Sanctus Magnus dux

From medieval

by Haki Antonsson (Legenda) & Åslaug Ommundsen (Officium, Missa)

St. Magnus, earl of Orkney, was killed 16 April 1116/17 by a relative for the power over the Orkney earldom, for which Magnus was the rightful heir. On 13 December 1135 he was placed in the Cathedral of St. Magnus in Kirkwall, and from this point onwards he was worshipped as a saint primarily in the Orkneys, Northern Scotland, Iceland, the Faroes and Western Norway. The celebration of Magnus’s feast days (the natalitio and the translatio) seems to have been officially introduced in the Scottish and the Norwegian liturgy as late as in the fifteenth century (WALLIN 1961, 341; GJERLØW 1968, 75-77), in Scotland in 1472, when the Orkneys was placed under the metropolitan of St. Andrews.

There was a Latin Vita, now lost, and a legend transmitted in two versions.

(1) Legenda

The life and martyrdom of St. Magnus is well served in the Old Norse corpus in Orkneyinga saga and his two separate sagas. Underlying these accounts, however, is a Latin Life of the saint, Vita Sancti Magni, which also provided the material for the two versions of the Legenda Sancti Magni.

Vita Sancti Magni

The existence of a Latin Life of St. Magnus of Orkney is only attested directly in Magnúss saga lengri (The Longer Magnus Saga), which was composed in Old Norse in the fourteenth century and preserved in eighteenth-century paper manuscripts (AM 350 4°, AM 351 4° and AM 352 4°). On two occasions the saga refers to a Latin Life of Magnus composed by a certain magister Robert. A number of passages in the saga appear to be translated from this Vita Sancti Magni. The other main text that contains material from the Vita is Legenda Sancti Magni (see below). The title Vita Sancti Magni is not attested in the medieval literature.

  • VIGFUSSON, G. 1887: Icelandic Sagas and Other Historical Documents Relating to the Settlements and Descents of the Northmen on the British Isles (Rolls Series 88), London, vol. 1.
  • GUDMUNDSSON, F. 1965: Orkneyinga saga. Legenda de Sancto Magno. Magnúss saga skemmri. Magnúss saga lengri. Helga fláttr Úlfs (Íslensk fornrit 34), Reykjavík, 335-83.

(English) DASHENT, G.W. 1894: The Orkneyingers’ Saga. Icelandic Sagas and Other Historical Documents Relating to the Settlements and Descents of the Northmen on the British Isles vol 4. (Rolls Series), London, vol. 4.

Date and place

Magnúss saga lengri tells that Robert composed his Vita twenty years after the passion of St. Magnus, which would date the work to ca. 1136/37. Around that time Rögnvaldr Kali Kolsson, earl of Orkney, began to actively patronise the cult of St. Magnus, most notably by commencing the construction of a cathedral in his honour in Kirkwall. There is, however, reason to doubt the dating of Vita Sancti Magni that is provided by the Icelandic saga. Indeed it has been convincingly demonstrated that Robert’s prologue to Vita Sancti Magni is influenced by William of Canterbury’s Life of Thomas Becket, completed around 1174. More generally, a number of parallels have been pointed out between passages that appear to derive from Robert’s Life and the early hagiographical corpus (1171-1184) on St. Thomas Becket (ANTONSSON 2001). This connection with the Becket biographies has led scholars to argue that magister Robert should identified with magister Robert of Cricklade, prior of the Augustinian house of St. Frideswide at Oxford. This Robert, who died ca. 1180, is known to have composed a Life of Becket ca. 1174, which has been preserved fragmentarily in an Icelandic translation. Robert of Cricklade is known to have visited Scotland in the 1160s.

Summary of contents

As noted, Robert’s Vita Sancti Magni is partially preserved thanks to the Iceland author of Magnúss saga lengri. The passages that he chose to include in his saga are sermon-like and exegetical in nature. Most notably, the prologue of the Vita is quoted at length in one of the two the prologues to Magnúss saga lengri. Here magister Robert relates the symbolic significance of the Biblical Tabernacle to the life and martyrdom of the Orkney saint. Later in the saga Robert’s commentary on St. Magnus’s piratical activity in his youth is included. Near the end of Magnúss saga lengri, in what appears to be a translation of the conclusion of Robert’s Vita, Magnus’s life and passion is used as a point of departure for an extended moral and theological digression. The saint’s celibacy in marriage, generosity, piety and ultimate self-sacrifice are the ideals that those reading (or listening) to the work should aspire to emulate. In general Robert’s Vita Sancti Magni appears to have been a highly erudite piece of work. Biblical allusions and analogues abound and it has been shown that the prologue was influenced by St. Jerome’s writings on the Book of Samuel and the Book of Kings (FOOTE 1989).

Purpose and audience

In light of the fragmentary preservation of Vita Sancti Magni its intended audience is difficult to establish. In one passage, however, the author addresses the audience as “kæru bræ›r”, or “dear brothers” which is undoubtedly a translation of “fratres carissimi”. This method of address (which is common in medieval sermons) could indicate that the target audience was a monastic community of some kind, most probably the chapter of St. Magnus Cathedral. The same passage also reveals that the Vita was specifically composed for reading on the feast-day, the day of Magnus’s martyrdom (16 April).

Medieval reception and transmission

As noted, Vita Sancti Magni influenced Icelandic writers on St. Magnus of Orkney and, in addition, supplied the material for the Legenda Sancti Magni (see below) and to the liturgy in honour of the saint (DE GEER 1985, 118-39).

Legenda Sancti Magni

The Legend of St. Magnus (De Sancto Magno Martyre glorioso) is preserved in two versions of slightly different length (the longer version runs to ca. 600 words). Both, however, appear to be completely reliant on the now-lost magister Robert’s Vita Sancti Magni.

  • Breviarium Aberdonense, Edinburgh 1509/1510, Pars Hyemalis, fols. LXXXVII-LXXXIX (facs. ed. by J. Toovey, London, 1854).
  • VIGFUSSON, G. 1887: Icelandic Sagas and Other Historical Documents Relating to the Settlements and Descents of the Northmen on the British Isles (Rolls Series 88), London, vol. 1, 299-302.
  • GUDMUNDSSON, F. 1965: Orkneyinga saga. Legenda de Sancto Magno. Magnúss saga skemmri. Magnúss saga lengri. Helga fláttr Úlfs (Íslensk fornrit 34), Reykjavík, 303-8 (with a facing translation into Icelandic).

Summary of contents

Magnus is born in Orkney into the earldom’s ruling family. As a child he is humble, polite and adverse to the frivolous ways of his peers. But when Magnus comes of age he is influenced by cruel and un-godly men and consequently he participates in piracy and killings. Magnus also joins, albeit against his will, a military expedition of the king of Norway. When Magnus’s father dies his cousin, Håkon, takes over the part of Orkney that rightfully belonged to him. Magnus voluntarily goes into exile at the court of King Henry I of England. Håkon, inspired by his evil advisors, invites Magnus to a peace-meeting on Egilsay. Håkon breaks a prior agreement and arrives with overwhelming force to the meeting. Magnus seeks refuge in a church but Håkon’s henchmen break the sanctuary and drag him outside. Magnus displays stoical composure at his execution where he is killed with two blows to the head. Earl Håkon, at the insistence of Magnus’s mother, allows him to be buried in a hallowed ground.

Medieval reception and transmission

A text of the Magnus Legend, with the heading De Sancto Magno Martyre glorioso, is preserved in AM 64 fol. 4° in a paper manuscript from the early eighteenth century. The manuscript also contains a Latin version of the Legend of St. Ansgar and the complete liturgy, without music, for the feast of St. Magnus’s translatio (13 December). It is also known that Árni Magnússon had in his possession two parchment pages, which contained the Legend of St. Anna and the beginning of the legend of St. Magnus. A shorter version of the Legend is preserved in the Aberdeen-Breviarium that was printed in 1509/1510. This shorter version neither deals with Magnus’s viking-like activity in his youth nor with his visit to the king of England. The reference to the role of Magnus’s mother in securing his burial is also left out. It should be noted, however, that the shorter version includes material that is not found in the longer version but, because it is found in Magnúss saga lengri, clearly derives from Robert’s Vita Sancti Magni. It thus seems that both the De Sancto Magno Martyre and the Legend in the Aberdeen-Breviarium are independent redactions of a lost Legenda Sancti Magni, which in turn derived its material from Robert’s Vita Sancti Magni. The authorship, and indeed the dating, of the two redactions are unknown.

(2) Officium

A proper office for St. Magnus is transmitted in the Breviarium Aberdonense (the Aberdeen breviary). There is no evidence of a proper office for St. Magnus in the arch see of Nidaros, and the celebration of his feastdays was not a part of the original Nidaros rite from ca. 1200. St. Magnus’s feast days were added as marginal notations in two of the Icelandic ordinaries, one of them entered in or after the 1480s (GJERLØW 1968, 75-77). The office chants for Magnus in the margin of the Nidaros ordinal were those commonly used for saints between Easter and Pentecost, with three readings. There seem to have been proper prayers (Oratio propria dicatur, GJERLØW 1968, 331 n.), otherwise the elements are taken from the commons. St. Magnus was entered in the Scottish saint’s calendar in 1472, when the Orkneys came under the bishopric of St. Andrew (WALLIN 1961, 341).

  • Breviarium Aberdonense
  • MOONEY 1935, 286-90.

Nobilis humilis

A “hymn” for St. Magnus, Nobilis humilis, with seven strophes, is transmitted in one source: Uppsala, University library, C 233. This piece of music is not a hymn in its strictest sense, but is written for two voices. It has probably not been written for ordinary liturgical use, but may be a piece of occasional poetry of some kind (WALLIN 1961, 342-43). It has been classified as a so called gymel, an early form of polyphony (WALLIN 1961, 339).

  • KOLSRUD & REISS 1913,
  • MOONEY 1935, 291-92 (four of seven strophes).

Date and place

Nobilis humilis was dated by KOLSRUD (& REISS, 1913) to ca. 1280. WALLIN later suggested that it was written in the Orkneys already in the twelfth century, as the earliest known example of popular heterophony in the Norse area, and also the oldest known gymel (1961, 353).

Composition and style

Nobilis, humilis, Magne martir stabilis, Habilis, utilis, comes venerabilis Et tutor laudabilis, tuos subditos Serva carnis fragilis mole positos.

Medieval reception and transmission

The hymn Nobilis humilis was along with a royal wedding song (>Carmen gratulatorium) added on some blank pages in a thirteenth-century manuscript primarily containing Lotharius (Innocentius III): De miseria condicionis humane (seu De contemptu mundi). A letter formula dated 1274 indicates that the codex belonged to a Franciscan community (KOLSRUD & REISS 1913, 16). Because of the presence of the St. Magnus-hymn, the origin of C 233 has traditionally been connected with the Orkney isles (see KOLSRUD & REISS 1913, 32; ANDERSON-SCHMITT & HEDLUND 1990, 122). One argument against such a connection is that no Franciscan community is known to have existed on the Orkneys (LAMPEN 1957). There is no reason to rule out a Norwegian or Icelandic origin (DE GEER 1985, 145), and the codex may possibly at some point have been owned by the bishop of Bergen, Arne Sigurdsson (see KOLSRUD & REISS 1913, 33). Ca. 1500 it was donated to the monastery at Graamunkeholmen in Stockholm by the Franciscan friar Kanutus Johannis.

(3) Missa

As for the office, the mass celebrations for St. Magnus’s natale (16 April) and translatio (13 December) are entered as marginal notations in the Nidaros ordinal, i.e. after its primary redaction shortly after 1200. A mass with proper elements was included by VIGFUSSON in his edition of the Orkneyinga saga.

Summary of contents

The different elements for the celebration of both of St. Magnus’s feast days are common. The incipits for the mass on 16 July: Introitus: Protexisti me. Ep. Omne gaudium. Alleluia. Egregie martyr christi. Seq. Mundi etate. Ew. Nolite arbitrari. Offert. Confitebuntur. Com. Letabitur. The sequence entered for the natale of St. Magnus, Mundi etate, is taken from the commons, in the Nidaros ordinal used for St. Magnus, St. Hallvard, and as an alternative sequence for St. Erik of Sweden and Marcus the Evangelist.

The liturgy for St. Magnus’s translation (13 December) is entered in the margin by an annotator who wrote in or after the 1480s (GJERLØW 1968, 77). The incipits are: Introitus: Letabitur iustus. Ep. Nemo militans. Gr. Posuisti. Alleluia. Egregie. Seq. Jocundemur. Ew. Nolite arbitrari. Offert. In virtute. Com.. Posuisti domine The sequence Iocundemur, by GJERLØW assumed to be a proper sequence for Magnus’s translation, is otherwise untraced (GJERLØW 1968, 432).

The proper prayers and a sequence for the mass of the translation 13 December was included by MOONEY in translation only (1935, 285-86). The Latin Service was given in VIGFUSSON’s Icelandic Text of the Orkneyinga Saga. VIGFUSSON says that the text is from AM 670 fol. 4° in the autograph of Arni Magnusson, from a lost vellum. According to Arni it was copied from a “Book of the Holy Offices in large folio which I obtained at Skard in Skardz-Strönd, in the west of Iceland” (MOONEY 1935, 285).


  • ANTONSSON, H. 2004: “St Magnús of Orkney and St. Thomas of Canterbury: Two twelfth-century saints,” in Sagas, Saints and Settlements, ed. G. Williams and P. Bibire (The Northern World. North Europe and the Baltic c. 400-1700 AD. Peoples, Economies and Cultures, vol. 11), Leiden and Boston, 41-64.
  • DE GEER, I. 1985: Earl, Saint, Bishop, Skald – and Music. The Orkney Earldom of the Twelfth Century. A Musiological Study (Uppsala).
  • FOOTE, P. 1989: “Master Robert’s prologue in Magnúss saga lengri,” in Festskrift til Finn Hødnebø, ed. B. Eithun, Oslo, 65-79.
  • GJERLØW, L., 1968: Ordo nidrosiensis ecclesiae, Oslo.
  • GUDMUNDSSON, F. 1965: Orkneyinga saga. Legenda de Sancto Magno. Magnúss saga skemmri. Magnúss saga lengri. Helga fláttr Úlfs. (Íslensk fornrit 34), Reykjavík, CXXXII-CXXXVII
  • KOLSRUD, O. & REISS, R. 1913: Tvo norrøne latinske kvæde med melodiar, utgjevne fraa Codex Upsalensis C 233 (Videnskabs-selskabets Skrifter. II. H.-F. Kl. 1912. No 5), Kristiania.
  • LAMPEN, W. 1957: “Frater Mauritius de Dacia, O. Min,” Collectanea Franciscana 27, 324-26.
  • MOONEY, J. 1935: St. Magnus – earl of Orkney, Kirkwall.
  • SVEINSSON, E.Ó. 1937: Sagnaritun Oddaverja. Nokkrar athuganir (Studia Islandica 1), Reykjavík, 16-39.
  • WALLIN, N.L. 1961: “Hymnus in honorem Sancti Magni comitis Orchadiae: Codex Upsaliensis C 233,” Studier tillägnade Carl-Allan Moberg 5 Juni 1961, Svensk tidskrift för Musikforskning 43, 339-54.