It cannot be denied that the 11th century Scottish King Macbeth has had a bad press, not least from William Shakespeare, but how much of his bad reputation is deserved?
He was the son of Findlaech mac Ruaidri, the king of Moray, who was killed in 1020 by his nephews (Macbeth’s cousins) Gille Comgain and Mael Coluim. Macbeth took his revenge in 1032 by killing Gille Comgain, seizing the throne, and marrying Gille’s widow Gruoch.
According to Shakespeare, Macbeth seized the throne of Scotland after murdering King Duncan. This is true in part, although Duncan’s death was in battle rather than as a result of treachery. Duncan had led a campaign against Moray and lost his life at the Battle of Pitgaveny in August 1040.
Macbeth’s reign was somewhat longer than is implied by Shakespeare’s play. He had to fight to defend his throne, for example against Duncan’s father Crinan, whom he killed in battle in 1045. However, things were sufficiently settled to allow him to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050 – he was the only reigning King of Scotland ever to do this.
A greater threat to Macbeth’s throne came from Duncan’s son Malcolm, who was backed by a strong army from Northumbria. Battle was joined at Dunsinane (in what is Perthshire) in July 1054, at which Malcolm gained the upper hand and was able to force Macbeth to surrender a considerable tract of land. A second battle was fought in August 1057 at Lumphanan (Aberdeenshire) at which Macbeth was killed.
He was succeeded by his stepson Lulach, whose father Gille Comgain had been killed by Macbeth. Despite Malcolm’s victory at Lumphanan, it appears that it was not decisive enough to allow him to seize the throne at this stage.
There is no indication in the historical record that Macbeth’s behaviour as king justifies the impression given in Shakespeare’s play. Medieval warlords had to be strong to survive, and their actions were unlikely to be particularly “liberal”. That said, any description of Macbeth as a bloodthirsty tyrant seems to be far from the mark.
In Shakespeare’s defence, he used sources that were not entirely trustworthy and which relied on material dating from the early 14th century. Even modern historians, with better access to contemporary sources, cannot be certain that they have all the facts about Macbeth correct. The above summary is probably about as good as it gets in terms of accuracy!
© John Welford