), and the brief Latin lives contained in the printed Breviaries of Aberdeen and Roskilde (early sixteenth century).

Some of these sources give specific dates for Magnus’ death, but they differ wildly: 1091, 1101, 1104, 1115 and 1116 are all found in at least one of these early texts. It’s not just that the sources disagree with one another; several are self-contradictory. The Longer Magnus Saga specifies 1104, but states that the martyrdom took place when St Jón Ögmundsson was Bishop of Hólar in Iceland. Since Jón’s episcopate began only in 1106, this doesn’t add up.

One detail, which is common to the three Saga accounts, might help us to home in on a more accurate date. The Sagas tell us that Haakon would not let Magnus take any share in the earldom unless the kings of Norway commanded it; and when Magnus sailed to Norway he found that King Sigurd had departed for Jerusalem, and his brother kings dealt with Magnus’ request. King Sigurd’s crusading voyage is a historical fact, and it had begun in the autumn of 1107. The Orkneyinga Saga says that Magnus and Haakon were earls together for seven years before their fatal quarrel. Supposing Magnus sailed to Norway in or around 1108, this would put the martyrdom somewhere in the region of 1115, which is the very year named in one of the Icelandic Annals.

There is a problem, though, with 1115: April 16 was Good Friday. The Sagas insist that the peace meeting was scheduled for soon after Easter, precisely because it was thought wrong to bring up political grievances during Lent.

What about 1116, the year that most of the Icelandic Annals give us? Then April 16 was the second Sunday after Easter. This is still difficult to square with the Sagas’ declaration that the peace meeting was to be held in Easter Week, or with the detail (found in the Longer Magnus Saga and in the Latin lives) that the martyrdom took place on a Monday.

If the day of the week is held to be an important point, then the case is strong for 1117, for April 16 in that year was a Monday – but a full three weeks had elapsed since Easter Day. It should also be noted that none of the early sources suggest a date later than 1116.

That is also a point against 1118, but at least in that year April 16 fell within Easter Week – on Easter Tuesday in fact. This fits well with the Longer Magnus Saga’s statement that preparations for the peace meeting began as soon as (þegar) the Easter holy day had passed. Gregor Lamb made the case for 1118, writing in this newspaper in 2004.

It is good to be having this year of celebrations in 2017, and I look forward to the events in April. But there are other days that can claim to be St Magnus’ Day; and there are other years when novocentenary events can be justified. Perhaps our Magnus – like that martyr of a later century, St Thomas More – is a man for all seasons.