Two episodes ago, before we were distracted by Scandinavian Scotland, we came to the end of the line of direct descendants of Cinead MacAilpin by the male line, with the death of the reasonably successful king, Mael Colium II in 1034. I say reasonably successful because he was reasonably successful, but also because he died peacefully in his bed at Glamis. This is not the least of his achievements given the almost universally violent deaths of his predecessors. Well done Mael Colium, gold star.
However, all that violence and competition between the dynasties of MacAilpin had taken its toll. When the dynasty MacAilpin noted the death of their latest and went to the MacAilpin cupboard for their next leader, to their horror they found the cupboard bare. Now usually, you’d just have gone a bit further back to find an earlier descendant through a male line. But the MacAilpins had done that weird thing of re-inventing themselves and their country, and creating Alba; they couldn’t go back to Pictland or indeed to Dal Riada, indeed no. So they had a problem. Hmm, what to do…
They had two answers actually. The first might have been suggested to then a couple of ways. Firstly, by a much more prestigious dynasty than anything the British Isles could offer. Conrad II, Emperor of the German Empire. Conrad was descended from Otto the Great, but when he was elected in 1024 it was all rather controversial, and accompanied by much muttering into beards and that sort of thing – because he was descended from Otto only through the female line. And yet Conrad’s reign was super successful.
And indeed they could have turned to the Venemous Bede and read his now discredited theory of a Pictish preference to matrilineal descent. This would have given them the same answer.
Whether or not Alba looked east to Germany for their inspiration or to the Picts, in 1034 the successor they chose was the son of Mael Colium’s daughter, Bethoc, and a man called Crinian, probably the same man who would later become Abbot of Dunkeld. Crinian’s son and the new king was called Donnchad, anglicised to Duncan; unlike the character in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Donnchad was probably no older than 40 when he came to the throne. He would carry with him the albatross of his relatively feeble claim to the throne. Whatever the experience of the Picts and of Conrad, claiming the throne by the female line was very radical in early medieval Europe, and certainly in Britain.
I said two options. So, do you remember when you were at school, and you knew the answer to teacher’s question, and you were desperate to show the world how incredibly intelligent you were, as well as of course successful and good looking? Never realising how little kudos such a thing brought? And how you might furiously stretch your hand up to be recognised and picked, only for the choice to go elsewhere? Well, figuratively speaking there was a hand being furiously raised north of the Mounth by Mormaers of Moray, a man called Macbethad mac Findlaech, anglicised of course to MacBeth, immortalised by the Bard. And before you get at me for talking about the Bard who I have up ‘til now roundly insulted as being a little dull and bad at comedy, Macbeth is an exception, ripping good yarn is Macbeth what with dangers and moral disintegration and all, and Shakespeare still has a tin ear for comedy. You can compare and contrast Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the real Macbeth as you go.
Anyway, as far as the real Macbeth was concerned, he was the obvious choice, not Donnchad. Macbeth and his predecessors may well have laid claim to the crown of Alba already; Moray may well have firmly believed that their leaders were the rightful kings of Alba. Macbeth was certainly not a simple Thane as Shakespeare and his source Holinshed described him, Thane being a word for a local lord equivalent to the Anglo Saxon Thegn; at very least, he would have described himself as a mormaer.
To give you an insight into why it’s difficult to know exactly what the situation was, here are a couple of contemporary Chronicle entries. Here first is the entry in the Annals of Ulster for 1020
Findlaech son of Ruaidri, king of Alba was killed by his own people.
For balance, in another Irish chronicle, the Annals of Tigernach, you then get this reassuring entry
Findlaech son of Ruaidri, mormaer of Moray, was killed by the sons of his brother Mael Brighte
I say reassuring, because whoever was king, the Albanians down south in Scone or the Mormaers of Moray, it’s good to see that all of them were joyfully butchering anyone who happened to make it to the throne. Seriously it’s like a game of who’s the king of the castle played with real swords. Anyway, the point of this is that some of these entries are talking of the leaders in Moray as kings of Alba, others as Mormaers of Moray. There’s always been something of a debate amongst historians about whether there are actually two completely separate political entities here, Moray and Alba; or alternatively if Moray is really part of Alba as we have been describing but there are two competing dynasties for the top job of king. The latter is the current favourite – knowing historians, the other theory will make comeback at some point. What seems to have been happening up in Moray was a competition for leadership between two rival branches of Ruaidri’s family, the descendants of Mael Brighte and the descendants of Findlaech. Macbeth was the grandson of Findlaech, and as dawn broke over 1032 he was on the losing side. Meanwhile down in Scone, the King of Alba Mael Colium II was in reality probably king only in name north of the Mounth, or at least in the far north in Moray.
Anyway, we then get another entry from our Irish chronicles:
1029 Mael Colium son of Mael Brighte son of Ruaidri King of Alba, died
I am really sorry for all the Mael Coliums. Basically we have Mael Coliums ruling Moray, Alba and indeed Strathclyde. But anyway, gold star for Mael Colium of Moray for managing to die in his bed. The recipient of his death was his son Gille Comgain, who now became the Mormaer of Moray in his place – and rightful king of Alba as the locals may well have claimed.
What Macbeth did while his side of the family was out of power nobody knows; did he run for it and live in exile, or had he been allowed to live, brooding powerless at the court of Gille Comgain? Given what we know of the death and destruction around at the time I’m suspecting he fled, though where to is anyone’s guess. Gille, meanwhile had added legitimacy to his claims to both Alba and Moray through marriage to one Gruoch. We don’t know if his marriage preceded or superceded his succession to the leadership of Moray, but Gruoch had blue Alban blood in her views; he was a granddaughter of Cinead mac Dub, a previous king of Alba; she also added further legitimacy by giving her husband an heir in a lad called Lulach. Everything seemed to be going Gille’s way.
He had not reckoned without the black sheep of the family, the side of the family you wish you didn’t have to invite round for Christmas and all that. Macbeth was out there, and in either 1031 or 1032 he returned, with fire and sword and nasty looking blokes with death in their eyes. Whether or not Gille was ready for him or taken by surprise we don’t know, but one dark day Gille was trapped inside a building with 50 of his followers, trapped with Macbeth’s men outside. And then Macbeth gave the order and flaming torches were flung onto the wooden building, it took hold and created a burning hell of death for Gille and his supporters, with the faces Gruoch and Gille’s young son Lulach lit by the blaze as they watched from the outside.
Now what you are hearing here, gentle listeners, is a concept to which I was introduced by a proper historian on Twitter, this being the first thing of any real value I think I have gained from Twitter. This is something called Truthiness, a phrase apparently coined by an American comedian called Stephen Colbert of whom I had never heard until now. Truthiness is stuff we have no evidence for but that really should be true…
So in fact, all we really know about Macbeth’s return is this:
1032 Gilla Comgain son of Mael Brigte moremaer of Moray, was burned together with fifty people
Anyway, from this chaos came some sort of conversation, or probably some sort of conversation with Gille’s wife Gruoch. Maybe, truthinessly, it went something like this.
‘Oi, you, Macbeth, you just killed my husband’
‘Well, you know, rude n’all’
‘Well alright then, how about you marry me now since your old man’s not looking so great right now?’
‘Huh. What about little Lulie here? ‘
‘O go on he can come too’
‘O go on then’
So all that we do know is that Macbeth adopted Lulach as his son, and married Gruoch. Maybe the two never spoke to each other again, or at the other end of the scale maybe they’d planned the murder of Gille and a coup together. But by marrying Gruoch Macbeth of course gained greater credibility for his claims to the kingdom of Alba, he gained a smidgen of extra legitimacy.
There is another intriguing possibility about how Macbeth came to power – he may have had powerful supporters from outside Moray. As we mentioned a couple of episodes ago this is the time of the all-powerful Cnut. This is the same Cnut who walloped Aethelred in his Unreadiness, who stood at the head of a great Northern European Empire. The guy who teased his courtiers by pretending to try and hold back the waves in order to demonstrate the greatness of God. That Cnut. Well, in 1031 that Cnut met in northern Britain with 3 kings, Mael Colium king of Alba, Echmarcach, lord of a composite Irish and Gallgaedil kingdom – and Macbeth. Well you’ll notice that it’s just a year before Macbeth apparently decided to burn Gille. How interesting; why would Cnut invite a chap like Macbeth, at this time still living in exile, to a party that included Mael Colium, king of Alba? It could be that Cnut would be very happy with as much disunity in the countries on his own northern border as possible. Is it too much to speculate that Cnut was fuelling that fire by inviting a rival to the party, or even funding Macbeth to regain Moray and thereby threaten the Kings of Alba? Or, alternatively, maybe Macbeth’s backer was in fact Mael Colium, king of Alba himself, maybe Mael Colium was interested in a bit of disunity in Moray, to help the kings of Alba assert control there? After all, up north at the time he had a leader in Moray in Gille who had a royal wife and a son therefore with MacAilpin blood. He might have thought that injecting Macbeth as a bacillus into the Moravian bloodstream would be a reasonable idea, and chose the conference to introduce his champion to the great Cnut.
Who knows, who can tell, and in the words of Christy Moore, anyone for the last few choc ices now.
Just to turn aside from the Moravian/Alban story for a moment, the sharper amongst you might well be asking – well hey, hang on just a jolly old minute would you, if Cnut was coming to see the kings of northern Britain, where’s the king of Strathclyde, why wasn’t he invited? And that is an interesting question, thank you. There are those that say that by this time Strathclyde had already been rubbed out, or at least rubbed out as a kingdom independent of Alba. The problem is the lack of sources and therefore an irresolvable confusion about a king of Strathclyde called Mael Colium. It’s annoying that this king of Strathclyde is called Mael Colium; it may or may not have been the same mael Colium as was ruling as Mael Colium II in Alba at the time. I however, am following Alex Woolf in his interpretation that Strathclyde is at this point still alive and kicking, and that it just happened to be that there are a lot of Mael Coliums around at the same time. But an alterative theory is that Donnchad, the successor to Mael Colium II in Alba, was for a while installed as king in Strathclyde, as a sort of appannage for younger heirs of the Alban dynasty. The lateness of the reports about this, which come centuries later, and the rather later feudal flavour of the idea of an appannage, speak against the theory though. And also, in 1038 it’s reported that Earl Eadwulf of Northumbria ravaged and burnt Strathclyde; it’s not a great way let the world know that you exist by being beaten to a pulp, but in this case the fact that Strathclyde was there to be ravaged is an argument for its continued existence.
Anyway, how were things going south of the Mounth, for the new king Donnchad while Macbeth was elbowing his way into the light? One of his problems was very likely to have been legitimacy, given his descent through the female line and all of that. So for an 11th century leader there were few better ways of convincing the world that you are the right man for the job than beating up your enemies and distributing their goodies to you own side; and Donnchad clearly decided that England was the best place to have a hack at. Cnut was by that time long gone, Harthacnut was on the throne, there was a deal of son squabbling going on and the future of Cnut’s dynasty looked dicey – a good time to have a hack. He was going to leave nothing to chance, and gathered a huge body of men and in late 1039 over the border they flowed into Northumbria and the riches of the land yielded to their swords and violence until they came up against Durham, many centuries later described by one of Scotland’s most famous sons as ‘half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the scot’ though of course he was talking about a Norman town that hadn’t been built yet, but look hey truthiness, they came up against the Northumbrian stronghold of Dun Holm, and that’s a strong place. None the less, they attacked the stronghold, and at this point the fruit changed from apple to Pear, and the assault pear shaped. Not only was Donnchad’s assault repulsed but he was forced to flee, and as they fled, the Northumbrians chased and slaughtered the Albans as they ran.
When he arrived back in Alba, Donnchad would have found he’d done absolutely nothing good for his legitimacy. Second best way then, of proving your legitimacy for an 11th century leader was then to crush any opposition to your rule. So Donnchad may well have turned to the second best approach, and who best to crush than the pesky Mormaers of Moray who would insist on calling themselves kings of Alba. And northwards Donnchad went, and turned up in Moray at a place called Bothgounanan, which is usually identified as modern Pitgaveny near Elgin, though other interpretations of the place name, irritatingly, are available, and sadly Govan in Strathclyde is one of them which is seriously inconvenient and therefore in the interests of truthiness I am going to discount it – which finer historians than have done, in my defence.
Now of course there are other reasons why Donnchad could have been in Moray. Maybe Holinshed and Shakespeare were right; Donnchad the king went on a tour of his kingdom, to meet with his loyal or troublesome Mormaer of Moray – and was brutally murdered by a power hungry Macbeth. It’s entirely possible. In fact that interpretation is rather encouraged by the nature of the chronicle entry:
Not long afterwards, the king himself [that is, Donnchad], when he had returned to Scotia, was killed by his own men
Afterall, the chronicle makes no effort to describe this as a battle. Gruesome murder with egging from the sidelines is entirely possible. Will Shakespeare, hail the rigorous, painstaking historian.
Whatever theory you like – a king murdered in his bed by his supposedly loyal subject, or a rebellious local lord openly and honestly defeating his avenging king come to rip him of his freedom on the field of battle; in 1040, Macbeth had made the old Moravian claim a reality. The Mormaers of Moray had become kings of Alba.
The man he had bested, king Donnchad, or Duncan as Shakespeare would have it, was possessed of two sons. One of whose names was, needless to Mael Colium, and the other Domnall. Domnall by tradition fled to Ireland, and we will not hear of him again until the 1090s, so honestly, you can probably put him out of your mind for a while at least. The bigger question is, what happened to Mael Colium? Let’s not stress about it too much, but there are two competing theories; one that he fled to the English court. The other that he went northwards to the Orkney Islands, to the court of Earl of Orkney Thorfinn; Macbeth had probably already had plenty of run-ins with Thorfin in the past, struggling with Thorfin, unsuccessfully in Macbeth’s case, for control of Caithness and Sutherland, the lands to the north east of Moray, and south of the Orkney Islands. Wherever he was, Mael Colium was safely out of harm’s reach for the moment.
Now, although we know precious little of Macbeth’s reign as king of Alba, we have no reason to believe that he was, as Shakespeare painted him, an unusually tyrannical ruler. And if you trawl the interweb, this is a point made many times, more in line of saying ‘and he wasn’t the tyrant Shakespeare painted him, the naughty boy.’ Well apart from the fact that Shakespeare had a living to make and a tyrant’s a lot more interesting than Mr Nice Guy, we don’t know either way, he could have been a hideous tyrant for all we know. All the information we get is in a few snippets.
We have record of a bequest, made by Gruoch and Macbeth to a community of Celi De, or Culdees if you like, monks of a sort, in Fife. This is interesting on a couple of levels; firstly that Macbeth probably had some landed interest further south therefore than Moray, in the core power base of the Alban kings – quite probably brought with Gruoch again, emphasising what a catch Gruoch was to the Moravian dynasties. The other is that here is Macbeth being as presidential, kingly, in the fine tradition of medieval kings, enlisting the help of God and the church, and demonstrating his wealth and munificence.
The one indication we have that maybe Macbeth’s reign wasn’t acceptable to his people internally came five years into his reign in 1045, when we hear of this in a chronicle:
A battle between the Scots themselves in which fell Crinan, abbot of Dunkeld
Now there’s a long, long debate about who Crinan was. But it is entirely possible that this was the same Crinian whose loins had made a significant contribution to Donnchad’s fruiting. By which I mean, Crinan could have been Donnchad’s Dad. Most historians accept that the balance of probability is that this is the same Crinian, and it would be a spooky coincidence if not. And it’s quite believable that here was a man who wanted revenge for the murder of his son and given the importance of the cult of Dunkeld and St Colomba, Abbot of Dunkeld was a powerful and influential position.
It’s possible that Macbeth took pre-emptive action against Crinan, but if there was a battle it rather suggests that said abbot had time to prepare and gather an army; which pus the balance of probability on some kind of rebellion. Into the scales, then, we might throw a small weight in favour of tyrannical Macbeth – though the father of a murdered son is probably not to be taken as typical of how the wider kingdom might be viewing Macbeth’s reign.
But if Crinan’s failed revolt was a symptom of a wider discontent, the battle of 1045 seems to have definitively squished any resistance. Because in 1050, after 10 years of rule, we have this
Macethad, king of the Scots, scattered money like seed to the poor at Rome
The visit of a king to Rome was extraordinary, I mean seriously. Macbeth was in fact the only reigning king of Scotland ever to achieve it. For Macbeth to have left his kingdom for so long can really only mean that he felt absolutely secure in his kingdom. If he set off the previous year, Macbeth may well have been at one of Pope Leo IXth’s reforming councils; it was in fact reported that the council was attended by Scots. So we can visualise Macbeth rubbing shoulders with the great of Europe, such as the German king.
It’s entirely possible, of course that Macbeth would have travelled through England to get to the continent; though not inevitable. But events when he returned from Rome suggest that he might have done, that he visited the English court while he was en route. The English court would not have been that of the Scandinavian dynasty of Cnut anymore; that had crashed and burned in a welter of childlessness, to be replaced by the swan song of the of the restored house of Wessex, Edward the Confessor.
Of what events do I warble I hear you wonder? Well, Edward was the first wave of the Norman invasions as it happens, raised as he had been at the court of Normandy while his Mum Emma took up with her lover Cnut and preferred the cause of her second children. There’s a story I need to get back to. Anyway, Edward came across with a bunch of Norman friends and Norman architectural ideas; the latter proved acceptable, the former – less so. The Godwinsons held real power at the king’s court, and a bunch of new men from Normandy were not to their liking so they forced Edward to chuck them out. Edward, sadly, was something of a wuss. Anyway, while most of this men went back to Normandy, some of them remembered that chat they’d had with that Gaelic chap – Macbeth, that was it; he said they’d always be welcome at his place, let’s go and pick up with him. So two men in particular, Osbern and Hugh, moved north in 1052. Of course if Mael Colium, Donnchad’s son, had indeed taken up residence in the English court rather than Thorfinn’s Macbeth’s visit might well have had some awkward moments, along the lines of ‘My name is Mael Colium. You killed my father. Prepare to die’.
Macbeth’s harbouring of these Norman exiles might have been part of the story of why the peace he had established so effectively in Alba began to unravel; and how the relatively long and peaceful reign of Macbeth would come to an end, and he would receive his come uppance. Certainly Hugh and Osbern were to regret choosing Macbeth. There are a couple of current theories about what happened next, and how Macbeth came to lose his throne.
The first, traditional one, involves the Earl of Northumbria, Earl Siward. The story goes that Siward and a man called Mael Colium, oddly referred to as a king of Strathclyde, advance north and attack the evil Macbeth. Part of the motivation could have been that Macbeth was harbouring men in Hugh and Osbern considered to be enemies of the English kingdom. Macbeth shook out his sleevies to gather his armies and panicked mindlessly about those old ladies he’d met who told him “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him” which makes it a bit daft that he chose Dunsinane Hill as the place of battle but there you go, nowt so strange as folks. On 17th July 1054, Macbeth was defeated by Mael Colium, and many scots and all Normans were killed – so presumably the end of the line for Osbern and Hugh. However, Will Shakespeare, rigorous historian seems to have blotted his copybook here, because Macbeth did not die, but retreated to his old haunts and centre of power in the north, north of the Mounth. So although he controlled the centre of Alban power including the inauguration site at Scone, it wasn’t until 1057 or even 1058 that Mael Colium was able to go north, and defeat Macbeth at the real climactic battle at Lumphanan. Still the Moravian dynasty was not finished; Step son Lulach claimed the throne, but was to last just a few months until he too was destroyed, ambushed betrayed and killed by the all-conquering Mael Colium at Essie north of the Mounth. Lulach left descendants though; Máel Snechtai would soon be calling himself King of Moray, which Mael Colium would find irritating at a future date.
So, there are weirdnesses about this traditional story. I’ll mention two. Imagine yourself to be Earl Siward and Mael Colium in 1054. You are about to travel north to kill the usurping king of Alba and revenge your father and install yourself on the throne of Alba instead. Why on earth would you proclaim that you were taking the king of Strathclyde? Surely, you’d be saying you were going as king of Alba, if anything? Secondly the thing about Macbeth then surviving for a few more months in the north mean that Lulach could not have been inaugurated king at Scone, which was by now well established as the inauguration site for all new kings – and yet Lulach is universally acclaimed as King of Alba in king lists, which strongly suggests he was indeed inaugurated at Scone.
So here’s the alternative, slightly less traditional theory, which seems rather more feasible to my inexperienced ears, but you choose. In 1054, Earl Siward invaded with the support of the King of Strathclyde, who happened to be called Mael Colium, it’s a common enough name, and gave Macbeth a beating at Dunsinane Hill. Raids and counter raids between the northern nations are common, or indeed the existence of Osbern and Hugh might again have prompted Siward, or even unlikely as it sounds, it could just have been mindless English aggression.
Macbeth is destabilised by the raid and his defeat, but not finished by any means, since Siward goes home as per normal. 1057 though brought a separate invasion, but this time from the north. Mael Colium son of the murdered Donnchad and Earl Thorfinn of Orkney have teamed up; on the understanding that Mael Colium fled not to the English court when his Dad was killed, but to the court of the Earl of Orkney. Mael Colium and Thorfinn sweep down from the north and, as recorded in the contemporary Annals of Tigernach
Macbeth son of Findlaech, high king of Alba, was slain by Mael Colium son of Donnchad
Mael Colium and Thorfinn have won the north and killed the evil usurper and king killer. But further south, Macbeth’s supporters proclaim his step son Lulach as king, and he is inaugurated at Scone. But, a year later, in 1058 the chronicle again writes
Lulach, king of Alba was slain by Mael Colium son of Donnchad through treachery
Years later, after the death of Thorfinn, Mael Colium marries Ingeborg, Thorfinn’s widow, a symbol of their friendship and partnership. Though it has to be said the source for this marriage is super dicey.
Well look you pays your money and makes your choice really. I think I mildly prefer the northern invasion idea; also because later in Mael Colium’s reign he will prove very aggressive towards Edward the Confessor. Under theory number 1, Edward the Confessor was the very man who apparently helped him win his kingdom, so that would seem ungrateful. Although this would hardly be the only example of political ingratitude the world will ever see, so I accept it’s hardly a clincher.
There is is one final theory, actually which is that Mael Colium contacted Lulach and said, look, kiddo, you know that king of yours Macbeth? Well think back to that big bonfire night you had when you were a lad…actually that wasn’t a bonfire night at all because the Gunpowder plot is English and won’t be for another 6oo years or so. That was Macbeth killing your Dad. Shock horror results, Lulach agreed to betray his step father. Then later Mael Colium double crosses Lulach. Nice theory.