St Magnus Cathedral

Chapter 2 : History

In 1468, a marriage was agreed between King James III of Scotland, and Margaret, daughter of King Christian I of Denmark. A substantial dowry was promised, but, as it could not be handed over in cash immediately, the Orkney islands were transferred to the Scottish Crown, as a pledge – to be redeemed in due course. In fact, they never were redeemed, and negotiations relating to them continued for a century, being finally concluded as part of the marriage treaty of James and Margaret’s great-great-grandson, King James VI, and Anne of Denmark.

The Orkneys comprise numerous islands, some tiny, some substantial, situated some six miles to the north of the Scottish mainland.  They have rich history of Norse, Danish, Irish, Pictish and Scottish settlement, raiding, intermarriage and warfare – far from being remote, the islands were at the centre of the mediaeval trading routes from Norway and Denmark, to Greenland, Iceland and Ireland.

On the largest island of the archipelago, that known as Mainland, the chief settlement by 1468 was at Kirkwall, centred around the magnificent cathedral of St Magnus, whose history, no doubt suitably embroidered, is told in the Orkneyinga Saga, briefly summarised as follows.

St Magnus had been one of the joint Orcadian earls in the late 11th century, owing allegiance, along with his cousin and co-earl, Haakon, to King Magnus III Olafsson of Norway.  The earls were of different temperaments – Magnus, gentle and peace-loving, Haakon, war-like and acquisitive. As might be imagined, this combination spelt trouble, and Magnus was murdered on the orders of Haakon, who had used the opportunity of a peace-conference between the two to surround Magnus’ small band of retainers with a far larger group of his own. Magnus was killed by a blow to his head with a battle-axe.

Magnus’ faithful friends interred him at Christ Church, Birsay, in the northwest of Mainland, where miracles were soon reported as occurring at his tomb. The bishop of Orkney declared him a saint (canonisation was not then the formal pope-led procedure of later years), announcing 16th April, the anniversary of his death, as his day.

Even Earl Haakon was touched – renouncing his sins, travelling to Jerusalem and Rome and generally mending his ways. However, in 1129, Haakon’s son, Earl Paul, was overthrown by Magnus’ nephew, with support from the King of Norway, who became Earl Rognvald. Before invading, Rognvald had vowed to build a fine new cathedral for the relics of his uncle, should he succeed in taking control of Orkney.  Magnus was impressed by the promise, and speeded his Rognvald to victory. The cathedral was begun in 1137, during the episcopate of Bishop William ‘the Old’ who also began the Bishop’s Palace in Orkney. Rognvald was canonised in his turn, and his relics, too, are in the cathedral.

As part of the kingdom of Norway, spiritually, the cathedral was under the supervision of the archbishop of Nidaros, until it was transferred to that of St Andrews in 1472.   In 1486, James III granted a charter to the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall, giving the local burgesses and populace control of the cathedral.

The Reformation of 1560 touched St Magnus Cathedral lightly. Whilst the walls were whitewashed and the ornate trappings of mediaeval Catholicism removed, the cathedral continued at the heart of the community, with regular burials of the great and the good of Orkney beneath its tiled floor. The spire was struck by lightning in 1671, and a fire broke out, causing the bells to crash to the ground and spire to follow them.

Although the building was repaired enough to be used, no major works were undertaken following this. In 1845, the government took control from the Burgh and effected some repairs before the Burgh once again took over in 1851. A major programme of renovation was carried out in the first part of the twentieth century, culminating in the addition of a new spire in 1930. Further works to manage subsidence followed, and, as with all great cathedrals, works continue in the spirit of the master masons whose far-seeing vision created it.