Macbeth, King of Scotland

Macbeth, King of Scotland
Imagined 19th century portrait of Macbeth
King of Alba
Reign 1040–1057
Predecessor Duncan I
Successor Lulach
Mormaer of Moray
Reign 1032–1057
Predecessor Gille Coemgáin
Successor Lulach
Spouse Gruoch
Died 15 August 1057(1057-08-15)
Lumphanan or Scone
Burial Iona

Mac Bethad mac Findlaích (Modern Gaelic: MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh,[1] anglicised as Macbeth, and nicknamed Deircc, "the Red King";[2] died 15 August 1057) was King of the Scots (also known as the King of Alba, and earlier as King of Moray and King of Fortriu) 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 presents a highly inaccurate, almost outright fabrication of his reign and personality.


Origins and family

Macbeth was the son of Findláech mac Ruaidrí, Mormaer of Moray. His mother, who is not mentioned in contemporary sources, is sometimes supposed to have been Donada, a daughter of the Scottish king Malcolm II (Máel Coluim mac Cináeda).[3]

Findláech was killed in 1020. According to the Annals of Ulster he was killed by his own people while the Annals of Tigernach say that the sons of his brother Máel Brigte were responsible. One of these sons, Máel Coluim mac Máel Brigte, died in 1029. A second son, Gille Coemgáin, was killed in 1032, burned in a house with fifty of his men. Gille Coemgáin had been married to Gruoch with whom he had a son, the future king Lulach. It has been proposed that Gille Coemgáin's death was the doing of Mac Bethad, in revenge for his father's death, or of bn Máel Coluim mac Cináed, to rid himself of a rival. The origin myth of the kingdom of Alba traced its foundation to the supposed destruction of Pictland by Kenneth MacAlpin, and its kings were chosen from the male line descendants of Kenneth, with the possible exception of the shadowy Eochaid, said to be Kenneth's daughter's son. During the century in which the lists correspond well with the annals, the succession to the kingship of Alba was held in an alternating fashion by two branches of the descendants of Kenneth MacAlpin, one descended from Kenneth's son Constantín, Clann Constantín mac Cináeda, and one from Constantín's brother Áed, Clann Áeda mac Cináeda. This alternating succession is also seen in Ireland, where the High Kings of Ireland come from two branches of the Uí Néill, the northern Cenél nEógain and the southern Clann Cholmáin. Both systems have been compared with the concept of tanistry found in Early Irish Law, although the political reality appears to have been more complex.

Both systems of alternating succession coincidentally failed in the early 11th century. In Ireland, the failure of the northern Uí Néill to support their southern kinsman Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill against Brian Bóruma, and the resulting end to the system of Uí Néill High Kingship appears to have been caused by political geography. In northern Britain, the violent struggle between the various candidates for power seems to have removed Clann Áeda mac Cináeda from the contest, leaving only Clann Constantín mac Cináeda, in the person of Máel Coluim son of Cináed, to claim the kingship. Máel Coluim appears to have had rivals from within Clann Constantín killed during his reign.

It has been proposed that the base of Clann Áeda mac Cináeda's power lay in the north of the kingdom of Alba, beyond the Mounth (eastern Grampians) in what had once been Fortriu and which was now called Moray (in Irish annals of the period, MacBethad is occasionally referred to as King of Fortriu, as well as King/Mormaer of Moray, before his succession to the throne of Alba). It was in this region that Mac Bethad's kin appear to have been based. Later in the eleventh century, from the time of Gille Coemgáin's grandson Máel Snechtai, a genealogy was compiled which traced Máel Snechtai's descent and Clann Ruadrí's origins to the Cenél Loairn founder Loarn mac Eirc. Loarn was supposedly the brother of Fergus Mór, whom the descendants of Kenneth claimed as an ancestor. The genealogy as it survives is apparently constructed by combining two distinct genealogies which are found attached to the Senchus fer n-Alban, that of Ainbcellach mac Ferchair (died 719), to which has been appended that of Ainbcellach's kinsman Mongán mac Domnaill.[4] It is likely that this conception of Clann Ruadrí's origins predates Máel Snechtai and was prevalent in Mac Bethad's time or even earlier.[5]

The extent to which Gaelic kingship rested on agnatic (male line) descent can be seen in the case of Kenneth MacAlpin's daughter's daughter's son Congalach Cnogba. Congalach was the grandson of High King Flann Sinna of Clann Cholmáin and succeeded to the Uí Néill High Kingship in unusual circumstances on death of his mother's half-brother Donnchad Donn. Rather than proclaim his near kinship with recent kings—grandson of Flann, nephew of Donnchad and Niall Glúndub—Congalach's propagandists preferred to advance his claim to rule as a male-line descendant in the tenth generation of Áed Sláine (died circa 604). Like Congalach, Clann Ruadrí may have had a claim to the kingship in the female line which legal tradition would have considered to be of little importance. It is possible that Ruaidrí, or his father Domnall if he existed, may have married into Clann Áeda mac Cináeda and so inherited the allegiance of that family's supporters.

It is not clear whether Gruoch's father was a son of King Kenneth II (Cináed mac Maíl Coluim) (d. 995) or of King Kenneth III (Cináed mac Duib)(d. 1005), either is possible chronologically.[6] After Gille Coemgáin's death, Macbeth married his widow and took Lulach as his stepson. Gruoch's brother, or nephew (his name is not recorded), was killed in 1033 by Malcolm II.[7]

Mormaer and dux

When Cnut 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 ...[8]

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.[9] 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 25 November 1034. The Prophecy of Berchan is apparently alone in near contemporary sources in reporting a violent death, calling it a kinslaying.[10] Tigernach's chronicle says only:

Máel Coluim son of Cináed, king of Alba, the honour of western Europe, died.[11]

Malcolm II's grandson Duncan (Donnchad mac Crínáin), later King Duncan I, was acclaimed as king of Alba on 30 November 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.[12] 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.[13]

Because of 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.[14]

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 (a scion of the Scottish branch of the Cenel Conaill and Hereditary Abbot of Iona) was killed in a battle between two Scottish armies.[15]

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. On the basis of 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.[16]

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.

Karl Hundason

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.[17] 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.[18]

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 at Tarbat Ness[19] 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.[20]

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.[21]

Final years

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 3,000 Scots and 1,500 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.[22] 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 ("King Malcolm Ceann-mor", son of Duncan I)[23] 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.[24] The Prophecy of Berchán has it that he was wounded and died at Scone, sixty miles to the south, some days later.[25] 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.[26]

Life to legend

Macbeth and the witches by Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) (1741-1825)

Macbeth's life, like that of King Duncan I, had progressed far towards legend by the end of the 14th century, when John of Fordun and Andrew of Wyntoun wrote their histories. Hector Boece, Walter Bower, and George Buchanan all contributed to the legend.

In Shakespeare's play, Macbeth is portrayed as a good-hearted general to King Duncan, but who is corrupted by ambition and persuades himself that to kill his King is the right thing to do. He is cruelly deceived by three witches, ensuring his wicked scheme is doomed to failure. Even his wife (Lady Macbeth) has gained some fame along the way, lending her Shakespeare-given title to a short story by Nikolai Leskov 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. David Greig's 2010 play Dunsinane takes his downfall at Dunsinane as its starting point, with Macbeth's just-ended reign portrayed as long and stable in contrast to Malcolm's.

He also appears as a character in the television series Gargoyles.


  1. ^ Mac Bethad mac Findlaích is the Medieval Gaelic form.
  2. ^ William Forbes Skene, Chronicles, p. 102.
  3. ^ Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, pp. 224–225, discusses the question, and the reliability of Wyntoun's chronicle.
  4. ^ Woolf, "Moray Question", pp. 148–149. The originals are in Bannerman, "Studies", p. 66. That the ancestry of Clann Ruadrí is a confection is not exceptional. The genealogies of Kenneth's descendants are equally unreliable and have been the subject of manipulation to provide a pedigree which links Kenneth to the Cenél nGabráin and thence to Fergus Mór. For these genealogies and related king-lists see Broun, Irish Origins ...; Woolf, Pictland to Alba, ...
  5. ^ Byrne, "Ireland and her neighbours", pp. 896–897; Woolf, Pictland to Alba, pp. 226–227.
  6. ^ See Duncan, Kingship of the Scots, p. 345; Lynch, Oxford Companion, p. 680; Woolf, "Macbeth".
  7. ^ 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".
  8. ^ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ms. E, 1031.
  9. ^ Compare Duncan, Kingship of the Scots, pp. 29–30 with Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, pp. 222–223.
  10. ^ Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, p. 223; Duncan, Kingship of the Scots, p. 33.
  11. ^ Annals of Tigernach 1034.1
  12. ^ Duncan I as tánaise ríg, the chosen heir, see Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, pp. 33–34; Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán,pp. 223–224, where it is accepted that Duncan was king of Strathclyde. For tanistry, etc., in Ireland, see Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland, 63–71. Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, pp. 35–39, offers a different perspective.
  13. ^ Annals of Tigernach 1040.1.
  14. ^ Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, p.223–224; Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, pp.33–34.
  15. ^ Annals of Tigernach 1045.10; Annals of Ulster 1045.6.
  16. ^ Robertson, Scotland under her Early Kings, p. 122. Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, p. 224, refers to Earl Siward as Malcolm III's "patron"; Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, pp. 40–42 favours Orkney; Woolf offers no opinion. Northumbria is evidently a misapprehension, further than that cannot be said with certainty.
  17. ^ However Macbeth's father may be called "jarl Hundi" in Njál's saga; Crawford, p. 72.
  18. ^ Anderson, ESSH, p. 576, note 7, refers to the account as "a fabulous story" and concludes that "[n]o solution to the riddle seems to be justified".
  19. ^ Roberts, John Lenox (1997), Lost Kingdoms: Celtic Scotland and the Middle Ages, Edinburgh University Press, p. 22, ISBN 9780748609109 
  20. ^ Orkneyinga Saga, cc. 20 & 32.
  21. ^ Taylor, p. 338; Crawford, pp. 71–74.
  22. ^ Florence of Worcester, 1052; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ms. D, 1054; Annals of Ulster 1054.6; and discussed by Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, pp. 38–41; see also Woolf, Pictland to Alba, pp. 260–263.
  23. ^ Moncreiffe, Iain (Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk). The Robertsons (Clan Donnachaidh of Atholl). W. & A.K. Johnston & G.W. Bacon Ltd., Edinburgh. 1962 (reprint of 1954), p6
  24. ^ Andrew Wyntoun, Original Chronicle, ed. F.J. Amours, vol. 4, pp 298-299 and 300-301 (c. 1420)
  25. ^ The exact dates are uncertain, Woolf gives 15 August, Hudson 14 August and Duncan, following John of Fordun, gives 5 December; Annals of Tigernach 1058.5; Annals of Ulster 1058.6.
  26. ^ Hudson, Prophecy of Berchán, p. 91, stanzas 193 and 194.


Further reading

Macbeth, King of Scotland
Born: 1005 Died: 15 August 1057
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Duncan I
King of Scots
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Gille Coemgáin
Mormaer of Moray

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