I wasn’t planning to spend my lunch hour chatting with a 12th Century murderous Earl of Orkney, but that is what I eneded up doing on a day that weather wise wouldn’t be out of place in Scotland combining heavy mist with pouring rain.
The Orkney Islands are a chain of about 70 islands off the coast of Scotland. Hakon Paulson, future Earl of Orkney was first appointed regent by the King of Norway to rule for future co-ruler prince Sigurd. Sigurd in turn made Hakon earl in 1105. Things were looking up until his cousin Magnus also made claim to the earldom. As the throne of Norway was shared in Sigurd’s generation by three half-brothers, joint rule was an accepted practice at the time. In fact Hakon and Magnus’s own fathers had been deposed as co-rulers of Orkney by the Norwegians. Thus Hakon was told by the Norwegian crown to share the earldom with his cousin Magnus. That worked for awhile until Hakon and Magnus’s followers had a falling out around 1114. In order to avoid an all out war Hakon and Magnus agreed to meet on the Island of Egilsay with limited ships and men to sort out their differences. Each man was supposed to show up with two ships. Magnus played by the rules. Hakon showed up with eight ships.
Officially Magnus Erlendsson was known for his deep piety. He was one of histories earliest recorded contentious objectors. During the Battle of Anglesey Sound off the coast of Wales in 1098 Magnus refused to fight and instead stayed in his ship singing psalms. While this would be a familiar form of non-violent resistance in our modern world, the Norse took a dim view of such behavior which they saw as cowardice.
As Hakon and Magnus met on Egilsay Island the advantage Hakon had of having three times as many ships and supporters than Magnus was made clear when the chieftains in attendance who were tired of joint rule demanded Magnus be executed. The first man Hakon ordered to do the deed refused, but the second one did not. Magnus was executed and buried on the spot. Eventually his body was relocated at his mothers request and by the late 12th Century took up it’s current residence in St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall on Orkney Island, the largest of the chain.
The famous Orkneyinga Saga covers about three and a half centuries, but includes a dramatic scene in which Magnus prayed for and forgave his executioners prior to his death.
Hakon was required to make amends for the murder of his cousin. Pressure mounted as assorted miraculous occurrences started to happen around the burial site such as when the rocky landscape around the grave turned into a green meadow. Hakon made a fashionable pilgrimage to Rome and then Jerusalem in a public show of penitence. After returning to to his now solo Earldom he built the only known example of a round Kirk church in Scotland.
This is where Hakon’s account of events and the historic and religious records diverge. Hakon’s shade made it clear to me that he murdered his cousin Magnus to retain power as the sole Earl of Orkney. He was not sorry he murdered Magnus. His pilgrimage of repentance was done to keep his hold on power and out of a fear of hell in that order.
Hakon snorted at the idea that his cousins famous piety was anything more than a ploy for political power, no less ambitious than Hakon’s own goals. He commented that as a young man Magnus was anything but saintly in his pursuit of female companionship.
Hakon did offer a couple tidbits of information about Magnus’s death. Hakon claimed he had tried on more than one occasion to kill Magnus via the treachery of poison before their final fatal encounter. Hakon claimed the poison weakened Magnus but unfortunately didn’t kill him. This claim is rather ironic in light of the fact it was his own cook Lifolf that Hakon ordered to kill Magnus on Egilsay Island. Perhaps Lifolf was also tired of failed murder attempts as he performed the execution. Poison or no poison an ax blow to the head got the job done.
According to Hakon the saintly scene of forgiveness prior to his cousin’s death did not prevent Magnus from screaming and bleeding like a stuck pig just as any other man killed in such a manner would react.
Going back to St. Nicholas (probably first named after Magnus), the round Kirk church Hakon built upon his return to Orkney, Hakon had a less than devout and a more practical attitude about it. Hakon noted to me that building the round church not only provided local jobs but as it was based on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem neatly harnessed the local religious enthusiasm around his martyred cousin to Hakon’s credit.
Hakon was surprised and disgusted by the fact killing his cousin Magnus didn’t give him the unfettered control of his Earldom he desired. Instead Hakon ran into the age old problem of combating the power of martyrs. So in a strategy as old as martyrdom itself he found a way to direct it to his advantage. Hakon said publicly he supported his poor cousins widely accepted sanctity but privately frequently and loudly expressed his view that such beliefs were so much bunk as he cited boyhood adventures involving mead, women and song.
I don’t know why Magnus didn’t show up to give his side of the story, but today it was Hakon’s tale to tell. A loud, larger than life figure prone to boasting and crude although probably fairly accurate observations of his life and times, Hakon would probably be the cousin most fun to have dinner with. (Once my taster had been employed of course.) Dining with Hakon sounds like it could have been as treacherous as accepting a Medici invitation a few centuries later.
(c) 2017 Lynne Sutherland Olson. All rights reserved.