The Scottish monarchy was thrown into crisis and civil war when Kenneth II, having tried to ensure that the succession would pass from father to son, was killed in 995. After ten years of conflict, Kenneth’s son, Malcolm II, has finally become king, but was it worth the wait? To find out how Malcolm II fared as king, listen to his podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
By 1005, Scotland was now a clearly identifiable nation, albeit its borders were not quite as extensive as they are today. Since the 840s, Scotland had been ruled by the Alpin dynasty, with all its kings descended from Kenneth MacAlpin, who ruled over both the Picts and the Scots. The Scots operated a system of an alternating succession, whereby instead of going from father to son, the crown would pass from brother to brother before then going to the next generation. Initially this worked well, ensuring that there was always a royal prince of fighting age ready to take to the throne. However, from the 960s this had been a source of conflict, with the rival branches of the family expanding to the extent that it was no longer going from brother to brother but third cousin to third cousin.
The first man to really attempt to solve this crisis (other than simply by killing off his rivals) was Kenneth II. Admittedly, he did also go in for the traditional killing off of rivals, but he also enacted a law stating that henceforth the crown would remain within the monarch’s immediate family and so go next to his son, Malcolm II, rather than the rival lines of the family. Unfortunately, the rival lines of the family did not much care for being formally excluded from the throne and so in 995 Kenneth II was assassinated and replaced by Constantine III. Constantine then met a violent end in 997, leading to Kenneth III having a go at kinging.
Malcolm II is thought to have been born possibly as early as 954, meaning that he was a seasoned warrior when his father was assassinated. The fact that he was not able to take the throne is probably due more to bad luck than any failure on Malcolm’s part – he was in the sub-kingdom of Cumbria (or Strathclyde) at the time of his father’s death, some distance from where the unfortunate event took place and from the heart of the Scottish kingdom. He was probably still busy raising an army and putting his boots on by the time Constantine III was killed eighteen months later, so when Malcolm did emerge for battle, he had to face Kenneth III instead.
Malcolm and Kenneth appear to have fought a civil war for the next eight years, probably with a series of raids and small-scale conflicts in rival territories without any major battle. However, all this was to change in 1005 when Malcolm decided to skip to the end and challenged Kenneth to battle. Along a band of trusted supporters, they met near Loch Monzievaird (east of the Trossarchs, west of Perth) where Malcolm killed Kenneth and finally became king. According to the medieval chronicler, John of Fordun, Malcolm summoned the nobles of the kingdom and “humbly requested them to give him the crown, if the laws allowed it”, which they duly did, ratifying Kenneth II’s original decree that Malcolm was the legitimate heir. This may well have happened, but such is Malcolm’s rather brutal and uncompromising character, it is fair to say that there would have been pretty severe consequences had the nobles come to any other conclusion!
Now he was king, Malcolm set his sights further south on the border with England. His father had been granted the territory of Lothian by Edgar the Peaceable in 973 but Malcolm was keen to extend the border further and claim the old Angle kingdom of Bernicia. In particular, since 995 there was a brand new city called Durham, founded when the bones of St Cuthbert had, in the process of being moved, stopped and asked to be buried in Dun Holm, the location of which was only revealed to the monks when they asked a milkmaid who said she had lost her dun cow there! With St Cuthbert’s presence, Durham was a site of great importance, so in 1006, Malcolm besieged the city. He would have felt confident, given that England was suffering from devastating Viking raids and the ineffective rule of Aethelraed the Unready, while Northumbria itself had an elderly earl, Waltheof. Unfortunately for Malcolm, Waltheof’s son, Uhtred, took charge and proved rather adept, inflicting defeat upon Malcolm. However, in 1016, England was finally conquered by the Vikings by Cnut. In 1018, while Cnut was still busy establishing a North Sea Empire, Malcolm invaded once again, this time enjoying a great victory at the Battle of Carham on the Tweed.
Unfortunately, Cnut was not likely to leave such actions unchallenged. He was busy throughout the 1020s, but in c. 1031-32, Cnut is said to have come north with an army to confront Malcolm. It is not clear whether this was due to the 1018 battle, if Malcolm had persisted with further raids since then or if Cnut fancied adding Scotland to his empire. Either way, they did not actually fight but came to some sort of accord, agreeing their borders and probably Malcolm doing Cnut some sort of homage. We are also told that Cnut stood as godfather to Malcolm’s son.
If Cnut was the godfather of Malcom’s son then this son cannot have lived long because Malcolm does not appear to have had any surviving sons but only daughters. Given that the decade preceding Malcolm’s accession had been defined by the wars over the succession started by Kenneth II wanting to ensure that his son would succeed, Malcolm’s lack of sons was somewhat ironic. It was also the exact scenario for which an alternating succession was ideally suited! So, in theory, Malcolm would need to nominate a successor, for which a look at the family trees is essential!
Game of Thrones
Malcolm II was the son of Kenneth II and grandson of Malcolm I, representing ‘Team Blue’ for the Alpin dynasty. On the other side (‘Team Purple’) was his cousin Kenneth III, whom Malcolm had killed in 1005. Ideally, Malcolm would pass the throne to one of his brothers – either Boite or Dungal. However, there were rivals in Team Purple among the sons of Kenneth III, namely Grim, Boite and Gillecomgain.
One problem with the family tree above is that both Kenneth II and Kenneth III have a second son called Boite. It is, of course, possible that they both plumped for the same name, but more likely is that the chroniclers were not specific enough when they wrote “Boite son of Kenneth” as to which Kenneth they meant! The way that events pan out make it more likely that Boite was the son of Team Purple’s Kenneth III, so we shall remove him from Team Blue. This only leaves Malcolm with one brother, Dungal, but he was killed in 999 by Gillecomgain. Malcolm himself killed Grim in 1005 while Gillecomgain appears to have vanished from the scene (probably due to Malcolm), leaving only Boite and his children.
However, Malcolm was very much his father’s son and determined to keep the kingship within Team Blue. So, instead of nominating Boite, he decided instead to marry off his daughters in the hope that they would produce a grandson. So, his eldest daughter (Bethoc) married the lay abbot of Dunkeld (Crinan) while his second daughter, Donada, married the Viking ruler of Orkney (plus Caithness & Sutherland on the mainland), Sigurd the Stout. This tactic paid off, with Bethoc giving birth to Duncan, while Donada had Thorfinn the Mighty. With Sigurd’s death in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf in Ireland, Malcolm pushed for Thorfinn to replace his father as Jarl of Orkney while Duncan was named his successor in Scotland.
Intriguingly, it is also suggested that Malcolm had a third daughter (possbily Olith) who married the ruler of a territory called Moray, a man called Finlay. Moray’s status is uncertain – sometimes seen as a mormaerdom (i.e. an earldom of Scotland) or even as a separate kingdom. While Cumbria seems to have favoured Team Blue, Moray seems to have been rather more hostile, with both Malcolm’s father and grandfather possibly being killed here. This third marriage may have been intended to have helped stem rebellion and produced a name that everyone will recognise – Macbeth.
By appointing Duncan as his successor, Malcolm was giving cause for his rivals to rebel – both in Team Purple but also figures hostile to him in Moray. The next decade, therefore, was something of a bloodbath, with Malcolm effectively trying to kill all of Duncan’s rivals to ensure his succession. In Moray, Finlay was murdered by his own nephews in 1020 – confusingly, another Malcolm (who became ruler) and another Gillecomgain. When Malcolm of Moray died in 1029, Gillecomgain took his place and seems to have made an alliance with Boite of Team Purple, marrying his daughter, Gruoch, and fathering a son, Lulach. This now represented a serious threat to Malcolm II and Duncan, his two enemies united and with a son eligible to succeed in both territories.
Not surprisingly, Gillecomgain was murdered in 1032 – either by Macbeth (as revenge for his father), by Malcolm (for strategic purposes) or perhaps a combination of the two. Then in 1033, Malcolm murdered another one of Boite’s grandsons (not Lulach) and must have thought that his job was almost complete. However, his plans were somewhat scuppered when Macbeth married Gruoch and apparently stood as Lulach’s protector (and yes, Gruoch is Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare terms!)
As it happened, Malcolm himself finally died in 1034. It is sometimes suggested that he died of wounds in an ambush at Glamis but it is just as likely that he died, being apparently 80 years old at the time. Most of his predecessors did not live even to 50, the age at which Malcolm became king, so quite frankly this was very good going by Malcolm!
Malcolm was certainly no stranger to the battlefield and he enjoyed some impressive victories. He won the throne in battle by defeating Kenneth III at the Battle of Monzievaird in 1005. It seems that this was more of a 5-a-side sort of encounter rather than a full on battle match-up but as such, that means that Malcolm probably killed Kenneth III himself, if not also Kenneth’s son, Grim. According to John of Fordun, soon after his victory against Kenneth, Malcolm also had to fight a Viking raid at Mortlach, in which he was victorious with the loss of only thirty men.
However, the most significant victory in Malcolm’s reign was the Battle of Carham (1018). Having failed to assert himself over Durham in 1006, this was a much more successful effort to move the border with England further south onto the Tweed. Joined by Owain of Cumbria and his army, the Scots won a decisive victory over the English. According to Symeon of Durham, “Almost the whole people, including their nobility, between the Tweed and the Tees, were slain” – clearly a bit of an exaggeration, but clearly the local elite were shaken by this defeat. Apparently a comet was spotted (often a herald of disaster) and Ealdhun, the Bishop of Durham, died not long afterwards. Following his victory, Malcolm distributed gifts to nearby churches in the manner of Athelstan bestowing gifts upon St Cuthbert’s previous tomb in 934 when he invade Scotland.
However, as a seasoned warrior Malcolm also suffered his fair share of defeats. Perhaps the most serious was his failed attempt at besieging Durham in 1006. According to the Annals of Ulster, “a great many of their nobles were left dead” in the defeat, while the De Obsessione Dunelmi claimed that local women were paid in cattle to wash the heads of the prettiest Scottish dead and braid their hair before displaying them on spikes outside the city! Malcolm was very lucky that he had no immediate rivals in Scotland or his reign may have come to a swift end.
Arguably, the Durham defeat is balanced out by the victory at Carham. However, the significance of Carham has been much debated by historians. Some see this as the battle in which Scotland’s ownership of Lothian was secured, but this had already been agreed in the tenth century. If Malcolm’s campaigns in the north-east of England represent an attempt to bring the old kingdom of Bernicia into his orbit then he seems to have failed, with Cnut re-establishing his control of the area.
Indeed, the Cnut question is another tricky issue on Malcolm’s scoresheet. Some (including King Edward I in the 13th century!) claim that Cnut effectively conquered much of Scotland and so defeated Malcolm (among them Cnut’s rival king of Norway, Olaf II, writing in 1025). However, other sources claim that Malcolm resisted Cnut’s attempts and invasion and forced him to come to terms. In reality, the truth is probably somewhere between the two – it is unlikely that a major battle took place and was not observed by a single chronicler, so it may be that Cnut brought an army to Scotland and faced off with Malcolm but, perhaps persuaded by their bishops (according to Rodulfus Glaber) agreed terms including the location of the border. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Malcolm “adhered to [the treaty] only for a little while”, suggesting that once Cnut was gone the border raids continued.
Malcolm had ups and downs on the battlefield but overall he comes out on top. He won the crown in battle, won a great victory at Carham (which helped to establish the borders even if he failed to annex Bernicia) and dominated Scotland for a long period. That said, the odd defeat here and there and the presence of a far superior foe in Cnut prevents him from getting the very top marks.
Score = 13/20
Malcolm’s epithet was An Forranach (the Destroyer). However, this seems to be less about his prowess in battle and more about his familiar relations – he was, quite literally, a destroyer of lives! He killed Kenneth III and his son, Grim, in 1005, and probably one of Kenneth III’s other sons, Gillecomgain, at an unknown date. He is definitely credited with killing one of Boite’s grandsons in 1033 and may have had some involvement with the murder of the ruler of Moray, Gillecomgain (not Kenneth III’s son) in 1032. Macbeth is often credited with this last murder, but while he had the motivation of revenge, Gillecomgain’s marriage to Boite’s daughter, Gruoch (the grandson of Kenneth III) represented a major threat to Malcolm and his grandson, Duncan, so it is entirely possible that Malcolm was either responsible for the deed itself or in inspiring the deed. As it was, Gillecomgain’s end was rather nasty, perishing in a hall burning along with fifty people, suggesting that Malcolm’s hitman tendencies came with a lot of collateral, rather like Sir Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail!
There is a lot of murder here! Even in a brutal age, Malcolm is notorious for his ruthlessness. However, the lack of variety in his scandal (no bedroom antics) again must put a limit on his score.
Score = 12/20
Despite his murderous tendencies, Malcolm II was actually considered to be quite a pious man! He is recorded as making various religious endowments, such as a new episcopal see at Mortlach following his triumph over the Vikings and gifts to churches on the day of his victory at Carham. Despite the violence, Malcolm ruled for a long time and without any apparent challenge in sharp contrast to the civil wars of the decade preceding his accession. He was considered an effective ruler by contemporaries, with the (Irish) Annals of Tigernach noting on his death “Malcolm, Kenneth’s son, the king of Scotland, the honour of all the west of Europe, died.”
Would you really want to be a subject of Malcolm II? If you were in any vague way identified as a threat to his dynasty then you would almost certainly meet a violent end and even if you didn’t you could still suffer that fate if you were simply within radius of his intended target! Besides the odd gift to churches, there is no real evidence of a softer and more cultured side to The Destroyer. Also, his insistence on declaring Duncan as his successor does seem to have reignited the dynastic conflict and been the immediate precursor to the violence of the last decade or so of his reign – in other words, Malcolm was the aggressor rather than the hunted man.
Perhaps harsh, for a long and pretty effective reign, but Malcolm’s murderous and ruthless approach his kingship makes for a rather violent reign. He did an effective job, certainly, but this is hardly an exemplar in just and enlightened governance!
Score = 5/20
Malcolm II reigned from 1005-1034, a reign of 29.67 years giving him a score (when converted into a score out of 20 where 20 is the longest reign of all the monarchs), of 10.29/20.
As ever, there is some uncertainty around the number of Kenneth’s children. He had no sons but at least two and possibly three daughters. Given that we have been generous to previous monarchs who might have had three children, we will give Malcolm II the benefit of the doubt and all 3 children, a score of 6.67/20.
So, overall that gives Malcolm II a total score of 46.96 – a very decent score, but will it be enough for him to be awarded the Rex Factor?
Malcolm II has a definite case to be made here. His is a long reign in a period when longevity was rarely on the menu, which is incredibly impressive given that when he came to the throne he was already at an age when most of his predecessors had died! He won the throne through battle and showed great ambition in campaigning into England, with a notable victory at Carham. Yes, he probably had to bend his knee to Cnut, but then Cnut was pretty much the most powerful man in Europe and to come to terms without suffering a major defeat or loss of territory is not too shabby. Perhaps Malcolm caused some instability by pushing for Duncan’s succession but ultimately the ruthless murders paid off, allowing Duncan to become king unchallenged.
Our Verdict: Yes! Malcolm II was a tough and ruthless old nut who stands out in this period not just for his incredible longevity and impressive military successes but also for his very particular skills at ruthless murder. A nice man? No. A very effective monarch? Definitely.
What do you think – does Malcolm II deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our poll below and tell us your views!