After two short reigns mired by dynastic conflict, Scotland’s monarchy was looking a little precarious at the end of the tenth century. If Kenneth II was going to succeed where others would fail he would not only have to defeat his rival, Olaf, but find a way to solve the succession crisis once and for all. His story involves murder, rowing up the River Dee and one of the most remarkable deaths featured in Rex Factor as well as everybody’s favourite monk! To listen to his podcast episode, click here, or read on to find out more.
The Scottish monarchy did not have steadfast rules about how the succession worked – there was no long list of every single person with a claim to the throne in rank order nor even a concept of a ‘rightful successor’. Since Kenneth MacAlpin had started the Alpin dynasty in the 840s, the custom was that the succession would alternate between brothers before then passing on to the next generation. So, after Kenneth’s son Constantine I died, he was replaced by his brother, Aed, after which (following the usurpation of the interloper Giric), Constantine’s son, Donald II, came to the throne and was followed by Aed’s son, Constantine II.
The benefit of this system was that, in times of war, you were more or less guaranteed to have a male heir of good age to lead the army and defend the nation. The downside was that, as the years went on, the family tree started to expand and the number of potential claimants was rising. What’s more, they were more distant, so instead of brothers we are now looking at third cousins, who probably had very little affinity to each other besides their descent from Kenneth MacAlpin. Thus in the reign of Dubh, a dynastic struggle broke out when his rival, Cuilean, challenged him for the throne. Dubh was overthrown and Cuilean killed by Britons in a hall burning in 971, leaving the throne vacant once more.
Struggle for the Throne
For ease of reference, we have split the dynastic lines into two teams – Team Blue, descended from Constantine I, and Team Red, descended from Aed. Kenneth II is batting for Team Blue, the brother of Dubh. On the Red side, the man with whom he must contend the throne was Olaf, brother of Cuilean. We don’t know when Kenneth II was born but as his father, Malcolm I, died in 954, he must have been at least 17 (and probably older) when he became king in 971, or rather when he claimed to become king.
Confusingly, there seems to be some disagreement about who succeeded Cuilean in 971. On the one hand, all the king lists will clearly show Kenneth II but Irish chroniclers in this period seem to have considered Olaf to have been king. This suggests that either Olaf did succeed but Kenneth overthrew him and pretended he’d been king from the start or, most likely, that both men claimed the throne but neither could really hold sway across the whole nation. It is likely that both sides of the family had regional strongholds which recognised one or the other, so in order to become king of all Scotland, they were going to need to take things to another level.
Edgar the Peaceable
We know very little about what Olaf was getting up to in this period but Kenneth, at least, appears to have had a plan of action. He launched raids into Northumbria (the north-east of England) and Cumbria (technically a different kingdom to England and Scotland at this point) as well as building fortifications. These were hardly unusual activities for a new Scottish king but they may also have had a strategic element, not just in building Kenneth’s reputation in Scotland but also in England.
The current English king, Edgar the Peaceable, was overseeing something of a golden age for Anglo-Saxon England. Ruling since 959, England’s borders were largely as they are today, his large navy patrolled the coasts of Britain and kept the country free from invasion. He also had something of a reputation for wanton behaviour (fathering a child by a nun) and, despite his nickname, was quick to temper and definitely not a man to be messed with (his nickname refers to the peace of the realm rather than his behaviour when out for drinks on a Saturday night!)
Edgar also had the benefit of Rex Factor favourite, Dunstan, dubbed by Ali as the “Archbishop of Madness”. Dunstan had an extraordinary life, serving under seven English kings as an increasingly key advisor (effectively a Dark Age Prime Minister). As well as being a monk and politician, he was a celebrated harpist, composer, writer, Benedictine reformer and once even resisted temptation by the Devil by attacking him with his tongs!
In 973, Dunstan devised a coronation ceremony for Edgar in Bath. Why this came so late is not known – some suggest that Edgar was made to atone for his seduction of nuns in his youth but more likely is that Dunstan and Edgar wanted a show of strength as part of a wider gathering of kings. For, as well as the coronation, there was another ceremony in Chester in which Edgar was rowed along the River Dee by eight “under-kings”, amongst whom was Kenneth II of Scotland. After this, Edgar and Kenneth (and, we must assume, dear Dunstan) had more detailed talks in which Edgar “gave him Lothian” in return for which Kenneth pledged his allegiance to Edgar. The Lothian territory (essentially the Scottish borderlands between north-east England and south-east Scotland) had been claimed by previous kings but it is likely that this is the first time it was acknowledged as Scottish by England.
The upside of all this rowing and chatting was that Kenneth’s strategy had paid off. He was clearly acknowledged as Scottish king by Edgar the Peaceable and, even more importantly, he had gained some new(ish) territory. This would both provide Kenneth with a base for launching any attacks against Olaf but also help to sway any wavering nobles unsure about who to support. Sure enough, in 977 (just 4 years later) the Annals of Tigernach bluntly stated that “Olaf, Indulf’s son, king of Scotland, was killed by Kenneth, Malcolm’s son”. We do not know whether this was by battle or skulduggery but either way, Kenneth was now the undisputed king of Scotland.
This led to a period of stability for Scotland in which Kenneth II reigned supreme. Scotland was probably as large as it had ever been as a nation state (from the Tweed to the Pentland Firth) with Strathclyde a vassal state and the Lothian now added to the trophy cabinet. Such strength allowed Kenneth to think beyond the confines of day-to-day struggles and plan beyond his own time and think of his legacy and the succession. Inspired by reports of the Holy Roman Empire experimenting with a patrilineal succession (i.e. from father to son), Kenneth adopted this process in Scotland, decreeing that only his immediate family (i.e. his son) would succeed him. So, had Kenneth II finally resolved the dynastic dispute caused by the alternating succession?
The Dynastic Dispute Resumed
Unfortunately, Kenneth’s moves – while quite logical to modern eyes – was not a short-term solution to the dynastic conflict. In fact, it was the spark to reignite the dispute. Kenneth (Team Blue) wanted to ensure that he would be succeeded by his son, Malcolm. However, the old rivals in Team Red were hardly likely to be pleased at the prospect of being permanently excluded, so Cuilean’s surviving son (Constantine) began to plot against Kenneth. Not only that, but Kenneth was also removing his nephew (the son of his brother, Dubh, also confusingly called Kenneth!) and thus we now have Team Purple to add to the mix!
Sadly for Kenneth, his ability to acquire enemies proved to be his undoing. As well as his relatives, he had also angered a woman called Finella (or Finguella), whose son had been killed by Kenneth for his part in a rebellion. Apparently encouraged by Constantine (Team Red), in 995, Finella laid the most ridiculously elaborate deathtrap for Kenneth that would have had Dr Evil questioning whether there might not be an easier way of dispatching him. Promising that she would reveal her son’s accomplices, she persuaded Kenneth into her cottage and persuaded him to touch a statue in the centre of the room, which had been booby-trapped to the nth degree:
“The trap had firing devices fitted on all sides of it, always at tension with separate strings for each and equipped with very sharp darts, and in the centre of them there was skilfully attached to the firing devices a statue standing in the form of a boy. If anyone touched the statue and moved it in any way whatsoever, the bowstrings of the firing devices would be promptly released on all sides and he would instantly have been shot.” (Walter Bower, Scotichronicon)
Sure enough, Kenneth touched the statue and, lacking the quick reactions of Indiana Jones, was shot full of arrows and died immediately. Finella escaped out the backdoor and it was sometime before Kenneth’s bodyguards (presumably the same incompetent fellows who had failed to protect his brother, Dubh) noticed what had happened, after which, unable to find Finella, “not knowing what to do, they burned down the town and reduced it to ashes”.
Kenneth must have had military support to have seen off his rival, Olaf, in their fight for the throne. Whether or not this culminated in a battle, Kenneth should his acumen in strategy for he campaign with his raids into Northumbria giving him a platform for negotiations with Edgar. That Kenneth gained territory and recognition after his raids, which in turn was followed by Olaf’s death, suggests that he outplayed his rival in the game of diplomacy. Kenneth’s raids south also deserve credit in their own right:
“The Scots plundered England to Stanemore, and to Cluiam, and to the lakes of Dereham. And Kenneth walled the banks of the fords of Forthin. After a year, Kenneth went and plundered England, and carried off the son of the king of the Saxons.” (Chronicle of the Kings of Alba)
Kenneth initially went as far south as the Lake District (Dereham being Derwent) before then committing further plunder before making the fascinating capture of “the son of the king of the Saxons”. It is inconceivable that this is referring to Edgar the Peaceable (for one thing, it would definitely have come up on the agenda for their negotiations!) and instead most likely refers to a noble in Bernicia, a territory to the north of the old kingdom of Northumbria – once, perhaps, a royal family but now no more than an earl. Still, it shows Kenneth’s dominance in the area (no doubt taken on board by Edgar) and also evidence of permanence as Kenneth was building forts to cement his gains prevent counter-raiding.
The reign actually starts badly on the battle front for Kenneth, as his first attempt to raid England resulted thus: “Kenneth’s foot-soldiers were slain with very great slaughter in Moin Vacornar” (CKA). It does not seem to have had a significant impact on his reign but perhaps his early failure explains why it took 6 years to see off Olaf – maybe a more impressive performance would have won him more support. On the Olaf front, we have no evidence that there was a battle to decide the kingship so perhaps it was a shady assassination that did for Olaf rather than defeat in battle.
We must also acknowledge that, besides his death, the main image of this period is surely of Kenneth and his buddies rowing Edgar along the River Dee. Kenneth may have dominated Olaf but he was clearly second best went it came to Britain as a whole. There is a legend that Kenneth once joked that it was extraordinary how many provinces submitted to one so slight, leading to a not-at-all-sensitive-about-his-height Edgar to challenge him to a fight until Kenneth backed down! It is possible that the Saxons exaggerated the extent to which Kenneth and co. were really subservient to Edgar and that in fact it was more about a peace conference than pomp and ceremony, but Edgar was nevertheless clearly top dog.
Kenneth does a good job in establishing himself as king, making successful forays into England in order to secure land and support to defeat his rival. The lack of a big battle against Olaf, though, stops him getting a top score.
Score = 11/20
While the details are scarce, we are told that Kenneth was responsible for the death of his rival, Olaf. The fact that there is no mention of a battle implies that Kenneth may have bumped him off through foul play rather than hand-to-hand combat. There is also the question of why the Irish chroniclers considered Olaf king until his death – perhaps he was considered king in certain regions which had closer ties to Ireland but alternatively, it may have been a case of damnatio memoriae. In other words, Olaf was king but Kenneth had him killed and then wrote his reign out of history like Stalin erasing people from photos.
For a long reign, there are no accounts of naughty bedroom antics for Kenneth so it’s just plain old murder here.
The murder of a rival is good solid scandal but the shady aspect adds a little more scandal, albeit limited by the absence of bedroom antics.
Score = 11/20
John of Fordun wrote that Kenneth “reigned in peace and happiness” and, once Olaf was dealt with, this does seem to be the case. Kenneth had a long reign for the period (longer than the previous three kings combined) and Scotland seems to have been free from internal strife (ignoring the bit at the start and the bit at the end!) and free from invasion. Indeed, Adam of Bremen reports that Sweyn Forkbeard (future conqueror of England) actually came to Kenneth to seek sanctuary when exiled from Denmark. The alliance with Edgar was also of great benefit to Scotland – when Dunstan first came to the English court, Athelstan was making war against Scotland; now, not only did Kenneth gain territory but Edgar even gave him estates in England so he had somewhere to stay when he visited! Finally, Kenneth made a real attempt at solving the dynastic struggle by sorting out the succession and did win the support of most of the nobles. But…
…but, Kenneth’s attempts to change the succession laws resulted in the dynastic conflict resuming and indeed in his own murder. The next monarch would not be his son, Malcolm, but Constantine III (Team Red).
The failure to solve the succession issue stops Kenneth getting top marks, but he still deserves real credit for attempting to tackle it – Kenneth was clearly a sophisticated statesman making deals with the English and attempting to solve problems of the future beyond his own death. His long reign must have been good for the country after a series of short-lived monarchs.
Score = 14/20
Kenneth II reigned from 971 to 995 – a reign of twenty-four 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 8.32/20.
Kenneth’s offspring are a lot unclear in terms of who was a son and who was a brother. He married the daughter of a Leinster king (i.e. Irish) and is said to have had three sons, which gives him a score of 6.67/20.
Overall, that gives Kenneth II an excellent total score of 50.99.
In the context of short-lived monarchs a kingdom beset by infighting, Kenneth provided an effective combination of statesmanship, strategy and shady violence to produce a long and successful reign. While there is perhaps a lack of one glorious moment (besides his spectacular death) this was a good reign.
Our Verdict: Yes, Kenneth II has the Rex Factor!
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