The song of St Magnus

Here’s an old story and a new song. My wife and I can both trace our ancestry to the Orkney Islands, and so I’ve come to love the story of St Magnus, the patron saint of these Isles. Let me assure you, as far back as we can tell our ancestors were different people 😉

st-magnus cathedral

The story of St Magnus

The Orkney’s Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland, were ruled by the Viking king of Norway in the 13th century, and Magnus was the rightful heir to the Earldom of the Orkney’s. He was a bit of an odd one. Once he’d joined the King on a raiding party, but he’d stayed back on the ship and sung psalms. He’d refused to fight. It would be something of a theme in his short life. The King wasn’t sure about a ruler who wouldn’t fight, and so he also recognised the claim to the Earldom by Magnus’ cousin, and the two ruled jointly for some years. It worked pretty well, until some of their followers felt things would be better if their respective Earl had the job to himself. Things started to shape up for war. It seemed inevitable. Until Magnus insisted that he and his cousin try and talk their way to a peaceful solution. He suggested that they meet on a deserted island, where the only building was an ancient stone chapel. They agreed to meet, each bringing only two ships of men, enough for protection, but not enough for aggression. Magnus arrived the night before with his two ships, and spent the night praying.

However, in the light of the dawn, he saw his cousin’s treachery. Eight ships were entering the harbour. Too many for peace. Too many for truce. Not too many for war though.

What would Magnus do? He could run, flee and gather his supporters on the mainland and fight this out. Or he could appeal to the King of Norway to deal with his scoundrel cousin. Instead, he turned quietly and went back into the small stone chapel to pray, as if the chapel were his Garden of Gethsemane. The war party surrounded the chapel and demanded Magnus surrender himself. He did, once the cousin had agreed to leave his men unharmed. The gathered chiefs demanded that the Earl’s duel, to bring an end to the division that threatened to tear the Islands apart. But the Cousin wasn’t willing to give up his advantage, and Magnus refused to fight, so the Cousin decided to execute Magnus. Magnus tried to talk his Cousin out of this course of action, to save his soul from committing such a sin. In case we think Magnus was acting out of self preservation, think again. His alternative suggestion was that he be mercilessly tortured and disfigured, left alive but ruined, so as to protect his cousin from committing murder. But the Cousin wanted no rival, however broken. He ordered his finest warrior to kill Magnus. The warrior refused. In fact, none of his soldiers would meet his eyes or his demands. Finally, under the threat of death, the Cousin’s poor cook, weeping and pleading for Magnus’ forgiveness was chosen for the task. Magnus spoke quietly and calmly to him, telling him the sin was not his, and that Magnus held nothing against him, that he should do what he must do, and think no more of it.

So he did, and Magnus was killed. And there was peace, for there was no one left for the Cousin to fight. But there was also grief, such grief among the people that Magnus’ body was shortly recovered and buried with honour. A church was built to mark the place and his death, and the cross of Magnus became their flag, and the sacrifice of Magnus their pride and their shame.

Could this be what faith looks like, when the beloved ones of God  love peace more than themselves, that even the wicked moments of human cruelty, might in the mysterious grace of God, be made to tell the story of love which covers all and conquers all.

The song of St Magnus – lyrics

  • This is great, Malcom – it’s come together really well, music and lyrics. I’m still working on the poem-story inspired by your telling of this story to me in Adelaide last year. And what a prayer – that we might love Peace more than we love ourselves … Amen.

    January 20, 2014
    • Thanks Sarah, it took a while to let this one come to the surface – I knew I didn’t want to force it! Looking forward to your ‘companion piece’ 😉

      January 20, 2014
      • I’m inspired now to return to it!

        January 20, 2014
  • Hi Malcs,
    This is great. I hope you have sent it to the lovely people at St Magnus Cathedral. I preached there in 2003 and soaked it all in as guest of their minister. Wonderful memories.


    February 1, 2014
    • Hi Gaynor, no I’ve not sent it on to the folk at St Magnus Cathedral – perhaps thats a good idea. I’m working on the email issues. Malcs

      February 1, 2014
  • Pauline

    Have you read the book called “Saint Magnus The Last Viking”? It was just released last year and is receiving all 5 star reviews on Amazon. You might find it interesting.
    May Saint Magnus bless your undertaking in this!

    February 8, 2015

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