Friday, 10 January 2014

Will The Real Macbeth Please Stand Up?

Macbeth features in my book
Legendary Warriors
(This article was published on my previous website, but as that's no longer running and the content seems appropriate to this blog, I'm presenting it once again. This was originally written for a history magazine back in the early 2000s but was never published.)  

Macbeth – you know the fellow; a Scottish king-slayer with a sharp knife, a nasty wife and a guilty conscience. Killed off by a man born by caesarian section who turns up out of the blue (or should that be green?) from a moving forest.

Most of us have either read Shakespeare’s Macbeth at school, or have seen it performed on the stage or as one of the movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s play. What’s more, most people also know that he existed in real life. What they often don’t know is how historically accurate or inaccurate Shakespeare’s Macbeth truly is.

Treading the boards
Shakespeare’s Macbeth was first performed around 1606 and was first published in 1623. The main source that Shakespeare used was Holinshed’s Chronicles, published in 1577, so Macbeth was perhaps not completely unknown to all members of the audience even at this early stage.

Macbeth is set in a Scotland ripped apart by rebellion and warfare; the king, Duncan, is under great threat from invaders and internal revolt, and Macbeth is one of his best warlords. Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to assassinate the king and usurp the crown. Macbeth – like a nagged husband on a Saturday shopping trip – gives in to his wife against his better judgement, and carries out her plot.

With the help of the powerful thane Macduff and the English of Earl Siward, Duncan’s exiled son Malcolm returns to claim his rightful kingship. Cornering Macbeth in a castle, Malcolm’s men advancing under the cover of branches cut from a wood, storming the walls by surprise. Macbeth is killed by Macduff; a witch had previously told Macbeth that he could not be slain by anyone woman-born, Macduff being “untimely ripp’d” from his mother’s womb. Upon Macbeth’s death, Malcolm rightfully returns to the throne.

There you go – one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, summed up in two paragraphs. If you’ve never encountered the play before, do take a look at it (I’ve missed a few of the more ‘poetic’ elements out).

Elizabethan lies
Shakespeare’s Macbeth wasn’t just conceived as a good story; it is laced with political significance. For example, Banqou, a character supposedly an ancestor of the Stuart kings, is sympathetically portrayed, presumably to please the king of England, James I (himself a Stuart).

The use of English invaders to provide military support to a legitimate claim to the Scottish throne would have had popular appeal among London playgoers. Political turmoil between the two countries had been on-going over a number of centuries, and James I was the first king to unite the crowns of England and Scotland. The partisan London audience would have been in no doubt as to who the ‘good guys’ were (Malcolm, Macduff, and the English Siward, of course!).

Also, the famous witches brought the tale right up to date; witches were big news in Shakespeare’s time, and James I was convinced of the evils of witchcraft, making their inclusion very topical.

This begs the question: If Shakespeare was more concerned with writing a topical, populist play than he was with presenting history, how realistic is ‘his’ Macbeth?

The historical Macbeth
Sadly, the small amount of knowledge we possess about the historical Macbeth does not hold much in common with Shakespeare’s dramatisation (or Holinshed’s, for that matter). Don’t worry though: the historical Macbeth is a story just as gripping as that of any playwright. Scotland in the early medieval period appears, by the few available accounts, to have been a very violent place to live; despite this, Macbeth was recorded as a just and fair king.

Act I: The reign of Duncan
Macbeth was born in 1005, the only child of Findlaech MacRuaridh. Findlaech was the Mormaer of Moray – the Scottish High King’s ruler of the central Highlands. In the early eleventh century, Scotland had little centralisation of government, so Findlaech was a powerful man with his own autonomy of rule in the Highlands (without too much interference from the High King, who oversaw several such Mormaers in different parts of Scotland).

Scottish society was based around clan membership, and alliances between clans were made often and broken with frequency. Feuding between rival clans was common, usually on a small scale, but sometimes blowing up into full-scale battle.

As well as the Scottish inhabitants of the Highlands, Norse (Viking) settlers had created their own earldoms, and raiding between the Scots and the Norse (as well as against rival Scots and the ever present threat of sea raids from the northern islands and other Vikings). To the south, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms provided yet another threat to Scottish power.

In 1020 Findlaech was slain by his nephews in a feud. This may well have been a politically motivated killing, as Findlaech had entered into alliance with Moray’s rival house of Atholl. One of the assassins, Malcolm, was elected to rule (this was perfectly acceptable in Scottish political tradition), and was succeeded at his death by his brother Gillecomgain in 1029. During this time, Macbeth lived under the protection of the Scottish High King, Malcolm II, of whom his father had been a loyal supporter (Malcolm was of the House of Atholl).

Around eighty years old, Malcolm II was concerned with who would be his successor, and who would support an ageing king should conflict occur. He lowered the odds of being succeeded by an unwelcome ruler or being betrayed on the battlefield by eliminating those of whom he did not approve; Gillecomgain was one such candidate. Given Gillecomgain’s role in his father’s death, and bearing in mind that Macbeth lived under Malcolm II’s protection, it is far from inconceivable that Macbeth may have had a hand in Gillecomgain’s murder. Whether this was the case or not, Macbeth was duly elected as Mormaer of Moray in 1033 and continued his father’s alliance with Malcolm II’s House of Atholl.

Malcolm II died at Glamis on 25 November 1034, and his eldest grandson, Duncan MacCrinan, was elected as High King in December of the same year. Previously, Duncan’s experience of rulership had been limited to a petty kingdom in Scottish-controlled Cumbria, so he may not have been the strongest man available to keep order among the feuding clans. Duncan was a strong follower of Atholl, yet unlike Malcolm II, was described as a vicious tyrant (perversely similar to the Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play) who waged war against the Norse in the Isles and Highlands and the Anglo-Saxons to the south at the same time. With hindsight, history has often proved against a leader who fights on two fronts at the same time, yet Duncan personally led an army into Northumbria whilst his nephew Moddan assaulted the Norse district of Caithness (the north-eastern tip of the Scottish mainland), ruled by a fearsome Viking, Thornfinn.

Duncan was a poor leader on his campaign into Northumbria; he was recorded as sending his cavalrymen to charge the fortified walls of Durham, from which the Anglo-Saxon defenders duly slaughtered them. This completed, the Anglo-Saxons proceeded to sally forth from the fortified burgh and complete the Scottish defeat by routing the Scottish foot, too. The survivors retreated back into Scotland, whilst the unfortunate dead had their heads displayed on the walls of Durham as a warning against any further assault. In the north, Moddan’s campaign had faired little better, and the two retreating Scottish forces reunited on home soil.

Not taking any hints from his first two campaigns, Duncan proceeded to take the remainder of his Scottish army north again, hoping that his own presence would be help to defeat Thorfinn. This combined assault by land and sea once more ended with defeat, Duncan being defeated at sea off Deeness. Moddan, commanding the land forces, made camp whilst awaiting the support of Irish auxiliaries to arrive for him. The Scottish army was surprised in a night attack as the men slept; unable to rally his men in time to make a stand, Moddan’s army was defeated in its tents, and Moddan himself was beheaded with a single blow from Thorfinn’s foster father, Thorfell. Again Duncan rallied his tattered ad defeated army, and led them once more to defeat by Thorfinn in August 1040.

Act II: Make way for Macbeth!
After the defeat of August 1040, accounts of Duncan’s life vary. Some accounts show that Duncan fled the battlefield and was killed later, others believe that Duncan’s death was on the battlefield – at the hands of Macbeth. If Macbeth did slay Duncan, what could the circumstances have been? 

Duncan had been very unpopular – a ruler that proved to be a warmonger, and a bad one at that, was bound to have been resented by his people. It is possible that Macbeth fought for Duncan as a loyal supporter of Atholl, but at the final defeat did what he felt was best for the Scottish people to end their misery caused by continual war. Perhaps more likely – especially given the events directly after Duncan’s death – Macbeth fought on the same side as Thorfinn’s Norsemen, and had abandoned his sorely tested loyalty to Malcolm II’s House of Atholl. Moray and Atholl were traditionally enemies, and it seems only to have been a personal bond between Macbeth’s father and the High King Malcolm II that brought Macbeth’s initial loyalty to Malcolm, so a modern reader should not be too surprised if Macbeth did actually fight against Malcolm’s kinsman and successor, Duncan. 

Also, Macbeth may have been riled by Duncan’s accession to the High Kingship, which Macbeth could easily have felt entitled to himself; an alliance with Thorfinn would therefore have been beneficial to Macbeth’s political career.

Act III: Is this a crown I see before me?
Beneficial it was, as after Duncan’s death, Macbeth was pronounced High King late in 1040. Thorfinn fared equally well, as he became established as the Norse ruler of Caithness and Orkney with no opposition from the Scots under Macbeth’s command, so this may well further point to a treaty between the two, mutually benefiting from the removal of Duncan.

Contemporary chronicles refer to Macbeth as a liberal and productive ruler; given Duncan’s terrible reign, virtually any successor would have appeared an improvement. However, between 1040 and 1045, Macbeth set about rebuilding the countryside and repairing relationships with his neighbours to the north and south. However, the neighbours were not so keen to keep peace amongst themselves, for in 1041 Thorfinn, probably with permission (or possibly even aid) from Macbeth, began to raid Anglo-Saxon Northumbria from a base camp in Strathclyde, an area under Macbeth’s rule. The Northumbrian earl Siward attacked and repelled the Norse raiders, and forced them out of his earldom. In 1042, Thorfinn returned, not only with his army of Caithness and Orkney Norsemen, but with Scottish and Irish supporters too. Despite Macbeth’s hope for a peaceful reign, this situation would have appealed to him – as well as securing Thorfinn’s loyalty and allegiance (through Macbeth’s agreement to allow raiding from Scottish soil and the use of his warriors), the Scottish High King could be assured that his southern border was a well defended military zone with his own warrior’s presence there, and that if the Norse raiding went well, his border could conceivably creep further south into English territory. Thorfinn struck this time through Cumbria, avoiding Siward’s Northumbrians who had previously bloodied his nose, and striking instead at the Mercians – who he defeated in battle twice on this campaign.

In 1045 the only record of internal revolt against Macbeth was recorded. Crinan, the father of Duncan, was killed along with 180 of his Atholl warriors in battle by Macbeth near to Dunkeld (to the north of Perth). This decisive defeat – stemming from a revival of the Moray-Atholl rivalry – allowed Macbeth a further nine years of stability. During these nine years, Macbeth visited the Pope in Rome (which would have sealed his fate in Shakespeare’s mind as a villain!), and maintained courtly and trading contacts with most of the kingdoms of Europe. To the north, however, Macbeth’s ally Thorfinn encountered problems as Rognvald Brussisson of Norway disputed his claim to the Orkneys. Thorfinn managed to defeat his rival at sea in the Pentland Firth and on land at Stronsay.

Act IV: Enter Malcolm, stage right
The son of Duncan lived in exile in England, gaining support under the new English king Edward the Confessor, who had been crowned in 1043. Duncan’s son was named Malcolm, and under English law, Malcolm’s claim to the Scottish throne was legitimate and to English minds had to be upheld and supported; perversely, under Scottish tradition, Malcolm had no claim on the Scottish throne at all. In 1054, an English and Danish army commanded by Siward was ordered to march into Scotland and lay claim to the Scottish throne for Malcolm. Siward, as Thorfinn had found to his cost over ten years before, was a fearsome fighter, having delivered the head of a treacherous earl to his king in a show of support.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the event:

‘1054: Eorl Siward went with a great force into Scotland, with both ship-forces and land-troops, fought with the Scots, put to flight the king, Macbeth, killed all the best in the land, and brought back much plunder, such as no man had ever obtained. But his son Osbern, and his sister’s son Siward, with some of his housecarles and also the king’s, were killed there on the day of the Seven Sleepers.’
(Savage, 1997: 181)

As the Chronicle records, Siward lost his son and part of his personal bodyguard (the huscarls); for him, this invasion of Macbeth’s territory was becoming personal. Malcolm accompanied the army invading his country on his behalf, and many of the warriors from Atholl (his father’s land) rallied to his cause. The army headed for Scone – where High kings were crowned – as Malcolm hoped to be crowned almost as soon as Macbeth was defeated.

The Anglo-Scottish force of Siward and Malcolm clashed with Macbeth’s Scots and Norsemen at Dunsinane, which lay between Perth and Scone. Although the battle did not end in outright victory for either army, Macbeth reportedly lost 3000 warriors compared to his enemy’s 1500. It was here that Siward lost his son and nephew, and was forced to retreat from Scotland without placing Malcolm on the throne. The price of defeat was great for Siward, and the following year, whilst sick with dysentry, he threw himself fully armed from the walls of York, rather than dying on his sick bed ‘like a cow on straw’.
Edward the Confessor had not decided to support Malcolm’s claim to the Scottish throne out of the kindness of his heart, nor indeed to uphold what the English perceived to be the right of succession. Although this was a useful grounds for invasion, Edward hoped to place Malcolm on the throne as a puppet ruler. As the English army retreated, without placing Malcolm on the throne, without killing Macbeth, and with the loss of a number of the royal troops who accompanied Siward, the chances of this looked slim. Instead, Malcolm was officially recognised as King of Cumbria, and his comrade Tostig Godwinsson was appointed earl of Northumbria in the wake of Siward. Macbeth retained control of much of Scotland, and the good qualities which he had shown in his previous years as High King retained much of the support for him.

Act V: Macbeth’s final scene
Over the next three years, Malcolm and Tostig plotted and campaigned the downfall of Macbeth, and on 15 August 1057, Macbeth was slain by Malcolm. The battle which led to this is traditionally believed to have occurred at the ancient stone circle of Peel Ring, at Lumphanan in Mar; in the course of a campaign, Malcolm’s Anglo-Danish troops had pushed Macbeth into retreat beyond Scone, and the Atholl clan probably rose in support of Malcolm. This forced Macbeth further north into the friendlier territory of Mar, yet even so, this could not prevent Macbeth’s defeat and death.

Malcolm did not immediately take the High Kingship unopposed. Macbeth’s step-son Lulac was elected at Scone and resisted and frustrated Malcolm’s army for the next seven months. Lulac was slain in March 1058 by treachery, and King Malcolm III was crowned on 25 April 1058. Thorfinn, Macbeth’s former ally, died in 1059 – possibly whilst campaigning on behalf of Macbeth’s family against Malcolm.

Macbeth’s rule had unified Scotland more than it had ever been before, and with Malcolm III’s introduction of a feudal system similar to that which he grew up in England, the country was draw more and more into European politics, as opposed to remaining on the ‘Celtic Fringe’. With the Norman invasion, Malcolm was drawn into conflict against the Anglo-Normans by 1079 (Scotland was a stronghold and haven for Anglo-Saxon exiles after the Battle of Hastings), and was killed by William Rufus in 1093.

So, was Macbeth a good guy or bad guy?
Macbeth is remembered as one of history’s villains – and he’s got Shakespeare to thank for that. In reality, Macbeth was no more unpleasant than any other early medieval king; violence and warfare were very real parts of everyday political life in eleventh century Scotland. And we should not forget that Macbeth, above other near contemporary kings, was recorded as being a fair and just ruler. Above all, he can be seen as a nationalist – he was fiercely protective of the highland way of life, of the Gaelic language, and tried to resist persistent English advances into Scotland. In many ways, he would have made a suitable historical coat hanger for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart character to rested on … but the Braveheart saga is another story completely.

Further reading
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (many editions available)
Daniel Mersey, Legendary Warriors: Great Heroes in Myth and Reality (London, 2002)
SM Forster, Picts, Gaels and Scots (London, 1996)
A Ritchie, Viking Scotland (London, 1993)

Article © 2004 Daniel Mersey
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