Macbeth, King of Scotland: Reign, Conflict with England, & Death

Macbeth at the fort of Macduff

J. R. Skelton’s illustration of Macbeth, King of Scots, at the fort of Macduff

For some people, Macbeth is the fictional character portrayed in William Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth.” The play depicted Macbeth as a young army general who received a prophecy from witches that he would eventually become the King of Scotland. Fueled by his desire to earn the title and with the encouragement of his wife, he became a power drunk ruler. But just how factual was Shakespeare’s retelling of events that occurred nearly over 500 years ago?

Macbeth was certainly a real King of Scotland, one whose ascension to the throne ushered Scotland from 1040-1057. Read on to learn more about this real-life historical figure and also understand the reason why Shakespeare might have written so negatively about him.

The Birth & Early Years of Macbeth

Macbeth’s full medieval name was Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, with Mac Bethad likely meaning “son of life.” He was born to Findlaech MacRuaridh and Donalda in the year 1005. It’s said that his grandfather, Malcolm II, became King of Scotland around the time of his birth.

His father, Findlaech was a mormaer in the Province of Moray. “Mormaer” was a title given to stewards over one of the seven provinces in the Scottish Kingdom. Donalda, his mother, was the daughter of Malcolm II.

When Macbeth was seven years old, he was sent to study in a monastery to receive formal education by monks, as it was common practice and law for the sons of chieftains. When he was 15, his cousins, Gillecomgain and Malcolm, killed Findlaech. However, their motivations for the death of their uncle remain unclear. Some sources say it was because Findlaech had developed friendly relations with his father-in-law, King Malcolm II. It is also likely that Macbeth was still away from home and living in the monastery. But, not much is known about his life during that period. Upon Findlaech’s death, Gillecomgain became the Mormaer of Moray.

He eventually re-emerged around 1032 when he was about 27 years to become the Mormaer of Moray following the death of Gillecomgain. According to some historians, Macbeth had orchestrated his cousin’s death by raiding his home and burning him to death. He married his deceased cousin’s widow, a woman named Gruoch and also adopted her son, Lulach. In November 1034, King Malcolm II passed away and Duncan MacCrinan, his son, succeeded him.

The Rise of Macbeth to the Scottish Throne

Duncan I was nothing like his father had been and his ascension to the throne plunged the Kingdom of Scotland into a state of uneasiness. He was power hungry but that didn’t stop him from being an incompetent ruler whose failures eventually became the end of him.

Initially, Duncan and Macbeth had a good relationship and the latter had pledged his loyalty to him. However, with Duncan’s military failures while on a mission to expand the kingdom, Macbeth saw a chance to take the throne for himself.

This opportunity presented itself when the Earl of Northumbria invaded southern Scotland in 1038. Although the invasion had been halted, Duncan was encouraged by the other chieftains and advisers to launch a counterattack. But the king wanted to go beyond that and also invade the Orkneys Islands, which was located in the north and under the Viking’s rule. Despite his chieftains warnings that it wouldn’t be wise to fight in both the northern and southern regions, Duncan decided to go with his plan, sending his cousin, Moddan to fight the Orkneys while he went to the south.

The entire mission was a failure. The Orkneys defeated Moddan and Duncan too was defeated by the Northumbrians. While fleeing for their lives, the two cousins met halfway and decided to use the rest of their troops to attack the Orkneys again. The leader, Thorfinn Sigurdsson, defeated the pair yet again, this time killing Moddan.

Macbeth used this opportunity to ally with Thorfinn and they fought against Duncan and his army, which resulted in the king’s death in August 1040. Following Duncan’s death, Macbeth rode to Scone, the capital of Scotland, where he declared himself king. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donald, escaped Scotland.

Macbeth’s Reign

Macbeth’s reign was a breath of fresh air, especially after the tumultuous years under Duncan’s rulership. He was regarded as a good king, one that brought peace and wealth to the kingdom for 17 years. He was also a fair ruler and helped spread Christianity.

Macbeth and Gruoch were also praised for their benevolence and frequently gave to the church. He also passed several laws that benefited the marginalized in society, especially women and orphaned children. During his rule, daughters were also allowed the same inheritance rights as male borns.

Apart from a brief internal conflict in 1045 caused by Duncan’s supporters that was quickly dealt with and treason attempted the following year by Siward, the Earl of Northumbria, the Kingdom of Scotland enjoyed peace during his reign.

In fact, the kingdom was so peaceful that Macbeth and Gruoch comfortably embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome to celebrate the papal jubilee and donate to the poor and the Church. During his return home, he discovered that political events in England were quickly spreading into his kingdom.

The Conflict with England

In 1052, the Normans sought asylum in Scotland to escape growing tensions back home in England. According to Celtic law, all travelers were granted Asylum in Macbeth’s court. However, the English lords resented this law and Duncan I’s son, Malcolm took advantage of that fact. At that time, he had been living in England and was planning to avenge his father’s death and make a claim for the throne.

For two years, Malcolm laid his plans and he had the support of the English lords. Together with Siward, who was also his uncle, they launched an invasion in southern Scotland. But the mission was a little too easy and some historians were of the view that it was a trap by Macbeth. Whether or not the Scottish ruler had remained one step ahead of their enemies, the English troops proved to be a formidable force. They had the backing of the Danish troops and were more in number than the Scottish army.

Nonetheless, Macbeth was able to save his kingdom and Siward returned to England, where he later died. Malcolm, on the other hand, took over the region of Cumbria and became the king.

Macbeth’s Defeat

Much of Macbeth’s latter years were spent in constant battle with Malcolm and England. In the beginning, all of the Scottish provinces supported Macbeth but in 1057, the king was dealt two major blows when he lost the support of the Church in the form of Pope Leo IX and Maelduin MacGille-Ordain, who was the Bishop of St Andrew. These two men would have been instrumental in convincing England to not back Malcolm.

The third blow was when his alliance with Thorfinn, who had helped him become king, ceased. However, it’s likely that Thorfinn had either been too ill to throw in his support or had even passed away.

With these disadvantages, the end of Macbeth’s reign was near and during the Battle of Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire in 1057, the King of Scotland was killed by Malcolm’s supporters while attempting to return to Moray. He was buried in Iona, where other Scottish kings had been laid to rest.

Lulach succeeded his stepfather but only ruled for seven months before being murdered by Malcolm’s supporters. With no other descendant to succeed the king, Malcolm, the son of Duncan I finally avenged his father and became Malcolm III, the King of Scotland.

Portrayal of Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Classic & Other Portrayals

The English playwright, William Shakespeare, wrote “Macbeth” between 1604 and 1606. During that period, King James I and VI ruled over both England and Scotland, and was the first king to do so.

Shakespeare probably sought permission from the king to write the play and it is possible that King James granted that permission after seeing that it included witches and other supernatural elements. The king himself was avidly interested in divinity and otherworldly activities.

“Macbeth” is regarded as a classic in modern times and one of Shakespeare’s best works. But while the play was written about a real-life king, there were several inaccurate retellings. Firstly, the events in the play took place in a year, whereas Macbeth served as king for 17 years.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth and his predecessor Duncan was also discovered to be historically inaccurate. In the play, Duncan was shown to be a good and effective leader when that wasn’t the case in real-life. He also wrote that Macbeth had no real claim to the throne when in fact, he was the grandson of King Malcolm II. In Shakespeare play, Macbeth was the one that killed Duncan while other accounts show that Duncan died in battle.

The most possible reason why Macbeth and Duncan’s characters and reputations were reversed was that King James was a descendant of Malcolm III and with Macbeth’s line ending with the death of Lulach, no one could possibly contest these claims.

Macbeth has also appeared in other literary works, including Dorothy Dunnett’s book “King Hereafter”, which explores the former king’s relationship with Thorfinn. He has also been portrayed in many stage productions, including “Macbeth Speaks” and “Dunsinane.” In the 1990s, Macbeth’s character appeared in the TV show, “Gargoyles.”

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