Macbeth of Scotland
Mac Bethad mac Findlaích (Modern Gaelic: MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh),(died August 15, 1057), was King of Scots (also known as the King of Alba) from 1040 until his death. He is best known as the subject of William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth and the many works it has inspired, although the play is historically inaccurate. Shakespeare' Macbeth immortalized the Scottish king but as a dark, tormented character driven all but insane by his own foul deed, the crime of regicide. Separating the man from the myth is a challenge for any historian. What can be deduced is that he is much more likely to have slain Duncan, his half-brother and predecessor, in battle than to have murdered him. He may well be credited with forging Alba into a viable state, transforming what had been a loose clan confederacy into a nation where people recognized common ties and loyalties across the sparsely populated and often inaccessible hills and vales. As did later Scottish kings, Macbeth appears to have cleverly positioned Scotland between her more powerful neighbors yet he did not isolate Scotland either. He encouraged trade, improved the kingdom's infrastructure, entered a political alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and strengthened the Church by negotiating a direct relationship with Rome.
This legacy, one that later kings would make their own, informs a tendency for Scotland to see herself as a secure and stable base from which people can participate in a global community. For much of its history, Scotland struggled with Scandinavia and England to assert her freedom and right of self-determination. Under Macbeth, Scotland was free but not inward looking—her face was set towards the world. Increasingly, her commercial agents would travel throughout Europe. This desire for self-governance alongside commitment to participation in a global economy continues to characterize Scottish identity. When more people see themselves as members of an inter-dependent world, with common responsibilities for the welfare of all, people will shift from selfishly thinking about their own interests, to considering everyone's needs.
Origins and family
Macbeth was the son of Findláech mac Ruaidrí, Mormaer of Moray. His mother is sometimes supposed to have been a daughter of the Scottish king Malcolm II (Máel Coluim mac Cináeda). This may be derived from Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland which makes Macbeth's mother a granddaughter, rather than a daughter, of Malcolm. Macbeth was probably Duncan's half-brother.
Macbeth's paternal ancestry can be traced in the Irish genealogies contained in the Rawlinson B.502 manuscript:
Mac Bethad son of Findláech son of Ruadrí son of Domnall son of Morggán son of Cathamal son of Ruadrí son of Ailgelach son of Ferchar son of Fergus son of Nechtan son of Colmán son of Báetán son of Eochaid son of Muiredach son of Loarn son of Eirc son of Eochaid Muinremuir.
This should be compared with the ancestry claimed for Malcolm II which traces back to Loarn's brother Fergus Mór. Several of Macbeth's ancestors can tentatively be identified: Ailgelach son of Ferchar as Ainbcellach mac Ferchair and Ferchar son of Fergus (correctly, son of Feredach son of Fergus) as Ferchar Fota, while Muiredach son of Loarn mac Eirc, his son Eochaid and Eochaid's son Báetán are given in the Senchus fer n-Alban. So, while the descendants of King Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpín) saw themselves as being descended from the Cenél nGabráin of Dál Riata, the northern kings of Moray traced their origins back to the rival Cenél Loairn.
Macbeth's father Findláech was killed about 1020 - one obituary calls him king of Alba - most probably by his successor as ruler of Moray, his nephew Máel Coluim mac Máil Brigte (Malcolm, son of Máel Brigte). Máel Coluim died in 1029; although the circumstances are unknown, violence is not suggested; he is called king of Alba by the Annals of Tigernach. However, king of Alba is by no means the most impressive title used by the Irish annals. Many deaths reported in the annals in the eleventh century are of rulers called Ard Rí Alban - High-King of Scotland. It is not entirely certain whether Máel Coluim was followed by his brother Gille Coemgáin or by Macbeth.
Gille Coemgáin's death in 1032 was not reported by the Annals of Tigernach, but the Annals of Ulster record:
Gille Coemgáin son of Máel Brigte, mormaer of Moray, was burned together with fifty people.
Some have supposed that Macbeth was the perpetrator. Others have noted the lack of information in the Annals, and the subsequent killings at the behest of King Malcolm II to suggest other answers. Gille Coemgáin had been married to Gruoch, daughter of Boite mac Cináeda ("Boite son of Kenneth"), with whom he had a son, the future king Lulach.
It is not clear whether Gruoch's father was a son of King Kenneth II (Cináed mac Maíl Coluim) (d. 1005) or of King Kenneth III (Cináed mac Duib)(d. 997), either is possible chronologically. After Gille Coemgáin's death, Macbeth married his widow, Gruoch, and took Lulach as his stepson. Gruoch's brother, or nephew (his name is not recorded), was killed in 1033 by Malcolm II.
Mormaer and dux
When Canute the Great came north in 1031 to accept the submission of King Malcolm II, Macbeth, too, submitted to him:
… Malcolm, king of the Scots, submitted to him, and became his man, with two other kings, Macbeth and Iehmarc…
Some have seen this as a sign of Macbeth's power, others have seen his presence, together with Iehmarc, who may be Echmarcach mac Ragnaill, as proof that Malcolm II was overlord of Moray and of the Kingdom of the Isles. Whatever the true state of affairs in the early 1030s, it seems more probable that Macbeth was subject to the king of Alba, Malcolm II, who died at Glamis, on November 25, 1034. The Prophecy of Berchan is apparently alone in near contemporary sources in reporting a violent death, calling it a kinslaying. Tigernan's chronicle says only:
Máel Coluim son of Cináed, king of Alba, the honor of western Europe, died.
Malcolm II's grandson Duncan (Donnchad mac Crínáin), later King Duncan I, was acclaimed as king of Alba on November 30, 1034, apparently without opposition. Duncan appears to have been tánaise ríg, the "king in waiting," so that far from being an abandonment of tanistry, as has sometimes been argued, his kingship was a vindication of the practice. Previous successions had involved strife between various rígdomna—men of royal blood. Far from being the aged King Duncan of Shakespeare's play, the real King Duncan was a young man in 1034, and even at his death in 1040 his youthfulness is remarked upon.
Perhaps due to his youth, Duncan's early reign was apparently uneventful. His later reign, in line with his description as "the man of many sorrows" in the Prophecy of Berchán, was not successful. In 1039, Strathclyde was attacked by the Northumbrians, and a retaliatory raid led by Duncan against Durham in 1040 turned into a disaster. Later that year Duncan led an army into Moray, where he was killed by Macbeth on 15 August 1040 at Pitgaveny (then called Bothnagowan) near Elgin.
High-King of Alba
On Duncan's death, Macbeth became king. No resistance is known at this time, but it would be entirely normal if his reign were not universally accepted. In 1045, Duncan's father Crínán of Dunkeld was killed in a battle between two Scottish armies.
John of Fordun wrote that Duncan's wife fled Scotland, taking her children, including the future kings Malcolm III (Máel Coluim mac Donnchada) and Donald III (Domnall Bán mac Donnchada, or Donalbane) with her. Based on the author's beliefs as to whom Duncan married, various places of exile, Northumbria and Orkney among them, have been proposed. However, the simplest solution is that offered long ago by E. William Robertson: the safest place for Duncan's widow and her children would be with her or Duncan's kin and supporters in Atholl.
After the defeat of Crínán, Macbeth was evidently unchallenged. Marianus Scotus tells how the king made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050, where, Marianus says, he gave money to the poor as if it were seed.
The Orkneyinga Saga says that a dispute between Thorfinn Sigurdsson, Earl of Orkney, and Karl Hundason began when Karl Hundason became "King of Scots" and claimed Caithness. The identity of Karl Hundason, unknown to Scots and Irish sources, has long been a matter of dispute, and it is far from clear that the matter is settled. The most common assumption is that Karl Hundason was an insulting byname (Old Norse for "Churl, son of a Dog") given to Macbeth by his enemies. William Forbes Skene's suggestion that he was Duncan I of Scotland has been revived in recent years. Lastly, the idea that the whole affair is a poetic invention has been raised.
According to the Orkneyinga Saga, in the war which followed, Thorfinn defeated Karl in a sea-battle off Deerness at the east end of the Orkney Mainland. Then Karl's nephew Mutatan or Muddan, appointed to rule Caithness for him, was killed at Thurso by Thorkel the Fosterer. Finally, a great battle on the south side of the Dornoch Firth ended with Karl defeated and fugitive or dead. Thorfinn, the saga says, then marched south through Scotland as far as Fife, burning and plundering as he passed. A later note in the saga claims that Thorfinn won nine Scottish earldoms.
Whoever Karl son of Hundi may have been, it appears that the saga is reporting a local conflict with a Scots ruler of Moray or Ross:
[T]he whole narrative is consistent with the idea that the struggle of Thorfinn and Karl is a continuation of that which had been waged since the ninth century by the Orkney earls, notably Sigurd Rognvald's son, Ljot, and Sigurd the Stout, against the princes or mormaers of Moray, Sutherland, Ross, and Argyll, and that, in fine, Malcolm and Karl were mormaers of one of these four provinces.
In 1052, Macbeth was involved indirectly in the strife in the Kingdom of England between Godwin, Earl of Wessex and Edward the Confessor when he received a number of Norman exiles from England in his court, perhaps becoming the first king of Scots to introduce feudalism to Scotland. In 1054, Edward's Earl of Northumbria, Siward, led a very large invasion of Scotland. The campaign led to a bloody battle in which the Annals of Ulster report 3000 Scots and 1500 English dead, which can be taken as meaning very many on both sides, and one of Siward's sons and a son-in-law were among the dead. The result of the invasion was that one Máel Coluim, "son of the king of the Cumbrians" (not to be confused with Máel Coluim mac Donnchada, the future Malcolm III of Scotland) was restored to his throne, i.e., as ruler of the kingdom of Strathclyde. It may be that the events of 1054 are responsible for the idea, which appears in Shakespeare's play, that Malcolm III was put in power by the English.
Macbeth certainly survived the English invasion, for he was defeated and mortally wounded or killed by the future Malcolm III on the north side of the Mounth in 1057, after retreating with his men over the Cairnamounth Pass to take his last stand at the battle at Lumphanan. The Prophecy of Berchán has it that he was wounded and died at Scone, 60 miles to the south, some days later. Macbeth's stepson Lulach mac Gille Coemgáin was installed as king soon after.
Unlike later writers, no near contemporary source remarks on Macbeth as a tyrant. The Duan Albanach, which survives in a form dating to the reign of Malcolm III calls him "Mac Bethad the renowned." The Prophecy of Berchán, a verse history which purports to be a prophecy, describes him as "the generous king of Fortriu," and says:
The red, tall, golden-haired one, he will be pleasant to me among them; Scotland will be brimful west and east during the reign of the furious red one.
Life to legend
Macbeth's life, like that of King Duncan I, had progressed far towards legend by the end of the fourteenth century, when John of Fordun and Andrew of Wyntoun wrote their histories. Hector Boece, Walter Bower, and George Buchanan all contributed to the legend.
The influence of William Shakespeare's Macbeth towers over mere histories, and has made the name of Macbeth infamous. Even his wife has gained some fame along the way, lending her Shakespeare-given title to a short story by Nikolai Leskov>ref>N. S. Leskov and Robert Chandler. 2003. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: a sketch. (London: Hesperus. ISBN 9781843910688).</ref> and the opera by Dmitri Shostakovich entitled Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The historical content of Shakespeare's play is drawn from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which in turn borrows from Boece's 1527 Scotorum Historiae which flattered the antecedents of Boece's patron, King James V of Scotland.
In modern times, Dorothy Dunnett's novel King Hereafter aims to portray a historical Macbeth, but proposes that Macbeth and his rival and sometime ally Thorfinn of Orkney are one and the same (Thorfinn is his birth name and Macbeth is his baptismal name). John Cargill Thompson's play Macbeth Speaks 1997, a reworking of his earlier Macbeth Speaks, is a monologue delivered by the historical Macbeth, aware of what Shakespeare and posterity have done to him.
Scottish author Nigel Tranter based one of his historical novels on the historical figure MacBeth the King. This account by Nigel Tranter, a recognized expert among modern historians, describes Macbeth as originally the King of Moray, under the rule of Duncan, who fell suspect to Duncan's insecurities, and was attacked. Macbeth joined forces with his half-brother Thorfinn, who was the son of Macbeth's father's second wife, a Norse woman. Duncan was defeated and killed in battle, and Macbeth took the throne.
It mentions various feats during his tenure as King, which are based on some fact, such as his support of the Celtic Catholic Church, as opposed to the Roman Catholic branch which was in charge in England. It mentions his trip to Rome to petition the Celtic church to the Pope, and it claims he travelled in his brother's Viking ships, and there was mention in the annuals in Rome of Vikings sailing up to the city. Though the two cannot be confirmed accurately. It mentions his defiance of England's claim over the Scottish throne, and that being the reason Macbeth was attacked, and the more English-friendly Malcolm III being installed.
Macbeth's character has been so vividly pictured and immortalized by Shakespeare's play that separating the man from the myth is a challenge for any historian. What can be deduced is that he is much more likely to have slain Duncan in battle than to have murdered him in his sleep while a guest in his own castle. The writer of historical fiction Dorothy Dunnett portrays him killing Duncan in a duel, in which he engaged with reluctance. In Dunnett's historical novel he cleverly positioned Scotland between its more powerful neighbors in Scandinavia and England and began the business of transforming Scotland from a loose clan-based confederacy into a nation; he encouraged trade, hence his liberality in Rome, ran a fleet and also took steps to weaken the control of English bishops over the Scottish Church, the single bishop being then subject to the Bishop of Durham. In her account, during his visit to Rome he secured the appointment of at least one Scottish bishop with the promise that when it became necessary to appoint a Metropolitan he would be "responsible to the Apostolic See." Macbeth, in this view, transformed the role of monarch from one that treated Scotland as a "Viking base to be held under threat for its tribute" to one that knitted the country together. To do this, he set out to nurture leaders "who would cleave to him" and "work in amity" with each other. Dunnett depicts Macbeth forging alliances with the Holy Roman Emperor as well as visiting the Pope. Forging a nation also involved improving Alba's communication and transport infrastructure, establishing factories for wool dying and spinning and for tanning leather.
Aspects of Macbeth's legacy resemble that of the later, iconic Scottish king, Alexander III whose 37 year long reign is widely regarded as one of the most successful in Scotland's history. On the one hand, he successfully maintained Scotland's freedom resisting his more powerful neighbors' territorial ambitions, as did Macbeth. On the other hand, his traders sold produce across Europe, so he did not isolate his small nation from the world beyond. Similarly, Macbeth trod the European stage dealing with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, visiting them and forging alliances. This legacy, represented by the earlier Macbeth and the later Alexander, informs a tendency for Scotland to see herself as a secure and stable base from which people can participate in a global community. When more people see themselves as members of an inter-dependent world, with common responsibilities for the welfare of all, humanity will shift from selfishly thinking about the interests of a few, to considering the needs of all.
| House of Moray |
Born: 1005; Died: 15 August 1057
(Donnchad mac Crínáin)
|King of Scots
|Succeeded by: Lulach|
|Mormaer of Moray|
- Benjamin T. Hudson. Prophecy of Berchán: Irish and Scottish high-kings of the early Middle Ages. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996. ISBN 9780313295676), 224–225, discusses the question, and the reliability of Wyntoun's chronicle.
- Genealogies from Rawlinson B 502 - Genelach Ríg n-Alban (Author: unknown). Cork, Ireland: University College Cork Corpus of Electronic Texts. (CELT) Retrieved February 21, 2009.
- The Senchus fer n'Alban was written in Old Irish and compiled at some time during the tenth century and attributed to the seventh century.
- A.A.M. Duncan. The kingship of the Scots, 842-1292: succession and independence. (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. ISBN 9780748616268), 32.
- Donnchadh Ó Corráin, 1996, 359, Annals of Tigernach 1020.8, Compiled by Donnchadh Ó Corráin. University College Cork Corpus of Electronic Texts (CELT). Retrieved February 21, 2009.
- Annals of Tigernach 1029.5.
- Annals of Ulster 1032.2. University College Cork Corpus of Electronic Texts, Compiled by Marcos Balé and Emer Purcell, 2003. Retrieved February 21, 2009.
- Duncan, 2002, 32.
- Duncan, 2002, 345; Michael Lynch. The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 9780192116963), 680.
- Annals of Ulster 1033.7. The victim is reported as M. m. Boite m. Cináedha, which is variously read as "the son of the son of Boite" or as "M. son of Boite." Although Miles thinks he's not real.
- Rev. James Ingram. (London, 1823). Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 1031. Part 4: A.D. 1015 - 1051. The Online Medieval and Classical Library. Retrieved February 21, 2009.
- Compare Duncan, 2002, 29–30 with Hudson, 1996, 222–223.
- Hudson, 1996, 223; Duncan, 2002, 33.
- Annals of Tigernach 1034.1. University College Cork Corpus of Electronic Texts, 374. Retrieved February 21, 2009.
- Duncan I as tánaise ríg, the chosen heir, see Duncan, 2002, 33–34; Hudson, 1996, 223–224, where it is accepted that Duncan was king of Strathclyde. For tanistry, etc., in Ireland, see Dáibhí Ó Cróinín. Early medieval Ireland, 400-1200. (London, UK: Longman, 1995. ISBN 9780582015661), 63–71; Francis John Byrne. Irish kings and high-kings. (London, UK: Batsford, 1973. ISBN 9780713413045), 35–39, offers a different perspective.
- Annals of Tigernach 1040.1. 'University College Cork Corpus of Electronic Texts, 379. Retrieved February 21, 2009.
- Hudson, 1996, 223–224; Duncan, 2002, 33–34.
- Annals of Tigernach 1045.10; Annals of Ulster 1045.6.
- Eben William Robertson. 1862. Scotland under her early kings : a history of the kingdom to the close of the thirteenth century. (Edinburgh, UK: Edmonston and Douglas), 122; Hudson, 1996, 224, refers to Earl Siward as Malcolm III's "patron"; Duncan, 2002, 40–42, favors Orkney. Northumbria is evidently a misapprehension, further than that cannot be said with certainty.
- Peter Berresford Ellis. Macbeth: High King of Scotland 1040-57. (Belfast, IE: Blackstaff, 1991. ISBN 9780856404481), 74.
- However Macbeth's father may be called "jarl Hundi" in Njál's saga; Barbara E. Crawford. Scandinavian Scotland. (Scotland in the early Middle Ages, 2.) (Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1987. ISBN 9780718511975), 72.
- Alan Orr Anderson. (1922). Early Sources of Scottish History C.E. 500 to 1286, vol I, revised & corrected ed. (Stamford, UK: Paul Watkins, 1990. ISBN 9781871615050), 576, note 7, refers to the account as "a fabulous story" and concludes that "no solution to the riddle seems to be justified".
- Hermann Pálsson and Paul Geoffrey Edwards. Orkneyinga saga: the history of the Earls of Orkney. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK; New York, NY: Penguin classics, 1981. ISBN 9780140443837), 75. from the Orkneyinga Saga, cc. 20 & 32.
- Crawford, 1987, 71–74.
- Thomas Forester Florence and John de Taxster. The chronicle of Florence of Worcester, with the two continuations: comprising annals of English history, from the departure of the Romans to the reign of Edward I, Translated from the Latin. (Bohn's antiquarian library) (London, UK: H.G. Bohn. and Forester, 1854). 1054, 1054.6; Duncan, 2002, 38–41.
- F.J. Amours Andrew, John Thomas Tosbach Brown, and George Neilson. 1903. The original chronicle of Andrew of Wyntoun printed on parallel pages from the Cottonian and Wemyss mss., with the variants of the other texts, ed., with introduction, notes, and glossary, vol. 4. (Edinburgh, UK: Printed for the Society by W. Blackwood and Sons), 298-299 and 300-301 (c. 1420).
- The exact dates are uncertain, Hudson, 1996, August 14; and Duncan, 2002, following John of Fordun, gives December 5; Annals of Tigernach 1058.5; Annals of Ulster 1058.6.
- Hudson, 1996, 91, stanzas 193 and 194.
- Dmitri Shostakovich. Dmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mzensk (Katerina Ismailova) Opera Vocal Score in Russian And English. (Dsch. 2004. ISBN 9780634078347).
- Alison Taufer. Holinshed's Chronicles. (Twayne's English authors series, TEAS 556) (New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, 1999. ISBN 9780805745818); Joseph Henry Satin. Shakespeare and his sources. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1966).
- John Cargill Thompson. Macbeth speaks 1997; A woman of some importance; Hello, Juno speaking. (Edinburgh, UK: Diehard, 1997. ISBN 9780946230266I); Thompson, John Cargill. Lady Macbeth speaks: Vanity fair; The bastard; A play for Caesar. (Edinburgh, UK: Diehard, 1999. ISBN 9780946230594).
- Dorothy Dunnett. King Hereafter. (New York, NY: Knopf, 1982. ISBN 9780394523781), 210.
- Dunnett, 437.
- Dunnett, 273.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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- Shostakovich, Dmitri. Dmitri Shostakovich - Lady Macbeth of Mzensk (Katerina Ismailova) Opera Vocal Score in Russian And English. Dsch. 2004. ISBN 9780634078347.
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All links retrieved November 5, 2022.
- CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts:
- Genealogies from Rawlinson B.502 (no translation available).
- Gaelic notes from the Book of Deer (with translation).
- The Annals of Ulster (translation).
- The Annals of Tigernach (translation in progress).
- The Chronicon Scotorum reproduces a considerable part of the Annals of Tigernach and is available in translation.
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