Behind Macbeth Part 2

In the early 1600’s Shakespeare won the favour of his new King James I by recasting Scottish history to give his monarch the stamp of divine authority as the latest in a glorious line of prophesied rulers.

(He stroked the royal ego in other ways too – check out my previous post if you missed it.)

But in doing so the Bard rewrote the record books, drastically changing the natures and histories of his key characters.

It’s impossible for us to know now what research Shakespeare did. What sources were available to him, writing in London about events in the north of Scotland nearly six hundred years earlier? How much attention did he pay to those sources anyway, given his primary objective of pleasing the former James VI of Scotland, descendant of the 14th century Banquo?

Whether by design or genuine ignorance, he left us with literary figures massively different to their historical counterparts. Here are the true stories of two. Next post, I’ll introduce you to more.

Macbeth. Born in 1005, Macbeth was by birth the Thane of Ross. As Malcolm II’s grandson he had a legitimate claim to the throne, a claim strengthened by his marriage to the grand-daughter of the previous king, Kenneth IV.

With that marriage he also became Thane of Moray until his stepson Lulach would come of age to take on that title.

When Duncan died in battle in 1040, Macbeth was correctly next in line for the throne. He was formally elected to the kingship by Scotland’s council of thanes “without contest or opposition”.

Macbeth was described as “a tall man with ruddy complexion and fair hair.” He ruled strongly and wisely for fourteen years without major mishap.

He was regarded as a generous and pious ruler, undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050 and “giving kindly” to the poor both at home and along the way. He was the first king of Scotland whose name appears in the ecclesiastical records as a benefactor of the church.

In 1055 he was defeated in battle at Dunsinane by the army of Siward, Earl of Northumbria. He managed to escape the battlefield after what official records of the time called “many displays of courage”. Unfortunately we’ve got no details beyond the estimate that three thousand Scots and fifteen hundred Englishmen died during the battle!

Siward returned to Northumbria, while Macbeth went north to his ancestral lands. Despite the defeat, Macbeth remained king of Scotland, albeit harried by Duncan’s son the pretender Malcolm, who was ‘recognised’ as king by the English court but not his own people.

Macbeth was killed in August 1057 at Lumphanen, either by Malcolm or one of his personal guards. Macbeth’s stepson Lulach, by then 25 and Thane of Moray, ascended the throne.

Lulach in turn was killed in battle at Essie in March 1058. His body was interred along with that of Macbeth at Iona on the island of Mull. This was for many centuries the common sepulcher of the Scottish kings.

Lady Macbeth. Lady Gruoch (to give her correct name) was the daughter of Boedhe, son of King Kenneth IV of Scotland. First married to Gilcomgain, the Thane of Moray, she bore his son Lulach.

Gilcomgain died shortly after Lulach’s birth. Some time later Lady Gruoch remarried, this time to Macbeth, Thane of Ross. Thus the Moray title passed to her new husband until her son achieved his adulthood.

It seems very likely that Macbeth’s description as “the friend of the poor and benefactor of the monks” owes more than a bit to Lady Gruoch’s influence. She was quite a wealthy woman in her own right, especially after Gilcomgain’s death. It’s known that she donated part of her own lands at Moray to the Church for the construction of an abbey and other shelter and facilities for the monks.

I find myself wondering if the well-known ‘curse of the Scottish play’ actually has anything to do with the outraged shade or shades of the real Macbeth and/or his wife being rightfully upset at the besmirching of their good names and reputations.

Perhaps the wrath of a woman scorned really can extend over the centuries!

Next time – Shakespeare’s other Scottish kings.

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