The last days of Hakon the Old

It is seven hundred and fifty years since King Hakon IV died in Kirkwall.


He is also known as Hakon Hakonsson, and Hakon the Old (to distinguish him from his son of the same name – known, astonishingly enough, as Hakon the Young); and he died in 1263 after a reign of forty-six years, having become king in 1217, when he was only 13 years old himself. He was the first Norwegian king ever to have ruled for such a long period; and he became, in middle age, a very strong monarch, having been born into a period of civil war, to which he put an end.

In Norwegian historiography, his reign is seen as the beginning of Norway’s Storhetstid – the Golden Age or, more literally, Time of Greatness – the century when Norwegian power was at its most extensive, and Norwegian society most stable – a period that was to come to an end in the fourteenth century, with the Black Death and Norway’s loss of autonomy to other Scandinavian states. In Iceland, by way of contrast, he is remembered as the king who put an end to nearly four centuries of republican independence; and as the man who ordered the murder of Snorri Sturluson, the greatest writer in Iceland’s history.

In Orkney, when Hakon IV is remembered, it is largely because of his death. He died in the Bishop’s Palace, Kirkwall, and he was buried for three months in St Magnus Cathedral, before he was exhumed and reburied in Bergen. So, how do these different narratives of Hakon intersect? Who was he? How do we know about him? And why did he die in Kirkwall?

Orkney was one of the Norwegian Skattlands – skatt meaning tax – one of the overseas tributary areas which owed allegiance to the Norwegian King – although in Orkney royal power was mediated through the figure of the Earl of Orkney. Although the fullest extent of Norwegian power in the North Atlantic didn’t come until the reign of Hakon’s son, Magnus, Hakon still had an enormous territory to negotiate. Until the fatal year of 1263, his network of power had also included the Western Isles of Scotland and associated lordships and little kingdoms as far south as the Isle of Man. Hakon had to develop complex and effective instruments of government to manage this vast and unruly region; and he laid the foundations for his son, King Magnus the Lawmender, to unify most of these territories into a kingdom ruled directly by the king. Hakon thus stands in many ways at the heart of the identity of the Norwegian state: he is seen by Norwegian historians as the king who brought Norway out of the Viking Age and into the world of strong medieval European monarchies. He did this though politics and ceremonies, through warfare, through architecture, and through the marriages of his children. In Orkney, we should at least remember him as a King who did a great deal to define Orkney’s Scandinavian identity – although his loss of the Hebrides meant that his realm became much more focussed on the North Atlantic than that of his predecessors, he was the King who cemented Orkney’s position so that it remained an integral part of the Norwegian rather than the Scottish world for the two centuries after his death.

Our source for his death in 1263 – and indeed almost everything we know about his life – is King Hakon’s Saga, written before 1266 by the Icelander Sturla Thorðarson and preserved in the lavishly illustrated 14th-century manuscript, the Flateyjarbók.

Hakon died on the night of the 16th December 1263. He had had a very difficult summer and early autumn, campaigning in the seas off the western coasts of Britain, and culminating in the Battle of Largs. He had arrived in Orkney from the Western Isles at the end of October and had fallen ill almost immediately. The King had been staying at the Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall since his arrival. At the beginning of December, after he had been in bed for a month or so, the welcome news came that the old man (Hakon was 59) was recovering from his illness. King Hakon’s Saga says that

“He was on his feet for three days. On the first day he walked about in his apartments; on the second, he attended the Bishop's chapel to hear mass; and on the third he went to Magnus's Church, and walked round the shrine of St Magnus, Earl of Orkney. He then ordered a bath to be prepared, and got himself shaved. But some nights after getting out of bed, he relapsed, and took again to his bed.”

Hakon stayed at the Palace with ‘such officers as dined at his table’. These would have been the councillors closest to the King. Clearly – as one would expect from a thirteenth-century king – he had been travelling with a considerable entourage. Among the most important was Andrew Plytt, described as the King’s treasurer, and clearly Hakon’s right-hand man. He had been on the foredeck of the King’s own ship during the summer’s campaigning; and he had also been one of a select group sent as envoys to Alexander III, the young King of Scots – a group which had also included Henry, Bishop of Orkney. When the royal party arrived in Kirkwall at the end of October, it was Andrew Plytt who was put in charge of the King’s table and responsible, again with the Bishop, for planning the forthcoming Christmas entertainments. He and Bishop Henry seem to have worked well as a team.

Nonetheless, life can’t have been easy with two extremely important households crammed cheek by jowl into the one comparatively small palace complex. And the royal household didn’t consist merely of King Hakon and his staff: he was accompanied on this expedition by Gilbert, Bishop of Hamar, Thorgisl, Bishop of Stavanger, and Thorleif, the Abbot of a monstery near Bergen, all of whom doubtless also expected to be fed and lodged in a manner appropriate to their status.

How did the two households work, in those chilly closing months of 1263? How were those extra bodies fed and kept warm, and how did they negotiate space and precedence? Again, King Hakon’s saga gives us some important clues.

While they were in the Bishop’s Palace [it says], ‘the King and the Bishop kept separate tables in the halls, each for his own retinue; but the King dined in the upper storey. He ordered certain districts to furnish his nobility and household with provisions.

In other words, the presence of the King in Kirkwall meant an extra imposition of tax on the local population. His soldiers were billeted in country districts, and provisions for the royal household were exacted – we have no details, but we are entitled to imagine sacks of barley for ale and bread; honey; dried fish; beef, pork and mutton, probably brought in on the hoof. Poultry perhaps – but no eggs, not in December.

But Hakon didn’t have much appetite. He could feel his health ebbing away, and having taken to his bed again, his mind began to turn to more spiritual goals. He first summoned his chaplains and asked them to read to him from the Bible, and other improving Latin literature. But – although he was an educated man, who had first learnt to read when he was seven – he didn’t have the energy to be read to in Latin.

Hakon then asked for the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings to be read to him. They were to begin at the beginning, with Halfdan the Black, the legendary first king of Norway in the ninth century, and go right up to the threshold of his own lifetime – probably concluding with Sverris saga, the story of his own grandfather, who had died in 1202, just two years before Hakon himself had been born. It is interesting to ponder whether these were books which Henry, Bishop of Orkney, had in his own library; or whether Hakon had been travelling and fighting around the north and west of Scotland accompanied by a considerable library in one of his sea-chests. Perhaps the Bible and the other religious literature in Latin had come from the Bishop’s library, while the Norwegian saints and sagas were King Hakon’s own books?

But the King was still no better. He called his intimates around him, and – so the Saga tells us – he decided that it was time to put his worldly affairs in order:

“He, therefore, took into consideration the pay to be given to his troops, and commanded that a mark of fine silver should be given to each courtier, and half a mark to each of the masters of the lights, chamberlains, and other attendants on his person. He ordered all the ungilt plate belonging to his table to be weighed, and to be distributed if his plain silver fell short.”

Having ensured that his followers were rewarded, Hakon then began to dictate a letter to his son and heir, Magnus, whom he had seen married and crowned as heir in Hakon’s Hall in Bergen just two years previously. He told Magnus how to govern, and gave him instructions about military affairs. It was clear now that the king was fading fast, and Hakon’s friends were summoned to bid him farewell. The three bishops, Gilbert of Hamar, Thorgisl of Stavanger and Henry of Orkney were first, kissing their liege lord for the final time. They asked him whether he had any final commands, whether he was certain that Magnus was his final choice as heir, and – still able to speak clearly – the King affirmed that these were indeed his wishes. He also announced his desire to be taken back home and buried among his ancestors. When all his close friends and supporters had taken their solemn way through the bedchamber, the King was given final unction, the complex sacramentary ritual designed to maximise the soul’s chance of salvation. Hakon would have confessed his sins and been absolved, before the priest marked his body with oil, asking for all the sins the king had ever committed to be forgiven. This was on the eve of St Lucy’s Day, Thursday December 13th, which in the calendar in use at the time was also the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and a dangerous night for the soul according to Norwegian folklore. But the King lingered on. On the Saturday, he lost the ability to speak and that night – surrounded by his closest friends – he died at last.

It had been evident for some time that the King would need a temporary grave, and the preparations for the funeral and the burial immediately got under way. As soon as the King had breathed his last the Bishops celebrated Mass. Thorgisl of Stavanger and one of the King’s Chamberlains watched by the body all night, and in the morning his corpse was washed and dressed, and taken to the great upper hall of the Bishop’s palace.

Mass was celebrated in the hall, and all night the Norwegian nobles stood watch over the body. On the Monday, the corpse was placed on a bier and taken across to the Cathedral. Here, again, it lay in state for a second night; and finally, on the Tuesday, King Hakon was interred ‘in the Choir of St. Magnus's Church, near the steps leading to the shrine of St. Magnus Earl of Orkney’. The grave was refilled, and covered with a decorated cloth. Orders were given that a watch should be set by the tomb for as long as the King rested in Kirkwall.

What happened next? Why isn’t he there now?

Despite the shadow cast by the King’s death, Henry Bishop of Orkney and Andrew Plytt went ahead with organising the Christmas festivities. After Christmas was over, they had to wait for better weather, until early March.  At last on Ash Wednesday – a suitable penitential day for such a sombre task, King Hakon’s body was taken out of its grave again. The corpse was taken in solemn procession down to Scapa, and there carried aboard the king’s great flagship, with Bishop Thorgisl and Andrew Plytt presiding. Bad weather meant that it took nearly two weeks to sail back to Bergen, and they finally made harbour on the March 21st, the feast of St Benedict. On the following day he was interred at last in the Cathedral of Christ Church, Bergen. Bergen Cathedral burned down only seven years later, and although it was restored by Hakon’s son – Magnus the Lawmender – it has been burned and restored many times since then, and the final resting-place of Hakon IV is lost.


Dr Victoria Whitworth