While everyone has heard of Macbeth, Lulach’s name does not, perhaps, resonate quite as strongly in the annals of Scottish history. Lulach’s was not a long reign, it was not a particularly notable reign, in fact it was barely even a reign at all. But still, his name is just about on the king list and he deserves his (albeit rather brief) moment in the spotlight. Click here to listen to his podcast episode or read on to find out more.
Scotland in the eleventh century was far from the centralised country that we know today and had a rather fragmented nature, with various smaller kingdoms in addition to Scotland (or Alba, as it was known). In the south-west (from Glasgow to Penrith) there was the kingdom of Strathclyde (or Cumbria) while the islands around Scotland (as well as Caithness and Sutherland on the tip of the mainland) were ruled by Vikings. It is impossible to fully appreciate how these kingdoms related to each other, but it’s possible that it was similar to Ireland where they had High Kings who were acknowledged as superior to other kingdoms but whose exact territory and power was often disputed. So the King of Scots was probably acknowledged as the dominant ruler but the extent to which he can be said to have actually ruled these other territories varied from reign to reign.
The Scots kings were probably intent on expanding their influence in the vein of the Anglo-Saxons in England but it is likely that this was met with resistance, not least from Lulach’s homeland, Moray. Moray in the 11th century was much larger than it is today, stretching from Loch Alsh on the west to the River Spey on the east, as well as pushing north from the Mounth towards Ross. It is often seen as a rebellious region in Scotland but it may well have been a separate (albeit junior) kingdom with pretensions towards grandeur. Historians have speculated that they were descended from the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada (from a junior line to the one claimed by the Scots), or indeed that there was a more recent Scottish princess who married into the family, perhaps the grandmother of Lulach’s father, Gillecomgain.
This alone was probably not enough for Moray to be anything more than a minor irritation for the Scots, but its significance increased due to the dynastic conflict plaguing the Scots. For the last century, almost every monarch had come to the throne by virtue of killing their predecessor due to the rather loose laws of succession – essentially, anyone who was male and descended from Kenneth MacAlpin was fair game! Malcolm II wanted to establish primogeniture but, not having any sons, was forced to throw his weight behind his grandson, Duncan. Or, to put it another way, he tried to kill off all of his male relatives within Scotland until there was no one else left who could rule except Duncan!
Malcolm also faced conflict from Moray. Gillecomgain became Moray’s ruler following the murder of Macbeth’s father (Finlay) in 1020 and the death (by natural causes) of his own brother in 1029. In the face of Malcolm II butchering his rivals, Gillecomgain made an alliance with hisScottish enemies by marrying a woman of royal blood, Gruoch. Their son, Lulach, was thus heir not only to Moray but also had a claim to Scotland.
The Path to Glory
We don’t know exactly when Lulach was born, but it was probably sometime in either the late 1020s or early 1030s. It can’t have been much later than 1032 because his father, Gillecomgain, was murdered in a hall-burning – possibly orchestrated by Malcolm II but almost certainly carried out by Macbeth. Significantly, however, Macbeth took the surprising step of marrying Gillecomgain’s widow, Gruoch, and becoming Lulach’s protector.
It is interesting to speculate what exactly was the relationship between Lulach and Macbeth. From Macbeth’s perspective, the motivation is easy to understand. As protector of Lulach (and husband of Gruoch) he was boosting his own status as a credible challenger for the throne and, by adopting a more paternal role, he may have hoped to put an end to the Moray bloodfeud. Significantly, Macbeth did not have his own children and Lulach (his first cousin once removed) was the closest thing he had. As for Lulach, we can’t be entirely sure. Macbeth had murdered his father but he may now have become something of a father figure. Indeed, depending on Lulach’s age, it’s debateable to what extent he really remembered his father – maybe Macbeth would have suggested to Gruoch that when he grew up they should maybe just not mention the fact that he had killed the boy’s father in a hall burning!
Malcolm II died in 1034 and was succeeded by Duncan I, but not for long. After a rather ineffectual reign, Duncan suffered a humiliating defeat when he failed to capture to Durham in 1040 and was then killed in battle by Macbeth at Pitgaveny when he invaded Moray (either to quell a rebellion or as a pre-emptive strike). Macbeth then became king and, despite what Shakespeare says, ruled rather successively until he was defeated twice in battle – first at Dunsinane Hill in 1054 by Siward of Northumbria and then, fatally, by Duncan’s son Malcolm (future Malcolm III) at Lumphanan in August 1057.
What Lulach was up to during Macbeth’s reign is not entirely clear. In 1050, Macbeth had visited Rome, which required his being out of the country for almost a year. It is possible that Lulach (now a man) may have acted as regent in his absence – a church grant at Loch Leven makes reference to the religious house being exempt from secular dues by the king “and his son”, which implies a close relationship between Lulach and Macbeth. On the other hand, leaving the country was a risky business as it was without handing total power to the next most powerful figure in the kingdom. Indeed, Lulach may have gone into some kind of exile on Macbeth’s accession and had no part to play in his reign, suggesting that Gruoch, his mother, effectively abandoned him. This would not be unprecedented, as when Emma of Normandy married Cnut following the death of her first husband, Aethelraed the Unready, she effectively abandoned her children and threw in her lot with Cnut.
With Macbeth’s death in August 1057, Lulach became king. Unfortunately, his glory was not to be long enjoyed because on the 17th of March 1058, Lulach was killed by Malcolm III at Essie near Strathbogie. And that is all there is to say about Lulach’s reign! He came, he saw, he was conquered.
However, despite there being almost no information about Lulach’s reign whatsoever, the tiny amount that we do have has become a bit of a debating point due to two problems: chronology and geography:
Two Irish sources (the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach) both state that although Lulach was indeed killed by Malcolm in March 1058, that this was some months before Macbeth died. In other words, Lulach died before his predecessor and yet, somehow, is still counted as being king when he died.
If we disregard the chronological irregularity and assume the Irish sources simply made a typo with their quills, we still have a problem of a geography. If Malcolm III came all the way up from England into Lumphanan (well into Moray territory) then how was Lulach able to become king instead of Malcolm? We know that Lulach must have been acknowledged king or else he would not feature in the king lists, which means he must have been able to be crowned and acknowledged at Scone near Perth – i.e. south of where Malcolm had killed Macbeth and indeed on the road that Malcolm would surely have taken to get there.
If the Irish chroniclers are right, i.e. if Lulach did become king before Macbeth was killed, then Macbeth must have abdicated the throne (either willingly or under duress). This is not so unlikely, as just 100 years earlier Constantine II had effectively retired to a monastery after a long reign and almost outlived his predecessor. So perhaps Lulach became king, was killed by Malcolm III and Macbeth had to be persuaded to fight one last battle only to be killed at Lumphanan.
Alternatively, if Macbeth really was killed in 1057 and Lulach in 1058, then maybe Malcolm invaded not from the south but from the north. Historians are increasingly favouring the theory that Malcolm went into exile with Thorfinn the Mighty, Earl of Orkney and cousin of Malcolm’s father, Duncan. He is thought to have married Thorfinn’s widow, Ingibjorg, so if Malcolm invaded from northern Scotland and killed Macbeth at Lumphanan, this would have given Lulach time to be crowned king at Scone and then hide somewhere until Malcolm managed to find him and kill him at Essie!
We know that Lulach was involved in at least one form of fighting but even his death at Essie may not really have been a battle. Sources tend to suggest some form of ambush or treachery, in which case he was probably dead before he knew that a fight was even in the offing! Other than that, we have no evidence of Lulach’s martial prowess.
Score = 0/20
Despite a total lack of evidence, there is the faint whiff of scandal. If Macbeth did step down as king in favour of Lulach, this might imply that Lulach forced him off by engineering some form of coup. The fact that the Annals of Tigernach claim that Malcolm killed Lulach “by treachery” perhaps further implies that Lulach and Malcolm worked together to remove Macbeth. After all, they did share a common bond in relation to Macbeth – rather than “Lloyd George knew my father”, this was a case of “Macbeth killed by father”.
Alternatively, of course, Lulach may not have become king until after Macbeth’s death and we have no other evidence whatsoever of any scandalous activities.
Score = 2/20
Lulach took something of a battering from medieval historians, not least when it came to their choice in epithet:
- Chronicle of the Kings of Scotland: “Lulach the simpleton reigned for four months.”
- John of Fordun: “Lulach, surnamed the simple…they hoped that the people would willingly obey him as king [but] no one would yield him obedience.”
- Walter Bower: “The idiot Lulach”
- Hectoe Boece did not even acknowledge Lulach as being king (understandable given all the confusion!) and relegated his reign to a mere rebellion against Malcolm
It is unlikely that these accounts indicate that Lulach suffered from mental health problems but rather that they represent a case of history written by the winners. Malcolm III’s father had been killed by Macbeth of Moray and the regular royal line had thus been supplanted, thus Macbeth would be denounced as a tyrant and a usurper. Lulach’s descendants were the source of further rebellions in Moray after 1058 and the region therefore acquired rather negative associations. So, Macbeth was the tyrant and Lulach was dismissed as an idiot.
In reality, Lulach would not have featured on king lists without actually being acknowledged as king at Scone and he clearly had sufficient support to take the throne (either by removing Macbeth or following his step-father’s death at Lumphanan). An alternative epithet for Lulach is “unfortunate”, with the Chronicle of Melrose noting that “through lack of caution the hapless king perished”, suggesting that maybe it was the manner of his death (deceived by Malcolm?) that earned him the harsh title.
Nevertheless, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of Lulach undertaking a single action (whether positive or negative) as king other than to be ambushed by Malcolm III. Maybe his deeds have been written out of history, but we have nothing to go on.
Score = 0/20
If we assume that Lulach succeeded Macbeth in August 1057 and was king until his death in March 1058, this gives him a reign of 7 months (0.58 years), which when converted into a score out of 20 gives him 0.20/20.
Surprisingly, despite the briefness of his appearance in the historical record, Lulach managed to sire not one but two children. His son, Maelsnechti, would go on to fight against Malcolm III while his daughter’s son would also continue the good fight for Moray. As such, Lulach’s two children are converted into a score of 4.44/20.
Overall, Lulach has a rather dismal score of 6.65
There is simply no argument to make for Lulach here, unfortunately. He very nearly did not even make it onto the king list at all but while he just about scraped onto that honours board, he is some way short of possessing the Rex Factor.
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