Macbeth and Duncan, History not Myth


Macbeth (c1005-1057) was the son of Finlaich, Mormaer of Moray, a sub-kingship he later inherited. Today Moray is a tiny if rich county. Then it was enormous, bounded by Ross, Buchan, Athol and Lochaber and one of seven provinces being welded into the fledgling Scotland. Contemporary sources say he was closely related to three major kings, Malcolm II, Kenneth II and Kenneth III, all involved in the painful coalescing of Celts, Picts and Irish Scots as well as Norse Viking settlers.

Macbeth, King in Waiting

Historians disagree about his exact relationship with these kings, but he was born around 1005 to a mother of royal Celtic lineage, daughter of Malcolm II or Kenneth III. In1010 Malcolm defeated a major Viking incursion into Moray at Mortlach in Strathspey but there is ample evidence, using sagas, documents and DNA testing, that Scandinavians had settled and intermarried with native Picts for generations and Macbeth probably carried Viking blood.

Prosperous, sheltered Moray was the scene of constant fighting, both factional and against invaders. Macbeth grew up with this background, learning to manage men on the battlefield, in the council chamber and at court. One source, the 11th century king’s list, Duan Albanach, calls him ‘Mac Bethad the Esteemed’. The Orkneyinga Saga describes him as ‘red, tall, golden-haired and pleasant among men’. Undoubtedly he was admired as warleader and politician in his time. Scotland flourished under his rule.

Thorfinn, Norse Claimant By-passed

In 1009 Thorfinn, acknowledged as Macbeth’s cousin, was born to Malcolm’s eldest daughter, wife of the powerful Earl Sigurd of Orkney. These earls owed allegiance to the kings of Norway not Scotland; the islands and northern counties of Caithness and Sutherland remained part of the Norse fief until pledged as dower for Margaret of Norway on her marriage to Jame III in 1468.

Many efforts were made by mediaeval Scottish rulers to gain sovereignty of the northern islands and mainland but Scandinavian support was always too great to overthrow these Earls of Orkney. Nevertheless, Thorfinn spent much of his childhood at the court of his Scottish grandfather rather than that of his own Norse king. By primogeniture Thorfinn’s mother, the first daughter of Malcolm (who had no sons) should have given Thorfinn first claim to the Scottish throne, but this seems to have been ignored by everybody.

Instead Thorfinn, inheriting his Earldom in childhood, accepted Duncan’s claim on Malcolm’s death. When Duncan’s behaviour rendered his kingship unacceptable Thorfinn became Macbeth’s ally and it may have been Thorfinn who killed Duncan in battle. When Macbeth went to Rome in 1050 for the Easter Synod held by the German Pope Leo IX, Thorfinn joined his pilgrimage, possibly seeking Papal absolution for killing Duncan. Both scattered alms to the poor.

Although both men probably preferred the Celtic church which the Pope was trying to overrule, especially in its acceptance of clerical marriage, they were welcomed with equal pomp and status by the church and by other royalty visiting the city where they were able to discuss European affairs and alliances in the face of considerable international turmoil, suggesting both were well educated and respected. Thorfinn must have been impressed by Catholicism, however; before his death in 1065 he established a bishopric in Birsay.

Duncan, King Rejected

The youngest cousin, Duncan, was born in 1010, son of Malcolm’s youngest daughter and Abbot Crinan of Dunkeld, a cleric with an ambitious eye on both political power through his royal son and the Archbishopric of York. Possibly to provide a benefice for Duncan, a grandson without patrimony unlike his powerful cousins, Malcolm accepted from a dying ally the Princedom of Strathclyde. Straddling the border between Scotland and England and stretching as far as Lancaster it would be hard to control or protect without allies on both sides. It helped that Duncan married into the mighty Earldom of Northumbria.

It is a mystery why Duncan succeeded so easily to his grandfather’s throne without objection from his older, stronger, wiser and more experienced cousins. They may have been happy to leave him to deal with a hornets’ nest and gave him no help when he laid siege to Durham in 1039 incurring enormous losses. When he tried to wrest the Scottish mainland from Orkney, he was twice defeated by Thorfinn and it was then that Macbeth turned against Duncan.

By then Macbeth had married Gruoch, widow of his father’s supplanter. Both had strong legitimate claims to the throne under the ancient, accepted rule of tanistry. Even before Duncan was defeated in battle in 1040 near Elgin, dying at Pitgaveny of his wounds, he may already have been deposed and Macbeth elected as King of Alba (Scotland).