29 July 2021

St Olaf and Orkney

Doorway in Kirkwall
photo by Judith Jesch
Today is the feast day of Óláfr Haraldsson, king of Norway and saint, who died in battle, killed by his political enemies at Stiklestad, on this day in 1030. He soon became a popular saint in many parts of northern Europe and further afield, as can be seen in some interesting contributions on Twitter today (they tend to turn up every year on this day, and I have been guilty of some blog posts on this theme too). Thus, St Óláfr was venerated in England (Eleanor Parker and Francis Young), Denmark (Steffen Hope) and Ireland. So it is no surprise that he was an important figure in Orkney, too. The doorway pictured is what is thought to be left of a medieval church (possibly from the eleventh century) dedicated to St Óláfr in Kirkwall.

As an important saint and historical figure, Óláfr gets quite frequent mentions in Orkneyinga saga, the text I'm mainly working on these days. That he was considered to have a special bond with some of the earls of Orkney is also clear. Thus, in chapter 29, Earl Rǫgnvaldr Brúsason travels to Papa Stronsay to get some malt for the brewing of ale for the upcoming Christmas feast. While they were sitting by the fire there one evening, 
....he who was stoking the fire spoke about how the firewood was running out. Then the earl misspoke and said this, ‘We will be fully old when these fires have burned out’. But what he wanted to say was that they would then be fully warmed up. And as soon as he noticed, he said this, ‘I have not misspoken before, as far as I remember. What occurs to me is what my foster-father, King Óláfr, said at Stiklestad, when I heard him misspeak, if it ever happened that I misspoke, that I should prepare myself that I would stay alive for only a short time. It might be that kinsman Þorfinnr is alive.’ [my translation]

And indeed, Rǫgnvaldr's uncle and rival earl, Þorfinnr Sigurðarson and his men turn up and make short work of killing him to consolidate Þorfinnr's power.

South doorway
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
photo by Judith Jesch
The earls of Orkney were often in the habit of killing their kinsmen to ensure their own grip on power. The most notorious example involved the feud between Þorfinnr's grandsons, the cousins Hákon Pálsson and Magnús Erlendsson. The former killed the latter on the island of Egilsay at Easter, creating another much loved Scandinavian aristocratic saint, to whom the very beautiful cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated, replacing the smaller church dedicated to St Óláfr.

Magnús' connection to St Óláfr is perhaps not quite as clear as that of his father's cousin Rǫgnvaldr, though the saga does connect their deaths chronologically, stating somewhat confusedly that the killing of Magnús happend 74 years after that of St Óláfr (ch. 51) - although we don't know the exact year it happened that is out by at least a decade.

As can be seen from the quotation above, Rǫgnvaldr Brúsason had been present at the battle in which Óláfr was killed, while Magnús in his turn became a saint like Óláfr, his cathedral sponsored by his nephew, also called Rǫgnvaldr, who was in his turn murdered by his political enemies in the interminable internecine warfare of those times. Despite his saintly powers, Óláfr could no more keep his Orcadian earls alive than he could keep himself alive, but it may have comforted these political martyrs that he was on their side. Certainly, through the powers of sanctity and the church they are remembered more than the kinsmen and compatriots who killed them.


 

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