"King Macbeth is one of the greater figures appearing on the horizon of Scottish history. . . . Unfortunately for his fair name the later romances laid the crimes of others to his charge so that now he stands before the world branded with `every sin that has a name."' JOHN MACBETH
Last great Gaelic king of Scots, who came to the throne through dynastic struggle, went on pilgrimage to Rome, battled the English and Norse, and ruled for 17 years until being killed by his rival.
- 1005 Malcolm II proclaimed king of Scots
- 1020 MacBeth's father Findlaech killed by his nephews
- 1032 MacBeth became mormaer (ruler) of Moray
- 1034 Malcolm II died; Duncan I became king of Scots
- 1040 Duncan I killed; MacBeth inaugurated as king of Scots
- 1045 Duncan's father Crinan revolted against MacBeth and was killed
- 1050 MacBeth went on pilgrimage to Rome
- 1054 MacBeth driven from southern Scotland by Malcolm, son of Duncan, and Siward the earl of Northumbria
- 1057 MacBeth killed by Malcolm at Lumphanan
- 1058 MacBeth's stepson Lulach killed; Malcolm III's reign formally began
Although MacBeth is probably one of the best known of all the Scottish kings, he may also have the worst reputation, due in large measure to the historical and dramatic works of writers who lived four to five hundred years after his death. Shakespeare's tragic play MacBeth represented the culmination of an evil reputation for the Gaelic king that had been in the making for over a century, yet the reign of the historical MacBeth bore little resemblance to that depicted by Shakespeare.
The Scotland into which MacBeth was born about a.d. 1000 was very different from present-day Scotland, with society unlike those of other medieval European kingdoms. In the 11th century, much of the territories rested in the hands of the Norsemen or Vikings. In the north, the Orkney Islands--with the large provinces of Caithness and Sutherland on the mainland--formed no part of the Scottish kingdom but were controlled by a Viking dynasty based in the Orkneys, while the Hebrides Islands in the west were controlled by the king of Norway. The remaining areas of Scotland (except Lothian, the region south of Edinburgh) were Celtic in culture and language. The rural population was organized into a sophisticated tribal society that subsisted through pastoral and agricultural farming. There were no large cities or towns in MacBeth's Scotland, and with no coinage, cattle provided the main source of wealth. Scotland, known then as Alba, was ruled by a High King, but the administration was decentralized; the country was divided into a number of provinces most of which were ruled by royal officers called mormaers who were supposed to act on the king's behalf but who carried a long tradition of acting as rulers in their own right.
Throughout the 10th and 11th centuries, one of the largest and most important of these provinces was Moray. Consisting of a large territory centered on modern Inverness, it extended west to the coast, east to the river Spey, and south along Loch Ness while being separated from the rest of Scotland by a rugged ridge of mountains called the Mounth. Strategically, Moray was important because it acted as a buffer zone between the attacks of the Norsemen in the north and the remainder of the kingdom of Scots in the south.
The rulers of this province had a special importance attached to them. Although often referred to as mormaers like the rulers of the other provinces, in many Irish sources the rulers of Moray are called "kings," and sometimes even "king of Scots," suggesting their high status. Modern genealogical research, moreover, has demonstrated that they were descended from one of the three families which first settled on the western coast of Scotland from Ireland in the early sixth century. Since the kings of Scots were regularly drawn from the other two of these families, the rulers of Moray had a legitimate claim to royal status in the 11th century.
This was the background into which MacBeth was born. According to later sources which cannot be entirely trusted, the date of his birth was 1005. His father was Findlaech Mac Ruaridh, the mormaer of Moray, and his mother--whose identity cannot be proven--may have been Doada, a sister (or daughter) of King Malcolm II (1005-34). Virtually nothing conclusive is known of MacBeth's childhood. In 1020, Tigernach, an Irish writer, recorded that "Findlaech, Ruadri's son, mormaer of Moray, was slain by the sons of his brother Maelbrigte," while another source only stated that he was "killed by his own people." Although this unadorned account does not offer any motivation for the killing of MacBeth's father, it has been suggested that it represented dissatisfaction with the marriage alliance between Findlaech and Doada and the close ties it entailed between these two royal houses. In any event, in 1032, Gillacomgain, one of Findlaech's nephews who had been involved in his killing and who had assumed the title of mormaer, "was burned, along with fifty of his men," according to the Annals of Ulster, another Irish source. Setting fire to an enemy's residence was not then an uncommon means of eliminating one's enemies, and it is possible that MacBeth killed his cousin to avenge his father's death.
Becoming mormaer of Moray, MacBeth also married Gillacomgain's widow, a lady named Gruoch. The historical "Lady MacBeth" (though she would not have been called this) was the daughter of Bodhe (or Boite), who was probably the son of King Kenneth III, and by marrying her MacBeth merged several claims to the kingship of Scots: his own, as the son of Findlaech, and those of his wife through previous kings of Scots. At the same time, he also adopted Gruoch's son Lulach by her former husband Gillacomgain. Although marrying the killer of one's spouse may seem strange, it is found quite frequently in Irish and Scandinavian literature.
Duncan Dies; MacBeth Becomes King
How, then, did MacBeth become king? After a brief reign of six years, King Duncan I met his end in 1040. Neither old nor kindly, as was Shakespeare's "gracious Duncan," he had not been particularly effective as king. Having come to the throne in 1034, aged about 33 years, he had spent much of his reign raiding south into England; these raids proved largely unproductive, and in 1040 he was forced to turn his attention northward to Moray. According to Tigernach, Duncan was killed "by his own subjects" near Elgin. However, Marianus Scottus, an Irish hermit writing in Germany who took an interest in the doings of his fellow Celts, recorded that "Duncan, the king of Scotland, was killed in autumn, by his earl, MacBeth." His account is the only contemporary evidence implicating MacBeth in the murder of Duncan, suggesting that all future accounts of MacBeth's involvement were derived from it. Regardless of whether or not MacBeth was personally involved in Duncan's death, as mormaer of Moray he would still have been held partly responsible for the murder that took place within his province. Yet even so, MacBeth did not murder a kindly old man in his sleep, urged on, as he was in Shakespeare's play, by "vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself," and by an equally ambitious Lady MacBeth. To contemporaries, then, he was not an usurper, yet to men of a later age he became one, and a particularly nasty one at that.
An understanding of the unusual system of succession to the throne which operated in 11th-century Scotland is important to an examination of MacBeth's historical portrayal as a usurper. Among the kings of Scots, there were then few formalized "rules" of succession, like that of father to son. While there was a royal house or kin from whom a royal successor would be chosen, the succession to the kingship tended to alternate between two main branches of the royal house. In general, it is safe to say that no king was succeeded directly by his son or even his brother in the tenth century. In the 11th century, however, the balance of this system was upset. Anxious that his grandson Duncan should succeed him, King Malcolm II of Scotland went to great lengths to ensure that potential rivals were eliminated; in fact, he murdered most of them. This meant that the accession of Duncan I in 1034 was contrary to Celtic custom, and so the double claims of MacBeth to the throne in 1040 were, under Celtic succession, probably better than Duncan's own claims had been. Indeed, modern historians are inclined to view MacBeth as acting on behalf of Scottish conservatism in resisting changes to the traditional Celtic method of succession. But to writers of Shakespeare's day, this method of succession seemed not only distant and incomprehensible but also barbaric.
Of MacBeth's 17-year reign little is known, but he faced strife from both inside and outside Scotland. Upon his succession, Duncan's sons Malcolm and Donald Ban fled Scotland; Malcolm, who would eventually defeat and kill MacBeth, fled to England where he found refuge with King Edward the Confessor, while his brother hid in the western isles of Scotland or Ireland. In 1045, MacBeth faced a rebellion led by Crinan, a churchman and powerful military leader (it was not unusual for a person to be both during this period) and also the father of the late king Duncan. But Crinan's revolt failed and he was killed. According to Tigernach, "a battle was fought between Scots, upon a united expedition, and Crinan, abbot of Dunkeld, was killed in it; and many along with him, namely nine score fighting men." For about 200 years before MacBeth's time, there had been continual warfare between Scots and Norsemen in the northern provinces of Scotland, and in his day, MacBeth probably campaigned against the Norsemen. The most powerful force in the north was then Thorfinn, the earl of Orkney. Thorfinn apparently engaged in several sea battles with MacBeth, who, it has been suggested, appears in the Norse sagas under the name of Karl Hundason. Although the battles were hard fought, the Norse seem to have had the better of MacBeth, as described in the Orkneyinga Saga:
Ships grappled together; gore, as foes fell, bathed stiff iron, black with Scots' blood; singing the bows spilt blood, steel bit; bright though the quick points quaked, no quenching Thorfinn.
MacBeth next appears on the record in the year 1050, on a pilgrimage to Rome. Because the world had not ended as expected in a.d. 1000, a number of kings from northern Europe made pilgrimages to the Holy City shortly thereafter; they included King Sitric of Dublin in 1028 and King Cnut of England in 1030. Marianus Scottus took note of MacBeth's visit, writing that "the king of Scotland . . . scattered money like seed to the poor, at Rome." This pilgrimage marked an important change because it indicated that after some two centuries of isolation Scotland was again opening up to the wider European stage. That MacBeth was able to leave his country for an extended period of time attests to the stability of his reign and suggests that he was probably more acquainted with the rest of Europe than were his predecessors. Sometime during his reign, likely after he returned from the pilgrimage, MacBeth and his wife made a grant of land to the Culdees or Celtic monks of Lochleven in return for prayers for their souls. This act, like his pilgrimage, is suggestive of MacBeth's piety in an age when religious considerations were of high importance.
MacBeth's return from Rome saw storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Even before his departure, the greatest threat to his realm had come from England. In 1046, an English annal recorded that "Earl Siward with a great army came to Scotland, and expelled king MacBeth, and appointed another; but after his departure MacBeth recovered his kingdom." This Siward was the powerful earl of Northumbria in northern England--"almost a giant in stature, and of strong hand and mind," according to an English writer--and was perhaps a kinsman of Malcolm, Duncan's son. Although Siward's 1046 expedition had clearly failed (and the chronicler probably exaggerated its initial success), in 1054 he launched another attack, leading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to record the battle of July 27 in which he led a huge army, accompanied by a fleet, into Scotland, "and fought against the Scots, and put to flight the king MacBeth, and slew all that were best there in the land; and brought thence much war-spoil, such as no man obtained before." English sources relate that this expedition was undertaken at the order of King Edward the Confessor of England with the aim of placing Duncan's son, Malcolm, upon the throne of Scotland. Later tradition records that the battle was fought at Dunsinane Hill, made famous by Shakespeare whose apparition predicted: "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/ Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill/ Shall come against him." By the end of a hard-fought battle, Siward's own son had been killed, along with other Northumbrian nobles and many of MacBeth's supporters. MacBeth, however, escaped and fled northward, back to his home province of Moray, and Malcolm became king over at least the south of Scotland.
Duncan's Son Kills MacBeth
But MacBeth was not yet finished. Three years would pass before, on August 15, 1057, Malcolm (III) finally defeated and killed him in battle at Lumphanan near Aberdeen. Tigernach recorded this event with a typically brief entry: "MacBeth, Findlaech's son, sovereign of Scotland, was slain by Malcolm, Duncan's son." It should be noted that MacDuff had no part in the killing of the historical MacBeth, and indeed the contemporary records do not even attest to the existence of anyone named MacDuff in his time.
Because MacBeth had no children of his own, his stepson Lulach was able to gather enough support to rule briefly over part of Scotland, only to be dispatched by Malcolm in an ambush during March of 1058. Tigernach wrote: "Lulach, the king of Scotland, was slain, by Malcolm, Duncan's son, by treachery," and another chronicler recorded: "Alas! through lack of caution, the hapless king perished." According to slightly later sources, both MacBeth and Lulach were buried on the tiny island of Iona, situated off Scotland's west coast.
As a result of misunderstandings regarding the times in which he lived and later traditions about him, MacBeth has acquired an evil reputation with Shakespeare's MacDuff exclaiming, "Not in the legions/ Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned/ In evils to top MacBeth," while Malcolm referred to his predecessor as "bloody/ Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful/ Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin/ That has a name."
Yet despite these traditional perceptions of MacBeth, there is no evidence to suggest that he was viewed in this manner by his contemporaries. In fact, most writers of his day viewed him quite favorably, with one source calling him "MacBeth of renown." Another, Berchan's Prophecy (ascribed to the Irish abbot Berchan), called him the "generous king. . . . The ruddy, pale-yellow haired, tall one, I shall be joyful in him. Scotland will be brimful, in the west and in the east, during the reign of the furious Red one."
His successor Malcolm III and his sons undertook the introduction of foreign influences into Scotland, accounting for the reference to MacBeth as the last truly Gaelic king of Scots. Much of his evil reputation has been derived from chroniclers writing long after his death, who often had dramatic or moral obligations to fulfill. Although accounts of the historical king MacBeth are scarce, it is apparent that his contemporaries found him more deserving of praise then condemnation.
Name variations: Machethad; Machetad; Macbethad (proper Gaelic spelling) means "son of life"; often confused with MacHeth in later sources. Born perhaps a.d. 1000-1005; killed in August 1057; buried on the island of Iona, situated off Scotland's west coast; son of Findlaech Mac Ruaridh, mormaer (ruler) of Moray; married: Gruoch (a granddaughter of either King Kenneth II [971-995] or Kenneth III [997-1005]); children: none. Predecessor: Duncan I. Successors: Lulach, Malcolm III.
- Anderson, A. O. Early Sources of Scottish History, a.d. 500-1286. 2 vols. Oliver & Boyd, 1922. Vol. 1, pp. 550-604.
- ------. Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers, a.d. 500-1286. David Nutt, 1908.
- Cowan, E. J. "The Historical MacBeth," in Scottish Society for Northern Studies, forthcoming.
- Dunbar, Sir A. H. Scottish Kings. A Revised of Scottish History, 1005-1625. David Douglas, 1899.
- Shakespeare, William. MacBeth. Edited by S. Barnet. Penguin, 1987.
- Barrow, G. W. S. Kingship and Unity: Scotland, 1000-1306. Edward Arnold, 1981.
- Dickinson, W. C. Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603. 3rd ed. Revised and edited by A.a.m. Duncan. Clarendon Press, 1977.
- Dunnett, D. "The Real MacBeth," in The Sunday Mail Story of Scotland. Vol. 1, pt. 4. R. Maxwell, 1988.
- Ellis, P. B. MacBeth High King of Scotland, 1040-1057. Frederick Muller, 1980.
- Skene, W. F. Celtic Scotland. 3 vols. David Douglas, 1876-1880.