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Macbeth, the Last Highland King
Category: Medieval Europe: Historical Figures
At the dawn of the 11th century Scotland was an ailing nation, its survival far from certain. 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, stretching as far south Cumbria, a jagged thorn in the side. 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 size and power, the northerly Earldom of Moray. To the far north it was a valuable buffer against the Norse. However fortified from the king to the south by the Grampian mountains, Moray was virtually an independant highland kingdom in itself. Irish chroniclers always referred to the Mormaer of Moray as King of Moray, reflecting the fact..
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 more true. The precarious position of Scotland meant 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 conquests were lost in the hands of the infant Henry VI. One weak ruler and Scotland would be overrun. Scotland avoided this by not practicing primogeniture, the system of passing titles down from father to son. Instead Scotland used more ancient system known as Tanistry.
Scottish lords named a ‘Tanaise’ as heir, the Tanaise was an adult selected from among his larger family group, the Tanaise would be an adult of proven capabilities and hardened in battle. Extended families could include; brothers, nephews, adopted sons, uncles, sons, stepsons, cousins ect. The extended family of 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 as not slaughter much of the extended family he considered threat. More often than not a relative not named Tanaise would get in first, murdering both the lord and his Tanaise, proving himself even more ruthless and canny, so fitter to rule. When the new Mormaer or king came to power he then immediately set about finding an extended family to begin the struggle to succeed him. Genes were given a low priority in this, and adoption by marrying widows with sons was common. Scotland owed it’s continued 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.
Macbeth first entered history when he was fifteen years old, his father was murdered and usurped by his cousin, who began the slaughter of rivals in the family to secure his position. One of the advantages of Tanistry, unlike primogeniture, is children are spared in slaughters, but Macbeth at 15 was old enough to be considered a threat and disposed of. The young Macbeth seems to have had his head screwed on and managed to flee south to the sanctuary of the court of King Malcolm II. There young Macbeth resided in Malcolm’s court for at least a decade finding both favour and high office. That he rose so high in Malcolm's court suggests he was capable politician and leader. So high did he rise in fact, 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, with his torch buring so bright, was able to raise an army and march on Moray to avenge his father’s murder. 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 style primogeniture as 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 were licking their lips. Now begins one of the most famous acts in theatre. Macbeth decided Duncan must die and he become king. The fact that Macbeth’s coup never became a civil war suggests it was orchestrated with the consent of the other Mormaer. More evidence for this can be seen in that after Macbeth seized power there was no assassinations of his rivals. The Mormaer probably agreed Duncan needed to be removed, a return to the old system that had protected Scotland for so long was needed and Macbeth the natural Tanaise.
No record survives of 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, he was struck down; The mortally wounded king died in Elgin"
Marianus Scotus wrote
"Duncan, the king of Scotland, was killed in the autumn by his earl, Macbeth, Findlaech's son"
In Shakespeare Duncan visits Macbeth and is murdered. In history too Duncan died in Elgin in Moray, but but in battle rather than his bed. This suggests the aggressive young king took the initiative once again and marched north to confront Macbeth. He was mortally wounded at the battle of Bothgafnane taken to the now legendary Blacksmith's hut where he died of his wounds.
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 supported by the other Mormaer Macbeth is, is the lack of support Canmore's claim gained. Canmore and his brother Donald kept on trying to gain support for their cause against Macbeth for two years but failed to raise any of significance and went into 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 leaving 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's coup in Scotland’s darkest hour? Or was Macbeth showing a fatal weakness by not disposing of his enemies?
After the failure of Crinan’s rebellion the middle years of Macbeth’s reign seems to have been one of stability and prosperity. In 1052 he showed great statesmanship when Edward the Confessor expelled all Normans from England, Macbeth granted a number of them refuge and lands, the Normans served him loyally 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 many other facts seem to support, Scotland was a stable and prosperous land for a time. So stable that in 1049 Macbeth 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 the bold 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 is 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 Gowrie 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 sides 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 overloaded with booty back to London and Northumbria leaving Canmore 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 retreated deep into his realm of Moray and the security of his highland kingdom where he mounted a guerrilla war against Canmore. For three years Macbeth carried out his war leading ambitious raids deep into the lowlands and retreating north assured the lowlanders could never follow him in the highlands, he was to be proved wrong. In 1057 Malcolm Canmore managed to successfully lead a force across the Grampian mountains and lay ambush for the unsuspecting Macbeth, at the village of Lumphanon, deep in Moray, as he returned from a southern foray. All that's reported is Macbeth was slain in the battle.
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
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