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  The Death of King Haakon

Royal Seal of Haakon Haakonson: Image created by Sigurd Towrie In 1263, the Norwegian king Haakon the Old used Kirkwall as a base for his fruitless attempt to maintain Norse rule over the Western Isles.

After his crushing defeat at the Battle of Largs on October 2, 1263, Haakon's battered fleet returned to Kirkwall, where the King fell ill and died in the Bishop's Palace.

The events surrounding King Haakon's death are detailed in full within Haakon Haakonsson's Saga:

"King Haakon had spent the summer in much watchfulness and anxiety. Being often called to deliberate with captains, he had enjoyed little rest; and when he arrived at Kirkwall, he was confined to his bed by his disorder. Having lain for some nights, the illness abated, and he was on foot for three days.

On the first day, he walked about in his apartments; on the second, he attended at 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. Some nights after, he relapsed, and took again to his bed.

During his sickness, he ordered the Bible and Latin authors to be read to him. But finding his spirits were too much fatigued by reflecting on what he had heard, he desired Norwegian books might be read to him night and day: first the lives of saints; and, when they were ended, he made his attendants read the chronicles of our Kings from Halfdan the Black, and so of all the Norwegian monarchs in succession, one after the other.

The King still found his disorder increasing. 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 silver plate belonging to his table to be weighed, and to be distributed if his standard silver fell short.

At this time also letters were written to Prince Magnus concerning the government of the nation, and some things which the King wanted to have settled respecting the army.

King Haakon received extreme unction in the night before the festival of St Lucy. Thorgils Bishop of Stavanger, Gilbert Bishop of Hamar, Henry Bishop of Orkney, Abbot Thorleif, and many other learned men were present; and before the unction all present bade the King farewell with a kiss.

He still spoke distinctly; and his particular favourites asked him if he left behind him any other son than Prince Magnus, or any other heirs that should share in the kingdom, but he uniformly persisted that he had no other heirs in the male or female line than were publicly known.

When the history of all the Kings down to Sverrir had been recited, he ordered the life of that Prince to read, and to be continued night and day, whenever he found himself indisposed to sleep.

The festival of the Virgin Lucy happened on a Thursday, and on the Saturday after, the King’s disorder increased to such a degree that he lost the use of his speech; and at midnight* Almighty God called King Haakon out of this mortal life. ...Immediately on the decease of the King, Bishops and learned men were sent for to sing mass. Afterwards all the company went out except Bishop Thorgils, Brinjolf Johnsson, and two other persons, who watched by the body, and performed all the services due to so illustrious a lord and prince as King Haakon had been.

On Sunday the royal corpse was carried into the upper hall, and laid on a bier.

The body was clothed in a rich garb, with a garland on the head, and dressed out as became a crowned monarch. The masters of the lights stood with tapers in their hands, and the whole hall was illuminated.

All the people came to see the body, which appeared beautiful and animated, and the King’s countenance was fair and ruddy as while he was alive.

It was some alleviation of the deep sorrow of the beholders to see the corpse of their departed sovereign so decorated."