The stability Scotland enjoyed in the long reign of Kenneth II was thrown back into turmoil in 995 when Kenneth was murdered and there were three men disputing the throne. Constantine III was the first to get his grubby hands on the crown, but could he hold on to it? To listen to his podcast episode, click here, or read on to find out more.
Ever since Kenneth MacAlpin began the process of uniting the kingdoms of the Picts and the Scots in the 9th century, the emerging Scottish nation had chosen its kings by a process of an alternating succession. In other words, rather than being patrilineal (i.e. father to son) it went from brother to brother before then making its way down to the sons in the next generation. So, after Kenneth’s son Constantine I died, he was replaced by his brother, Aed, and from these two brothers descended separate lines of the Alpin dynasty.
For the first century, this was a successful system. The benefit was that it more or less ensured that an adult male would be available to succeed to the throne (and so lead the army in times of war) as well as preventing too much rivalry amongst siblings, knowing that both would get their chance to do some kinging. However, Scotland had become almost too successful and the family tree was expanding, meaning that instead of the throne going from brother to brother it was now being claimed by relations as distant as 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. For a time it looked like Kenneth II had solved the problem, but his murder reignited the dynastic conflict with three men claiming the throne.
Constantine III’s birth (as with all the Scottish monarchs in this period) is unknown, but his father (Cuilean) died in 971, so he must have been at least in his mid-twenties when he became king in 995. He was nicknamed Constantinus Calvus (Constantine the Bald) but we don’t know whether this is to denote a genuine follicle affliction or if the chroniclers simply picked an epithet that they had seen attributed to other rulers at the time! Interestingly, Constantine III is the first of the Alpin monarchs for whom there is a surviving pedigree, demonstrating his lineage back to Kenneth MacAlpin and the Scottish kings of Dalriata going back many centuries. The fact that this first appears in Constantine’s reign is perhaps indicative of the fact that there was a desire to demonstrate legitimacy, and with three rival claimants it was obviously helpful to have a document “proving” that your claim has a very ancient and respectable pedigree. In reality, the succession was pliable enough in its rules that if you were male, descended from Kenneth MacAlpin and had access to an army, it was fair game!
So, who are these rival claimants and where do they come from? To make things easier to understand, we have designated the separate family lines with team names. Constantine III belongs to Team Red, which traces its descent from the second son of Kenneth MacAlpin, Aed. His other rivals were descended from Constantine I – Kenneth (Team Purple) and Malcolm (Team Blue). Kenneth and Malcolm shared a common grandfather (Malcolm I) so were cousins.
Kenneth II’s long reign seemed to have ended the dynastic conflict but he restarted tensions by ruling that in future, the succession would stay within the immediate family and go from father to son. This was good news for his son, Malcolm (Team Blue), but less good for his nephew, Kenneth (Team Purple) or his…distant relative (!) Constantine (Team Red). Purple Kenneth and Red Constantine faced being permanently excluded from the succession if this new status quo went unchallenged, so it is perhaps not surprising that Kenneth II might a violent end, reportedly at the end of a very elaborate booby-trapped statue.
According to John of Fordun, Constantine III encouraged the plot to murder Kenneth II and so was primed to take over in 995 when it was put into action:
“The next day after the king’s death, Constantine the Bald, son of Culen, came with his supporters, and, despising the State ordinance, usurped the throne; and, backed up by a few of the nobles, he placed the crown of the kingdom on his own head.” (John of Fordun)
Malcolm was apparently in Cumbria when his father met his end in Moray (much further north). As such, it probably took some time for him to a) find out and b) prepare an army to reclaim the throne, allowing Constantine III to take the throne in 995. We don’t know where Purple Kenneth was, but according to John of Fordun, the rest of Constantine’s reign is taken up with civil war:
“Thereupon there followed a long-lasting division among the inhabitants…for he was continually harassed by Malcolm, and his illegitimate uncle, named Kenneth, a soldier of known prowess, who was his unwearied persecutor, and strove with his whole might to kill him, above all others.” (JoF)
This reference to Constantine’s “illegitimate uncle” called Kenneth is the first confusing reference relating to Kenneth from John of Fordun. Purple Kenneth is not Constantine’s uncle, so did John of Fordun get confused without our helpful coloured charts or is this simply another man who happens to be called Kenneth?
This question becomes more pertinent when in 997, Constantine III was killed in a battle for the throne:
“King Constantine, Culen’s son, was slain by the sword at the head of the river Almond, in Tegalere; having ruled as king for one year and a half. Kenneth, the son of Malcolm, struck him.” (Chronicles of Melrose)
“Nor did Kenneth abandon his purpose, until, one day, they met one another in Laudonia (Lothian), by the banks of the river Almond; and, engaging in battle, after great slaughter on either side, both the leaders were killed. It is said, however, that Kenneth had the upper hand.” (JoF)
So, apparently Constantine III is killed fighting with “Kenneth, son of Malcolm”, who may also have been killed in the fighting. If we refer back to our family tree, “Kenneth son of Malcolm” is actually the previous monarch, Kenneth II, which is obviously not correct. So, do they mean Kenneth grandson of Malcolm I (i.e. Purple Team Kenneth), did Blue Malcolm (son of Kenneth II) have a son called Kenneth that fought and died in this battle? Or is it someone else entirely who happens to be called Kenneth (clearly a popular name in 10th century Scotland)?
Well, unfortunately, we don’t know! However, we do know that Purple Kenneth could not have been killed in this battle as in 997 he becomes Kenneth III. It also seems unlikely that this was the son of Blue Malcolm given that he is said to have had the upper hand and yet everybody present decides to then back the rival claimant, Kenneth III, who would presumably not have been involved at all if the battle was between Teams Red and Blue. So, either Kenneth III was present and did not die or the Kenneth who was present was a different man with the same name but presumably on the same team!
Either way, Constantine III was definitely dead, so all that remains left is to review his reign…
On the plus side, we have a record of Constantine III fighting a battle. On the bad side, he lost!
Score = 0/20
This is better! John of Fordun claims that Constantine “endlessly plotted” the death of the previous monarch (and Rex Factor winner) Kenneth II, ending a long period of stability in order to pursue his ambition. It was also a ridiculously elaborate death, with Kenneth being shot down by arrows when touching a booby-trapped statue. Unfortunately, Constantine is only credited with encouraging the murder rather than providing the blueprints for the methodology, so he can’t take all the credit.
Score = 9/20
Bad. Very, very bad. John of Fordun paints a rather bleak picture of life in Scotland during Constantine’s short reign:
“Thereupon there followed a long-lasting division among the inhabitants, with massacres of the populace, and troubling of the clergy. Moreover, there befell the most pitiful slaughter of the great, and even of kings, and much shedding of innocent blood.” (JoF)
Essentially, Constantine III’s record is: kill a long-reigning and effective king; initiate a bloody civil war; die. Mmm.
Score = 0/20
Constantine III reigned from 995-97, but the chroniclers tell us that he ruled for a year and a half, giving him a score (when converted into a score out of 20 where 20 is the longest reign of all the monarchs), of 0.52/20.
Constantine had no legitimate surviving children of whom there is any record, giving him a score of 0. However, more seriously, the Prophecy of Berchan observed his death with the words “He falls, his people fall…”, likely a reference to the fact that Constantine was the last of his line, meaning that Team Red is at an end! From now on, the throne would be contested between Teams Purple and Blue.
Overall, that gives Constantine III a total score of 9.52 – pretty poor, but could he still be eligible for the Rex Factor?
No, clearly. Constantine’s usurpation itself was successful but his short reign has left nothing to the history books beside civil war and his own defeat.
What do you think – does Constantine III deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our poll below and tell us your views!