Haakon IV of Norway - Reign - The Scottish Expedition and Death

The Scottish Expedition and Death

Haakon employed an active and aggressive foreign policy towards strengthening Norwegian ties in the west. His policy relied on friendship and trade with the English king; the first known Norwegian trade agreements were made with England in the years 1217–23 (England's first commercial treaties were also made with Norway), and the friendship with Henry III of England was a cornerstone in Haakon's foreign policy. As they had become kings around the same time, Haakon wrote to Henry in 1224 that he wished they could maintain the friendship that had existed between their fathers. Haakon sought to defend the Norwegian sovereignty over the islands in the west, namely the Hebrides and Man (under the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles), Shetland and Orkney (under the Earldom of Orkney), and the Faroe Islands. Further, the Norse community in Greenland agreed to submit to the Norwegian king in 1261, and in 1262 Haakon achieved one of his long-standing ambitions when he managed to incorporate Iceland into his kingdom by utilising the island's internal conflicts in his favour. The dependency on Norwegian maritime trade and their subordination to the Nidaros ecclesiastical province were some of the key reasons which allowed Haakon to assert sovereignty over the islands. The Norwegian kingdom was at the largest it has ever been by the end of Haakon's reign.

Norwegian control over the Faroe Islands and Shetland was strong due to the importance of Bergen as a trading centre, while Orkney, the Hebrides and Man had more natural ties with the Scottish mainland. Although traditionally having had ties with the community of Norse settlers in northern Scotland, Scottish rulers had increasingly asserted their sovereignty over the entire mainland. Haakon had at the same time gained stronger control of the Hebrides and Man than any Norwegian ruler since Magnus Barefoot. As part of a new development the Scottish king Alexander II claimed the Hebrides and requested to buy the islands from Norway, but Haakon staunchly rejected the proposals. Following Alexander II's death, his son Alexander III continued and stepped up his father's policy by sending an embassy to Norway in 1261, and thereafter attacking the Hebrides.

In 1263 the dispute with the Scottish king over the Hebrides induced Haakon to undertake an expedition to the islands. Having learned in 1262 that Scottish nobles had raided the Hebrides and that Alexander III planned to conquer the islands, Haakon went on an expedition with his formidable leidang fleet of at least 120 ships in 1263, having become accustomed to negotiating backed by an intimidating fleet. The fleet left Bergen in July, and reached Shetland and Orkney in August where they were joined by chieftains from the Hebrides and Man. Negotiations were started by Alexander following Norwegian landings on the Scottish mainland, but were purposely prolonged by the Scots. Having waited until September/October for weather that caused trouble for Haakon's fleet, a clash occurred between a smaller Norwegian force and a Scottish division at the Battle of Largs. Although inconclusive and of a limited impact, Haakon withdrew to Orkney for the winter. A delegation of Irish kings invited Haakon to help them rid Ireland of English settlers as High King of Ireland, but this was apparently rejected against Haakon's wish.

Haakon over-wintered at the Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall, Orkney, with plans to resume his campaign the next year. During his stay in Kirkwall he however fell ill, and died in the early hours of 16 December 1263. Haakon was buried in the St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall for the winter, and when spring came he was exhumed and his body taken back to Norway, where he was buried in the Old Cathedral in his capital Bergen. Centuries later, in 1531, the cathedral was demolished by the Danish feudal overlord Eske Bille for military purposes in connection with the Protestant Reformation, and the graves of Haakon and other Norwegian kings buried there were apparently destroyed in the process.

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