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Viking - 42: Magnus In Focus, Two Kings And An Earl Make Their Mark

Updated on August 9, 2017

The first is Magnus I, son of (St) Olaf Haraldsson, nephew of legendary Harald Sigurdsson

Statue of the young King Magnus, dubbed 'the Good', although did he earn this attribute?
Statue of the young King Magnus, dubbed 'the Good', although did he earn this attribute? | Source
Magnus directs his men on the field of battle
Magnus directs his men on the field of battle | Source
A young Magnus and Harthaknut meet to discuss the future of Scandinavian royal policy
A young Magnus and Harthaknut meet to discuss the future of Scandinavian royal policy | Source
A coin minted during the twelve years of his reign over half Scandinavia
A coin minted during the twelve years of his reign over half Scandinavia | Source

At the height of the Viking Age, almost a century from the mid-11th Century there were three great men in Scandinavian circles named Magnus. In chronological order the first was Magnus nicknamed 'the Good', son of the ill-fated Olaf Haraldsson on the 'wrong side of the sheet'.

Magnus.I, Olafsson was born AD 1024. Despite being an illegitimate son he was taken by his father to Holmgard (Novgorod) at the age of four, driven into a short exile by the Danish king Knut Sveinsson, 'the Great'.

His father returned by way of Sweden and, AD 1026, allied to the Svear king Onund Jacob and the Dane Jarl Ulf Thorgilsson defeated Knut at the Battle of Helgeaa (Holy River). Knut turned the tables on Olaf in AD 1030 by supporting the West Norse (Norwegian) chieftains and commoners who refused to be converted to Christianity by the sword, as had happened thirty years earlier with Olaf Tryggvason. Olaf was slain and his half-brother, Magnus' uncle Harald Sigurddson fled Stiklestad wounded to be sheltered by Onund Jacob in Sweden and went on to Holmgard and Koenungagard (Kiev) on his way to Miklagard (Constantinople) to enlist in the emperor's Varangian Guard.

After Knut died AD 1035 the West.Norse rose up against the Danish regent, his son Svein by Aelfgifu of Northampton. A year later they invited Magnus back to take the kingship. The Danish heir Harthaknut Knutsson acknowledged Magnus' kingship of the West Norse. These two young kings agreed at a meeting that whichever of the two survived the other should reign over both kingdoms. Additionally they agreed that the survivor or his heirs should claim the throne of England. So when Harthaknut died suddenly at a wedding feast near London given by friend Osgod Clapa Magnus succeeded to the Danish throne, although with the strength of forces Harthaknut's half-brother Eadward could muster against an invader Magnus made do with Denmark. He appointed Knut's nephew Svein Aestridsson/Estrithsson to the regency over the Danish isles. Svein was Ulf Thorgilsson's son, although he and his younger brother Osbeorn took the name of their mother Astrid or Aestrid name.

Needless to say Svein had his own ideas about a West Norse ruler over the Danes and rebelled, although most Danes at the time remained loyal to Magnus, particularly after his victories over the Wends (Poles), who threatened southern Danish territories in Jylland. He defeated the Wends on Lyrskov Heath AD 1043 and at Jumne (now Wolin in Poland) he defeated the Jomsvikings who had sold their services to the Wendish princes.

In AD 1044 Magnus' uncle Harald Sigurdsson returned from the East and after initial rebuttal by Magnus sided with Svein. When in AD 1046 Magnus offered Harald an equal share of the kingship Harald turned against his erstwhile ally. However Magnus died on campaign against Svein, leaving his uncle Harald the sole kingship. Harald began campaigning anew against Svein, who by this time had seized the Danish kingship..

Our next Magnus was a 'chip off the old block'.

Viking Longship at large! Magnus 'Barelegs' took his fleet around the Northern Isles and through the Irish Sea
Viking Longship at large! Magnus 'Barelegs' took his fleet around the Northern Isles and through the Irish Sea | Source
Magnus 'Barelegs' was cornered in Ulster and killed whilst foraging for supplies
Magnus 'Barelegs' was cornered in Ulster and killed whilst foraging for supplies
West Norse presence in the northern isles aroused Scots' animosity
West Norse presence in the northern isles aroused Scots' animosity

Born ca AD 1073, the son of Olaf Haraldsson, 'the Peaceful', he was the grandson of Harald Sigurdsson, known to all and sundry as 'Hardradi', the Hard Ruler

He succeeded Olaf AD 1093. Magnus Olafsson shared the throne with kinsman Hakon Magnusson, also a grandson of 'Hardradi' until AD 1095 when Hakon died.

One of Magnus' first acts as sole monarch was an old-fashioned Viking raid on the Svear coast. When his envoy Ingemund was slain on the Outer Hebridean isle of Ljodhus (Lewis) AD 1097 Magnus decided on direct rule over the Jarldom (Earldom) of Orkney and the Kingdom of Man, both claimed long since by the West Norse crown. At around this time also the former King Harold's son Harold Haroldson had arrived at his court from Ireland, to be honoured with lands in recognition of hi father's fairness toward his father and uncle after their father's death at Staenfordes Brycg (Stamford Bridge near York).

Young Harold went with Magnus on a rough campaign through the isles, sparing only the the holy island of Iona off the coast of Mull in western Scotland. The jarls of Orkney were cast aside temporarily, to be replaced by Magnus' son Sigurd, and the Isle of Man was easily subjugated. With Man as a base, Magnus went on to take Dyflin (Dublin) and to demand scot (tribute) on Galloway and Anglesey.

Whilst on Anglesey Magnus' men confronted the Normans under Hugh de Avranches, Earl of Chester, and Hugh de Montgomerie Earl of Shrewsbury. Montgomerie fell to a stray arrow in the fighting and the Norse fleet withdrew. On agreeing a treaty with King Eadgar, son of Maelcolm III, 'Canmore' steps were undertaken for the Scots' kings to recognise the West Norse claim to the Northern Isles, Katanes and Suthraland (Caithness and Sutherland).

In AD 1102 Magnus left for home and a short war with the Svear king Inge. He then undertook a second expedition to the isles later that year. Spending the winter in Ulster with the High King Muirchertach II, he entered into a marriage alliance with the Gael king but was killed the following summer whilst foraging for food in the marsh at Downpatrick in Muirchertach's. province. Magnus' achievements did not endure the test of time. Before long West Norse royal authority in the isles waned slowly, without recovery.

Which brings us to our third Magnus, the son of Erlend of Orkney who held sway over the Northern Isles, AD1064-93.

Portrait of Saint Magnus in a large stained glass window in Kirkwall Cathedral
Portrait of Saint Magnus in a large stained glass window in Kirkwall Cathedral | Source
The Earl's hall and church, Birsay, Orkney, where Magnus' corpse was first interred before being translated to the cathedral at Kirkwall
The Earl's hall and church, Birsay, Orkney, where Magnus' corpse was first interred before being translated to the cathedral at Kirkwall | Source
Facial reconstruction of Magnus Erlendsson to mark the 900th anniversary of his death
Facial reconstruction of Magnus Erlendsson to mark the 900th anniversary of his death

Magnus joined his namesake, the West Norse king Magnus Olafsson on his punitive progress through the isles and the Irish Sea AD 1098

By claiming he had no cause to fight the Normans on Anglesey he angered the king, and was said to have recited the psalms aboard ship whilst the fighting went on. This action would have been viewed with disfavour by his fellow Orkneymen and worse was to follow. He deserted when the king returned to Orkney and entered service with the Scots' king Maelcolm III. When King Magnus fell in AD 1103 at Downpatrick Magnus Erlendsson returned to a half share of the Earldom of Orkney offered by kinsman Hakon Paulsson. Tension grew between the earls due to Magnus' religious convictions. Hakon offered a peace meeting on Egilsay, slaying his kinsman shortly before Easter, AD 1117.

Magnus was buried on Birsay, near his hall, where miracles were soon spoken of at his grave. His remains were translated to the Cathedral of Saint Magnus on Kirkwall by his nephew Rognvald Kali.

This is the cover of the British Museum edition of R I Page's book that I bought after visiting the exhibition in the spring of 2015
This is the cover of the British Museum edition of R I Page's book that I bought after visiting the exhibition in the spring of 2015

R I Page, "Chronicles of the Vikings"

The Norsemen, often described as the Vikings, as they saw themselves. Read R I Page's account from 'Getting to know the Vikings' to 'Myth, religion and superstition before 'The conversion to Christianity' and the end of the heroic age as the Norsemen would have understood it. I bought my copy from the British Museum when they staged their exhibition a year ago. An insight unavailable through text books as we understand them. Use this link, it'll be worth it. Live the age through their eyes across Scandinavia and beyond to eastern river shores where the Rus or Rhos pushed back the boundaries of trade to Arabia and south to the 'Golden Horn' (Miklagard, or Constantinople), or westward to the Northern Isles around Scotland, Ireland and the Atlantic... And England.

Kings of Norway ('West Norse') from Halfdan 'the Black' to Magnus Olafsson

Halfdan 'the Black'...................................................... d. ca AD 880;

Harald 'Harfagri' ('Fair Hair') ........................................r. ca. AD 880-930;

Eirik Haraldsson, ('Blood-axe')......................................ca. AD 930-936, deposed, left Norway, King of Jorvik (after raiding from Orkney in Scotland), AD 948, AD 952-4;

Hakon Haraldsson, 'The Good'.....................................ca AD 936-60;

Harald Eiriksson, 'Greycloak'........................................ca AD 960-70;

[Norway was ruled AD 970-995 between Harald Gormsson, 'Blue-tooth', of Denmark and Jarl Hakon];

Olaf Tryggvason, killed at Svold (Baltic Sea)................AD 995-1000;

Olaf Haraldson (Saint) .................................................AD 1016-1028, k. Stiklestad AD 1030;

Svein, regent (Knut's elder son by Aelfgifu of Northampton), AD 1030-35 deposed AD 1035;

Magnus I, Olafsson, 'The Good'......................................AD 1035-47, also k of Denmark . ........................................................................................AD 1042-47;

Harald Sigurdsson, 'Hardradi', sh. throne with Magnus AD 1046-47, sole k. AD 1047-66;

Magnus II, Haraldsson...............................................AD 1066-69, sh throne with brother Olaf .................................................................................AD 1067-69, sole k AD 1069-93;

Hakon Magnusson.....................................................AD 1093-95;

Magnus III, Olafsson..................................................sh throne with Hakon AD 1093-95, sole ...........................................................................ruler AD 1095-1103, k. of Man AD 1098-1103;

The Viking Age effectively died with Magnus III, Olafsson

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