Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays but there was a real life king behind the murderous villain of the ‘Scottish Play’. Was the real Macbeth the evil tyrant as depicted by Shakespeare or has his reputation been unjustly sullied? You can listen to his podcast episode here or read on for more information.
Shakespeare’s MacbethIn the Shakespeare play, Macbeth turns from a once-loyal general to a murderous tyrant after being visited by three witches who tell him that he will one day be king. Urged on by his scheming wife, Lady Macbeth, he kills the old king, Duncan, and takes the throne, after which he descends into paranoia and sets about killing his rivals (regardless of whether they are truly plotting against him). In the end, Duncan’s son, Malcolm, invades Scotland with the help of the noble MacDuff and Earl Siward of Northumbria. Lady Macbeth, riven by guilt and sleepwalking, dies and Macbeth himself is killed at Dunsinane Hill by MacDuff, leading to Malcolm becoming king.
However, in reality, much of Shakespeare’s play is largely invented. Duncan was not an old man but the same age as Macbeth – he was also a rubbish king who was killed by Macbeth in battle (rather than in bed) after invading his territory. Macbeth’s wife in reality was a woman called Gruoch, for whom there is no evidence of such malevolent deeds, while other characters such as MacDuff and Banquo are largely if not entirely invented. Macbeth actually survived the Battle of Dunsinane Hill – both in body and as king!
So, if Shakespeare’s play is a false account, then what was the real story of Macbeth?
Macbeth was born at some point around the year 1000 and became king in 1040. The “Mac” name in Scotland is usually a patronymic (i.e. “Son of…”) but Macbeth’s father was called Finlay rather than Beth – his name actually means “son of life”. His father was the ruler of a territory called Moray, which was much larger than the modern region of the same name, stretching from Loch Alsh on the west coast to the River Spey on the east, as well as going north from the Mounth to Ross. The complexities of Moray’s status within Scotland in this period is a crucial question in terms of how Macbeth became king and whether he had any right to wear the crown.
Scotland in 1000 was a fragmented country, far from being the centralised country that we know today and also only covering a relatively small part of modern Scotland. The south-west of modern Scotland was a separate kingdom called Strathclyde (also called Cumbria or Cumberland) running from roughly Glasgow to Penrith, while the islands around Scotland and Caithness and Sutherland at the very north tip of the mainland were ruled by Vikings. The actual Scottish kingdom (Alba) may have been seen as the most prominent kingdom, its kings perhaps having the status roughly equivalent to the High Kings in Ireland where their dominance was acknowledged but precise territory disputed. Moray is a good example of this uncertainty – was it a rebellious region or a separate (albeit junior) kingdom? Historians have speculated that it may well have shared royal links with Alba, either going back hundreds of years to a junior line of the kings of Dalriada in the west or, more recently, a forgotten daughter descended from King Aed (whose male line had died out by 1000) had married into the Moray ruling dynasty.Usually, such ancient links or descent from the female line would have been insufficient for the rulers of Moray to stake a claim to the Scottish throne. However, Scotland had been suffering dynastic conflict for generations due to its alternating succession system, whereby rather than the crown being passed from father to son, it went from brother to brother before then going to the next generation. The benefit was that it should ensure there was always a (male) adult ready to rule in times of war but the effect was that as the family tree grew larger and more disparate, the number of rival claimants became larger and the ties to bind them more distant. Malcolm II (1005-34) was keen to have a system of primogeniture but unfortunately he only had daughters rather than sons. Controversially, instead of acknowledging one of his male heirs descended from his cousin, Kenneth III (as would have been custom) he named his grandson, Duncan, as heir.
To ensure that his grandson would become king, Malcolm II set about murdering most of the male line of his family whilst also having to see off attacks from Moray. However, towards the end of his reign, this threat became stronger. Macbeth’s father, Finlay, was murdered by his nephews, the second of whom, Gillecomgain, would not only become ruler of Moray but would also marry a Scottish princess, Gruoch. Their son, Lulach, would thus have a claim both to Moray and to Scotland and represented a serious threat. However, luckily for Malcolm II, Gillecomgain was not long for this world as he was killed in a hall burning by Macbeth, avenging his father’s death and thus becoming the ruler of Moray in his own right. Malcolm may even have encouraged or engineered this coup, but if he did then it backfired for rather surprisingly, Macbeth married Gruoch (the widow the man he had just killed) and stood as protector for her son, Lulach.
King MacbethMalcolm II finally died in 1034 and, despite the problem of Macbeth, Gruoch and Lulach in Moray, Duncan I succeeded his grandfather as king. He did not turn out to be very effective, however, suffering a disastrous defeat in 1040 when he attempted to capture the city of Durham. Not long after this, he took his surviving troops to Moray and launched an assault on Macbeth. Whether this was because Macbeth and Moray were actively rebelling or if it was a pre-emptive strike, we do not know. Importantly, however, they fought a battle at Pitgaveny (near Elgin) and Macbeth killed Duncan in the process.
There would then have followed some tense negotiations at Scone (where Scottish kings were crowned) before Macbeth was accepted as king. Killing the previous king may seem a bit dodgy, but the reality was that this was almost standard fare in Scotland at this time! Indeed, Duncan’s peaceful accession was quite unusual as the three kings before him had all become king by killing their predecessor. What’s more, Macbeth had a not entirely bad claim to being king – as ruler of Moray, he may have claimed ancient descent from the Dalriadan kings or that a Scottish princess was one of his more recent ancestors (possibly his grandmother). Furthermore, his wife was certainly of royal blood and her son, Lulach, was too young to be king but definitely had a strong claim. Some have even suggested that, like Duncan I, Macbeth was a grandson of Malcolm II, though this seems unlikely given the constant conflict between Malcolm and Finlay. We don’t know what claim Macbeth used but in truth, as good a claim as any was the fact that he was very powerful and he’d just killed the old king in battle! Malcolm II had done such a good job of killing everybody else off that, apart from Duncan’s sons (who had, indeed, fled into exile) there was no one else who could challenge him.
At this point, you might expect to hear that Macbeth starts killing his rivals while Duncan’s son, Malcolm, prepares to restore the natural order and take back his throne. In reality, everything goes surprisingly quiet. There is not much evidence for Macbeth’s reign, but from 1040-45, apparently nothing of note happened until he faced a rebellion from Duncan’s father, Crinan. Crinan as the lay abbot of Dunkeld (i.e. he held a senior position in the church but effectively operated as a secular figure) and the Mormaer of Atholl and was probably intent upon killing Macbeth to ensure his grandson, Malcolm, would become king. However, he was unsuccessful and Macbeth as triumphant once more. In fact, he was so secure that in 1050 he actually left the country and went to Rome to see the Pope – the first and indeed only Scottish king to do so. The trip would have been long and dangerous, demonstrating just how stable Scotland was.However, this idyll was not to last forever. In 1054, Earl Siward of Northumbria did indeed launch an invasion of Scotland and fought Macbeth in battle at Dunsinane Hill. It was a hard-fought battle, in which Siward emerged victorious though with his son killed…but Macbeth survived! According to the Chronicle of Melrose, Siward put Macbeth to flight and “appointed Malcolm as king” but this probably refers to the kingdom of Strathclyde/Cumbria rather than Scotland. Moreover, it also probably refers to a Cumbrian prince called Malcolm rather than the son of Duncan. Macbeth may have lost his control over Cumbria and some of the lowlands, but he remained King of Scots. What’s more, Siward died just a year later, removing a major threat from Macbeth’s southern borders. Unfortunately, there was still Malcolm son of Duncan and in 1057, he returned to Scotland and killed Macbeth in the Battle of Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire. Macbeth was succeeded by his stepson, Lulach, which indicates that although Malcolm won the battle, he did not immediately become king. If he invaded from Northumbria, this poses a geographical problem as Lulach would somehow have had to have snuck past him in Moray to get down to be crowned at Scone. Furthermore, Irish chroniclers actually state that Lulach (as king) was killed before Macbeth met his end at Lumphanan. So, what was going on in 1057/58?
There is both a chronological and geographical way to explain these apparent contradictions. Firstly, the chronology. Of course, the Irish chroniclers could simply be mistaken with their dates but alternatively the fact that Lulach was crowned king before Macbeth’s death at Lumphanan might imply that Macbeth had abdicated the throne to his stepson in 1057 (whether willingly or not), and so Malcolm killed Lulach and then Macbeth came out of retirement as a last ditch effort to stop Malcolm. Considering the geography, it has often been assumed that Malcolm came north with English troops from Northumbria, but increasingly historians are suggesting that he may actually have been in exile in Orkney and used Viking support to capture Scotland by marching south towards Moray. Both Lumphanan and Essie (where Lulach died) would make sense as locations to resist an invasion from the north.Either way, in either 1057 or 1058 Macbeth was dead! But, how does he stack up when we review him?
Macbeth’s record starts off very promisingly. He wins the throne through battle, defeating Duncan at Pitgaveny in 1040. Duncan was fresh off a major defeat in Durham and probably approached by boat via Loch Spynie (which at this time was essentially the sea) so it was probably a smallish battle of private retinues rather than a huge clash of armies. Still, sources suggest that Macbeth may well have personally dealt Duncan the fatal blow, which is quite impressive. Furthermore, five years later he had to see off a rebellion from Duncan’s father, Crinan. As the lay abbot of Dunkeld and Mormaer of Atholl, Crinan was a very powerful figure in both spiritual and secular circles so potentially this would have been a serious threat. However, Macbeth once again came out on top with Crinan being killed and around 180 of his men with him. It was another 9 years before Macbeth faced any further opposition, suggesting that he was very secure for most of his reign.
Fascinatingly, Macbeth also oversaw the first ever arrival of Normans in Scotland. In England, Edward the Confessor had spent his youthful exile in Normandy so brought various troops and courtiers with him to England when he became king but this did not sit well with the Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Danes at his court. A falling out with his chief advisor (and, awkwardly, father-in-law) Godwin led to the Normans being expelled from court. Most returned to Normandy, but a chap called Osbern Pentecost and his ally Hugh decided to go all the way from Herefordshire to Scotland to serve with Macbeth. Presumably they had heard of him (if not met in person) when Macbeth went to Rome. This shows how Macbeth’s standing was increased by Rome but also an impressive innovation with his army.
Unfortunately, Osbern and his Norman companions did not prove to be a lot of use to Macbeth. Their first outing was a defeat to Earl Siward at Dunsinane Hill in 1054 in which they all perished, thus ending the experiment rather prematurely! Siward had a large and well-equipped army and it seems that Macbeth was keen to avoid a full-on battle, so took his troops into the hills around the Tay and aimed for an ancient fort on Dunsinane. Siward, however, was too canny to let a mere hill put him off and they fought a heavy battle, in which around 3,000 Scots and 1,500 Englishmen were killed. Macbeth did survive, of course, and the Norman presence may have turned a potentially fatal massacre into a hard-fought defeat, but as the first invasion of Scotland in over a century, it was not exactly a career highlight for Macbeth.
Still, it was at least better than Lumphanan – whether it was in 1057 or 1058 and whether Malcolm came from the north or the south, the crucial detail is that Macbeth was defeated and killed. There is an apocryphal legend that after killing Macbeth, Malcolm lay his sword across Macbeth’s and then danced a jig which became the Sword Dance.
Macbeth started with victories and ended with defeats, which largely cancel each other out. He clearly knew his way around a battlefield but was by no means indestructible – if he was a Premier League team, he would probably be hovering below a Champions League qualification spot but never in with a chance at the title!
Score = 8/20
The Shakespeare version of Macbeth would be scoring heavily here! And, in fairness, the real life Macbeth was hardly a saint. In 1032, he killed his cousin, Gillecomgain, in a hall-burning, along with about 50 other people. In Macbeth’s defence, Gillecomgain had killed his father and murdering your predecessor was pretty much de rigeur for the succession. However, a hall burning is still a bit grim (if not so unusual for the time) and he really took it to another level by marrying Gillecomgain’s widow, Gruoch! And he did, of course, kill the King of Scots, Duncan, in order to take the throne, so effectively a usurpation in two separate kingdoms! However, Duncan was killed in a battle (that Duncan himself started) so hardly the same as killing an aged man in his bed.
While the real life Macbeth was not the twisted murderous villain of Shakespeare, he was nevertheless partial to a spot of murderous scandal. Nothing that particularly stands out in the context of a violent and brutal society but still, definitely enough to make the headlines!
Score = 9/20
In Shakespeare, Macbeth is depicted as a kings who descends into tyranny and paranoia, but in reality he seems to have done quite a good job as king. Contemporary chroniclers praised him, with the Prophecy of Berchan saying “The generous king of Fortriu…I shall be joyful in him. Scotland will be brimful, in the west and in the east.” Similarly, the Chronicle of Melrose said that there were “fruitful seasons” during his reign while the Duan Albanac referred to him as “The Renowned” Macbeth. These references to fruitful seasons are less likely to be indicative of Macbeth’s reign as being a golden era for medieval agriculture but rather reflective of this time as one of peace and prosperity. Certainly, the lack of reported events hints at a stable reign with little serious conflict or unrest.
In fact, it was so stable that Macbeth was able to visit Rome in 1050! This was no mean feat, as it required him being out of the country for several months which would have been unthinkable in previous reigns when there was almost constant dynastic conflict between rivals family lines. Macbeth was both the first and last Scottish monarch to visit Rome, probably inspired by Cnut (the Viking ruler of England) who had visited in 1027 and set something of a trend for kings to make the trip in person. The European-based Irish scholar Marianus Scottus observed that Macbeth “scattered money like seed to the poor, at Rome” on his visit, also in imitation of Cnut. This visit would have put Scotland on the European stage in a way that no previous monarch could have come close to and the fact that he was sought out by exiled Norman soldiers just a few years later is almost certainly a result of the Rome trip.
It is very tempting to portray Macbeth as a saintly, far-sighted hero when confronted by evidence that Shakespeare has depicted him in such a harsh light (rather similar to Richard III), but there are limitations in assessing the quality of his reign. We have said that the lack of reported events implies it was peaceful and stable but it also means that we have very little evidence of anything that happened! Many historians who have researched Macbeth have chosen to use fiction (either entirely or in part) to flesh out their books because the reality is that we do not know much of what Macbeth did. After returning from Rome, the invasions of Siward and Malcolm III may indicate a more difficult period for Scotland in which the wars of previous reigns returned with a vengeance.
The limited evidence that is available points to Macbeth as a good and successful ruler. Certainly, the fact that he was able to go to Rome and return to find his throne still waiting for him without any serious challenge indicates that for the most part Scotland was stable in his reign. However, a lack of evidence and the way that the final years were troubled by successive invasions prevents him getting top marks.
Score = 12.5/20
Macbeth was king from 1040-57 – 17 years and one day! When converted into a score out of 20 (based on the longest reign in Scottish history) that gives him a score of 5.90/20
Macbeth did not have any children of his own, and so scores 0 for Dynasty. He was both Lulach’s stepfather and first cousin once removed, but only direct descendants are enough to score points here!
Overall, that gives Macbeth a total score of 35.40 but will the real-life Scottish king be worthy of the ultimate honour – the Rex Factor?
It is difficult to get away from the Shakespearian Macbeth and curiously, it is perfect here that it is hardest to put him out of one’s mind. Despite him being a villain in Shakespeare, he undoubtedly has star quality and it is hard to discount this when considering the real-life Macbeth – combine the starry aspect of Shakespeare with the good rule of the real king and you have a very impressive individual! In the context of dynastic conflict, Macbeth’s mostly peaceful 17 year reign is impressive, and the trip to Rome (and subsequent arrival of Norman supporters) hints at a forward-thinking king operating on a level beyond that of his predecessors. However, the fact that his final years are undone by invasions, ultimately leading to his defeat and death at Lumphanan, rather remove the gloss of his previous glories. This might not matter if we could be more confident about how great a king he was before 1054 but the truth is there is a lack of real evidence about what actually did happen. Maybe he was doing wonderful things for 14 years – the truth is, we just don’t know.
Macbeth was a good and competent king but there is not enough evidence to say that he was a great king. Had he defeated Malcolm III at Lumphanan and been the first of many kings to rule Moray then perhaps he would be worthy of greatness, but with his defeats and gaps in the history, we cannot make such an assertion. He was a far better king than Shakespeare would have us believe, but he lacks the star quality of his theatrical namesake and consequently, he does not have the Rex Factor.
Let us know what you think – does Macbeth deserve the Rex Factor? Complete our short poll below and let us know!