Culture

Poetry Corner: Orkneyinga Saga

On this day 16th of December in 1263 the Norwegian king, Haakon the Old, died in the Bishop’s Palace, Kirkwall, Orkney.

He had used Kirkwall as a base for his fruitless attempt to maintain Norse rule over the Western Isles. After a crushing defeat at the Battle of Largs on October 2 1263, Haakon’s battered fleet returned to Kirkwall where the King, dispirited and fatigued, fell ill and died in the early hours of the morning of the 16th. Scot Clans

Battle of Largs

Battle of Largs by William Hole


Orkneyinga Saga

The fleets which now
consisted of more than a hundred vessels, for the most part
large and all well equipped, was divided into two squadrons,
one of which, consisting of fifty ships, plundered the coasts
of Kintyre and Mull, rejoining King Hakon at Gigha. A
deteu^hed squadron now plundered Bute, and the fleet cast
anchor in Arran Sound, from which King Hakon sent
Gilbert, Bishop of Hamar, and Heniy, Bishop of Orkney,
with three other envoys, to treat for peace with the Scottish
King. The negotiations failed, and soon after the fleet was
disabled by a storm, and the power of the Norwegian King
utterly broken in the battle of Largs. King Hakon, gather-
ing together the shattered remnants of his fleet and army,
retired slowly northwards, meeting with no impediment
imtil they arrived off Durness, in Sutherlandshire, when the
wind fell calm, and the fleet steered into the sound, where
seven men of a boat’s crew, who had been sent ashore for
water, were killed by the Scots. In passing through the
Pentland Firth one vessel went down with all on board in
the  Swelkie, a dangerous whirlpool in certain states of the
tide, and another was carried by the current helplessly
through the Firth, and made straight for Norway. King
Hakon laid up his fleet in Midland Harbour and Scapa Bay.
He then rode to Kirkwall, and lay down to die. He was
lodged in the bishop’s palace, and after having been confined
to his bed for some days, he recovered so much that he
attended mass in the bishop’s chapel, and walked to the
cathedral to visit the shrine of St Magnus. But there came
a relapse, and he was again laid prostrata He caused the
Bible and Latin books to be read to him to beguile the
tedium of the sick bed, until he was no longer able to bear
the fatigue of reflecting on what he heard ; and then he
desired that Norw^ian books should be read to him night
and day — first the Sagas of the Saints, and then the
Chronicles of the Kings, from Halfdan the Black through
all the succession of the Bangs of Norway.

Bishops Palace by David Wyatt

Bishops Palace, Kirkwall by David Wyatt

Then he set his affairs in order, caused his silver plate to be weighed out to
pay his troops, and received the sacrament. He died at
midnight on Saturday, 15th December 1263. On Sunday
the corpse, clothed in the richest garments, with a garland on
the head, was laid in state in the upper hall of the palace.
The king’s chamberlains stood round it with tapers, and all
day long the people came to view the remains of their king.
The nobles kept watch over the bier through the night ; and
on Monday the royal remains were borne to St. Magnus’
Cathedral, where they lay in state all that night. On
Tuesday they were temporarily interred in the choir of the
church, near the steps leading to the shrine of St. Magnus.
Before his death the king had given directions

that his body should be carried east to Norway, and buried beside the
remains of his father and his relatives in Bergen. In the
month of March the corpse was exhumed and conveyed to
Scapa, where it was placed on board the great ship in which
he had sailed on the unfortunate expedition to Largs, and taken
to Bergen, where it was interred in the choir of Christ’s Church.


 

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