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Who was the real Macbeth?

Recently my partner and I went to see a performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth, a play based on the reign of an 11th century Scottish king. Naturally, this put me in the mood to investigate the real story behind the play and that is what I wish to share with you today. The story of Macbeth as told by Shakespeare is based on the work of Raphael Holinshed, an English historian, so Shakespeare's play could perhaps be seen as a theatre adaption of Holinshed's history. This has resulted in this version of the story being the best-known.

However, it must be borne in mind that in late 16th century Britain, it was more fashionable for historians to display their linguistic prowess and learnedness (especially in the Graeco-Roman classics), rather than present a more rigorously researched assessment of history which was known as 'scholasticism'. Such was the approach of the Scottish historian John Mair, who wrote at the beginning of the 16th century. I am more a fan of Mair's approach than other historians of a similar time, such as Hector Boece, Raphael Holinshed and George Buchanan.

While 11th century Scotland is indeed a 'dark age' in so far as we have scarce information about it, what little we do have presents a very different narrative from that of Shakespeare's play. Here I wish to tell you of the story of the real 'MacBethaid', whose name means 'son of fortune' and which seems to have applied to him to begin with. He was born in 1005 at Dingwall in Easter Ross and he lived in a time when Scotland was culturally Gaelic, but had inherited its political structure from the Picts. This is reflected in the realm that MacBeth and his father, Findláech (Finlay) ruled, which was known as Muireabh (Moray), but was much larger than the present area of the same name; making up much if not all of the 'Northern Pictish' territory north of the Mounth.

The Scottish kings themselves such as Duncan were based south of the Mounth in what used to be 'Southern Pictland' and had their capital at Forteviot in Perthshire, but they also controlled the culturally English Lothian and the Borders (the culturally Welsh Strathclyde was yet to be conquered by the Scots at this stage, but it wouldn't be long before they did). Muireabh was therefore a semi-independent realm, nominally subject to the Scottish king, but in practice functioned more like its own kingdom.

Macbeth's realm was known in Latin as Moravia, while Scone was the crowning place of Scotland's kings. The Mounth is the mountain range between the are marked 'Scotia' and the lands to the north

Finlay was murdered by his nephew, Gille Coemgáin (pronounced 'cove-goin'), in 1029, so Macbeth in turn murdered Gille Coemgáin by burning him in a hall a couple of years later. Sounds rather ruthless does it not? Yet it must be borne in mind that in these times society was based on honor, so if one was not willing or able to avenge one's murdered father, it would very likely have brought shame and dishonor not just upon Macbeth, but upon his whole family. Perhaps he was ruthlessly ambitious, or perhaps he was simply willing to adopt the mantle his father had once bore and saw taking revenge, quite understandably in the context of the time, as the most reasonable course of action.

Either way, Macbeth married Gille Coemgáin's widow, Gruoch, who was the real 'Lady Macbeth'; though her character in Holinshed's work is likely made up as we have no sources to tell us what she was like (unsurprisingly, women don't feature much at all in early medieval history). Macbeth then met Cnut, a Danish king who also ruled England and Norway, along with the Scottish king Malcolm II and another king called “Iehmarc” (probably Echmarcach MacRagnaill, King of the Norse-Gaels in Dublin and the west coast of Scotland). Cnut came to Scotland to accept their 'submission' (which may simply have involved acknowledging his rulership of England). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle specifically refers to these three men as “kings”, which really makes Macbeth look as if he was on par with Malcolm, even if he was nominally subject to Malcolm.

The next thing to happen to Macbeth was that his lands were invaded in 1040 by Malcolm's son and successor, Duncan. Nobody tells us why this happened, but one possibility is that Macbeth chose to rebel against Duncan for some reason (likely more through rejecting his authority rather than attempting to dethrone him, since it was his realm that was invaded by Duncan and not the other way round). It's curious how Shakespeare's Macbeth is initially a loyal servant of Duncan, helping to quash a rebellion, before deciding to murder him dishonorably in his sleep after being told by a witch that he would become king, and then being goaded by his ambitious wife after he relayed the prophecy to her.

Shakespeare's Duncan is portrayed as a wise old king and nothing is indicated about how he came to the throne to begin with. In fact, Duncan only became king after his maternal grandfather, Malcolm II, had as many other competitors as possible murdered. At the time, it was Gaelic custom for brothers, nephews and cousins of kings to succeed them rather than their sons. However, for one reason or another, Malcolm became convinced that primogeniture (the more familiar father-to-son succession that was becoming more common at the time) was better; though he had to settle for his grandson as he himself had no sons.

Duncan himself wasn't even an old man at the time of his death, but a young man who had led a failed raid on Durham (likely as part of a retaliation for an English raid on Strathclyde). Perhaps it was this failure that caused Macbeth to lose his faith in the young king, which was probably seen at the time as a challenge to Duncan to prove his strength as king. Duncan was indeed killed by Macbeth, but in battle at Pitgaveny near Elgin. It is very likely indeed that Macbeth saw himself as better material for kingship than Duncan, but he needed no witch to tell him that he had the chops for it; he could easily have pointed to Duncan's failed raid and lack of experience, being a young man, to show himself and others that he was better suited to the job.

And as far as the evidence we have tells us, he proved very capable of reigning as King of Scotland. Duncan's father, Abbot Crinán of Dunkeld, may have a rebellion against Macbeth in 1045 (the sources are too vague to definitively say what happened, though this scenario seems most likely), but either way he was killed. Thereafter, in 1050 Macbeth was the only Scottish king ever to make pilgrimage to Rome and visit the pope. The fact that he was able to do this and return without any sign of his rule being challenged shows how secure he felt as king. His generosity in Rome was remarked on, though in all honesty the whole affair was probably an attempt to copy Cnut who had done the same thing prior.

Dunkeld Cathedral was built between 1260 and 1501 on top of Crinán's monastery, which was originally built of wood in the 6th century and rebuilt in stone by Kenneth MacAlpin in the 848 1

Nevertheless, the Gaelic text known as The Prophecy of Berchán describes him as “red[-faced], tall and golden-haired” and calls him “the furious red one”. This may well tell us something of his character, that he embodied the typical Celtic characteristics in his complexion and temperament, though The Prophecy also says “he will be pleasant to me among them [the Scots]” and that “Scotland will be brimful west and east”. The poet seems to have been expressing eagerness to visit Macbeth (even if he never actually did), showing at least that he was admired rather than feared (though it also seems clear enough that he could be terrible to those who got on his bad side). If he was generous to Roman beggars, it was probably consistent with his character rather than simply a put-on imitation of Cnut.

However, Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, had indeed fled Scotland, while Thane MacDuff, Macbeth's rival in the play that deals him his mortal blow, first appears in John of Fordun's Chronicle of the Scottish People from the late 14th century; which states that MacDuff believed Malcolm should have been king instead of Macbeth. Macbeth is said to have responded furiously to rumours that this was the case and so MacDuff fled when summoned to submit to Macbeth, who then confiscated his lands (though Fordun doesn't say he had his family murdered as in the play).

Fordun's account is consistent with Macbeth's character though and says that the Scots thought this act to be rather hasty and unjust, that MacDuff should have been tried in court and Macbeth shouldn't have acted without due process. The earlier sources give no indication of any of this, but this may have been what precipitated the famous Battle of Dunsinane in 1054. What we do know for a fact was that the invasion was led by Siward, the Danish-born Earl of Northumbria and that Macbeth was defeated, but not killed!

As an aside, an Iron Age fort is the 'dun' in 'Dunsinane' that sits atop the hill, but it was probably abandoned over a thousand years before this battle, so would not have been a fort at the time and there is no archaeological evidence the hill was was fortified by Macbeth as part of his battle strategy. Indeed, Dunsinane was one of the first casualties of early archaeology in the late 18th and 19th centuries as a result of its fame, ruining much of the site and many of the artefacts found are now lost.

Dunsinane Hillfort as seen from nearby Black Hill, the ramparts would probably have been just as clearly visible in Macbeth's day, if not clearer

What happened next is frustratingly confusing and unclear, as John of Worcester writing in the 12th century says Siward installed “Malcolm son of the King of the Cumbrians” as king. This has often been thought to refer to Duncan's son, but Duncan was King of the Scots, not the Cumbrians (which included Strathclyde). It's feasible enough that these were two different men with the same name, as Strathclyde had already had a 'King Malcolm' in the 10th century. However, the fact that Siward's appointment of this 'Malcolm' as king seems to be in the context of the aftermath of the Battle of Dunsinane in Perthshire makes less sense in the context of Strathclyde.

Tim Clarkson suggests that this “Malcolm son of the King of the Cumbrians” was a Strathclyder/Cumbrian put on the Scottish throne at English behest1. While this may be true, no other source than John of Worcester indicates this. The only references the Irish annals make to Scottish kings at this time are the deaths of Macbeth and his stepson, Lulach, in 1058, though even there the sources differ somewhat. Both the Chronicon Scotorum and Annals of Tigernach say Lulach was “treacherously killed by Malcolm MacDuncan”, while the Chronicon Scotorum says Macbeth was also killed by Malcolm. The Annals of Ulster on the other hand, don't mention Lulach, but say Macbeth was killed in battle by 'Máel Senechlainn MacDuncan', presumably Malcolm's brother, but who is known in no other source (and may be a mistake for 'Máel Coluim' or 'Malcolm').

John of Fordun wrote that Macbeth was killed by Malcolm in battle at Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire (he doesn't mention Dunsinane), while trouble between the English and Welsh meant that Siward had to return south, at which point Lulach was crowned King of Scotland instead of Malcolm. Then either Malcolm himself or his followers killed Lulach at Rhynie, also in Aberdeenshire. It's telling that Fordun's account emphasizes Macbeth as a usurper and that Malcolm's actions were justified, while the Irish annals seem to have condemned Malcolm's murder of Lulach as “treacherous”.

All in all, while it's hard to say anything definite about Macbeth because of the mist of the time in which he lived, there seems little evidence that he was the tyrant that most folk are familiar with. He was certainly ruthless and ambitious, but seemingly no more so than anyone else at the time. Was he able to maintain such a strong grip on Scotland because he ruled with an iron first? Maybe, we simply don't know, though if he did that's not what the Irish poets who wrote about him emphasized, but rather the bounty of Scotland during his reign; which was a sign in those ancient days that the divine order was being maintained by the king. Mind you, they also indicate he had a short temper, which could well have led to his downfall in the end.

Shakespeare's Macbeth is rather the archetype of the bad king, someone ruled by his passions and who was ultimately a weak man masquerading as a strong one, as he was swayed by the stronger will of his wife. The fact that he struggles to deal with the weight of his murder of Duncan, and thereafter his place on the Scottish throne, shows that he is unfit for the position he had seized. Was part of his character a carefully concealed criticism of both Henry VII and Henry VIII of England, his patron's paternal predecessors? Perhaps, though he may simply have been a cautionary tale for future English monarchs, or Shakespeare's attempt to write a tragedy about a tyrant; perhaps inspired by Oedipus Rex.

This is therefore a case of the victors writing history; Macbeth was killed by Malcolm Canmore, whose descendants ruled Scotland until the death of Queen Margaret, Maid of Norway, in 1290. From the perspective of the House of Dunkeld, Macbeth was a usurper whose killing was right and just for having the audacity to kill Duncan I, the first king from the House of Dunkeld. Macbeth himself had no children, and so no descendants to challenge Malcolm, nor the narrative told about him for centuries after. Ironically, once again considering the translation of his name, Shakespeare's play has made the House of Dunkeld's propaganda (or rather, Holinshed's interpretation of said propaganda) the best remembered version of Macbeth's reign.

We know of no other man in history with the name 'MacBethaid', so perhaps one or both of his parents felt unduly confident in their son's luck in life. The fact that not only was he unlucky in the later part of his reign, but that his name has become synonymous with the archetype of the bad king all over the world as a result of English language dominance, is surely a tragedy in itself. Again, maybe he did deserve it, maybe Shakespeare's play has managed to convey the deeper truth of Macbeth's reign beyond what we can glean from the meagre medieval sources available to us.

Personally, I think not, I think rather this is simply an example of a king who was maligned by his rivals who had more luck than he did, despite his name, and as a result, he was simply chosen by Holinshed and Shakespeare to fill the role of the bad king (specifically the 'paranoid tyrant' variety) in the narratives they were conveying to their English audiences. Thankfully, we have at least some historical sources to counter their more well-known narrative and give Macbeth his due the best we can. I think the issue was that he was a man who had many of the qualities required to be king, but his short temper may well have been his undoing when dealing with more crafty opponents.

Conor Cummings

2 Clarkson, 2016: Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, pp.149-152


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