According to William Shakespeare, Duncan was a kindly old king murdered in his bed by the villainous Macbeth, but what was the real story? Duncan’s grandfather had ruled Scotland for nearly thirty years but the reign had ended with dynastic conflict. Would Duncan prove the wise king of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or was the reality of history rather less glorious. Listen to his podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
Scotland in the eleventh century was not yet as large a country as it is today. The islands and the northern mainland (Caithness and Sutherland) were ruled by Vikings, while there remained awkward sub-kingdoms like Strathclyde (or Cumbria) and Moray, which had a varying degree of independence from the main kingdom. What’s more, the job of King of Scots was one that came with a worryingly low life expectancy due to a dispute as to who had the right to succeed to the throne.
Traditionally, the laws of succession in Scotland were rather loose, operating on an alternating basis between brothers before then going down to the next generation. Initially, this was largely successful as it ensured that the next man in line was an adult (and so able to lead the army in battle) and helped to share it around without too much tension building up. However, after a while the family tree extended too far and the rival claimants were now third cousins rather than brothers and far less likely to wait their turn. After a series of short-lived reigns, with the rivals killing each other off, Kenneth II changed the law so that the throne would now stay within the immediate family and pass from father-to-son. Unfortunately, he was then killed by his rivals and succeeded by a distant cousin.
After another period of infighting, Kenneth’s son, Malcolm II, did finally become king. He reigned for nearly 30 years, enjoying a victory against England in the Battle of Carham (1018) though failing to capture the new Northumbrian city of Durham. Unfortunately, he was unable to pass the throne on to his son due to rather unavoidable problem of not having one. Instead, he married off his daughters and had them produce sons, the first of whom (Bethoc) gave birth to Duncan, whom Malcolm named as his heir. Naturally, the rival family members were not too keen about this, so to ensure that they didn’t pose a threat to Duncan, Malcolm rather ruthlessly set about having them all killed. Harsh, but effective nevertheless, as when Malcolm died in 1034, Duncan succeeded without opposition.
We don’t know when exactly Duncan was born but he was certainly not the old man as depicted by Shakespeare. According to the Annals of Tigernach, he was “at an immature age”, though he did already have young children, so was probably somewhere between 20-35 when he came to the throne. That he succeeded without opposition is due partly to Malcolm’s murderous escapades but also the work of his father, Crinan, who was the lay Abbot of Dunkeld and a very powerful figure in Atholl. Duncan was crowned at Scone just a few days after his grandfather’s death, suggesting that Crinan acted quickly to ensure his son was made king before any opposition had a chance to emerge.
The early years of Duncan’s reign are something of a mystery, in which nothing of great consequence seems to have happened. An Irish delegation came to visit him shortly after his inauguration as king and rather tragically drowned on their way home (30 monks, plus relics of St Columba and St Patrick), after which the chroniclers go rather quiet. However, just south of Scotland, in Northumbria, events were moving along at a rather more frenetic pace and would soon draw out Duncan from his quiet time.
Northumbria had once been a powerful kingdom but for the last few centuries had been in something of a terminal decline. It was now just an earldom of England, though being a long way from London it was largely ruled independently. Malcolm II had tried to annex the northern part of it (what used to be Bernicia or Bamburgh) in 1006, but had been repelled from Durham by Uhtred the Bold. However, after Uhtred was killed by King Cnut in 1016, things got a bit messy. Uhtred was killed (on Cnut’s orders) by Thurbrand the Hold, at which point the earldom of Northumbria split in two with Uhtred’s family ruling the north and a separate force ruling from York in the South. Uhtred’s son, Ealdred II of Bamburgh, continued a bloodfeud and avenged his father by killing Thurbrand, only to then be killed himself in 1038 by Thurbrand’s son, Carl.
Ealdred was replaced in Bamburgh by his brother, Eadwulf III, who found himself surrounded by enemies. To the south, in York, was a Danish chap called Siward, who according to the sagas had won favour at Cnut’s court after killing a dragon in Orkney and a dragon in Northumbria before being handed a raven banner by Odin and sent to London (that’s quite the reference!) Siward was appointed Earl of Northumbria and had designs on capturing Eadwulf’s territory in the north, backed not only by the English kings but also by Duncan, who had married Siward’s sister. Duncan seems to have shared his grandfather’s ambitions in this territory and it is likely that Siward and Duncan were planning to split Eadwulf’s territory between them.
So, in 1038, Eadwulf decided to make a pre-emptive strike and launched a devastating attack on Cumbria. It is not clear whether this is Cumbria as we would understand it today (i.e. Carlisle and the Lake District) or the old kingdom of Strathclyde (potentially as far north as Glasgow). Either way, this territory, if not ruled directly by Duncan, at the very least came under his jurisdiction. So, in 1040, Duncan and Siward made their move and marched on Durham. Unfortunately, like Malcolm II in 1006, Durham proved rather too tough a nut to crack, and he was forced to retreat with heavy casualties.
When Malcolm II was defeated at Durham in 1006, he was fortunate that there were no immediate rivals who could take advantage of a loss of prestige. Unfortunately for Duncan in 1040, there was a very powerful rival ready to take advantage of his defeat in the form of Macbeth.
The story of Macbeth and Duncan is, of course, familiar to many because of Shakespeare but the reality of their rivalry is rather different. They were probably about the same age (certainly of the same generation) and they may actually have been cousins. It is disputed by historians, but many believe that another of Malcolm II’s daughters married Findlaech, the ruler of Moray, with Macbeth being the result of their union. Moray was a large and difficult territory in central Scotland (much larger than the modern Moray) and many a Scottish kind had met their end trying to impose their rule over it. Malcolm may have encouraged Macbeth’s rise to power after a decade in the wilderness following Findlaech’s murder in 1020, grateful at having a family member in a once-rival territory. However, Macbeth put a spanner in the works when he married a woman called Gruoch, the grand-daughter of Malcolm II’s predecessor and rival, Kenneth III, and became stepfather to her son.
Duncan clearly saw Macbeth as a threat after his defeat in Durham. It is not clear whether Macbeth and Moray were in a state of rebellion, if they were planning to rebel or if Duncan simply thought that a rebellion was likely given that he would now be seen as weak following his defeat. Either way, Duncan appears to have gone almost directly from his defeat at Durham right into the heart of Macbeth’s territory in Moray and fought him at Pitgaveny, near Elgin. A battle was fought and, once again, Duncan was defeated. This time, the outcome was even more damaging as Duncan was killed – quite possibly by Macbeth, but on the battlefield rather than in bed! Duncan, the not-so-old king, was dead.
To be fair to Duncan I, he does seem to have been very ambitious. Like his grandfather, he appears to have been determined to annex Bernicia and made a big attack on Durham. Not put off by his total failure there, he went straight up north into the heart of his enemy’s territory in a bid to kill Macbeth, remove his rival and re-establish himself as a great and powerful king.
The problem with giving Duncan any credit for those things, of course, is that he lost. Badly. He probably raised a large army to attack Durham (likely boosted by troops sent by Siward) but may have been undone by the fact that the open battle he planned for turned into a siege. Durham was effectively a walled city on top of a hill in an island, and was thus very hard to attack (more so than for Malcolm II in 1006 when it was just 10 years old). According to the chroniclers, the attack was repelled not by an army but by Durham’s citizens, with Duncan’s retreat being confused and resulting in heavy casualties. The battle with Macbeth would have been on a much smaller scale (not least because he lost most of his men at Durham), so Duncan would most likely have been in the thick of the fighting. As it was, he was rather too much in the thick of it, as he got killed!
There is also a curious account of a conflict with Thorfinn the Mighty, Earl of Orkney. Thorfinn actually was Duncan’s cousin, his mother being another daughter of Malcolm II while his father was Earl Sigurd the Stout, who ruled Orkney, Caithness and Sutherland. Thorfinn was only young when Sigurd died, so Malcolm II helped him acquire Caithness & Sutherland, while as an adult he gradually took control of Orkney from his brothers. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, in about 1035, Thorfinn was challenged in Caithness by the “King of Scots”, with him he fought a naval battle off Deerness and then later a land battle at Tarbat Ness, both of which resulted in victories for Thorfinn. The name of the Scottish king was “Karl Hundason”, which doesn’t really sound like the name of any Scottish king but some have speculated that it may well have been Duncan. The historicity of the sagas is dubious at the best of times, but this does raise the possibility of another failed offensive on Duncan’s part!
Duncan I did not shy away from battle, but maybe he should have done because he really was not very good at it! He fought battles, he lost battles, and then he died.
Score = 0/20
Unfortunately, we have no real evidence of any juicy, scandalous activity from Duncan whatsoever. He did not even murder his predecessor to become king, which had almost become a pre-requisite of kingship in Scotland in the last hundred years!
Score = 0/20
Shakespearians might have expected a glowing report of Duncan’s reign, but that does not really seem to match with what we have heard thus far. However, we did have those quiet four years from 1034-38, where apparently nothing disastrous happens! Plus, some of the medieval chroniclers gave glowing reports. The Prophecy of Berchan exclaimed “Joy to Scotland” in Duncan’s reign, while Walter Bower (following John of Fordun) said that “Nothing worthy of mention happened…because he enjoyed secure peace with everyone”, traversing his kingdom to ensure the provision of justice and avoiding disputes with his nobles.
All the evidence we have suggests that Duncan was an ineffectual king who quickly lost the support of his people after a couple of disastrous military campaigns (both of which he started). He was a young man when he came to the throne and perhaps he lacked sufficient experience, probably kept out of harm’s way while his grandfather went about massacring the rest of the family tree. Interesting, Shakespeare’s key source for this period, Ralph Holinshead (1577) actually criticised Duncan for his inaction as king, failing to punish criminals and allowing ill deeds to flourish. Shakespeare obviously needed a pure and good king to contrast with Macbeth, but even his own source was not really a fan of Duncan!
The medieval chroniclers may have had nice things to say about him, but they must just have been making this up because Duncan’s reign leaves no evidence of good kinging whatsoever!
Score = 0/20
Finally, Duncan gets some points on the board! But not many – he ruled from 1034-40, a reign of 5.75 years which (when converted into a score out of 20) sends his score rocketing up to 1.99.
Duncan is now on a roll! We know of three children who survived him, all sons, of whom two would one day become king. This gives him a dynastic score of 6.67.
Overall, that gives Duncan a total score of 8.66, which is very low, but could he somehow pull it out of the bag and get the Rex Factor?
If he were like the Duncan of Shakespeare, perhaps he would stand a chance, but the reality is rather different. Duncan I was a thoroughly unsuccessful king, doing nothing of note for the first 5 years of his reign before launching two unsuccessful military campaigns in the latter of which he was killed and usurped by the rival that he was trying to eliminate.
Our Verdict: No, Duncan I does not have the Rex Factor.
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