Malcolm III (1058-93)

Malcolm III’s long reign (and in particular his marriage to Margaret of Wessex) was crucial in the development of medieval Scotland. However, with the dramatic events of 1066, there was a new power in the form of the Normans with whom Malcolm would repeatedly clash in the disputed areas around Carlisle and Durham. Would Malcolm come out on top or would the Scots be another victim of the Norman Conquest? To find out more, listen to Malcolm’s episode here or read on to find out more.

Backgroundy Stuff

Scotland had been wracked by dynastic conflict due to a clash between the systems of an alternating succession and primogeniture. As such, since the 960s, almost every succession had been contested and a lot of Scottish kings have met violent ends. What’s more, the modern nation of ‘Scotland’ was still emerging in this period, with the kingdom largely centred around Perth (Scone), Dunkeld and Edinburgh. The rest of what we now call Scotland was ruled by rival powers: the Vikings dominated the north of the mainland in Caithness and Sutherland, as well as the islands around Scotland; there remained a separate kingdom of Strathclyde/Cumbria (what Richard Oram has dubbed “The Kingdom of the M74” – running from Glasgow to Penrith), while the territory of Moray (Aberdeenshire, Inverness, Ross) was also asserting its independence.

This combination of dynastic and geographical tension came to a head during the reign of Malcolm II (1005-34), in which he faced challenges both from rival sections of his family and the kingdom of Moray. In his bid to secure a succession system based on primogeniture, he set about killing as many of his rivals as possible to ensure that his grandson, Duncan, would become king. Duncan did become king, but his reign was a disaster, with a failed invasion of Durham in 1040 being followed by a failed invasion of Moray, in which he was killed and replaced as king by his rival, Macbeth.

A 19th century imagining of Macbeth

A 19th century imagining of Macbeth

Malcolm III was the son of this Duncan and was born in roughly 1031 (exact dates of birth do not seem to have been of interest to Scottish chroniclers in this period). The identity of his mother is not known for certain, but it is sometimes claimed to be a woman called Suthen, the sister of the powerful Earl of Northumbria, Siward. In terms of Malcolm’s appearance, he was known by the epithet “Canmore” (Ceann Mor) which literally means “Big Head”. This was not a contemporary epithet and may in fact have been misapplied to Malcolm III given that his great-grandson, Malcolm IV, also had this nickname and may well have suffered from Paget’s Disease. Still, the chroniclers do seem to taken an interest in Malcolm upwards of his shoulders, with the Viking Orkneyinga Saga describing him as “Long-Neck”!

Malcolm was only young when his father was killed, so he and his younger brother, Donald, were sent into exile. They are thought to have been separated, with Donald going to Ireland or the Hebrides while Malcolm went either to Northumrbia or to Orkney. We know nothing of his years in exile, but by tradition Malcolm defeated Macbeth at Dunsinane Hill in 1054 and took control of Cumbria before killing Macbeth at Lumphanan in 1057 and then his stepson, Lulach, the following year. However, it is now thought Malcolm may not have been involved at Dunsinane Hill and that his victories in 1057-58 make more sense if he was attacking from the north (i.e. Orkney) rather than the south (Northumbria). This suggests that his invasion was aided by the Vikings, a theory given credence by his marriage to Ingibjorg, the widow of Thorfinn the Mighty, Earl of Orkney.

The peel at Lumphanan, where Macbeth is said to have been killed by Malcolm III

The peel at Lumphanan, where Macbeth is said to have been killed by Malcolm III

Whether he came from north or south, Malcolm III was now king. Despite having to see of two rival kings, the rest of his reign was remarkably stable within Scotland. The only apparent unrest came from Moray (the territory of Macbeth and Lulach), when in 1078 Malcolm launched a major expedition deep into the territory to put down a plot by Lulach’s son, Maelschnectai. The invasion was successful and demonstrates the remarkable degree of control Malcolm had achieved in Scotland. However, the real threat for Malcolm was further south in England.

1066 and All That

The turbulent events of 1066 in England would have a profound effect on the relationship between England and Scotland, which had been largely productive for the last century. The Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor was old and had no child or heir. He recalled a long-lost cousin from Hungary who (perhaps rather suspiciously) died almost as soon as he arrived in England, leaving a son, Edgar the Aetheling, who was too young to be a realistic prospect to be king. Instead, there were three leading contenders:

  • Harold Godwinson – the most powerful figure at court, effectively running the country already but without a legitimate claim to the throne
  • William, Duke of Normandy – claimed to have been promised the throne by Edward
  • Harald Hardrada – a hardcore Viking king in Norway with no real claim to the throne but an inclination to get involved nevertheless

Malcolm himself had no claim to the throne but the power struggle would represent an excellent opportunity for him to extend Scotland’s borders (in particular around Carlisle and Durham). What’s more, he had a good relationship with Tostig Godwinson (the brother of Harold who had been expelled from Northumbria and begun an alliance with Hardrada) and his Orkney sons-in-law were set to fight for Hardrada as well.

1066 would prove to be an apocalyptic year. Hardrada and Tostig defeated the northern earls of England at the Battle of Fulford, only to be defeated and killed by Harold Godwinson in the Battle of Stamford Bridge (Yorkshire). Harold’s absence allowed William and the Normans to land in Sussex, resulting in the Battle of Hastings in which Harold took an arrow in the eye and the Saxons suffered a devastating defeat. Initially, the young Edgar the Aetheling was elected king but he and the Saxons were soon forced to accept that William was their king.

Harold II's death at Hastings as depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry

Harold II’s death at Hastings as depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry

Malcolm did not get involved in any of these battles, though he may have conducted a raid into Cumbria on the quiet while no one was looking. However, he started to play a more active role as rebellions in England began against the Norman Conquest. After a failed rebellion in 1068, Edgar led a major uprising in Yorkshire, with revolts breaking out all across the country. When the Norse king, Sweyn Estridsson, invaded with 240 ships, the Norman position looked extremely vulnerable. As it was, William earned his ‘Conqueror’ epithet with a remarkable campaign across winter that saw him put down rebellions across the country and persuading the Vikings to head home with a tasty bribe.

Edgar’s position in 1070 was desperate but he had one last hope in the form of Malcolm. Malcolm had given him temporary shelter in 1068 and launched his own raid into Northumbria in 1070, where he seems to have arranged to meet Edgar at Wearmouth. Learning that the Vikings had departed, Malcolm could not be persuaded to launch his own invasion on Edgar’s behalf. Edgar declined Malcolm’s offer of protection at the Scottish court and attempted to lead his mother and sisters into exile in Europe, only for a massive storm to bring them back to Scotland, leading to one of the defining moments in the history of medieval Scotland.

Edgar the Aetheling, the last royal Saxon male

Edgar the Aetheling, the last royal Saxon male

Saint Margaret and the Saxon Dynasty

According to the romantic chroniclers, when Malcolm came to visit his shipwrecked Saxon royals, he fell instantly in love with Edgar’s sister, Margaret, and married her almost on the spot. Margaret was rather younger than Malcolm (born around 1045) and a very devout character, having been raised and the recently Christianised (and very pious) Hungarian court. According to legend, God sent the storm to bring them together though in reality she had not really wanted to marry (preferring to be a nun), may already have met him in 1068 and may even have been promised to him in 1059 (by which time, presumably, Malcolm’s first wife had died).

A fanciful depiction of Malcolm III welcoming Margaret to shore

A fanciful depiction of Malcolm III welcoming Margaret to shore

However it came about, the marriage was a remarkable success and they do seem to have genuinely cared for each other. Malcolm was illiterate but treasured Margaret’s devotional book and would have some embellished with gold and gems before presenting them to her. We know almost nothing of previous Scottish queens but Margaret was a very important figure, making numerous reforms at court (sheltering Saxon exiles, importing luxury goods) and encouraged greater conformity with Roman and Continental practices in the church. Her status as a Saxon princess lent Malcolm and his court a much grander status than had been enjoyed by previous kings and the country was very much on the map.

Perhaps the most important part of the map for which the marriage made an immediate impact was England. Malcolm was now sheltering the last Anglo-Saxon prince in the form of Edgar, while any children he had by Margaret would have a claim to the English throne, a pointed rammed home not too subtly by the choice of Saxon names for their children (Edward, Edmund, Aethelraed, etc.). With Malcolm’s raids into Northumbria added into the mix, Malcolm was now representing a major threat to the newly established Norman dynasty.

Fighting the Normans

William the Conqueror launched a major campaign into Scotland in 1072 (the first since Athelstan in the 930s) only for Malcolm to avoid battle and choose diplomacy. At Abernethy, Malcolm gave his eldest son (Duncan) as hostage and promised to expel Edgar, while William provided him with vills (estates) in England. The peace held until 1079 when William was busy dealing with a rebellion by his eldest so, Robert, in Normandy. Malcolm launched a 3 week raid in Northumbria which led to such a state of discontent that the locals killed their earl (the bishop of Durham, Walcher). The Norman family now at peace, Robert forced Malcolm to submit to terms again in 1080 and built a new castle (Newcastle) on his way back.

The keep of Newcastle - built on the site where Robert Curthose esablished a wooden castle to help secure Northumbria vs. Malcolm III

The keep of Newcastle – built on the site where Robert Curthose esablished a wooden castle to help secure Northumbria vs. Malcolm III

For the next few years, Malcolm laid again but the accession of William Rufus in 1087 marked a change in the relationship. While the Conqueror had seemed content just to bring Malcolm to heel, Rufus looked to provoke conflict and increase his dominance of the borderlands. In 1091, Rufus took back Malcolm’s vills, who in turn besieged Newcastle – a battle seemed to be in the offing until the unlikely alliance of Duke Robert and Edgar the Aetheling (both men who felt they had been cheated out of the English throne) brokered a peace deal. In 1092, Rufus continued to withhold the estates and provoked Malcolm further by building a castle at Carlisle and occupying the surrounding area. A proposed peace conference at Gloucester in 1093 turned sour when Rufus refused to meet with Malcolm, instead demanding that he submit his claims to the English court (as if he were no more than an English noble).

William Rufus, the second Norman King of England who would prove to be Malcolm III's undoing

William Rufus, the second Norman King of England who would prove to be Malcolm III’s undoing

Incensed, Malcolm gathered his troops and launched a revenge attack on Alnwick. Unfortunately, Malcolm and his troops were ambushed, leading to the death of Malcolm and his eldest son by Margaret, Edward. When Margaret heard the news, she herself died of shock (already weak from years of fasting) and in the unfolding chaos it was Malcolm’s brother, Donald, who took the throne rather than his sons thanks to an apparent Gaelic reaction against the Saxon court overseen by Margaret.

The supposed site where Malcolm III was killed at Alnwick

The supposed site where Malcolm III was killed at Alnwick

The disruption did not end there, for Malcolm. He was initially buried in Tynemouth Priory before being reinterred at Dunfermline Abbey with Margaret in 1250 (by which time Margaret had been canonised). In 1560, Mary Queen of Scots removed Margaret’s head to Edinburgh Castle to help with childbirth – it was later taken to France but was lost during the French Revolution. Philip II of Spain also had some of their remains removed – this time to the Escorial in Madrid, but again these have since been lost!

Strangely, some of Malcolm & Margaret's remains were taken to the Escorial in Madrid (and then lost!)

Strangely, some of Malcolm & Margaret’s remains were taken to the Escorial in Madrid (and then lost!)



Rather impressively, Malcolm killed not one but two of his predecessors: Macbeth at Lumphanan and Lulach at Essie (1057-58). This double-header was a prelude to a remarkably stable period for Scotland internally, with the only other internal strife being an expedition into Moray in 1078. This showed Malcolm on the front foot against Lulach’s son, and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he “captured the mother of Mael Snechta, all his best men, and all his treasures, and his livestock” – this must have been a major expedition and it completely nullified the threat for the rest of the reign.

Malcolm was most active, however, in pushing the limits of the border with England, making five raids between 1061-93, of which only the last can be said to have gone badly (admittedly exceptionally badly, given that he was killed!) He tended to time the raids to coincide with his rivals (initially Saxon but later Norman) being away from home and then withdrew before a vengeful army could bring him to heel. He seems to have more or less fully conquered the old kingdom of Strathclyde/Cumbria in the aftermath of 1066 and was a constant thorn in the side of the Normans in Northumbria.

However, Malcolm was not just a mindless warlord and demonstrated an effective use of diplomacy to promote his territorial endeavours. His first marriage to Ingibjorg may have helped him secure the Scottish throne and certainly helped secure his northern borders (previous rulers had struggled against Viking incursions, now Malcolm’s allies). He had good links with Tostig and Harald Hardrada ahead of 1066 but avoided getting sucked into the conflict, meaning he stood to gain whatever the outcome. His marriage to Margaret enhanced his status, gave his children a potential claim to England and helped Malcolm in his ambition to dominate Durham. In 1093, he was the only layman present at the laying of the foundation stone for Durham Cathedral and was well respected by the monks, who pledged to say prayers for his soul for the rest of his life.

Malcolm III was the only lay person present at the laying of Durham Cathedral's foundation stones.

Malcolm III was the only lay person present at the laying of Durham Cathedral’s foundation stones.


Arguably, however, Malcolm flatters to deceive. Aside from his successes in Scotland, there are no real great victories about which he can boast. While he deserves kudos for surviving the chaos of 1066 (indeed, he even outlived William the Conqueror) he showed a lack of ambition by not throwing his hat into the ring and does not seem to have taken full advantage to improve his position. Perhaps a Scottish army fighting with Tostig and Hardrada could have been decisive? Similarly, he could have thrown his weight behind Edgar the Aetheling and the many revolts against the Normans in 1068-69 – teaming up with the Vikings could have proven fatal to William. What’s more, Malcolm’s raids never looked like being anything more substantial than a temporary incursion and he was quick to leave the scene and ask for terms whenever the Normans sent a proper army.

Indeed, Malcolm’s reign features a lot of submitting to the Normans. In 1072, he was forced to give up Edgar and give his son Duncan as a hostage to William. This held until 1079, with Malcolm actually rejecting a call by Edgar to join a rebellion in 1074. In 1080, Malcolm submitted again and was faced with a new castle (Newcastle), which alongside Rufus building a castle at Carlisle meant that Malcolm now had two major Norman fortresses much further north than the English had previously been. Rufus definitely seemed to get the better of Malcolm, not least in winding him up in 1093 leading to Malcolm getting himself killed at Alnwick.

William Rufus built Carlisle castle in an attempt to establish English dominance in the region

William Rufus built Carlisle castle in an attempt to establish English dominance in the region

Our Verdict

Malcolm’s record is not quite as impressive as you might imagine for a king who spends a lot of his time being battley. If he had secured a victory in Northumbria against the Normans then his tally chart would look a lot better but as it is, he promises a lot without ever quite going all-out enough to really achieve anything.

Score = 9.5/20



So many of the Scottish kings come to the throne by killing their predecessor that it hardly seems worth mentioning. However, Malcolm III went one step further by killing not one but TWO of his predecessors, which is unprecedented. What’s more, both killings have a whiff of sneaky tactics on Malcolm’s part – he may well have colluded with Lulach to kill Macbeth (they had a common bond in that Macbeth had killed their fathers) while sources suggest that Lulach was killed “by treachery” by Malcolm, suggesting that if they did make a deal, Malcolm then reneged on it.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but Malcolm’s two marriages also have a slight whiff of sauciness. Ingibjorg was the widow of his first cousin once removed (admittedly not the closest family tie in a royal marriage but still) while Margaret had had her heart set on being a nun. So, a sort of relative and a sort of nun for his two wives!


Because of Malcolm’s battley outlook, we do not have much evidence of truly scandalous activity. Furthermore, he appears to have been devoted and faithful to Margaret.

Our Verdict

Again, Malcolm is almost there but lacks a true headline-worthy moment to really elevate his score. By no means a saintly figure, he was also not (as far as the evidence tells us) a lecherous or debauched character either.

Score = 9/20



Despite being a king mainly dedicated to warfare, Malcolm’s reign is most celebrated for the positive effect it had on Scotland. Malcolm brought stability to a country that had experienced almost perpetual conflict for the last century due to dynastic rivalries. Apart from one rebellion in Moray (which may not even have had the chance to develop into a full rebellion), there was no internal conflict at all following Malcolm’s access. His first marriage to Ingibjorg helped to secure Scotland’s northern and western borders with the Vikings and apart from a couple of Norman expeditions north (which did not result in any actual fighting) this was a time of peace within the country.

Particularly celebrated is the role played by Malcolm’s wife, Margaret (or Saint Margaret, as she would later become) of Wessex. Although a Saxon by blood, she was initially brought up at a very devout Hungarian court and was instrumental in encouraging the Scottish church to come more in line with continental practices (e.g. fasting for 40 days at Easter). She even held councils with church leaders to persuade them to make changes and wrote the the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, to secure the services of some monks for a new priory at Dunfermline. The royal court became more luxurious, with Margaret encouraging the importing and wearing of luxury items (particularly for her and Malcolm). She encouraged Malcolm to do good works, washing the feet of paupers during Lent and Advent and apparently having sufficient influence that her chaplain, Turgot, was amazed to see Malcolm in earnest prayer.

Such was Malcolm's love for Margaret that he had her favourite religious books embroidered with gold and jewels and would then kiss them

Such was Malcolm’s love for Margaret that he had her favourite religious books embroidered with gold and jewels and would then kiss them

This is often seen as a pivotal reign in Scottish history, with a recognisable “Scotland” emerging from the obscurity of the dark ages into the medieval era. Malcolm (and Margaret) laid the foundations for medieval Scotland and a new era in the nation’s history.


Conversely, Margaret’s prominent role is sometimes seen as reflecting the limitations of Malcolm’s role. He is often depicted as the barbarian Celtic warrior enraptured by his beautiful English queen that is the real cause for the momentous nature of the reign. While Margaret was certainly the lead on many issues, Malcolm’s role should not be considered insignificant as it is inconceivable that any of these changes could have been made without his approval and support. Indeed, Turgot related that Margaret’s debates with church leaders were only made possible by Malcolm as he had to translate for Margaret, who did not speak the language.

However, the language issue is another point of criticism. For many people, Margaret’s reforms represent the beginning of Scotland being Anglicized to the detriment of Scottish tradition and culture. Margaret provided refuge for English exiles at the Scottish court while her children with Malcolm were given Saxon names. When Malcolm and Margaret died, they were initially replaced not by one of their children but by Malcolm’s brother, Donaldbain, in what has often been dubbed as a Gaelic reaction against an overly English court. In reality, this may just have represented Donaldbain removing a power base at court that was likely to be opposed to his accession and actually Margaret also patronised Celtic churches, in particular the Culdees of Loch Leven and the restoration of Iona.

We might also criticise Malcolm for his conduct in his Northumbrian raids. Technically, these were attacks on foreigners rather than his own people but he was ostensibly attempting to dominate this territory and the various accounts of his harsh treatment of the locals does not present the most endearing portrait:

“Old men and women were some beheaded by swords, others struck with spears like pigs destined for food. Torn from their mother’s breasts babes were tossed high in the air, and caught on the spikes of spears fixed close together on the ground. But the youths and girls, and all who seemed fit for work and toil, were bound and driven in front of the enemy, to be made slaves and handmaids in perpetual exile.”

(Symeon of Durham, 1070)

“King Malcolm returned to Scotland. And soon after he came home, he gathered his army, and came harrowing into England with more hostility than behoved him”

(Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1093)

Of course, these accounts may well be exaggerated, with English sources keen to portray the Scots as barbaric. However, even if true it does represent the harsh tactics of the period – it was a common tactic to waste the land and limit economic resources and pressure the area into submission (i.e. “shock and awe” rather than “hearts and minds”).

Our Verdict

Malcolm’s reign was a pivotal time in Scottish history with the combination of Malcolm’s strong and stable rule paired with Margaret’s church and court reforms transforming the country. While Malcolm’s personal role is perhaps a little limited and arguably his descendants made more significant changes, he was a very successful king and Scotland was a more organised, stable and sophisticated nation state in comparison to the days of his predecessors.

Our Score = 15/20


Malcolm was king from 1058 to 1093 – a reign of 35.67 years, which when converted into a score out of 20 gives him a total of 12.37.


Incredibly, Malcolm left at least 10 surviving children! This is the record total for Scottish monarchs, giving him 20 out of 20 for dynasty.

Technically, one of those survivors is a little tenuous – his son, Edward, died soon after the disaster at Alnwick, but by the letter of the law he was a legitimate surviving child at the time that Malcolm himself died!

As it happened, it was just as well that Malcolm had so many children – his offspring would prove rather less fecund and a surprisingly large number of his sons would get the opportunity to be king.

Overall, Malcolm gets a very impressive score of 65.87, but will that be enough for him to earn the ultimate prize…

Rex Factor

Malcolm III has a higher total score than his predecessors and for good reason. Besides a record total of offspring, he provided three decades of strong and stable rule after a century of infighting and having had to kill his two predecessors. His marriage to Margaret saw significant reforms at court and in the church and ushered Scotland into the medieval age. Arguably, Margaret was so influential as to overshadow her husband and he tended to come off second best in his conflict with the Norman rulers of England. However, this did not have a serious detrimental impact on Scotland and Malcolm III must be considered one of the most successful rulers of medieval Scotland.

Our Verdict

Yes, Malcolm III gets the Rex Factor!

Malcolm III and Queen Margaret of Wessex, medieval Scotland’s star couple


What do you think – does Malcolm deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our quick poll below and let us know.

13 thoughts on “Malcolm III (1058-93)

  1. In my younger years, I attended St. Margaret’s School in Victoria, British Columbia, which was actually named after this Margaret. The school’s motto is “Servite in Caritate” (“Service with Love”), though this seems strange in retrospect considering it’s non-denominational school. It also has Hogwarts-style houses with Margaret-related names: Turgot (the name of her contemporary biographer), Malcolm, Canmore, and Christian (they may have run out of ideas by the time they named this one).

    FYI – I was in Canmore house, though my head is in fact normal-sized.

    • Hi Heather, thanks for the message. Love that a) there’s a school with all the Margaret-based names, b) that it’s in British Columbia and c) that they had to resort to “Christian” by the end!

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