Malcolm I had the unenviable task of following the long reign of Constantine II in a period when the Saxons were expanding and the Vikings had a new champion in Erik Bloodaxe. The Battle of Brunanburh in 937 was supposed to bring to an end the conflict around York in northern England, but the death of Athelstan just two years later launched a decade of conflict in what Michael Wood has dubbed a “Dark Age Vietnam”. Constantine II managed British politics to Scotland’s advantage but could Malcolm I enjoy the same success? Listen to the podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
Prior to the reign of Constantine II (900-43), there was not really a country called “Scotland” that we would recognise in the modern sense. A variety of smaller kingdoms in northern Britain competed for dominance until Kenneth MacAlpin (843-58) brought the Scottish and Pictish kingdoms under his rule and started a new, dominant dynasty that his successors sought to expand.
However, the territory of the Alpin dynasty only covered a relatively small part of Scotland in comparison to the modern borders. The south-west was under a kingdom called Strathclyde (or Cumbria), inhabited by the native Britons, while in the south-east the decaying Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria held sway. More pertinently, from the ninth century onwards there were Vikings, who took control of many of the islands around the Scottish coast and established themselves in York. They also proved to be a thorn in the side of the Scots, killing Kenneth MacAlpin’s son, Constantine I (862-77), and creating the instabilty that saw two successive usurpations followed by another death at the hands of the Vikings.
Thankfully, the accession of Constantine II marked a resurgence for the Scots. He defeated the Vikings in Scotland in 904, after which he suffered no further invasions from them. In fact, he started pushing south, using Northumbria as a buffer state where he meddled in local affairs – initially against the Vikings but then against the more powerful force of England under King Athelstan, who had visions of becoming Emperor of Britain. Constantine allied with the Vikings and the Britons to fight Athelstan but suffered the ignominy of an invasion in 934 and then a defeat in the great battle of Brunanburh in 937.
We don’t know exactly when Malcolm I was born, but his father (Donald II, 889-900) died in 900 so it cannot have been any later than 901. If he was born in 900 then he would have been 43 when he came to throne in 943, which for the time was quite an old age. His name (Máel Coluim) means literally “Devotee of Columba”, in reference to the 6th century Irish saint who founded a monastery on the island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland and effectively is the father of Scottish Christianity. This suggests the cult of Columba was still strong even in the 10th century but perhaps more intriguingly, it provides Malcolm I with the remarkable accolade of being the first person in recorded history to have gone by the name ‘Malcolm’!
The circumstances for Malcolm’s accession in 943 are unusual because his predecessor, Constantine II, was not actually dead! Despite having ruled for 43 years, Constantine was not brought down by death but instead abdicated the throne. It is not clear whether Malcolm was Constantine’s intended successor or if he had hoped that his son would succeed him, which raises the question of whether Malcolm may have forced him out and usurped the throne. The Scottish succession in this period was not as linear as it is today and had previously alternated between brothers – so, Kenneth MacAlpin had two sons (Constantine I and Aed), and after they died it went to Constantine’s son (Donald II) and then Aed’s (Constantine II). However, the family tree was now starting to spread further out and it is not certain whether the family ties were so strong.
The Battle of Brunanburh in 937 was known as “The Great Battle”, and if not perhaps the battle to end all battles, it should at least have left the borders of northern Britain firmly established for a generation. Instead, the victorious Athelstan died just two years later and was succeeded by his 18 year-old half-brother, Edmund I, providing his enemies with an opportunity to strike. And, sure enough, they did.
Olaf Gothfrithson was the Viking ruler in Dublin and had also enjoyed that position in York until Athelstan had turfed him out. He had returned to Ireland after Brunanburh, but following Athelstan’s death he swept back into England, re-capturing not just the city of York but also the Five Boroughs (the five main towns of what is now the East Midlands – Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford). He died soon after in 941 and was replaced by his cousins Olaf Sihtricson and Ragnall Gothfrithson.
Malcolm came to the throne in 943 and would probably have been little troubled by these events. The threat of Athelstan had now gone and the Vikings had in recent times been allies who no longer represented such a threat (Olaf Sihtricson is known in Ireland as Amlaib Cuarán – or Olaf the Sandal-Wearer!). However, things were soon to change. Edmund I was young but he had fought alongside Athelstan at Brunanburh and had the makings of a great king. In 943, he launched a blitzkrieg attack to reconquer the Five Boroughs and forced the Viking rulers to come to terms and be baptised, after which they lost local support and were kicked out in 944, with Edmund now back in York. However, he was not finished and decided to continue his northern progress to the kingdom of Cumbria (or Strathclyde – effectively the land from the Lake District to Glasgow), to which he laid waste and blinded two of the king’s sons in the process.
At this point, Malcolm I might have started to worry. Edmund had kicked out the Vikings and devastated the Britons, leaving just Scotland untroubled from the Brunanburh alliance. However, instead of making war with Malcolm, instead Edmund made an alliance and gave ownership of the kingdom of Cumbria to Malcolm “on condition that he should be his ally both on sea and on land”. Edmund seems to have been more realistic in his ambition than Athelstan and realised he could not hope to conquer Scotland, and so instead he defeated his smaller enemies and gave the Scots a reason not to go back to supporting the Vikings. Unlike the wily Constantine II, Malcolm stuck to his word.
Edmund I was only 25 and had the potential to exceed even the achievements of Athelstan and become one of England’s most celebrated kings. Unfortunately, in 946 he was stabbed to death when tackling a notorious thief, Leofa, who had been spotted at a royal banquet. He was succeeded by his brother, Eadred, who quickly re-confirmed the alliance with Malcolm I and then compelled the Northumbrians in York to swear their allegiance.
Northumbria had once been a great and powerful kingdom and the inhabitants seem not to have abandoned their sense of independence. In particular, the Archbishop of York, Wulfstan, seems to have been persistently looking for a powerful leader who could resist the rule of the southern Saxons. Olaf Sihtricson had not been up to the job and he had been forced to accept Eadred as his overlord, but in 947 he found an unlikely candidate in the form of old-school pagan Viking, Erik Bloodaxe.
Erik was the son of Harold Fairhair (the first King of Norway) and killed two of his brothers in a bid to become king himself until he was eventually expelled. After this, he seems to have done what Vikings do and plunder the British coast, looking for somewhere to gain a foothold until he arrived in Northumbria. A marauding pagan beserker Viking might not sound like a natural ally for the Archbishop of York, but Wulfstan needed a king who could resist Eadred and Malcolm while Erik wanted a kingdom. Opposites attract, etc…
The Battle for York
The arrival of Erik represented a serious threat to Malcolm I. Not only was there now a powerful and hostile Viking ruling south of his borders but it was a powerful and hostile Viking who also had ties to the islands to the north of Scotland. Thankfully for Malcolm, Eadred was not going to tolerate this about-turn in Northumbrian loyalties and in 948, he stormed north with a large army, burning down towns (including the sacred abbey at Ripon) and doing a spot of massacring along the way until the Northumbrians agreed that he was their king and not Erik. Unfortunately, while he was heading home, Erik ambushed the rearguard of the Saxon army at Castleford and inflicted the first Saxon defeat for generations. Distinctly unimpressed, Eadred threatened further recriminations until the people of York deserted Erik and sent him back on his travels.
At this point, Olaf Sihtricson flopped back over from Dublin in his sandals and was re-established as king in York. He was probably assisted in this by Malcolm, who launched raids into Northumbria at around the same time. Surprisingly, however, Eadred also seems to have been happy enough with Olaf’s return and did not challenge his kingship. Probably, Eadred and Malcolm were happy to have a weak ruler in York that filled a vacancy to prevent Erik returning but also represented no real threat (indeed, he had even lost his kingship in Dublin by this point).
What Erik got up to after 948 is not entirely clear. Most likely, he was doing a spot of plundering of British and Irish towns and monasteries (what Ali has dubbed ‘Viking shopping’) but there are also legends of his making pirate expeditions to Spain. However, in 952 he was back in York. He defeated a combined army of Scots, Britons and Saxons after which Olaf was sent back to Ireland and Erik king once more. Unfortunately for Erik, his rule was once again short-lived. Wulfstan was arrested by Eadred in 953 and then in 954 Erik himself was betrayed by the Northumbrians and assassinated at Stainmore.
So in 954, finally, the battle for York was over and everyone could settle down and reap the rewards. Unfortunately, Malcolm I was not so lucky and at the age of roughly 54 he himself met a violent end, killed by the “men of Mearns in Fodresach” (Fetteresso near Stonehaven – the east coast of Scotland, south of Aberdeen).
Malcolm has a nickname to strike fear into any English speaker: An Bodhbhdercc – that’s far too many d’s and b’s and h’s next to each other for comfort! The translation, however, is “dangerous red man” or “battle fury”, which in itself would be worthy of some trepidation.
Ironically, Malcolm’s biggest military triumph did not require him to do anything at all other than accept the kind gift of Cumbria from Edmund I. That Edmund made such a concession in return for an alliance indicates that Malcolm and Scotland were a notable force in northern Britain, which this acquisition could only increase. It is unlikely that Malcolm ruled Cumbria directly but instead would have acted as overlord while the Cumbrian kingship continued (indeed, Dunmail III named one of his sons Malcolm, probably as a tribute).
There is a wonderful legend surrounding the conquest of Cumbria, which paints this as an heroic last stand for Cumbria as an independent kingdom. A combined army of Edmund and Malcolm kills Dunmail in a pass between the vale of Grasmere and Thirlmere Valley, after which Edmund ordered the survivors to bury Dunmail under a pile of rocks, while the king’s surviving knights climbed into the mountains and threw his crown into Grisedale Tarn, safe for the day that he would return to lead them to freedom. Each night they return to the tarn, recover the crown and tap their spears against the cairn above his body, to which Dunmail whispers “Not yet, not yet; wait awhile my warriors”. Unfortunately, the legend is not entirely true – Dunmail doesn’t die for another thirty years and the kingship continues, but the cairn is still there today on the A591 at Dunmail’s Raise!
Malcolm definitely did conduct a raid into Northumbria in roughly 948-49:
“In the seventh year of his rule he raided the English as far as the River Tees, and seized a great number of men, and many herds of cattle.” (Chronicle of the Kings of Alba)
This may in part have been an attempt to help Olaf Sihtricson back onto the throne in York but also Malcolm probably just wanted to do a spot of warring and looting in the form of slaves and cattle. Again, it indicates the power he held in the region to come so far south.
Strangely, the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba suggests that Malcolm may not have been responsible for the Tees raid:
“However others say that Constantine had made that raid, demanding of the king, that is, Malcolm, that he should give command of the army to him for a week, so he could visit the English.” (CKA)
Constantine II, of course, had only abdicated, and was still alive until 953. It would be rather emasculating for Malcolm if the old king had to come out of retirement to lead the army…but this is almost certainly not true! In fact, even the chronicler goes on to admit that the legend is rather spurious:
“For all that, the truth is that it was not Malcolm who made the raid, but Constantine instigated it, as I said.” (CKA)
A bigger stain on Malcolm’s record is the battle in 952 against Erik Bloodaxe. This is not mentioned in English or Scottish sources, but the Annals of Ulster (perhaps more neutral in its coverage) stated that “A battle was fought against the men of Scotland and the Britons and the English, by the Foreigners.” The Foreigners (i.e. Vikings) were almost certainly led by Erik, who won a resounding victory and returned to York soon after. Technically we don’t know for certain that Malcolm was involved, but his alliance with Eadred and dominance of the Britons makes it likely that he did. In which case, he lost!
Malcolm I successfully continued the policy of intervening in York, playing his rivals off against each other and keeping the fighting away from Scotland. In a sense he was more successful than Constantine I, not suffering any invasion during his reign and gaining overlordship of Cumbria. On the other hand, Malcolm has no great battle to his name and a probable defeat against Erik Bloodaxe, meaning he can’t get top marks here.
Score = 12/20
The fact that Constantine II abdicated definitely seems rather fishy – did he jump or was he pushed? Malcolm is not listed as being present at Brunanburh (the major battle of the age) unlike Constantine II’s son, so perhaps he was not favoured. Constantine’s defeat, and the death of his son, gave Malcolm an opportunity and he may have pressured Constantine to leave – either in person, with a show of force or political skulduggery.
We also are told by the CKA that in 949, “With his army Malcolm proceeded to Moray, and slew Cellach.” Moray was a rebellious earldom in eastern Scotland that was probably resisting Scottish rule, so Cellach may have been a local leader of an uprising. Either way, Malcolm had him killed!
There are no juicy bedroom antics to speak of for Malcolm, and Constantine II may just have had enough kinging after over 40 years without needing to be pushed.
Malcolm probably did some maneuvering to get the throne and also murdered somebody, which is definitely worthy of a decent score. However, there is nothing here which is unquestionably evil or that stands out in history as a notorious deed.
Score = 13/20
Malcolm’s alliance with Edmund I had significant benefits for Scotland. Under Constantine II, the conflict with Athelstan led to an invasion of Scotland in 934 as well as a brutal battle (and defeat) at Brunanburh in 937. In contrast, not only did Malcolm not suffer an invasion but he actually gained territory without having to fight.
He also gets a good write-up from the medieval chronicler John of Fordun (though to what extent this is based on real evidence or just Fordun making it up is hard to say!)
“Now he was wont every year, unless hindered by more important matters, to traverse the provinces of his kingdom, executing judgement on robbers, and repressing the lawlessness of freebooters.”
The uncertainty around Constantine II’s abdication suggests that there was some kind of fracturing at court, and this is evident elsewhere in Malcolm’s reign. The murder of Cellach suggests unrest in Moray and it may well be that Malcolm’s death in this region in 954 was a legacy either of the murder or of resistance to the Alpin dynasty in this territory. In contrast, Constantine II was able to heal the divisions of the previous reigns with a ceremony at Scone, bringing church and state together regardless of old allegiances. In terms of the unity and governance of the country, Malcolm’s reign offers no real advance.
In the tenth century, an alliance with a powerful enemy that brought peace and a decade free from invasion is more than enough to compensate for a lack of new laws or form of government. Malcolm deserves a good score, but needed to do more to get top marks.
Score = 14/20
Malcolm I was king from 943 to 954, a reign of 11 years which, when converted into a score out of 20 (where 20 is the longest reign of all the monarchs), gives him a total of 3.81.
Malcolm had two surviving children (that we know of), which when converted into a score out of 20 gives him a score of 4.44.
Total Score = 46.26
Most of the Scottish monarchs up to this point have had little or no information about their reigns, making them a complete write-off. However, Malcolm is perhaps the first for whom we have a good case to be made both for and against. His alliance with the Saxons and (ultimately successful) meddling in York demonstrated his influence in northern Britain and brought him dominance over Strathclyde. However, he lacks a stand-out moment to raise him above simply being a good king to a great one. His opportunity was probably the battle against Erik Bloodaxe, which ended in defeat.
Our Verdict: No, Malcolm was a very effective king but he needed something extra to make him worthy of the Rex Factor and his opportunity against Erik Bloodaxe ended in defeat.
What do you think – does Malcolm I deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our poll below and tell us your views!