The Death of St. Magnus of Orkney
Based on the Account in the Orkneyinga Saga
May this miserable sinner receive aid from his glorious subject, the holy Earl Magnus, for the glory of the Refuge of Sinners and Oak of the Saints, who never refuses the repentant, constantly knocks at the hearts of those lost in sin, and empowers men to perform such magnanimous deeds.
A dragon ship sails the northernmost end of the North Sea, bearing Earl Hakon Paulsson, the proud ruler of half of Orkney. His ship bristles with coruscating spears and bright shields adorn its sides. Here and there, a man rows upon the still sea from his bench, draped in a dull, grey hauberk. Almost none of the men aboard lack a helm and secondary weapon. The crew exercised their duties with peculiar vigor, eager to reach their destination.
Yet, this martial preparedness fills one man, Havard Gunnason, with terrible apprehension; but, he reminds himself that earls and princes oft wish to exhibit their might, and this need not bode ill for the meeting which would seal the peace between the two earls. Earl Hakon himself had arranged this meeting after level-headed men interceded for the two opposing armies and averted civil war. Each earl would bring a single ship to the meeting in order to seal the peace.
But Havard marveled that so few of the leading men within Hakon’s earldom represented themselves onboard his ship. The crew consisted mainly of Hakon’s own retainers and guests, including two which Havard did not only feel the mission would be better off without, but the entire world besides: the two brothers, Sigurd and Sighvat. Havard glared at the two of them as they murmured filthy lies into Earl Hakon’s ears. Before these two began filling Hakon’s head with thoughts of fame and exciting the earl’s already rapacious ambition, the two earls ruled Orkney with hearts amicable and benevolent towards one another—as befits cousins. Now, no doubt, the two again were trying to incite civil war.
Havard stepped forward to prevent the two worm-tongued advisers from turning Hakon’s heart. “Earl Hakon, this is beautiful weather we were fortuned to have. If only the wind was a little stronger. It bodes well for the restoration of peace to these islands—as it was before.”
Sigurd turned his pock-marked face toward this new speaker. “Yes, before that greedy Earl begged our king to let him have a share of his patrimony. He’s only useful for starting up trouble, I tell you!”
Sighvat added his own opinion: “Orkney is two small for two earls. Hakon was ruling well enough before Magnus decided King of Scots’ hospitality wasn’t good enough for him.”
“Now, I won’t have you slandering Earl Magnus before his cousin, our esteemed lord,” Havard countered. “And it seems to me they held a wonderful joint rule—with justice lacking for none—until quite recently.”
Here the earl himself thought best to intervene. “Havard is right. We did jointly rule Orkney in a splendid fashion. Everyone had nothing but praise for us; perhaps for my cousin most of all.”
“Not at all, earl! We citizens of your domain—I speak the unanimous opinion—would not trade you for Magnus or anyone else.”
“Nonsense,” Sighvat said. “People are all greedy. The only reason people flock to Magnus is because he throws gold and silver right and left. It’s a wonder that anyone is still poor.”
“Yes,” Sigurd agreed. “I don’t care a fig about those who extol Magnus’s piety. He just knows that liberal princes gain more friends.” Sigurd added the following with a significant look in Havard’s direction. “I’ve heard that he’s given especially great gifts to chieftains from Earl Hakon’s domain.”
The hue of Havard’s reddening face approached the darkness of his brown beard. “Earl Hakon, I think these two are merely jealous of you for possessing so saintly a cousin. Some say he’s remained so chaste that he has not even consummated his marriage.”
This comment caused the other three to guffaw.
The earl said: “I do believe that you’ve mistaken my brother for a certain Englishman.”
Havard smiled. “Or St. Joseph. Without peer save for Our Lady, who surpasses all the saints.”
“Blessed be Mary, the Holy Mother of God,” Hakon said with his two sycophants struggling to catch up.
“Dragon ships off the port side!” shouted the lookout in the bow of the vessel.
Sure enough, seven ships rounded a point of land and began to approach Hakon’s vessel. Their emergence took Havard aback. Each one glimmered with spear points and their blazing red and yellow shields reflected the sun’s radiance.
Havard turned to the earl. “Earl, whose ships are these? Ought we prepare for the worst?”
“No, no, my good Havard, they’re mine.”
Havard paled. “But your agreement stipulated only one ship.”
“Don’t worry yourself. I merely intend to restore peace to these islands, and showing superior force will ensure us of coming ahead at the meeting.”
“Why, Havard,” said Sigurd. “Don’t you agree with his lordship’s plan?”
“I can guarantee you, Earl Hakon, that Earl Magnus will not come with more than one—”
“Of course,” Sighvat said. “I don’t know about his saintliness, but the man is rather simple-minded.”
“Now, men,” Hakon said. “I’ll not have you say any more about my good cousin.”
Havard said: “Well, my lord, please permit me to take my leave for the moment.”
The earl granted it. Havard walked to the shield rimmed railing and looked out upon the advancing fleet. Changing his line of sight, he examined the calm, blue sea as a gentle zephyr refreshed him. He sighed.
“I would have been a wonderful day to return peace to Orkney. God keep Magnus!”
When everyone ceased paying attention to him, he slipped overboard and swam to a deserted island.
On the same cerulean and serene sea, Earl Magnus in his lone vessel set their course for Egilsay. Onboard, Magnus had collected all the peace-loving men of his earldom, who had contributed much to preventing the outbreak of battle between the two earls. According to their means, each man possessed a sword or ax, but spears stood absent from the decks and shields from the sides. Not a man, not even Magnus himself, thought to wear a hauberk. Magnus, wearing an azure woolen tunic and green linen pants clasped with a golden buckled leather belt, sat against the mainmast, watching the blue sky with even bluer eyes. The breeze hardly disturbed his golden locks as it brushed across his fine, intelligent countenance.
The gentle weather necessitated that rowers propel the ship along. Two of whom, Svein and Holdbodi, palavered over the eccentricities of their blessed earl and good friend. Not a few times did someone chuckle, while the other made sly remarks concerning their lord’s mental state.
“See him? Our good earl?” Svein began. “He’s staring blankly at the sky again.”
“Well, it is a beautiful sky to gander at,” Holdbodi replied. “And very few on this boat have the leisure to do that.”
“You know what they say about men who do that?”
“They either enter a monastery or burn down a barn.”
After both laughed, Holdbodi said: “Well, that makes our earl a future arsonist. They don’t make monks out of married men.”
“What marriage? I tell you, my wife would beat me if I permitted the flower of her maidenhood to bloom so long.”
“Well, they’re strange people: the earl and his wife. But, I’ve never seen a happier couple.”
“I wish all rulers would be so strange, then there would be paradise on earth.”
“One can’t have a double paradise, you know.”
“Who says? I think that your association with our strange earl is turning your brain.”
“Well, may he rule long and continue to bless us with this prosperity.”
“Hmm…I wonder what the chances are of that.”
“What do you mean, you depressing bastard?”
“The fellow’s too honest. I told him he should bring twenty ships—not one—to this meeting.”
“But the agreement—”
“You think Hakon’s going to keep his word? I’m sure he’s eager to fulfill that heathen soothsayer’s prophecy about him and his descendents ruling all Orkney.”
“Ha, ha, ha! Well, Magnus is young yet, but that time will come eventually—even if it is only Hakon’s descendents.” Holdbodi grinned. “You know, this Hakon should have learned from a Norwegian king of the same name. He rules well enough, but his ambition makes him detestable. If he rids himself of that, he might well merit the cognomen ‘good.’”
“Why, yes! I’ll even make a song for this Hakon entering Valhalla and greeting Odin—along with all the other devils in hell. That son of a—”
Neither modesty nor human voice interrupted Svein, but a towering wave rose from the mirror-flat sea and crashed upon Earl Magnus’s meditative form. All the crew yanked their oars back in the boat and rushed to surround Magnus, who now stood brushing the excess water from his tunic with a placid demeanor. The other questioned Magnus and themselves what this meant, marveling that such a wave could spring from so board-like a sea.
Magnus turned to his men. “I think that your worries are quite justified: it looks like that prophecy about cousin Hakon will come true.”
Some, ignorant of the rumor, said: “What do you mean, my lord?”
“This wave foretells my death. We may have to be open to the idea that cousin Hakon may not be exactly honest with us.”
“Then let’s turn back!” Holdbodi exclaimed. “Raise some men, and defeat that treacherous earl!”
The rest shouted their agreement. Magnus raised his hand for silence.
“No, I have no evidence that he shall betray us. I hope to the Lord that it is not so! Onward! Let me only keep my word and everything happen as God wills!”
“But, Earl Magnus—”
Magnus interrupted his housecarl with a smile. “I thank you for being concerned Holdbodi and for the mutual affection we’ve always shared. Nevertheless, Deus vult!”
This silenced all further protest, and the mournful ship continued its course to that glorious isle, fortuned to be soon nourished with the blood of a saint!
After several hours, Magnus and his companions at last reached their goal, the undulating island of Egilsay. Though a small farm might support itself here and there, much of the soil consisted of moss covered, black rocks. This feature predominated the area where they landed: the inhabitants saw nothing better to do with the land than build a small church there. As the sun now began to fall in the saffron sky of the west, Magnus called his companions together and sent two so that the parish priest might prepare himself for hearing confessions and performing Mass.
“Whether I live or die, I wish to meet my cousin with a clean heart.”
All his men declared that they would fight to the death for Magnus’s sake. Magnus ordered them to do otherwise: “No, I would not have you fight to save my life—if Hakon really values ruling Orkney at the price of kinslaughter…We shall see. In any event, let there be peace in Orkney, and let the will of God be fulfilled.”
They all knew that the earl stood beyond persuasion and prayed that the earl’s premonition of his death turned out false. Hakon and his men needed a longer time to arrive and would not present themselves until the morning. So, they formed a line for confession, and, once the Sacrament of Reconciliation cleansed one and all, they took their seats in Church to carry out divine worship.
The walls of the church bore several statues of saints both ancient and modern until the end wall; where a tabernacle was located to the left of the altar and its great cross, while the right displayed a statue of the Holy Family. Interspersed with the statues of the saints, stained glass windows described the life of the Church’s patron, St. Paul, from the stoning of St. Stephen until his own death at Rome.
The earl sat in the front pew, leaning forward as if to gain a deeper understanding of the divine mysteries by placing his head on its very bosom. The leading men of his domain all prayed that evil be averted from Magnus, while Magnus prayed that he might act according to the honorable tradition of his ancestors and the friends of God. As soon as Mass ended, Magnus announced that he would continue to stay within the Church, but that they may find shelter among the inhabitants or return to their ship. The majority took Magnus up on his offer so that they might discuss what they ought to do should Earl Hakon turn hostile toward them. But several, such as Holdbodi and Svein, remained praying with Magnus.
Holdbodi hoped that he might be given the opportunity to dissuade Magnus from this baneful course of action. Holdbodi edged nearer to the pew where Magnus prayed using his rosary of wooden beads and bided his time as he awaited Magnus to finish. However, Magnus’s companions dropped off to sleep one by one long ere Magnus finished. Leaden sleep at last pressed shut even Holdbodi’s green eyes and loyal mind.
Then, Magnus himself became weary at his prayers and, crossing himself and putting away his rosary, he rose to look at his companions, hoping that there might be one with whom he could unburden his anxieties. Yet, scanning the whole Church, he found not a man that fleshly necessity had spared. Indeed, sleep even began to swirl his thoughts.
“Ah, you fool,” he told himself. “Why do you expect comfort from men? But this church feels so warm. I should like to spend my final night, what I so greatly fear to be my final night, sending as many prayers to the Savior as I may.”
With these words, he left St. Paul’s for the cool evening breezes.
Outside the church, a full moon illumined the island, though not a single light from any building save those in the church augmented the natural light of the night sky. A million millions of stars greeted Magnus’s sight: not one constellation seemed absent. Grief invaded Magnus’s thoughts considering that he might never see them again. Magnus stepped through the mossy rocks until he found a hillside with great rocks shielding his view of the church, but not its victory-promising steeple. Turning about in this salient, Magnus fancied that from here he could fend off a substantial force of men. He shook the thought aside.
Kneeling toward the shining, black sea, he renewed his prayers. Yet, thoughts of his kingdom and how much he would forsake through his death began to assail him. Try as he might, the sting of losing all his possessions and the splendid world itself distracted him from prayer until shame wrung tears from his eyes.
“O Lord! I am so unworthy of Thee that the thought of losing all my possessions and created joys causes me real distress. Send Thy grace to this unworthy servant so that my heart may be free of them. Hail Mary…”
Thus he beseeched Our Lord, Our Lady, and those saints dearest to him. Soon, his tears dried and gentle resignation calmed his anxiety. In the midst of this peace, the cacophony of a fatigued man struggling in the tide startled Magnus, who rushed to help the naufrague onto the pebbly strand. Magnus turned the man on his side so that he might cough out the water from his lungs.
“Oh!” He coughed out some water. “That hurts!”
“Havard!” Magnus exclaimed. “How have you come here in this state? I thought you would be traveling with cousin Hakon.”
“Oh…” Havard coughed several more times for good measure. “I beg your pardon, earl. I have many things to tell you. Earl Hakon intends your death.”
“I know…I know, Havard.”
“Then what are you still doing here? My lord, you must leave Egilsay at once and prepare for war.”
“No, there shall be peace. If cousin Hakon really desires my life, he can have it; though, I hope to dissuade him from the awful sin of kinslaughter.”
“That man is too ambitious.” Havard rose from his side to a sitting position. “He will only content himself by your death.”
“What do I have to fear from death? Our Lord—”
“But think of your possessions! This glorious world! Who has returned from the dead? Who has told us what it is like?”
“Havard, I never knew you to advise me like a pagan.”
But Magnus could not hide the tremble in his voice as anxieties he thought quelled returned with renewed vigor. He saw a sly smile flash across Havard’s face and knew not what to make of it. His interlocutor pressed the question.
“You boast of the greatest wealth in Orkney: such fine clothing, beautiful weapons, a great manor, the choicest food and drink. Earl Hakon covets all these things—”
“Oh, truly? If my cousin was in such want, he need only have told me.”
“It would not do any good: the world itself would not satisfy the man. So, fight for your rightful possessions. The man does not deserve the scrawniest fowl on your estate.”
Magnus became silent for a while, as Havard said many more things. Reviling the greed of Hakon, yet saying how Magnus ought to enjoy his property. He described the very wonderful things of the world which Magnus, as a young man, might look forward to enjoy for many years. While his adviser noticed not the shifting attention of the young man, Magnus’s eyes strayed to the cross of the church steeple. At last, Magnus obtained his answer.
“But I myself do not deserve the scrawniest fowl on my estate.” With Havard taken aback by this remark, Magnus continued: “All these things came to me through the will of God. Why should I boast of things I have received? We know that a greater estate awaits the faithful with Our Father in Heaven.”
“Oh, that can wait. You are yet a young man. Many years still ahead of you.”
“But why trade eternity for a few more years of exile? Who would be so absurd as to believe heaven less wonderful and joyful than earth?” A divine spark flickered in Magnus’s eyes, and sweet consolation welled up in his heart. “Praise be to Our Lord—”
“Wait! Hear me out!”
Havard, the image of that man—which Magnus mistook for the man himself—vanished before Magnus’s eyes. But not before he saw the demon’s eyes fill with animosity and anguish, and his mouth form an unspeakable curse. With his knees shaking, fear took hold of Magnus. He bowed down and crossed himself.
“These are the enemies with whom I contend? Oh, aid me, O Lord! This one attempted to dissuade me from honoring my oath to cousin Hakon through greed and trusting in created things. But I was saved by Thy Holy Name.” Here he prayed the Act of Faith. “In thanksgiving for this precious deliverance, I shall offer to go on a pilgrimage to Rome—nay, even to Mt. Calvary itself—and never return to Orkney should my cousin spare me.”
Delighted with his new-found resolution, Magnus offered further thanks to God until footsteps disturbed his prayer. Seeking his new companion, he discovered Svein coming toward him.
“Your lordship, when I awoke, I saw that you were gone and went to look for you.” Turning to the sea, he said: “Only on the night of a full moon does the sea seem so brilliant.”
“Please pardon me, Earl Magnus, but I and the others can’t agree to what you’re doing: sacrificing yourself for the sake of your infernal cousin, Earl Hakon.”
Here Magnus chuckled. “Oh, cousin Hakon is really getting the short end of the deal: I shall wend to eternal life with God, while he’ll be stuck managing Orkney.”
Svein’s countenance became morose: “I wonder how many souls perished thinking the same thought, only to find themselves in hell.”
This remark rent the core of Magnus’s being in pieces. So much so, that he fell backward on the ground. Ignoring Svein’s entreaties as to his physical condition, Magnus said: “What an awful thing to say…Is not confidence in one’s salvation one of the gifts often given to those about to die?”
“Maybe, but think of those monks who beg for a few more moments so that they may have a longer time to repent before the end. And we laymen don’t hold a candle to them.”
“Those poor holy men who do penance for us sinners as well as themselves!”
“Good luck to them: sin is as common as dirt. The best remedy is a long life with many chances to repent.”
Magnus smiled. “A long life is not necessarily a good one. It is fortunate that the Church provides the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Between the two, all sins are crushed.”
“I don’t know. Perhaps I sinned four times between Reconciliation and Communion and sixteen between then and now.”
Magnus knit his brows. “That strikes me as remarkably irresponsible, Svein—even if you were the most hardened of sinners.”
To Magnus’s astonishment, Svein guffawed for several moments—needing to hold onto his sides lest he begin rolling on the floor—before he regained his sullen countenance. “I suppose that I was exaggerating a bit. Still, you would agree that dying now isn’t the best thing.”
The rosary in Magnus’s chest pocket rustled, reminding him of its presence. He clasped it and gazed upon the final scene of his dear Lord’s mission. Then, looking at Svein, he said: “Why would Our Lord, who sacrificed so much for us, be so eager to damn us and set venial sins against our entry into the Kingdom? From sin He has freed us. Through His strength none ever need turn their backs on Him.”
“But think of how many sins we daily commit—”
“I expect to be punished for these, but not eternally. His purifying fire shall save me from the punishing flames of hell. As long as I do not turn my back on Him in my last moments, He shall fight for me and save me.”
“Oh really? I can number the sins against you since you gained the use of reason until this very day, and they exceed the very stars!”
Magnus thrust forth his crucifix. “St. Michael smite thee back to the depths of hell to remain there for a thousand years, demon!”
Like the first, this one too vanished. Ire coursed through Magnus’s stout heart. “I see how they work, these foul creatures! Against beginners, they use material things to lure them from the spiritual. Against the more advanced, they tempt them to despair. Well, I shall fight and fight against them even after this body perishes. That is the essential thing: never quitting no matter how many times or how deeply one falls.” Here he knelt and recited the Act of Hope. Then he said: “I shall make a second offer should cousin Hakon turn down the first: that I might be sent into a dungeon and held under guard by our friends in Scotland for the rest of my days; for the light of God inspires even those locked away in the deepest pits.”
The need for rest dunned his weary eyes. No longer did Magnus deem it necessary to keep his vigil. He stood up to return to his men in the church and did not progress far before he saw Svein and Holdbodi searching for him. He hailed the two men to approach him.
Holdbodi spoke first: “There you are, Earl Magnus! I hoped that I might be permitted to speak with you.”
“Blessed be the name of Jesus Christ.”
At once, they responded in unison: “Both now and forever.”
A smile lit Magnus’s visage. “How happy I am to see friendly faces! Speak your mind, Holdbodi.”
The earl and the other two sat down after the earl beckoned them to do so. Once they were seated, Holdbodi began: “My lord, please don’t do this thing. Don’t permit Hakon to kill you. You have brought real justice to Orkney and succor to the poor. Where would we be without you, dear friend?”
Magnus held back the tears which threatened to burst from his eyes and stifled the affection and joy welling from his very viscera. Suffering from so great an emotion, Magnus could not reply.
“There was never a better earl than you or a better friend. I daresay, there was never a better husband. How your poor wife will miss you! It’s wrong! It’s unjust for you to sacrifice your life for Hakon’s ambition!”
“Oh…my dear friends…my dear wife…”
“Please escape with us. Dawn has not yet broken. Free us from the unlawful tyranny Hakon threatens us with!”
Magnus placed a hand on Holdbodi’s shoulder. “Cousin Hakon is a splendid ruler, Holdbodi. I know you’ll miss me, but he shall not bring tyranny.”
“Still, you can’t leave your family and friends like this. It’s wrong!”
The sun just began to rise and illuminate Magnus’s mournful features. “You’re right in a way, Holdbodi. But there is a higher justice only fulfilled through charity: all souls belong to God. Through the perversity of their own hearts, many men are lost. It is a great shame to lose even one, and God does not receive his proper due: the love of all men. My death shall not destroy your souls, but may even save my cousin and many others besides.”
“But dying for Hakon…”
“Love your enemies. I have dispensed enough justice; enough criminals have been incarcerated through my judgment. That is not very great: it is not so wonderful that souls are sent to hell through God’s justice, but that so many are saved through his mercy. Deus caritas est. And I pray that my poor efforts may reveal the love of God to the poor sinners of this world. Even if cousin Hakon kills me, I shall not cease praying for his soul before the very face of God.”
Svein announced: “There are Hakon’s men! They’re searching the church! It is too late.”
Indeed, as he spoke, a formidable company of armored men with spears and shields entered St. Paul’s Church to search for the blessed earl.
Holdbodi mourned: “So true. We no longer have a chance to escape. It seems like the greater shame to me that so great a man will lose his life to the likes of Hakon.”
Magnus sighed. “If the vilest murderer had been given the same graces I have so often neglected, people might imagine that Christ himself had returned. But I hope to at least end my life for the glory of God.” Here he spoke the Act of Charity along with his tearing men. After they finished, he said: “Don’t fear. I have one last offer to deter my cousin from kinslaughter—this he will accept: that he mutilates me however he wishes or blinds me and casts me in a dungeon.”
This remark caused renewed wails from these two most loyal vassals. St. Magnus now comforted his two companions and bade them pray to God for courage and for the sake of all poor sinners.
After some time, Hakon’s men satisfied themselves that the earl had not hidden himself in the church and came back outside. Magnus rose to the top of a hill and summoned them, telling them not to bother seeking him elsewhere. The soldiers looked askance at one another, but they shrugged and began to approach. All of Magnus’s other men saw that they were at a disadvantage of eight to one and had already surrendered to Hakon’s men, in obedience to Magnus’s command.
As Magnus and his two companions awaited the soldiers’ arrival, Svein said: “Well, it was a great honor to have had you as our earl.”
Holdbodi still had tears in his eyes which he desired to wipe away ere Hakon’s men arrived. “Yes, if you can, continue to rule Orkney from paradise.”
Magnus laughed. “Indeed, I might just rule Orkney as a king; in the country where all are kings and queens, and where the lowliest handmaid has risen to become the greatest empress.”
“That is precisely what I shall tell, Earl Hakon: you’re his king now.”
“No, no, no. Don’t use me to vex my dear cousin. He may yet be saved. Obey this as my final command.”
Both his companions replied: “As you wish, my lord.”
“Now, let us say a few prayers.”
Thus it happened that Hakon’s men came upon Magnus and his friends praying. Though they clashed their spears against their shields and hollered so that the citizens of London might hear them, Magnus and his men did not glance up from their prayers until they had finished. The men never saw another soul face certain death so calmly.
When Hakon arrived at this place along with Sigurd, Sighvat and the rest of his chieftains, Magnus crossed himself and greeted his cousin, who returned this greeting with the news that he must die.
Magnus replied: “Kinsman, you ought not to have broken your oath, though evil advisers probably led you to the deed. But, I would not have you sin further by killing an innocent man and a kinsman; so I will offer you three alternatives.”
Sigurd, Sighvat, and the chieftains demanded to know what Magnus had to say. Magnus described his first proposal and Hakon’s men turned it down. They refused the second proposal more vehemently than the first. During this time, Hakon glanced from his men to the holy figure of his cousin saint Magnus and wondered what he should do.
At last, Magnus described his final offer: “Well, cousin Hakon, God knows I’m perfectly willing to lose my life if I might save your soul. So, I shall make this last offer: mutilate me however you wish or, having blinded me, cast me into a dungeon rather than murdering me.”
Before the leading men of his district could reply for him, Hakon shouted: “I accept! Without any other conditions!”
Yet, his men rose up against him and said: “We’re tired of conflicts between the two earls and civil wars rising every few years! It’s either him or you!”
“But what can he do while blind and imprisoned?”
“We’ll have either your life or his! One of the earls must die!”
Flustered, Hakon responded: “Well, let Magnus die. I am yet young and enjoy ruling people and places.”
A broad smile covered Magnus’s face and he knelt down to shed tears before God. Hakon no longer stood as a full murderer! He had argued with his men and fought for Magnus’s life! Only when pressed by the fear of death did he break at last.
Hakon told Ofeig, his standard bearer, to execute the deed, but Ofeig said: “Earl Hakon, I’ve played my part in this business as far as I’m going to go. Find another headsman!”
Rebuffed with such strength, Hakon did not ask again, but turned to scan the rest of his men. All showed forth a stony countenance save Lifolf, his cook, who, as he fought back tears, stood marveling at the great saint.
“Lifolf! Come here. You shall perform the deed!”
Instead of complying, Lifolf could no longer hold back his tears and wept aloud. Magnus noticed his fellow sufferer and went up to comfort him. Slapping him on the shoulder, he said: “Don’t weep! Such a deed can bring only fame to the one who accomplishes it. Show your bravery and my clothes are yours according to old customs.” Here Magnus took off his tunic and dried Lifolf’s eyes. “The man who gave you this order has far more guilt than you.” He turned to address his cousin: “Cousin, please permit me to say some final prayers.”
Hakon shouted his agreement before any of his men could put forward a different idea. Having received his permission, Magnus prayed for both his friends and murderers, wishing prosperity for the former and forgiveness for the latter. He also prayed that the last of his sins may be blotted out upon the spilling of his blood so that he might be greeted by the hosts of heaven.
Once he was finished, he was led away to the place of execution. On the way there, he turned one more time to speak with Lifolf.
“Kill me by striking with all your strength upon my skull. I have not committed a crime, and so do not deserve to be killed like a thief.” Remembrance of the deed remaining for him renewed the tears in Lifolf’s eyes. “Do not fear. I have prayed that you obtain the mercy of God. On your last day, I hope to see you again in paradise.”
Once they reached the place of execution, Magnus knelt and crossed himself to receive the blow. Hakon had been feeling sick during the entire episode and forced himself to watch his cousin’s death with clenched teeth. Lifolf took one last look at Hakon to confirm his lord’s will. Hakon gave a brief nod. Lifolf then raised his ax and struck Magnus’s death blow.
Sensing the mood, Sigurd and Sighvat had remained quiet for a long time. But a spirit of rashness, deriving from being long ignored, rose up in Sigurd.
“Good! He got what he deserved. All hail Hakon as the earl of all Orkney!” Hakon endured the cheers with a stoic countenance. Sigurd continued: “Let the body of this greedy man, Magnus, lie here for the crows to peck at!”
Sigurd crossed the wrong line. Hakon drew his sword and smote Sigurd’s helm with such a blow from the pommel that Sigurd lay stunned upon the ground. Then the earl landed several blows into the man’s stomach with his hard boots. Blood leaked from the corners of his mouth.
“Why isn’t it you lying dead out there instead of that godly man? Leave him for the crows! No! My cousin shall be given a funeral before God and men as he would have wished.” He turned to Sighvat. “Sighvat! You and your brother are never to return to Orkney as long as I live. I give you one week to gather your things and depart.”
As the years lengthened, the people of Orkney saw that though Earl Magnus perished, he continued to help them from his throne in God’s kingdom. Earl Hakon never committed such a grave sin ever again and died beloved of his people. Those sick and insane went to St. Magnus’s tomb and were healed. To this very day, a cathedral marks the victorious death of St. Magnus and God’s victory over the devil as revealed in this friend of God. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
[…] The Death of St. Magnus of Orkney […]