King Håkon IV of Norway lived from 1204 to 16 December 1263. He is also referred to as Haakon or Haco, or Håkon the Old. Born into a Norway torn apart by decades of civil war, Håkon presided over the unification of his country and the expansion of the Norwegian empire to its maximum size. On the other hand he failed to secure Norway's grip on the Hebrides and sowed the seeds of their return to Scotland after his death. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Arguments over succession had given rise to civil war in Norway from 1130. By the time of Håkon's birth in 1204 there were two main groups fighting for supremacy, The Birkebeiner and the Bagler factions. Håkon's mother, Inga of Varteig, claimed that Håkon was the illegitimate son of Håkon III of Norway, the leader of the Birkebeiner faction. Håkon III had never married, and was already dead by the time Håkon was born, but testimony of his retainers supported Inga's claim, and the Birkebeiner faction accepted Håkon as Håkon III's rightful heir.
Noway's civil war was not a genteel affair. It is probable that Håkon III was poisoned by the Bagler faction. With a certain lack of forethought, Inga of Varteig was living in a Bagler controlled part of the country when the two-year-old Håkon's claims to succession were accepted by the Birkebeiner in 1206, and the Bagler faction set out to find him. To protect him, a group of Birkebeiner warriors set out to take him to safety in Trondheim, the capital of King Inge II of Norway, the Birkebeiner king. In a story now deeply embedded in Norwegian folklore a blizzard intervened, and only two of the warriors completed the trek to bring the infant to safety. Their journey is celebrated annually in Norway's Birkebeiner Ski Race.
The death of King Inge II in 1217 led to Håkon being chosen as his successor, though his right to the crown was disputed by others within the Birkebeiner Faction until a grand convention held in Bergen in 1223. 1217 also saw the death of Philip Simonson, the last Bagler King of Norway. By 1227 Håkon IV had established himself as the uncontested king of Norway, bringing to an end just under a century of civil war.
After suppressing a final challenge to his authority in 1239, Håkon presided over a golden age for Norway. In 1247 his authority was finally accepted by the Pope. In 1256 he conquered the Danish province of Halland, and in 1261 he brought the Norse settlements in Greenland under Norwegian rule. Finally, in 1262 he achieved a long standing ambition and gained control over Iceland. This was the high water mark for the Norwegian empire.
In early 1263 Scots forces of King Alexander III mounted raids on the Norwegian territories in the Outer Hebrides. Håkon IV responded in July of that year by arriving in the Firth of Clyde with a large invasion force. This took control of the Isle of Bute, capturing Rothesay Castle. What followed was a standoff between Alexander III and Håkon IV, with Alexander negotiating and playing for time in the hope that bad weather would disrupt the Norwegian fleet. This duly arrived on the night of 30 September 1263, driving part of Håkon's fleet ashore on the Scottish mainland at Largs and sinking a number of his ships.
A series of skirmishes broke out on the beach at Largs, and Håkon landed more of his ships to assist those that had been beached. The Norwegians then withdrew on hearing of the approach of a large Scottish army, and retreated to overwinter in Orkney before resuming their campaign the following Spring. But Håkon fell ill and died while staying at the Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall. On his deathbed he appointed his son Magnus as his successor. Håkon IV was buried in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall over the winter, then his body was taken for burial in Bergen Cathedral.
In 1266, King Magnus VI concluded the Treaty of Perth with the Scots. In it he conceded the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Scotland in return for a large one-off sum and an annual payment.
Much of this information is based on The Norwegian Account of Haco's Expedition Against Scotland; 1263, translated from Norse manuscripts by the Rev. James Johnstone and first published in 1782.