Tag Archives: St Magnus

St Magnus the Martyr

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Earlier in the week I saw for the first time in a long time an Orcadian flag flying from the church of St Magnus the Martyr in the City of London …

The eponymous Magnus Erlendsson, a piously Christian Viking (!) was the Earl of Orkney at the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  He was murdered on the island of Egilsay sometime between 1115 and 1118 (sources differ), evidently by his loyal servant Lifolf, acting on the orders of his  covetous and treacherous kinsman  Hakon.  According to the Orkneyinga Saga, this was despite his, Magnus,  having made three placatory offers to Hakon: First, to  go   on a pilgrimage to Rome, or the Holy Land; second, to  be kept under guard; and third, to be mutilated or blinded, and locked in a dungeon.  Magnus the Martyr was made a saint in or around 1135.

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St Magnus’s Cathedral in Kirkwall in Orkney was built in his honour, and to house his remains,  by his nephew Kali Kolson, also known as Rognvald, in 1137.

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Magnus’s remains were recently uncovered here, and a reconstruction of him made.

The church of St Magnus the Martyr at the northern end of London Bridge in the City of London was probably originally built sometime in the twelfth century.

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It was subsequently rebuilt by Christopher Wren in the seventeenth, between 1671-87, after having been burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

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Despite extensive eighteenth- to twentieth- century modifications, it retains much of the  “inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold” alluded to by T.S. Eliot in his 1922 poem “The Waste Land”.

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Among the many treasures inside the church are: a modern statue and stained-glass window depicting St Magnus in a horned Viking helmet; further modern stained-glass windows depicting the churches of St Margaret New Fish Street and St Michael Crooked Lane, burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, and the chapel of St Thomas a Becket on Old London Bridge, demolished in 1831; and a modern scale-model of the bridge as it would have looked in its Medieval heyday.

The Great Fire of London (Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, 1666)


On this fateful day in 1666, Samuel Pepys in his diary:

“ …  Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire … in the City.  So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown, and went to her window; and thought it to be … far enough off,   and so went to bed again … .  … By and by Jane comes and tells me that … the fire …  is now burning all down Fish Street, by London Bridge.  So I made myself ready … and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places … ; and … did see the houses at  that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the end of the bridge … .  So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant … , who tells me that it begun … In the King’s bakers in Pudding-lane, and hath burned  St Magnus’s church and most … of Fish-street already.  So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and … there saw a lamentable fire.   …  Every body endeavouring to remove their goods, and …  bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one … stairs, by the waterside, to another.   … Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and … the wind mighty high and driving it into the City, and everything, after so long a drought, proving combustible … : I to White Hall, … and did tell the King [Charles II] … what I saw; and that, unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down [to create fire-breaks], nothing could stop the fire.  The King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor [the singularly ineffectual Thomas Bloodworth]” and command him to … pull down  [houses].  At last met my Lord Mayor … .  To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman ‘Lord, what can I do?  I am spent: people will not obey me.  I have been pulling down   houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it’”.

And John Evelyn wrote:

“This fatal night … began that deplorable fire, neere Fish-streete … : … I … with my Wife & Sonn … went to the bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole Citty in dreadfull flames … and … consumed … from the bridge … down to the three Cranes, & so returned exceedingly astonishd, what would become of the rest”.