Macbeth the legendary King of Scotland was immortalised and demonised in Shakespeare’s play called: MACBETH. The first known performance of the play was around 1611. As many people know, the famous English play writer, William Shakespeare, was notorious during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was during England’s so called Golden Age and theatre was enthralling audiences all over the land.
In 1603 the great English queen passed away. She left no heir and the Tudor line ended. Mary Queen of Scots was her distant cousin because the Scottish Queen’s English Grandmother, on her father’s side, was a Tudor. King Henry VIII elder sister in fact. Therefore late Mary Queen of Scots’ son, who was King James VI of Scotland, became King James I of England.
I wonder if William Shakespeare wrote this play about a Scottish King for this new king that had come south to London from Scotland. It is only speculation, but the play seems to have been written during the time of the Scottish Stuarts as opposed to the time of Welsh/English Tudors.
The play is very much removed from the real King Macbeth of Scotland. In reality Macbeth does not deserve the demonising he gets from the Shakespearian tragedy. He was certainly no faint hearted king and could be vicious and cruel like any monarch that had to fight for survival. Mac Bethad (Macbeth) was no exception to this rule. He had learnt the hard way. His reign from 1040 to 1057 was generally regarded as good by most learned historians. He even went on a pilgrimage to Rome during his reign.
Macbeth was born around 1005 and his father was called Findlaech mac Ruaidri or Finlay as some call him via English translation. His mother was Donada and a princess who was the second daughter of King Malcolm II of Scotland. Finlay was the Mormaer of Moray. The title of Mormaer is something like a high steward of province – an earl or duke. Therefore by his mother’s line, Macbeth’s grandfather was the king of Scotland. At age seven he was sent to a monastery to be educated as all young nobles were. He had many cousins and because of this Macbeth’s order of succession, to the throne of Scotland, was far removed in pecking order. Of course this did not mean much in the 11th century. Things were still very feudal among titled cousins and in-laws.
Such a circumstance was proven when at the age of fifteen in 1020, young Macbeth was forced to flee, to the court of his grandfather King Malcolm II. Two of his cousins, Gillecogain and Malcolm killed his father, Findlaech mac Ruaidri (Finlay) and took over the province of Moray.
In his grandfather’s court Macbeth excelled. He was a noble and gained experience in campaigning alongside his cousin named Duncan. Many things would have happened over a fourteen year period, during the remainder of King Malcolm II reign. In 1031 King Canute, the Viking King of Denmark, Norway and England visited the Scottish courts to accept the submission of King Malcolm II. Macbeth would have been around twenty six years of age and he too agreed submission to the great Viking King Canute. He was among the Scottish nobles at King Malcolm II side.
Then a year later Macbeth makes a grand entrance back upon his ancestral lands as Mormaer of Moray. Of his two cousins who killed his father, only Gillecogain seems to have still been active. In 1032 he was killed upon the command of King Malcolm II for the killing of Macbeth’s father. Twelve years after the event. The lands of Moray were given back to Macbeth – an inheritance from his late father.
His cousin Duncan was still favoured for the throne of Scotland or Alba as some historians say. There is speculation as to how much of Scotland was ruled by Kings of Alba and if this included the outer Isles. The Orkneys was ruled by Macbeth’s cousin – Mormaer (Earl) Thorfinn. How much homage the Orkney earl paid to the King of Scotland, or weather he was more independent, is not known. The isle lords may have been more fringe at this time.
In 1034 King Malcolm II passed away and Macbeth’s cousin Duncan became King Duncan I of Scotland. This was followed by six years of dire rule. King Duncan I was regarded as a poor king who led some disastrous wars. Gradually he began to lose support of his surrounding men of noble rank. Macbeth among them and Thorfinn – Mormaer of the Orkneys.
Macbeth was now married to the widow of Gillecogain and had adopted her son, Lulach. This marriage had strengthened Macbeth’s claim to the throne. From first appearance Macbeth seems to have been unopposed to King Duncan I rule and coronation, but in 1038 a sequence of events began that would lead to the demise of King Duncan I.
From England’s Northumbria, an Anglo Saxon Earl called Ealdred tried to raid southern Scotland. The Scots managed to repel the raid and King Duncan I began to devise a counter attack. He also had a grievance with the Earl of Orkney (Thorfinn) and wanted to attack the north – a war of two fronts. King Duncan sent his nephew named Moddan north to confront Thorfinn - Mormaer of Orkneys, while he led his army into England’s Northumbria. Both campaigns met with disaster.
In the Northern campaign Thorfinn confronted Moddan’s army in a battle and defeated the king’s man. The remnant of Moddan’s army retreated south hoping to join with King Duncan I. The king’s southern force had been badly mauled in the Northumbria campaign by the Anglo Saxons and were returning to Scotland. Before getting back, another battle came upon Moddan and this time he was killed by Thorfinn and Macbeth’s forces.
King Duncan I returned from his disastrous attack on Durham and licked his wounds for a short time before deciding upon finishing the campaign of his late nephew Moddan. Maybe he had a score to settle and knew Macbeth was becoming too popular. In 1040 he led an expedition into Moray, Macbeth’s cherished ancestral lands. If Macbeth lost the campaign he could expect scant mercy from King Duncan. He had a claim to the throne and King Duncan wanted to rid himself of the potential challenger. Kill or be killed.
Unfortunately, Duncan I was now a very unpopular king who had lost too many campaigns. Macbeth was also wise to what had happened to his own father (Finlay). His forces confronted the King of Scotland’s army head on. Also knowing it to be a circumstance of kill or be killed, Macbeth won the day and King Duncan I was slain during the battle near Elgin.
Macbeth, all hail Macbeth, now King of Scotland. He would rule for seventeen years and that rule would be largely prosperous. Nothing like the way William Shakespeare portrayed the king. His predecessor King Duncan I, was known as; "the man of many sorrows." Macbeth would make good laws. One of them was for every Mormaer in Scotland to defend women and orphans. He helped to spread Christianity, make sure that daughters got inheritance as well sons. He also went to Rome on a religious pilgrimage as mentioned earlier.
There were a few disruptions. In 1045, supporters of the late King Duncan I tried to raise a rebellion. This was quickly put down. Also in the following year a new Earl from Anglo Saxon Northumbria tried to rid Scotland of King Macbeth. This was unsuccessful too.
When King Macbeth returned from his pilgrimage in 1052. His court was giving sanctuary to many Normans that had fled north from England. The Normans were trying to escape political turmoil and Scotland’s custom of giving welcome to travellers began to upset Anglo Saxon England – now ruled by King Edward the Confessor.
In King Edward’s court was a young Scottish noble called Malcolm MacDuncan. He was the twenty one year old son of the late King Duncan I. He was now trying to gather Anglo Saxon support for his right to the Scottish throne. After a few years, the young fugitive noble’s efforts were rewarded with strong support from the Earl of Northumbria – the very man who Macbeth had driven off in 1046. It was now 1054 and the Anglo Saxon Earl, who was named Siward, supported the young Malcolm MacDuncan. They led an army into Scotland and met little resistance in the southern provinces.
As Malcolm MacDuncan and Siward marched north towards Scone, Macbeth met them in battle. It was a bloody encounter and both armies disengaged but remained intact with no outcome. Macbeth had lost around three thousand men and Malcolm MacDuncan had lost around one thousand five hundred. This campaign was not a quick affair. In Shakespeare’s play the English army turn up with young prince Malcolm and are victorious in battle. In reality the campaign lasted for three years from 1054 to 1057.
There were constant engagements but no outright battles that could clinch an overall victory – one way or another. Macbeth’s fortunes changed when he lost the support of Pope Leo IX and the Bishop of St Andrew. Also his closest ally, the Mormaer of Orkneys (Thorfinn) had died.
In 1057 King Macbeth faced Malcolm’s men in battle at a place called Lumphanan. This is in Aberdeenshire. The king was on route home to Moray. During the confrontation, Macbeth was slain. His body was buried on the holy Isle of Iona – the place of St Columba’s Hibernian Missionaries. Macbeth’s adopted son Lulach tried to rule after his death, but he was assassinated by mediators loyal to Malcolm MacDuncan.
In 1058 Malcolm MacDuncan became king of Scotland. King Malcolm III related to today's Queen Elizabeth (I of Scotland) (II of England) as 26th great - grandfather.
As for the legend of Macbeth, well…
Macbeth! Macbeth! all hail Macbeth – a man more deserving of historical praise than the play that immortalised him the wrong way.