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The Great East Window of St. Magnus Church, one of the buildings described on the Birsay Historic Sites page, honours two events in the life of Magnus, but what events? WHO was this man? WHY was he murdered? What is his special association with Birsay?
The story is set in the eleventh century, Viking times told in the Sagas, and war spread throughout Britain. Norse and Danes held much of the land and were attacking to conquer the rest; their loss was William of Normandy's gain in 1066. Orkney was a strategic centre, and the Earls of Orkney were powerful rulers of most of northern Scotland and the Western Isles. Too powerful for the King of Norway who invaded Orkney ca. 1098. The Earls, Erlend and Paul, were sent to their deaths, and their sons, Magnus Erlendson and Hakon Paulson, were taken to serve the King. So it was that Magnus, then eighteen, found himself in a warship in the Strait of Menai preparing to attack Anglesey. He refused to fight preferring to sing psalms standing exposed, open to the danger of battle. After an enforced exile until the Norwegian king died, Magnus returned to Orkney to reclaim his share of his inheritance taken by Hakon. A joint rule lasted a few years, but disputes arose. Magnus arranged an Eastertide meeting for peaceful negotiation using the good offices of Bishop William "the Old"; Hakon had other means in mind, arriving with eight ship filled with warriors. Magnus made no attempt at defence or flight, but fell to prayer in the church on Egilsay. Hakon had him seized and killed. Now the Bishop's Cathedral - small by latter day standards - was in Birsay, most probably on the very site of the present Church. It was here that Magnus was buried, and here soon after that the miracles began, and pilgrims came for healing and absolution. Magnus was canonized in AD 1135, and a few years later his remains transferred to the new cathedral in Kirkwall.
Returning to our East Window, the left panel recalls Magnus's early pacifism, and the right panel, his faith at the moment of his assassination.
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St. Magnus Church, Birsay Trust is a Recognised Scottish Charity SCO 26084.
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