Who Was the Real Macbeth?
by Catherine Wells
Historians have known for some time that the historical Scottish king Macbeth (variously spelled Maelbeatha, Makepath, and Macbeatha) was not quite the blackguard Shakespeare portrayed. To give Will his due, he was using the best sources available to him at the time, although he was more concerned with the drama of the piece than with historical accuracy. But the Macbeth who succeeded Duncan as King of Scots was probably a very good king who kept the peace (mostly) and was responsible for humanitarian legislation. He ruled for 17 years and was succeeded, not by Malcolm Canmore, but by his step-son Lulach.
How did the tale get so twisted? There are several reasons, not the least being that history is written by the victors—in this case, the English who backed Malcolm Canmore. They viewed Macbeth through the lens of their own culture, and to top things off, in the 17th century they conducted a purge of all literature written in Gaelic. If there were records of Macbeth written by his own people during or soon after his lifetime, they have been lost. What was recorded centuries later was heavily influenced by oral tradition and classic Celtic exaggera—ah, storytelling.
Malcolm II was a notable exception. Upon coming to power, he eliminated potential tanists in the alternate royal house and ruled the Scots for thirty years. He named his own grandson Duncan as his successor, in defiance of accepted tradition.
Add to the mix a sharp division between the northern and southern Scots. Both royal houses came from the south, and just how far their rule extended over their northern brethren is questionable. In fact, Irish annals that refer to the “King of Scots” generally mean the ruler of the northern province of Moray, rather than the “high king” sitting in Scone. Several battles are recorded between the northern and southern branches, with the south rarely the victor.
Macbeth was of the House of Loarn, which had been a royal house in a bygone era and continued to rule in Moray. (Yes, Ross was part of Moray at the time.) He is called the mormaer or steward of Moray, indicating allegiance to Malcolm II, but remember this allegiance was sometimes hard to enforce. Some king lists show Macbeth as being another grandson of Malcolm II, although these lists were compiled late and may have been altered to force the appearance of patrilineal succession. When Macbeth defeated Duncan in battle—not by treachery—he claimed the kingship in his own name and that of his wife, Gruoch. Gruoch belonged to the second royal house, the one that should have taken over from Malcolm II.
Was Macbeth driven by “ambition that o’erleaps itself,” as Shakespeare would have it? We will never know. But we do know that Duncan had a poor track record as king. Prior to his defeat by Macbeth, he led a disastrous battle against the English at Durham where 3000 Scots died. This was a warrior culture, and a king's power was based on the size of his army. This was not a standing army, but a war band called up for each campaign. After a defeat like Durham, it is questionable whether mormaers and sub-kings were willing to support Duncan in his military endeavors.
The King of Scots, or the High King, had to be elected by his peers and confirmed by the Church. Because Macbeth was duly installed in the office, we assume he had the support of the tribal and ecclesiastic leaders. And because he held Scotland’s borders for 14 years, we assume he maintained that support, including the ability to muster troops to defend those borders. But in 1054, Duncan’s son Malcolm Canmore (Malcolm "Big Head"), backed by Siward of Northumbria and the English king, invaded Scotland and struck a serious blow to the reigning king.
The battle took place outside Dundee. Dunsinane is an old hill fort a short distance away, and we’re not sure why it became associated with Macbeth’s defeat. The English claimed victory, but they withdrew, and it is uncertain if Malcolm Canmore acquired any power or status at this point. Three years later, Macbeth either died or was mortally wounded in a small skirmish outside the village of Lumphanan in northern Scotland. Had he retreated to his home province of Moray after Dundee? Was the kingship in question for three years? We simply don’t know.
We do know that Lulach, his wife’s son from her first marriage, succeeded Macbeth as King of Scots. Lulach was killed by Malcolm Canmore or his followers a year later, and the implication is that treachery was involved. Malcolm Canmore, who had been raised in the English court, brought English ways and English governance to Scotland. The era of Celtic High Kings was over.
All this was affected by a variety of cultures and political events during the early 11th century. If you’d like to know more about them, and see an extrapolated biography of Macbeth, please visit my website: http://www.catherine-wells.com/RealMacbeth. And if you’d like to read a terrific fictional interpretation of the man and his life, I hope you’ll pick up my novel Macbeatha.
Catherine Wells is the author of numerous novels and short stories. Her works include "Mother Grimm," a finalist for the 1997 Philip K. Dick Award, and the Coconino trilogy, both available from Phoenix Pick. Her short stories have appeared in Analog, Asimov’s Magazine of Science Fiction, and Intergalactic Medicine Show, as well as anthologies such as “Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse.” "Macbeatha" is her first foray into historical fiction. Read about her latest works and where her novels can be purchased at http://www.catherine-wells.net.