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Issue 13 - Macbeth: bloody tyrant or popular king?

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Scotland Magazine Issue 13
March 2004


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Macbeth: bloody tyrant or popular king?

Most of us know Shakespeare's version of Macbeth. What was the reality? Jackie Cosh reports

In August 1606 William Shakespeare presented his new play to King James I at Hampton Court. Macbeth, the story of a tyrant king whose ambitions lead him to commit murder, was to become one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies.

The name “Macbeth” was not unfamiliar but the story was. For unlike his fictional namesake, the real Macbeth was anything but a ruthless, unpopular king.

Born around 1005, Macbeth was the son of Findlaech, chieftain of Moray.

The name Macbeth was not his surname but his given name and translates from Gaelic as “son of life”.

His mother was Donada, second daughter of King Malcolm II. His wife, known simply as Gruoch not Lady Macbeth, was a granddaughter of King Kenneth III. Gruoch was the widow of Macbeth’s cousin.

While Shakespeare’s Duncan was a strong, wise, old man, in reality King Duncan was probably the opposite.

According to historian Raphael Holinshead, Duncan was a weak and ineffective ruler, probably aged about 30 when he died. Described as a spoilt and overzealous young man, his reign was one of failed wars, with many Scottish casualties.

Macbeth was Duncan’s cousin and had as good a claim to the throne as Duncan himself. While there are conflicting stories about the events leading up to Duncan’s murder, it does appear that many in Scotland were unhappy with Duncan as king.

It was only a matter of time before someone challenged him, and this happened six years into his reign.

After an unsuccessful invasion into Northumberland, Duncan returned to some very unhappy lords. A revolt was inevitable, and heading this uprising was Macbeth.

Shakespeare gave Macbeth the title of Thane of Glamis, a title he could not possibly have had, as the first thane-age did not appear until 1264. Neither did Macbeth kill Duncan at the castle. Historians believe that Duncan was mortally wounded in battle with Macbeth at Pitgaveny on 15th September 1040, and that he died in the nearby Elgin castle.

Likewise, in the play the title of Thane of Cawdor was promised to Macbeth by the witches. In fact the first Thane of Cawdor was not appointed until 1236 and Cawdor Castle was not built until the late 14th century.

As for Banquo and Macduff, we do not know if they existed or not, as there is no mention of them in the historical records. The three witches meanwhile, Shakespeare took from an unreliable source. No doubt their place in the play was also influenced by King James’ obsession with the occult.

Much of Shakespeare’s information came third or fourth hand, often from sources written a few hundred years after Macbeth died. But entertainment not historical accuracy was the main priority.

Little is written about the part Gruoch played in Macbeth’s decision to challenge Duncan, but it is thought that her part was not an active one.

Unlike Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Gruoch was not a scheming, ambitious wife, but a kind dutiful one who gave generously to the church. Did she commit suicide? Unlikely, but no details of her death survive.

Macbeth’s claim to the throne had to be ratified by the nobles and church officials. No evidence survives of any dispute regarding this, so we must assume that everything went smoothly. Perhaps he was considered the obvious man for the job.

With Duncan dead, his widow and eldest son Malcolm Canmore fled to Northumbria, while another son Donalbane went to the Western Isles. Both were still young boys so did not pose any immediate threat to Macbeth.

If Macbeth did worry about any payback he did not consider it an immediate threat for it wasn’t until five years later that he consolidated his triumph by slaying Duncan’s father at Dunkeld.

Macbeth was crowned High King of Scots at Scone, alongside Gruoch, his queen. He ruled for 14 to 17 years. Historians differ on when exactly his reign ended.

Not much is known of his reign – a sign of a peaceful time.

He appears to have been a strong ruler, keeping the country stable, and safe from any invasion, and under him North and South Scotland were united.

Many humane laws protecting women and children were passed during his reign. One such law allowed daughters the same rights of inheritance as sons.

By 1050 Macbeth felt sufficiently safe in his position to allow him to leave the country.

He visited Rome where he distributed gold to the poor.

But in England Malcolm Canmore was coming of age, and it was only a matter of time before he would return for his inheritance. In 1054 supported by his kinsman Siward of Northumbria, Malcolm brought a fleet and an army of horses to Scotland.

In July the fleet arrived at Dundee and took over the town and at dawn on July 27th on the Feast of the Seven Sleepers, the battle began on the banks of Gowrie, west of Dundee.

It was a costly campaign on both sides but in the end Malcolm Canmore won.

A bit of confusion arises from the fact that Macbeth is recorded as having reigned until his death in 1057, three years after the battle.

It isn’t known whether he continued to reign in the north of the country, leaving Canmore to reign in the south. Or perhaps the next three years were spent on the run.

Macbeth’s death is recorded at the hands of Malcolm Canmore outside the tiny village of Lumphanan in north-eastern Scotland on August 15th 1057.

He was buried on the holy isle of Iona, alongside all previous lawful Scottish kings, probably at St. Oran’s Cemetery.

With no children of his own, his stepson Lulach succeeded him briefly only to be killed by Malcolm.

Shakespeare did get the end of the story historically correct. With Macbeth and his stepson dead, Malcolm was crowned king, and reigned for 35 years.

A new era of Scottish history had begun.

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