Seems this blog is having a bit of a MacBeth fest. After having done the play, I thought I better check out the real dude.
At the dawn of the 11th century Scotland was a declining nation, and one that really shouldn’t have survived at all. Divided within into highland and lowland, then again into Mormaer (Earldoms) each with little in common except mutual hatred and treachery towards one another. To the north Caithness, Shetland and Orkney were in the hands of the Norsemen, ever building strength to both raid and snatch more Scottish soil. To the south the powerful Northumbria, the traditional foe with it’s greedy eyes ever transfixed on the lowlands. In the west the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde was still independent and in somewhat of a renaissance, stretching as far south Cumbria and a jagged thorn. Overseas Cnut was building his Scandinavian Empire intent to add the Scottish crown to his own.
Scotland hung together by a thread, the Mormaer in principle owed fealty to the king, who could call upon them to defend Scotland from foreigners. Amongst the Mormaer one stood out in power, the northerly province of Moray, much larger than it is now, stretching from west coast to east and encompassing almost the entire of the Grampian mountains. The power of Moray rivalled that of the king himself, technically the Mormaer of Moray was still a vassal of the king, though, Irish chroniclers always referred to the Mormaer of Moray as King of Moray, reflecting the fact the Mormaer of Moray were virtually independent monarchs of the highlands.
The Kingship of Scotland was always a bloody business, more a matter of plots and assassination that rightful succession. in the 11th century, never was this so true. So precarious was the position of Scotland, that a single weak link and the nation would succumb to the wolves that surrounded it. Just as Edward I’s empire collapsed fell apart in the hands of Edward II or Henry V’s conquest were left in the hands of the infant Henry VI. One weak ruler and Scotland would be overrun. Scotland avoided this by not practicing primogeniture, but instead a system known as Tanistry.
Scottish lords named a ‘Tanaise’ as heir, the Tanaise was an adult selected from among the lords larger family group Tanaise would be an adult proven in battle and the most capable of ruling. Based. His extended included; brothers, nephews, uncles, sons, stepsons, cousins ect. The extended family or a lord during the height of his reign would be in a constant brutal struggle to prove the fittest to be Tanaise.
When the noble in question died, the Tanaise would become lord and often slaughter his entire extended family to secure his position. More often than not a relative not named Tanaise would get in first, murdering both the lord and his Tanaise and proving even more ruthless and canny, a fit to rule. When the new Mormaer of king came to power he then immediately had to find an extended family to begin the struggle to succeed him. Family ties were given a low priority in this, and adoption, by marrying widows with sons, was just a legitimate as blood relative, extended family grouping in which one would undoubtedly excel in brutality and treachery. Scotland owed it’s existence to Mr Darwin.
This was the world Macbeth was born into, around 1005, the son of Findlaech Mac Ruaridh, Mormaer (Earl) of Moray. Little is known about his ancestry but he was possibly the grandson of Malcolm II, the king of Scotland, through his mother.
When Macbeth was around 15 his father was murdered by his cousin who became Mormaer and began the slaughter of the family. One of the advantages of Tanistry unlike primogeniture is children are spared, but Macbeth at 15 was old enough to be considered a threat and disposed of. The young seems to have had his head screwed on and managed to flee south to the sanctuary of the court of King Malcolm II. The young Macbeth resided in Malcolm’s court for at least a decade finding both favour and high office which suggests he was quite capable. In 1031 he is mentioned as one of the emissaries sent by Malcolm to Cnut, delivering Malcolm’s submission after Cnut’s invasion of Scotland, along with two other Scottish kings.
A year later Macbeth torch was so strong he was able to raise an army an march on Moray to avenge his father’s murder and become Mormaer. Arriving with a band of men he caught the current Mormaer (his cousin Gillacomgain, his father‘s assassin) by surprise, Gillacomgain took refuge in one of his strongholds which Macbeth surrounded, subsequently the stronghold was set fire and Gillacomgain and fifty of his men burnt to death.
Macbeth was now Mormaer of Moray the second most powerful man in Scotland, he had served the king well for over a decade and had proven a canny and ruthless politician as well as a capable commander. He probably considered himself to be a good candidate to be name Tanaise by Malcolm. However Malcolm was about to drop a bombshell on both Macbeth and Scotland.
In 1034 Malcolm II died. On his deathbed he abolished Tanistry and adopted European primogeniture at the legitimate method of succession for Scotland. Malcolm named his young unproven grandson Duncan as heir, his own son being ineligible having joined an order of monks.
This would have been all well and good if Duncan had proven a good king. Shortly after becoming king, obviously aware of the doubts upon his shoulders, Duncan made the bold move of going on the offensive against his enemies. The Saga or Orkneyinga tells the story of a massive Scottish attempt to regain the islands from the Norse and their calamitous defeat at the final battle.
Duncan after the defeat must have felt his position weakened. In 1039 he decided to try again. His objective was to strike a blow at his main foe, the Northumbrians. This time he lead his forces personally, laying siege to Durham. However the siege quickly deteriorated into a shambles as the city held out, the besieging Scots ran out of supplies and retreated chaos
“Dunecan, king of the Scots, advanced with a countless multitude of troops, and laid siege to Durham, and made strenuous but ineffective efforts to carry it. For a large proportion of his cavalry was slain by the besieged, and he was put to a disorderly flight, in which he lost all his foot-soldiers, whose heads were collected in the market-place and hung up upon posts. Not long afterwards the same king, upon his return to Scotland, was murdered by his own countrymen.”
Historia Ecclesiae Dunelmensis
Scotland had been humiliated twice and the wolves that circled licking their lips. The fact that Macbeth’s coup never became a civil war suggests it was orchestrated with the consent of the other Mormaer. Evidence for this can be seen in that after Macbeth seized power there was no massacre of his extended family or assassinations of his rivals. The Mormaer probably agreed Duncan needed, a return to the old ways was needed and Macbeth the natural Tanaise.
No report of the event that occurred or how Macbeth’s usurping of the throne occurred, though a certain Mr Shakespeare has a rather famous theory.
In 1040 the Annals of Ulster announced,
“Donnchad son of Crinan, king of Alba, was killed by his own people.”
The Annals of Tigernach reported,“Duncan was killed at an immature age”
The Chronicle of Melrose states,
“By Macbeth, the son of Finleg (Findlaech), he was struck down; The mortally wounded king died in Elgin (in Moray)”
Marianus Scotus wrote
“Duncan, the king of Scotland, was killed in the autumn by his earl, Macbeth, Findlaech’s son”
The fact that Duncan died in Moray suggests that Duncan took the initiative again and marched north to attack Macbeth. He was mortally wounded at the battle of Bothgafnane taken to the Blacksmiths hut and died of his wounds there.
With Duncan dead, Macbeth was now Tanaise King of Scotland. However the hereditary heir was Duncan’s son Malcolm ‘Canmore’, who proclaimed himself king. Testimony of how the Scots recognised Macbeth not Canmore is the lack of support his claim gain. Canmore and his brother Donald tried to gain support for their cause against Macbeth but fail and after two years were forced in exile overseas, Donald to Ireland and Canmore to Northumbria.
The first serious challenge to Macbeth’s throne came in 1045 when Duncan’s father, Crinan, who as Abbot of Dunkeld, a position that commanded substantial resources, organised what was described as a sizable rebellion, which left 180 of his men dead. Why Macbeth left Crinan in such a strong position when he had usurped his son is a mystery. Was Crinan one of the lords that supported Macbeth coup in Scotland’s darkest hour? Was Macbeth still ruling independently enough from the other Mormaer to be allowed to dispose of him? Or was Macbeth showing a fatal weakness by not brutal deposing of his enemies, something he notably didn’t do to many others who would be aparty to his downfall.
After the failure of Crinan’s rebellion the middle years of Macbeth’s rule seems to have been one of stability and prosperity. In 1052 showed great statesmanship when Edward the Confessor expelled all Normans from England Macbeth granted them refuge and lands, many of them loyally served him to the end.
The Prophecy of Berchan gives a clear description of Macbeth and his rule,
“The ruddy faced king… will possess Scotland.
The strong one was fair, yellow-haired and tall.
Brimful of food was Scotland, east and west,
During the reign of the ruddy, brave king”
Strong, brave and ruddy (red) faced (perhaps with rage) if this is added to tall, fair and with long blond hair, a picture of huge terrifying warrior emerges, the kind of man to forge a country in a violent age.
The line, Brimful of food, suggests what facts seem to support, Scotland was a stable and prosperous land for a time. So stable that in 1049 felt secure enough to leave Scotland and go on a pilgrimage to Rome. Leaving your country was a big deal for any medieval king, but for Macbeth, with a pretender Malcolm Canmore exiled in Scotland’s main rival Northumbria, this was a blod move of a confident man.
Macbeth arrived in Rome in Easter 1050 where he visited the poor areas of the city and scattered so much silver in the streets it was written of by monks in Hamburg. Why he went on pilgrimage he was less clear. As a Norman ally was he seeking more favour from the pope against England? Was it to try and get the pope to legitimise his rule over Malcolm Canmore? Or maybe he just was genuinely pious.
Towards the end of Macbeth’s reign discontent emerged in Scotland. The reasons are unknown, but for the first time Malcolm Canmore found support for his cause in Scotland and he was to return to haunt Macbeth.
Earl Siward of Northumbria hadn’t harboured Canmore for all these years out of kindness, but as a card to play in the prolonged struggle between the two realms, in 1034 he decided to play it.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records,
“This year went Siward the earl with a great army into Scotland, both with a ship-force and with a landforce, and fought against the Scots, and put to flight the king Macbeth, and slew all who were the chief men in the land, and led thence much booty, such as no man before had obtained. But his son Osbarn, and his sister’s son Siward, and some of his housecarls, and also of the king’s, were there slain, on the day of the Seven Sleepers”
According to the chronicle, Siward and Canmore rode at the head of a large army into Scotland and defeated Macbeth, however it’s not this straight forward. Amongst the Northumbrian army were a lot of the personal troops of Edward the Confessor, which suggests it was an English not Northumbrian orchestrated invasion, perhaps in response to Macbeth’s harbouring of Normans.
By standards of the day the invading force was huge. The Northumbrian Chronicles paint a vivid picture, a large Northumbrian fleet lead by Canmore captured the city of Dundee and was joined by Scottish rebels including horse. They marched out to the plains of Gowire past the capital Scone and Edinburgh, probably pillaging in an attempt to force Macbeth to face them. Macbeth presumably having to ride the country to muster forces to fight such a huge invasion. The campaign was recorded as being costly to men on both side and culminated in one of the most massive battles seen to date in Scotland, the Battle of Seven Sleepers (Dunsinane). The Northumbrian Chronicle tells little of the battle but Macbeth’s forces charged down from the hills at the Northumbrians and were put to flight. The annals of Ulster record as many as 3000 Scottish dead, 1500 English dead and all of Macbeth’s Normans wiped out.
The Battle of Seven Sleepers put Canmore in firm control of the Lowlands, for the English this was enough, who made a separate peace with Macbeth and returned to with their booty back to London and Northumbria leaving him with only his own forces.
Canmore now devoid of English support lacked the power to venture into the highlands and confront Macbeth. Meanwhile Macbeth still Mormaer of Moray, the most powerful Mormaer in Scotland retreated to the security of his highland kingdom where he mounted a guerrilla war against Canmore raiding south. For three years Macbeth carried out his war leading ambitious raids deep into the lowlands and retreating north assured the lowlanders could never follow, he was to prove wrong. 1057 Malcolm Canmore manage to lead a force to Macbeth surpise across the Grampian mountains and ambush the unsuspecting Macbeth, at the village of Lumphanon, deep in Moray, as he returned from a southern foray. Macbeth was slain in the battle.
Macbeth 1005-1057 (King 1040-57)
It is always said, with the death of Macbeth died Tanistry in Scotland, as Malcolm Canmore and his descendants ruled in primogeniture from then on. However in a great twist of irony it was perhaps Macbeth himself who ended it when his own stepson became his successor, ‘Lulach the foolish,’ never crowned, Lulach survived his father by only seven months before Canmore invaded Moray again and slew him. Whereas Canmore himself was succeeded by his brother (briefly) before his son. Macbeth may not have been the last Tanaise monarch of Scotland, but he was the last Highlander.
Macbeth, Man and Myth – Nick Aitchison
In Search of British Heroes – Tony Robinson
Annals of Ulster
Annals of Tigernach
Chronicle of Melrose
Prophecy of Berchan – Marianus Scotus
The literary encyclopaedia
Dot to doomsday – http://www.stephen.j.murray.btinternet.co.uk