Monday, August 5, 2013

St. Magnus and St. Ronald

The story of St. Magnus comes from two sagas. Magnus Erlendsson was born in 1075 to the Earl of Orkney, then under Norwegian rule. His father was a twin, which created complications with who was the rightful earl. Magnus and his first cousin, Haakon Paulsson, ruled jointly for some time, but eventually, their followers demanded that only one man be earl. In 1115, they agreed to meet unarmed on an island and discuss the matter.

Magnus arrived under the agreed upon conditions, but Haakon arrived with several men and seized Magnus. Haakon refused to kill his own cousin, who was known as a pious and honorable man, so he asked his standard bearer to do so, but he refused as well. Eventually, the cook was ordered to kill Magnus. Magnus prayed for his executioner, and his only request was that he not be beheaded, so the cook struck him through the skull with the axe.

St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall
Rumors grew of healings at his burial site on Birsay, gaining followers and pilgrims. Magnus’ nephew, St. Ronald, decided to build a cathedral in Magnus’ honor. In 1137, Magnus’ remains were moved to the cathedral in Kirkwall. In 1917, bones were found in one of the columns, including a damaged skull, lending proof that they were Magnus’ remains. Because the Reformation was not as dramatic or violent in Orkney as in other parts of the UK, St. Magnus is one of very few saints who still rests in his cathedral in the country.

Magnus’ nephew, Ronald, went on to become a saint himself. He became Earl of Orkney and Shetland in 1129. In 1151, he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He died in 1158 in Scotland. His feast day is August 20.

It was fascinating putting together parts of St. Magnus’ and St. Ronald’s story as I traveled around Orkney. I went to Birsay, where Magnus grew up and was buried, and I saw the column in the cathedral where he rests now. I was surrounded by their history, and their stories continue to be remembered and play a role in the community’s identity. And suddenly, 900 years doesn’t feel that long ago. There is a connection that stretches across the barriers of time and death. Here we all are, sharing in the story.

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