I’ve played the role of King Duncan, the noble patriarch foully murdered in his sleep with poison in his ear and a dagger across his throat. His brave and resourceful young son Malcolm vows revenge and leads a conveniently agreeable English army into battle to regain his rightful throne.
In my previous post I examined the true Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who were transformed into the ‘evil monsters’ of the Scottish play.
Now I’d like to shine the light of history on Macbeth’s predecessor and successor on the Scottish throne of the 11th century. They’re not quite the men Will told us about.
King Duncan. The son of Bethoc, who was the daughter of King Malcolm II of Scotland, Duncan was actually cousin to Macbeth. Macbeth’s mother was Malcolm II’s younger daughter Donada.
Duncan was a far less competent ruler than his grandfather. He ascended the throne in 1034 when he was probably no more than thirty years old. While he had military ambitions, he dithered while England was in turmoil after the death of King Canute. Thus he missed whatever chance he had of taking advantage of the argument over succession there.
He bungled attempts to invade Northumbria to the south and Caithness to the north before turning his attentions even further north. He set out to battle another of his cousins – Thorfinn, the Earl of Orkney.
It didn’t go well. Back on the Scottish mainland in retreat from Orkney, Duncan and his army literally ran into that of Thorfinn’s ally Macbeth. Duncan was killed in battle at Pitgaveny on 15 August 1040.
The story of his being murdered in his sleep is a total fiction. He was a ruthless but incapable king whose death was not widely mourned, despite his self-appointed title of ‘Duncan the Gracious’.
Malcolm. When his father Duncan was killed in battle in 1040, eight- or nine-year-old Malcolm was whisked away to be raised in the court of the English king Edward the Confessor (‘pious Edward’).
In 1054 Siward, Earl of Northumbria, was ordered by King Edward to invade Scotland in support of young Malcolm. The following year Siward’s and Macbeth’s armies battled at Dunsinane in Perthshire. Macbeth was defeated but escaped the battlefield to return north to Ross.
Malcolm sat on a throne that was recognised by the English but not the Scots. That recognition didn’t come until after the deaths of Macbeth in 1057 and Lulach in 1058, at which point his legitimate place in the line of succession was recognised by the council of thanes and he became Malcolm III of Scotland.
He’s described as “a swaggering bully who rapidly earned himself the nickname of Malcolm Canmore, or Malcolm the Bighead”.
Malcolm Canmore proved to be a treacherous ingrate. No sooner was he recognised as king, than he began making raids into Northumbria and pillaging Siward’s lands. He even violated the long-standing and revered Peace of St. Cuthbert in Holy Island.
By 1066 Malcolm had allied himself with the Norwegians who were supporting a revolt against the English (Saxon) king Harold, who had succeeded Edward. The revolt was led by Harold’s brother. The third warring faction of 1066 were the Normans under William. Both Harold and William had actively supported Malcolm at different times, and neither was pleased to find him now allied with their common enemy.
William was the ultimate victor in 1066, earning the title of The Conqueror. In 1072 he forced Malcolm to sign the Treaty of Abernathy, regarded by later English kings as signifying the ‘conquest’ of Scotland. (That claim wasn’t accepted north of the border.)
Malcolm III remained a persistent irritant to William, making and breaking alliances and mounting small fleeting raids south. Both Malcolm and his eldest son Edward were slain in a battle on the Alne on 13 November 1093, after an ignoble reign of thirty-six years.
Shakespeare’s depiction of who were the heroes and who were the villains in the Scottish court is warped, whether by design or convenience or insufficient knowledge.
It’s said that history is written by the survivors, or by the victors. What’s been written by a playwright half a millennium after the fact isn’t history at all. It’s still a bloody good story, mind you.