King Magnus Barefoot

Manx Fairy Tales: King Magnus Barefoot

Magnus, great nephew of Olaf the Saint, was King of Norway in the days when the Norwegian Kings were Lords over Mann, and he was called by the name of Barefoot. He was the bravest, because he wore kilts, and most beautiful young King of his time -tall and strong and brilliant as a meteor.

He wore a helmet on his head and carried a red shield with a golden lion upon it. He had in his belt a sword of exceeding sharpness with an ivory hilt inlaid with gold, and a keen javelin in his hand. Over his coat of mall was a tunic of ruby-red, embroidered with a golden lion. He was a fine and valiant figure. It was he who brought King Olaf's Cup of Peace to our island, and this is the way it happened.

Magnus was sitting at supper one day with his chief men, and their talk ran on the beautiful shrine of Olaf the Saint, which was the wonder of its age. They spoke to one another of how it was said that Olaf's body would never be destroyed by death, but would remain as in life, and would heal those who prayed at the shrine of any sickness. Magnus laughed the story to scorn and said boldly:

'Seeing is believing; let the shrine be opened that we may see for ourselves if the story be true.'Then the bishop and clergy were horrified, and begged the King: 'Oh King, let not the thing be done, it will surely bring evil on thee.'

But Magnus commanded:

'Let the shrine be opened at once. I fear no man alive or dead.'

So his will was done, and when the jewelled shrine was opened, all saw the body of holy Olaf lying incorrupt and fair as if alive. Magnus touched it with his hands, but was suddenly seized with a great fear. He went away in haste, but took with him the lovely crystal cup that lay beside the Saint.

The next night in his sleep he had a vision of King Olaf, majestic and stern, who said to him:

'Choose, I tell you, one of two things, either to lose your kingdom and life within thirty days, or to leave Norway and never see it again.'

Magnus awoke and called his chiefs and great men to tell them of his vision.

'Oh King,' they cried in fear. 'Leave Norway with all speed, and keep thy life and kingship.'

So Magnus, who was the last of our great Sea Kings, got together a fleet of one hundred and sixty long ships, each with twenty or thirty rowers' benches, and with bows carved in the shape of dragons. He loved the sea, and, like a true Viking, he used to say: 'I will never sleep under a sooty rafter nor drink in the chimney corner.'

Away he sailed to the Orkneys. He conquered them and all the Western Islands, and came to Mann. He put in at Saint Patrick's Isle and went to see the site of the Battle of Santwat, near Peel, which had been fought three days before between the Manx of north and south.

The beauty of our island pleased his eyes and he chose it for his dwelling place. He made the men of Galloway cut timber and bring it over to make three forts for him. In one of them, near Douglas, he placed the Cup of Peace, which he knew would be well guarded by the Lhiannan Shee, the peace fairy, who never left it.

Then he sailed to Anglesey and made himself lord over it, but he soon came back to the Isle of Mann, for it pleased him best. On his return he sent his dirty shoes over to Morrough, King of Ireland, with this message:

'Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway and the Isles, bids thee carry his dirty shoes on thy shoulders through thy house on Christmas Day in thy royal state, and own that thou hast thy kingdom and power from the Lord of Norway and the Isles. And this thou must do in sight of his envoys.'

When the Irish heard this they were furiously angry and indignant, but wise King Morrough said:

'I will not only carry the shoes, but eat them, rather than that Magnus should ruin a single province in Ireland.'

Then he carried the shoes on Christmas Day as Magnus bade, treated the messengers with honour and sent them back to Mann with many fine gifts for their King, with whom he made a treaty of peace. But the envoys told their master of the richness of the Irish lands and the pleasantness of the air, and Magnus kept it in his mind.

After this the King of Scotland sent a message to him, saying:

'Cease to make war against me and I will yield thee those of the Western Isles that thou canst from the mainland go round in a vessel with a paddle-rudder.'

Magnus made peace on those terms and so the Norse Kings gained the Southern Isles, among which they counted the peninsula of Cantyre, because Magnus, sitting at the helm, caused his great warship to be dragged across the neck of land which joins it to the mainland. His vikings shouted with triumph as they pulled the ship along, with their young King in his red and gold laughing at the stern.

But all this time, in his heart, Magnus could think of nothing but the conquest of Ireland. He sailed to the coast of Down, where he began to invade and pillage. It was on Saint Bartholomew's Day, 1103, that his last battle was fought. The Irish had promised to bring him cattle for his troops the day before, but as they had not come he landed his men and marched them to the top of a little hill on the plain of Coba.

From this place he could see all the country round, and presently there appeared a great cloud of dust in the distance. Some of his men said that it was an army approaching, others that it was the herd of cattle. The last were right, and when the cattle had been handed over, Magnus and his men returned towards his ships.

It was now the noon of a calm and sunny day. When they reached the marshes, suddenly a band of Irish rushed out from their ambush in a wood close by, and attacked them fiercely.

Magnus ordered his chief, Eyvinder, to sound the trumpet and summon his men around the royal standard. He ordered them to close ranks with overlapping shields until they got to the dry ground where they would be safe. They made their way as far as an old fort, but the Irish pressed them and slew many of them. Then the King called to a chief named Thorgrim:

'Do you, with your cohort, cross the rampart and occupy the hill opposite with your archers till we join you.'

Thorgrim and his men did as they were told and crossed over, but when they were across they put their shields on their backs and fled to the ships. When Magnus saw them he shouted:

'Is it thus you run, you coward ? I was a fool to send you instead of Sigurd, who would not thus desert me.'

Magnus fought like a lion, but soon he was pierced through the thigh by a spear. He pulled it out and snapped it beneath his feet, crying:

'Thus we, young warriors, break these twigs. Fight on bravely, my men, and fear no danger for me.'

His men prayed him to try to spare himself, but he said:

'Better for a people to have a brave King than an old King!'

And so saying, foremost in the battle, he met his death.

Source:  Sophia Morrison - Manx Fairy Tales, London 1911