It is exactly 900 years since Earl Magnus and Earl Haakon met on the island of Egilsay to try and resolve their differences. The two cousins had divided and ruled the islands of Orkney. But their followers had fallen out and rather than fight in battle, the joint Earls of Orkney agreed to meet and seek peace.
These were bloodcurdling times when rulers went by the names of Thornflinn the Skullsplitter and Eirik Bloodaxe. In this company, Magnus was something of an exception. According to Icelandic legend, as a young man he had refused to fight under King Magnus Barelegs against the Welsh ‘for he had no quarrel with anyone there’ and sang psalms while the battle raged.
In the Orkneyinga Saga, Manus is described as a man of extraordinary distinction, tall with a fine intelligent look about him. He punished the rich and supported the poor. He lived according to God’s commands, was faithful in marriage and whenever the urge of temptation came upon him, he would plunge into cold water and pray to God for aid. He could also put his enemies to death and torch their houses when necessary so lets not get carried away.
On the way to the fateful meeting with Haakon, Magnus was drenched by a freak wave in the stern of his ship which was deemed a bad omen. His men urged him to turn back. It had been agreed that each cousin would bring two boats of supporters but when Magnus arrived he found that Haakon had turned up mob handed with eight boat loads.
Vastly outnumbered, and perhaps too trusting, Magnus offered his cousin a series of concessions. He would go on pilgrimage to Rome and never return. He would be confined to house arrest. He would have his eyes gouged out and spend the rest of his life in a deep dungeon.
None of these compromises satisfied the chieftains who wanted a single ruler and Magnus was executed by on Easter Day 1017. Magnus allegedly prayed for forgiveness for his persecutors and asked to be killed by a single axe strike on his forehead as befitted his noble standing. In an astonishing act of forgiveness, Magnus’s mother, Thora, later forgave Haakon in return for giving her son a proper burial. A cult developed, Magnus’s grave become a pilgrimage site and a series of healing miracles were attributed to his spirit.
William the Old, Bishop of Orkney, warned against such heresies but was struck blind and only restored to sight after praying himself at Magnus’s grave. He quickly canonised Magnus, which may have been a simpler process in those days.
Twenty years later, Magnus’s nephew, Rognvald Kali Kolsson, promised to build a cathedral in Kirkwall in memory of St Magnus in return for ruling the islands. In 1919 a wooden box was discovered during restoration in the cathedral. It contained a skull with a fractured forehead. In this same cathedral, St Magnus’s story was retold this past Sunday to mark the 900th anniversary of his martyrdom and on Monday a pilgrimage walk on the route around the islands to his final resting place was inaugurated.
On this now peaceful island, whose history as a centre of civilisation goes back centuries before Magnus, I have spent the weekend anxiously listening to news of war mongering between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. I have felt more apprehensive over these last few days than at any time since the Cuba missile crisis. Warships gathered, a Korean missile probably sabotaged by a cyber attack and all options were said to be on the table.
The President is failing on many fronts. He has been unable to get his way in Congress to repeal Obamacare. He has been unable to deny Muslims entry to the United States thanks to judicial challenges. He may well be impeached for his collusion with Russian sponsored election rigging. His advisors are squabbling, his press spokesman is embarrassing and his ratings are falling.
But this only makes Donald Trump a more frightening figure on the world stage. He tries to restore his reputation as a man of action by launching missiles and dropping bombs without any semblance of forethought or strategy. At the back of my mind is Steve Bannon’s belief that the United States long term interests are best served by launching a war in the South China seas within the next five years.
It is wrong to single out Donald Trump. There are a few Skullsplitters and Bloodaxes around today including Bashar al-Assad. Forget the obscene extravagance of the Mar-a-Lago holiday camp where Trump served President Xi chocolate cake and told him about bombing Syria. I would put them all in simple stone huts on a small remote island and with strictly two boatloads of aides and generals each. Let them eat gruel.
There is another way. It requires courage and integrity to talk to each other. You can be betrayed as Magnus found out to his cost. Ron Ferguson, former leader of Iona Community who preached the Easter Day sermon in St Magnus’s Cathedral, wrote in his foreword to Magnus’s life, “if human beings are to live together on this fragile earth, worship, reverence, love and willingness to sacrifice for others must be seen as necessities rather than as idealistic impossibilities.”
published in Newcastle Journal on Tues 18th April