Malcolm IV (1153-65)

Malcolm had a tough act to follow in the form of his grandfather, David I, who had taken Scotland to a position of unprecedented power. However, Malcolm was only a boy and he was facing rebellion all across Scotland and a Rex Factor behemoth in the form of Henry II in England asking for his land back. Would the good times continue to roll, or would Scotland be brought back to earth with a bump?

Malcolm IV, King of Scots

Malcolm IV, King of Scots

To listen to Malcolm’s episode, click here, or read on to find out more.

Backgroundy Stuff

After the death of Malcolm III in 1093, the Scottish kings had been largely indebted to the Norman kings of England (William the Conqueror, William Rufus and then Henry I), paying them homage in return for help either becoming king or dealing with rebellions. This reached its peak with the young David I effectively becoming an English noble and a protege of Henry I.

However, when Henry I died the relationship between England and Scotland changed dramatically. A civil war in England between Matilda (Henry’s daughter) and Stephen (Matilda’s cousin) presented David with a golden opportunity to pursue Scottish ambitions in the northern counties of England. Ever the opportunist, David effectively annexed Northumberland and Cumbria and had effective control pushing into Yorkshire and Lancashire. While England was beset by chaos, David was renowned for his extensive reforms in church and state.

David’s reign was very successful but it was thrown into uncertainty in his final year when his only son, Prince Henry, died. As such, instead of handing on the throne to a respected soldier and statesman, instead Scotland would be ruled by David’s young grandson, Malcolm. To make matters worse, a year later Stephen died and the English divisions were resolved by Henry II, a king far more powerful than any of his predecessors, effectively controlling the left of France.

David I, Malcolm's hugely successful grandfather

David I, Malcolm’s hugely successful grandfather


Malcolm was born on 23 April 1141, making him just 12 years-old when he became king in 1153. He was the son of Henry (the Earl of Huntingdon and Northumberland) and Ada de Warenne (from powerful Anglo-Norman stock). Malcolm is the last Scottish king to have a traditionally Scottish name, though he is more notable for his dubious epithet “The Maiden”. This was not in general usage before the 15th century but he had a contemporary reputation for chastity (rather than effeminacy). This may have been influenced by his poor health, as it is thought that he may have suffered from Paget’s disease (enlarged or misshapen bones) and it was probably this Malcolm rather than his great-grandfather, Malcolm III, who was originally known as Canmore (literally “big head”).

The death of Malcolm’s father, Henry, in 1152 made him David I’s heir, so he first appears on the record being taken around the country by the Earl of Fife to be proclaimed the heir. When David died the following year, Malcolm was crowned just 3 days after his grandfather’s death, and there was good reason for haste. The concept of primogeniture in the succession was still not fully accepted in Scotland and there were various potential challengers:

  • MacAlexanders – the illegitimate descendants of Alexander I
  • MacWilliams – descendants of Duncan II
  • MacHeths – a family demanding the restoration of the northern earldom of Ross
  • Fergus – the Lord of Galloway, effectively ruling an independent territory in what is today south-west Scotland
  • Somerled – the King of Argyll (with ambitions to rule all the Western Isles) and uncle of the MacAlexanders

Sure enough, in 1156 Somerled and the MacAlexanders launched a rebellion in northern Scotland followed by Donald MacHeth in Ross. Thankfully for Malcolm, Somerled was distracted by conflict in Man and MacHeth was captured in 1157, leading to a reconciliation with the family, who were restored to their earldom.

Less fortunate was the arrival on the scene of Henry II of England – a charismatic, energetic and irrepressible force of nature who had restored royal control in England and now had his eye on Northumberland and Cumbria. Despite having made an oath to David I in 1149 that he would recognise these lands as Scottish, in 1157 he decided that it would be better if they were English again, called Malcolm to a meeting at Chester, received Malcolm’s homage and took the northern counties back. All of David I’s territorial gains during the Anarchy had been reversed in an instant.

Henry II of England (1154-89)

Henry II of England (1154-89)

Many Scottish nobles were displeased at losing all of this territory and when Malcolm joined Henry in a campaign at Toulouse, this absence and association with the English king caused a crisis. When Malcolm returned in 1160, he was besieged by six of his own earls at Perth and the clergy had to mediate to secure his release. It may have been that the nobles were angry at border raids by Fergus of Galloway going unchallenged, so Malcolm responded by launching three attacks into Galloway, leading to the defeat of Fergus who retired to become a monk. In 1164, Somerled launched an invasion of Scotland but was killed by a local force, leaving Malcolm dominant within Scotland.

Unfortunately, this position of strength was not one from which Malcolm would have the opportunity to build. His health was weak and he fell ill travelling to pay Henry II homage at Woodstock in England, after which he seems to have become something of an invalid. In 1165, he was planning a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in search of a miracle cure but he never managed to make the journey and died on 9 December 1165 at just 24 years old.

Sadly for Malcolm, he didn't make it to Santiago de Compostela

Sadly for Malcolm, he didn’t make it to Santiago de Compostela



Despite the unpromising “the Maiden” epithet, Malcolm IV does not have too shabby a military record. He faced four rebellions in his relatively short reign but all were put down with relative ease. In Galloway, having faced internal rebellion after Fergus was able to raid into Scotland, Malcolm launched three invasions and succeeded both in removing Fergus and establishing Scotland as dominant in the region. Most impressive was seeing off Somerled, a powerful Gaelic/Viking warlord who at one stage became King of the Isles and was a major regional force. In 1164, he invaded with c. 15,000 troops and 160 ships for a pre-emptive strike on Scotland while Malcolm was raising an army but he was defeated by a local force, struck by a spear, killed by a sword and had his head cut off and handed over to a bishop. Having come to the throne as a child with numerous powerful enemies, Malcolm died with his enemies subdued and the Kingdom of Scotland predominant over its regional rivals.

While Malcolm could not hope to emulate the success of his grandfather by taking on Henry II, there were signs that Malcolm was trying to find a solution to the English problem. Having been forced to give up the northern counties and pay Henry homage, Malcolm turned to diplomacy to improve his hand, marrying his sisters to the counts of Brittany and Holland in 1160 and 1161, allying himself with figures who were either free of ties to Henry II or seeking to become free.


Although Malcolm’s record is better than expected, it is only really a partial success. As a child, he would have had little or no role in the two rebellions at the start of his reign, while he ill health from 1163 would have severely limited his ability to provide leadership at the end. On a personal level, it is only really the 1160 campaign in Galloway where we see Malcolm at the forefront of a successful military endeavour.

He may have had a plan to improve his position against Henry II, but the reality is that this was a major and humiliating reversal in fortune after the successes of David I. The Chronicle of Melrose noted in 1157 that Malcolm “became his vassal” when giving up the northern counties while in 1163, Malcolm was forced to do homage again in a display of imperial pageantry by Henry and even gave his younger brother as a hostage. This rather stamped out Malcolm’s marriage diplomacy and reaffirmed who was boss. Indeed, Malcolm actually comes across as rather needy at times, reportedly being distressed when Henry did not knight him in 1158 and then following the English king to campaign in Toulouse the following year, with the Scottish forces in Henry’s armies relegated to the status of “other provinces which are subject to him”. Malcolm received his knighthood, but the rebellion from his earls on his return indicated that the nobles were not impressed.

Still, in Malcolm’s defence, he was very unlucky to be facing Henry II at the peak of his powers – David I had the golden opportunity of the Anarchy, whereas Malcolm was just a child against the most powerful man in Europe. Realistically, he was never going to be able to retain Northumberland and Cumbria if Henry II wanted them back and in terms of Scottish territory, there were no invasions or incursions.

Our Verdict

Having to both follow David I and face off against Henry II was a nigh-on impossible task but Malcolm IV did not do a bad job. Rebellions were put down, Scottish rivals were pacified and Malcolm died secure on his throne. However, apart from 1160 it’s hard to really feel that Malcolm himself was particularly responsible for much of what success there was in this period and it would be left to his successors to finish the job in Galloway and northern Scotland.

Score = 8.5/20


Apart from a highly dubious suggestion that Malcolm had the population of Moray relocated across Scotland, there is a distinct lack of activity on the scandal front. William of Newburgh described him as “a terrestrial angel” and it does seem that his “maiden” epithet was appropriate. According to John of Fordun, there was no persuading Malcolm to marry or pursue matters of the flesh:

“He refused to marry, although besought to do so by the earls and all the people of his kingdom, with all manner of entreaties. Before God, he vowed chastity, abiding his whole time in the spotless purity of maidenhood. For though, on the strength of his kingly rank, he could often have transgressed, yet he never did transgress.”

(John of Fordun)

Allegedly, even Malcolm’s mother attempted to place a “beautiful maiden” in his bed and to arrange a marriage for her son, but all to no avail. Chastity was not such an unusual context for medieval knights, with the chaste Sir Galahad of Arthurian legend being something of a contemporary craze, but the scandal bell is a long way from dinging here.

Score = 0.5/20



Malcolm showed signs of being a capable ruler, following the example of his grandfather, David I, with religious patronage and extending royal control. He secured the refoundation of Scone as an abbey following a devastating fire, founded a new Cistercian abbey at Coupar Angus and made extensive gifts to Soutra, Scotland’s largest medieval hospital. In matters of state, he created new barons and knights in the Clyde, Fife and Moray (i.e. installing strong and loyal men into difficult areas) and helped to bring Galloway into the fold by giving grants to the sons of Fergus in 1163-64. New sheriffdoms were established at Crail, Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Forfar, Lanark and Linlithgow, a new justiciar in Lothian as well as more burghs (i.e. market towns) across the country.

An ongoing dispute in Scotland’s religious affairs was a claim by the Archbishopric of York that they held sovereignty over the Scottish church. In 1164, the Archbishop of York came to Norham to exercise his legation over Scotland but was sent packing by Malcolm, who succeeded in having a new bishop consecrated in St Andrews without having to make any form of concession or homage to York.


Malcolm may have done some good things as king, but he was a far from popular king. The dynastic rivalries in Scotland were hardly his fault, but to face 4 rebellions (effectively one every three or four years) is not exactly the steady, stable government that most people would want. Malcolm’s humbling by Henry II lost him a lot of support among his nobles, and even the otherwise relentlessly flattering John of Fordun had to admit that his initial submission caused “stifled murmuring and hatred against their lord the king”. By leaving the country in 1159 to join Henry’s Toulouse campaign (in no way benefiting Scotland) was so unpopular that it provoked a rebellion on Malcolm’s return – perhaps not surprising given that Malcolm seems to have been rather slow to return after the fighting had finished, enjoying the glitz and glamour of Henry’s Angevin court to that of home.

Most chroniclers seem to have concluded that Malcolm was an ineffective ruler. The Verse Chronicle in 1165 concluded that “Firm peace did not yet sufficiently flourish in the kingdom”, a view supported by the Gesta Annalia which stated that Malcolm “quite neglected the care, as well as governance, of his kingdom”. Malcolm failed to provide the strong leadership that was essential in a medieval kingdom and ultimately left very little to boast of in terms of a legacy.

Our Verdict

Malcolm was by no means a disaster as king, particularly in religious affairs, but his reign was far from stable and his leadership far from inspiring. Not one of the worst kings of Scots, but also not one of the best.

Score = 8/20


Malcolm IV was king from 24 May 1153 to 9 December 1165 – a reign of 12.5 years which, when converted into a score out of 20 (click here for an explanation) gives him 8/20.


Malcolm the Maiden, obviously, had no children, giving him a score of 0 for Dynasty.

Overall, then, Malcolm IV scores 25 – but does he have that certain something, that great achievement, that lasting legacy, that star quality that we call…

Rex Factor

Malcolm IV is the first king in Scotland we have reviewed who started off as a minor and yet he saw off four rebellions (including the mighty Somerled), subdued Galloway and came out on top in Scotland. However, he was totally subject to Henry II, lost all the gains of David I and failed to make any real impact on Scottish history.

Our Verdict = No, Malcolm IV does not have the Rex Factor.


Let us know what you think – does Malcolm IV deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our quick poll below and let us know what you think!

7 thoughts on “Malcolm IV (1153-65)

  1. A most interesting read. I’m researching for a book I’m writing about the history of Berwick. Its caste was probably created by David I, but the first reliable mention of it is from between 1153 and 1165 in “Reginaldi Monachi Libellus de Admirandis Beati Cuthberti” when we are told “Malcolm King of Scots had committed a man to be imprisoned in darkness in Berwick castle, and ordered that no small care be taken for his keeping. He compassed him about with every vigilance on the part of the servants in whose custody he was, and allowed nothing good to be done to him of any sort… The King, enraged against him with the fury of a great indignation, also had him constrained with divers bonds of iron. For he had him thrust into a prison darker than other prisons, and had him shackled with great weights of iron. For the prison, from its gloomy and tangible darkness was called Cole, because nothing was left there save shame and the blackest horror…”. I read on Wikipedia that Máel Coluim mac Alaxandair was imprisoned at Roxburgh bu have you any guesses about who that prisoner might be? Any information will, of course, be credited. Thank you.

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  4. Apologies if you this has already been answered but I’ve only just listened to the podcast. You asked where Woodstock is. The non-hippy music festival Woodstock is in Oxfordshire.
    William the Lion had his wedding there, presumably because Henry II was paying for it and wanted to save money on the reception. The Black Prince was born there and so was known as Edward of Woodstock in his lifetime.

    Woodstock Palace got destroyed in the English Civil War. The land was given to the Duke of Marlborough who built Blenheim Palace in its place.

  5. Pingback: William the Lion (1165-1214) | Rex Factor

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