Rögnvald Kali Kolsson

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St. Rögnvald
St Magnus Cathedral - St Rognvald 20110523.jpg
St. Rögnvald
Bornc. 1100
Died20 August 1158
Caithness, Scotland
Venerated inCatholic Church
CanonizedLate 12th-century by Pope Celestine III
Major shrineSt. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Scotland
Feast20 August

Rögnvald Kali Kolsson (Old Norse Rǫgnvaldr or Rögnvaldr; Nynorsk: Ragnvald Kale Kolsson), also known as Saint Ronald of Orkney (c. 1100 – 1158), was a Norwegian earl of Orkney who came to be regarded as a Christian saint.[1] Two of the Orkney Islands are named after Rögnvald, namely North Ronaldsay and South Ronaldsay.


Family and education[edit]

Rognvald's parents were lendmann Kolr Kalisson and Gunnhildr Erlendsdottir, the sister of Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney. It was through his mother, Gunnhildr, that Rognvald had a claim on the Orkney earldom.[2] Rognvald Kali Kolsson may have been born in Jæren, Norway.[3] That is not likely, however, since his family resided in Agder and Jæren is in Rogaland. Some researchers think that he may have been born in Fjære, a part of Grimstad. The king's estate at Lista is also believed to be the location of both his birthplace and his childhood home. Rognvald's family owned several farms in Agder where the boy could have spent his childhood.

Rognvald grew up in Norway, where he was known as Kali Kolsson. He also had a sister, Ingirid. Kali was a fine poet and in one of his poems claims to possess nine exceptional skills, having mastered board games, runes, reading and writing, handicrafts (such as metalwork, carving, and carpentry), skiing, archery, rowing, music, and poetry. The sagas support this view of Kali as able and skilled: “Kali Kolsson was of average height, well-proportioned and strong limbed, and had light chestnut hair. He was very popular and a man of more than average ability.”[2]

Acquisition of Orkney[edit]

King Sigurd I of Norway appointed him Earl of Orkney and Shetland in 1129. When he became Earl, Kali was given the name Rognvald, after Earl Rognvald Brusason, who Rognvald's mother Gunnhild thought of as the ablest of all the Earls of Orkney. It was thought this name would bring Rognvald luck.[2] Rognvald should have had one half of Orkney as his uncle Magnus Erlendsson had, but his second cousin Paul Haakonsson had just made himself sole ruler of the islands and would not cede any of them.

Rognvald remained in Norway as one of the leading men of King Harald Gille. His father counselled him to make a vow that if he were successful in establishing himself in Orkney, he would build a church in honour of his murdered uncle Magnus. By sabotaging some beacons on Fair Isle and in the Orkney Islands, Rognvald made a successful landing unopposed. Through the intervention of the bishop, an agreement was reached with Earl Paul. Later, Paul was captured by Sweyn Asleifsson and delivered to the safe-keeping of Maddad, Earl of Athole, who was married to Paul's sister Margaret. What then happened to Earl Paul is unknown. Rognvald was hailed as jarl in 1136.

St. Magnus Cathedral

In 1137, Rognvald initiated the building of St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Scotland. Rognvald also served as a guardian to Harald Maddadsson, the five-year-old nephew of Paul Haakonsson. In 1138 Rognvald appointed Harald Maddadsson as Earl along with him. Harald had inherited Caithness, Scotland, and thus was Rognvald master over this area.

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land[edit]

In 1151, Earl Rognvald set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This celebrated enterprise takes up five complete chapters of Orkneyinga saga. The telling about their staying in the Holy Land is very short. It seems that the journey is the important part. But the description of the voyage is dominated more by stories about fighting and feasting. The saga tells that the impulse for the pilgrimage came from a distant relative of Rognvald, Eindridi Ungi, who mentions prestige as a motivation for taking this large-scale expedition. The earl, with Bishop William and other well-born companions, including Erling Skakki, left Orkney in the late summer of 1151 in fifteen ships. The fleet sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar, after which Eindridi Ungi went straight to Jerusalem with six ships while Rognvald tarried in Narbonne. During his stay there he composed several verses—included in the saga—in honour of the lovely lady Ermingard, verses which show strong influence from courtly love poetry, possibly the first such examples in skaldic verse.[4]

Having visited Jerusalem, the party made its way back north via Constantinople, where they were received by the emperor Manuel I Komnenos and his Varangian Guard, then sailed to Apulia where they took horses for the journey to Rome, arriving back in Orkney for Christmas 1153. This is evidence of the wide-ranging role of the earls of Orkney as players on the world scene of twelfth-century Europe. They were now participating in the cultural and religious activities of Christian Europe rather than threatening them from the periphery.[4]


While he was abroad, King David I of Scotland granted half of Caithness to the cousin of Harald Maddadsson, Erlend Haraldsson. Earl Harald subsequently displaced Erlend Haraldsson, who was killed in 1156. In August 1158, Rognvald was cut down with his company of eight men by Thorbjorn Klerk, the former friend and counsellor of Harald, who had been made an outlaw by Earl Rognvald for a murder committed in Kirkwall, following a series of acts of violence. His body was taken to Kirkwall and buried in St. Magnus Cathedral. Alleged miracles shall have happened at his grave as well as on the stone where he died. Rognvald was canonized 1192 by Pope Celestine III.[5] But some doubts exist as to the validity of his sainthood, because no existing records seem to confirm it.[6]


Rognvald was a skilled poet. The best known of his love poems is perhaps his exclamation of affection for Viscountess Ermengard of Narbonne. George Mackay Brown translates the poem as:

Golden one, Tall one
Moving in perfume and onyx
Witty one, You with the shoulders
Lapped in long silken hair/Listen: because of me
The eagle has a red claw.[7]

Although the perfume and onyx are George Mackay Brown’s own invention, it is true to the spirit of the poem: Praising the lady in luxurious terms based on 12th century European aesthetics, while also bragging about himself using war-like Norse aesthetics.[7]

Another of his poems, translated by Ian Crockatt, reads:[8]

Vér hǫfum vaðnar leirur
vikur fimm megingrimmar;
saurs vasa vant, es vârum,
viðr, í Grímsbœ miðjum.
Nús, þats mâs of mýrar
meginkátliga lâtum
branda elg á bylgjur
Bjǫrgynjar til dynja.

Muck, slime, mud. We waded
for five mired weeks, reeking,
silt-fouled bilge-boards souring
in Grimsby bay. Nimbly
now, our proud-prowed Bergen-
bound Sea-Elk pounds over
wave-paved auk-moors – locks horns
with foam-crests, bows booming.

Other verses record events which occurred during the rest of the journey, such as Rognvald's swim across the River Jordan.[4]


  1. ^ Thuesen, Nils Petter (2014-09-29), "Ragnvald Kolsson", Norsk biografisk leksikon (in Norwegian), retrieved 2018-09-30
  2. ^ a b c "Rognvald Schools Pack". Orkney Library
  3. ^ katolsk.no
  4. ^ a b c Crawford, Barbara E., Harald Maddadson, earl of Caithness and earl of Orkney (1133/4–1206)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 25 May 2013
  5. ^ Online, Catholic. "St. Ronald - Saints & Angels - Catholic Online". Catholic Online. Retrieved 2018-09-30.
  6. ^ "Orkneyjar - The Founding of Saint Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall". www.orkneyjar.com. Retrieved 2018-09-30.
  7. ^ a b Ljosland, Ragnhild. "Helping unravel the Earl's poetry", University of the Highlands and Islands
  8. ^ Ian Crockatt (trans.), Crimsoning the Eagle's Claw: The Viking Poems of Rǫgnvaldr Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney (Arc 2014), http://www.arcpublications.co.uk/content/572.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anon., Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney, tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Penguin, London, 1978. ISBN 0-14-044383-5
  • Crawford, Barbara E., "An unrecognised statue of Earl Rognvald" in Crawford, Barbara E. (ed), Northern Isles Connections: Essays from Orkney and Shetland presented to Per Sveaas Andersen. Kirkwall: Orkney Press, 1995. ISBN 0-907618-35-9

External links[edit]