The ancient credentials of Christianity in Orkney are without question. In his 'life', Adamnan tell of St Columba seeking safe passage and security for those monks who were either already in or were about to go to the islands. The monastic foundation at Eynhallow can perhaps be dated to these times. There were also very early foundations at the Brough of Birsay and the island of Cava in Scapa Flow. The church, and traces of 'bee-hive' cells on Birsay, as well as the old Celtic saints bell found in the mound of Saverough across the bay, are all evidences of an early Christian settlement. In later times Cava was held by the Black Friars of Inverness - there is an instrument of Sasine in favour of the friars of Isle of Cava, dated 15th March 1439, in the Advocate's Library in Edinburgh. It seems to have continued in their possession till the Reformation.

The Diocese of Orkney was not part of Scotland until 1472. Before this time it was a 'Viking' Diocese at first under the metropolitan authority of Hamburg-Bremen and then that of Nidaros (Trondheim).


In 822, Rheims was made metropolitan of the North, and in 831, Bremen was made metropolitan of the three Scandinavian kingdoms; but there were no Christians in Norway at this time. In 934, Hákon (son of king Harald hárfagri and fosterson of Athelstan of England, by whom he was converted) vainly attempted to Christianise Norway. He asked for bishops from England. In 961, king Harald gráfeldr, who had been baptised in England, formally introduced Christianity into Norway and Orkney and Shetland, assisted by English bishops and priests. Henry, called 'the fat' (the treasurer of Knút, king of England, 1014, 1016-1035, and of Norway, 1028-1035), was appointed bishop of Orkney, probably by York, when Knút was king of Norway, 1028-1035. Knút appointed one other Norwegian bishop.

Dowden makes the interesting, if somewhat modest, statement that, "something of confusion is found in the study of the early bishops of Orkney." This is, not least, because, at the instance of the early Christian kings of Norway, the archbishops of York for a time consecrated bishops of, or for, Orkney, while other bishops were consecrated in the same name by the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. It was only during the early part of the reign of Knút, when he claimed the throne of Norway, that Norway looked to Bremen rather than England. For many years, York insisted on its superiority over this northern area - and indeed over the Scottish province as a whole. However, the bishops, elected by York, were often in name only in that they never exercised any actual jurisdiction in the north, remaining instead within the metropolitan court at York or acting in various roles in other parts of England. This argument was a major one and, in 1080, the English Chronicle tells us that matters had reached the point where, in direct defiance of the archbishop of York, the Scottish bishops refused to attend and assist at the consecration of the new bishop of Durham.

Adalbert, archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen (1043-1072), whose jurisdiction extended over present day Denmark, Norway and Sweden, on an application to him made by a legation from Iceland, Greenland and Orkney to send them 'preachers', ordained a bishop named Þorulf (Thorulf), and, after him, another bishop named Adalbert.  He sent John as bishop to the Orkneys in 1055 probably at the request of Thorfinn, the earl who built the first cathedral in Orkney, after he had visited Bremen and Rome. This bishop was ousted in 1085 by a bishop who had been appointed by York in 1073. After this we have double bishops of Orkney, appointed by Bremen and York, and probably being under the 'protection' of the two rival earls, each then having his own prelate.

It would seem that none of these bishops had a definite diocese but exercised the episcopal office somewhat after the manner of a missionary bishop. These Bishops of Orkney, mentioned by Torfæus in the 11th century, were of the same kind as the Norwegian bishops, mentioned before the erection of any fixed See, and styled Hirdbiskupar, that is "court-bishops", a sort of chief missionary with episcopal consecration, following the Prince and the court, but without any fixed See. These early bishops may have spent very little time in the islands. The end result is that, at times, although blessed with two bishops at the same time, the people of the Orkneys were often denied any episcopal presence.

This squabble between the archbishops of York and Nidaros continued in later times and extended over the Diocese of the Sudreys (the Isles) from which the present name of Sodor (Diocese of Sodor and Man) is derived. The competing claims of aspirants to titles which were of little value and which in the cases of the poor Scottish Sees, were looked on like titles in partibus, acted merely as qualifications of the offices of various suffragans.

William I, 'the old', is considered to have been the first Bishop of a fixed See of Orkney from at least 1115 (when St Magnus was murdered) and possibly as early as 1112. The cathedral was, then, usually at Christ Church, Birsay. The Pope first placed Orkney under the authority of the archbishop of Lund in 1112 (Lund became metropolitan of Norway in 1104) and, in 1152, Bishop William was still alive when the Pope, in the hope of settling the argument between the Archbishop of Bremen and the Archbishop of York, made Orkney a suffragan under the new archbishopric of Nidaros (Trondheim). The bishops of Orkney seem to have been elected by the chapter of Nidaros, as were the bishops of Iceland, whereas the bishops of Færöer were elected by the chapter of Bergen.

Matters became more complicated as the result of the Papal Schism when there were, at times, a bishop nominated by the Pope of Rome and also one appointed by the Pope of Avignon. Scotland adhered to the anti-pope until 1419 when they conformed and transferred their allegiance to the Pope of Rome.

The foundation of the medieval See of Orkney, and William's appointment, may be dated to 1112.


Bishops of Orkney.

St Serf  (Servanus)      
Henry 'the Fat' 1028 - 1035    
Ralph I 1073 - 1101    
Ralph II 1106 - 1125    
Under Norwegian Rule.      
William I 1112 - 1168    
William II 1168 - 1188    
Bjarni 1188 - 1223    
Jofreyr 1223 - 1247    
Henry I 1248 - 1269    
Peter 1270 - 1284    
Dolgfinnr 1286 - 1309    
William III 1310 - 1328    
(unknown) 1328 - 1369    
William IV 1369 - 1382    
Nominated by Popes of Rome.   Nominated by Popes of Avignon  
John 1382 - 1394 Robert Sinclair 1383 - 1391
Henry II 1394 - 1396    
John of Colchester 1396 - 1410 Alexander 1407 - 1408
Peter Michælis de Incola 1410 - 1418 Bishop of Caithness (administrator) 1415 - 1417
    William Stephani 1416 - 1419
Thomas de Tulloch 1418 - 1455    
William VI 1455 - 1477    




Diocese of Orkney pages were last updated on: 07 January 2006
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