The death of Malcolm III in 1093 led to something of a succession crisis, with Donalbain taking the throne of his elder brother in place of Malcolm’s many sons. In 1094, Duncan II was the first of Malcolm’s sons to make war on uncle Donalbain, but would he be able to keep the old man off the throne? Listen to his episode here or read on for more information.
Malcolm III had a long and mostly successful reign, with his marriage to Margaret of Wessex bringing a newfound sophistication to the Scottish court while his military raids helped to increase Scottish influence in Cumbria and Northumbria (currently a territory of dispute with England). However, his marriage and raids also brought some difficulties in the form of antagonising the English king (William Rufus) and irking some of his subjects who preferred the traditional Scottish customs to the more continental practices encouraged by Margaret. When Malcolm and Margaret both died in 1093 along with their eldest son, Edward, there was a power vacuum and uncertainty about who should succeed to the throne.
Despite the fact that Malcolm was survived by five sons, it was his brother, Donald III (or Donalbain) who succeeded him. In part, this seems to have been a ‘Gaelic reaction’ in Scotland (or at least the royal court) who resented Malcolm’s sons as being too English and preferred a more traditional Scottish ruler. As a result, Malcolm’s sons by Margaret who spirited away into exile at the English court of William Rufus.
Duncan was the eldest son of Malcolm III but his mother was not Margaret but instead Ingibjorg Finnsdottir, the widow of the former Earl of Orkney, Thorfinn the Mighty. Very little is known about her and she is thought to have died early on during Malcolm’s reign. Later Scottish chroniclers questioned the legitimacy of this marriage and William of Malmesbury called Duncan a nothus (bastard). However, this is almost certainly explained by a bias towards the sons of Margaret who faced rebellion from Duncan’s descendants and modern historians do not question Duncan’s legitimacy.
This still leaves the question of why Duncan was not Malcolm III’s obvious heir in 1093. In part, this can be explained by the circumstances of his upbringing. In 1072, Malcolm III was forced to make peace with William the Conqueror at Abernethy, which included him handing over his eldest son (Duncan – then about 12 years old) as a hostage. Duncan’s status as a hostage was not that of a young boy chained up in a dungeon but rather a privileged guest who was brought up as part of the family. Consequently, he was raised as a Norman knight, being fluent in French, court culture, cavalry, etc. When William Rufus succeeded his father as king in 1087, Duncan was released but chose to remain in Normandy, where he was knighted by Rufus’ brother, Robert Duke of Normandy. Duncan pointedly did not return to Scotland and may have been seen as going native by his father, who would probably have been under pressure from his wife to promote the claims of her sons over those from a previous marriage.
Regardless of Duncan’s relationship with his father, in 1093 he was physically absent from Scotland and in no place to make an immediate challenge for the throne. However, he had an ally in the form of William Rufus. Rufus had been at odds with Malcolm III over the England-Scotland border for many years and the last thing he wanted was to see another Celtic king with an aggressive outlook. In contrast, Duncan was practically a Norman and someone he would have known personally (and, crucially, someone who would have naturally acknowledged him as his superior). Duncan’s suitability as an alternative ruler for Scotland was cemented by his reputation as a respected knight with military experience in Normandy, meaning he could lead his own campaign without Rufus having to get his own hands dirty.
Initially, however, William was busy with other campaigns and although Duncan gave him an oath of fealty in return for recognition as king, Rufus was not able to spare any resources to provide practical assistance. Thankfully, Duncan was resourceful enough that he was able to manage his own affairs and by marrying Ethelreda (or Octreda), the daughter of Gospatric, a former Earl of Northumbria, he was able to raise an army in Northumbria. Thus in 1094 he marched north, issued a charter at Durham declaring himself “heritably undoubted king of Scotia”, expelled Donald III and became king in May.
Unfortunately, things got difficult rather quickly for Duncan. He had not been in Scotland since 1072 and came to the throne at the head of an Anglo-Norman army to a country which had recently chosen a king specifically because he was not Anglo-Norman. What’s more, Donald III was still on the loose in the Highlands. Not surprisingly, Duncan was soon facing rebellions, one of which destroyed his military retinue, and in order to reach an accord with his enemies he agreed to send his foreign troops home.
Tactically, this proved to be something of an ill-advised move on Duncan’s part. Without an army to protect him, Duncan was left rather vulnerable and sure enough, on 12 November 1094, he was killed by Mael Petair, the Mormaer of Mearns, apparently on the orders of Donald III, who returned to the throne in alliance with Duncan’s half-brother, Edmund.
On paper, Duncan II had the makings of a great warrior king. He was raised as a Norman knight, was thought to have taken part in campaigns in Normandy and seems to have been a well-respected figure. Certainly he was trusted enough by Rufus to raise his own army, lead it in person and successfully take the throne in Scotland (his half-brother, Edgar, would see Rufus appoint his namesake uncle to lead the army).
Sadly, we have very little detail of anything Duncan II did by way of battles, including how he took the throne. It may simply be that, boosted by an Anglo-Norman army, he had sufficient strength in number for Donald to retreat without a battle being necessary. The Gesta Annalia states that he often defeated his uncle in battle, but clearly never a battle large enough to be worthy recording in a chronicle. Tactically, he made a pretty serious error in sending his troops home at a time when he clearly had a lot of enemies. Most seriously for Scotland’s future, Duncan II was very clearly acting as a subordinate to William Rufus and was said to have “served him as a knight”. This started a precedent of Scottish kings requiring English support to legitimise their kingship, something which Edward I would later exploit.
On paper, Duncan II had the makings of an excellent leader in battle and his ability to take the throne in 1094 suggests that he knew what he was doing. Unfortunately, we have very little evidence of actual success in battle and his legacy of acknowledging the superiority of the English king was very damaging to the Scottish kingship.
Score = 4/20
Sadly, Duncan II has left no trace of scandalous activity – technically he usurped his uncle, but only after his uncle had effectively usurped the throne in the first place. No murder, no naughty bedroom antics, no score!
Impressively, Duncan II’s charter issued at Durham on his way to taking the Scottish throne is actually the earliest surviving charter in Scottish history issued by a king. In it, he declares his right to the kingship and gives lands to the monks of Durham, which was clearly appreciated as they were the ones who recorded the exact date of his death, indicating that he must have been considered an important figure:
“I, Duncan, son of King Malcolm and manifest king of Scotland by inheritance, have given in alms to St Cuthbert and his servants…[lists various lands].”
(Duncan II, 1094 Charter)
Despite having being absent from Scotland since 1072, before heading north Duncan seems to have made the effort to get on good terms with his half-brothers. He granted lands to Dunfermline Priory (founded by Margaret) and makes specific reference to his brothers in the charter:
“I have given these things for myself and for the soul of my father and for my brothers and for my wife and for my children; and since I wished this gift to be enduring to St Cuthbert I obtained the consent of my brothers.”
(Duncan II, 1094 Charter)
This suggests Duncan II had the capacity to be a diplomatic monarch who was willing to work with his brothers, making the betrayal of Edmund all the more shocking.
However good on paper Duncan II might have been, he clearly was not who the Scots wanted to be king. His reign was brief, marked first by rebellion and then by his own assassination – a foreign usurper only able to rule by virtue of a foreign army. The Chronicle of Melrose rather damningly concluded that “because he lived badly, the whole populace crushed him” though perhaps more likely is the assessment of George Buchanan that “being a military man and not so skillful in the arts of peace” he failed to ever really win popular acceptance, meaning that the internal conflict would continue.
Duncan II may well have been a measured and well-meaning individual who could have been a good ruler but he never managed to win the acceptance of his people (or at least his court) and consequently offered very little other than a foreign invasion and a charter issued in Durham (not actually in Scotland!)
Score = 3.5/20
Duncan’s reign lasted from May 1094 to 12 November 1094 – only six months (the shortest reign in Scottish history), giving him a measly score of just 0.17/20.
Duncan did have one surviving child, William fitzDuncan, who became a prominent and respected figure during the reigns of Duncan’s younger half-brothers, largely because he did not challenge them for the throne.
So, 1 surviving child gives Duncan a Dynasty score of 2/20.
Overall, Duncan II gets a score just 9.67 but does he have anything else that will mean he deserves the…
Sadly, no. Duncan II had the promise to be a significant and successful king but instead his reign represents a tiny blip in the course of Scottish history and it would be for his brothers to take the battle to Donald III (and now Edmund).
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