Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Macbeth: a smear campaign? by Thursa Wilde

Welcome back to History Undressed, Thursa Wilde! Today she's written another fun post for us--a bit of Shakespeare and a bit of history! Enjoy!

Macbeth: a smear campaign? 

by Thursa Wilde

We all know the story of the murderer with the ambitious wife, Shakespeare’s eponymous King in Macbeth.  But how much of the true tale can we extract from that misty history? Mac Bethad Mac FindlaĆ­ch (anglicised as Macbeth, son of Finlaech) was born around 1005, grandson of Malcolm II of Scotland. He and Duncan were cousins, and Duncan, like the Shakespearian character, had two sons - Malcolm, who later became Malcolm III and Donalbane, later Donald III.

The Scottish Play calls him Thane of Cawdor, but the real Macbeth was Mormaer of Moray.  (Thane and Mormaer were both Scottish titles). It was from Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, published in 1577, that Shakespeare lifted the incorrect title. These chronicles are an ambitious account of history from earliest times, but aren’t always based on historical fact. They took earlier references from books like John Fordun’s Chronica Gentis Scotorum, (Chronicles of the Scottish People), written 1363-85, which contained accounts of angels, prophecies and Merlin among other ‘facts’. So either Holinshed’s invented the story of Macbeth and the witches, or a folk-myth developed in the years after Macbeth’s death which Holinshed’s picked up on, and Shakespeare later borrowed. Or maybe there is another reason.

The original decision was that succession to the Scottish throne would alternate between the male issue of the two sons of Kenneth MacAlpin, because of this unwise gambit the line of MacAlpin is littered with poisoned and stabbed bodies. However Malcolm II had been on the throne for 29 years when he decided on his heir, a long time for a Scottish monarch! He was a shrewd leader, and although he only had daughters he married them off to the heirs of families that might otherwise have caused him trouble. So his grandsons, Duncan and Macbeth, were next in line.  Malcolm chose Duncan, the elder of the two, as his heir.

Macbeth had in the meantime married the real Lady Macbeth, Gruach, the widow of his deceased cousin, Gillacomgain and granddaughter of Kenneth III; and Macbeth’s own distant cousin, as she was also Gillacomgain’s niece!  This family tree makes your head spin.

Gillacomgain is implicated in the killing of Macbeth’s father when Macbeth was around 15 years old and he had stolen the Mormaer title. About 12 years later Gillacomgain burned to death in a hall with fifty of his men, and Macbeth became Mormaer of Moray. We don’t know whether Macbeth, or his grandfather, Malcolm II, did the burning.  But you could say Gillacomgain had it coming.

With marriage Macbeth was now related to both branches of the MacAlpin line. This strengthened his position as heir to the Scottish throne. Make of that what you will!

King Malcolm died at Glamis Castle in 1034, allegedly of old age, though some annals say he was killed by his nephews. Duncan then became Duncan I of Scotland. Although his 5 year reign seems mostly peaceful, his nickname was An t-Ilgarach, meaning ‘the diseased’ or ‘the sick’. It is recorded that Macbeth was Duncan’s Dux, or Duke, a highly influential position near the king.

In 1039 the Northumbrians attacked Strathclyde and Duncan retaliated against Durham, but this apparently went badly and he retreated north to find himself in another battle in Moray against his own Macbeth, who must have been plotting an overthrow in his absence, and seemed to have much support. Duncan was not killed in his bed at Glamis Castle as the play suggests, but on a battlefield by Macbeth and an army of Scotsmen. Duncan’s wife and young sons fled into exile.

Macbeth ruled from 1040-1057. According to the Prophecy of Berchan Macbeth is described as ‘a generous king’. In a historical narrative poem, Duan Albanach (Song of the Scots) he is referred to as ‘Mac Bethad the renowned’. So there is no evidence to suggest that he is unpopular, and a seventeen-year rule is good innings. Around 1050 he undertook a pilgrimage to Rome. No one tried to overthrow him in his absence so we can presume his reign was a peaceful one. That is until Malcolm, son of Duncan showed up. 

In 1052 Macbeth must have annoyed Edward the Confessor, King of England, when he gave shelter to some Norman noblemen, because Edward began a long war with Scotland which resulted in Malcolm meeting Macbeth in 1057 on a battlefield in Lumphanan and fatally wounding him. (There’s a pub there now called the Macbeth Arms!) Some historians think that England was behind a plan to re-instate Malcolm on the throne, which might explain why negative propaganda about Macbeth grew up. A popular monarch would need sullying to justify the takeover.

Although old texts do differ about events, there is no supporting evidence that Macbeth and his wife were serial killers. So where did Holinshed’s get their information? Did the English King do a deal with Malcolm, exiled at his court, and was Macbeth’s reputation destroyed as a result? You know what those scheming English are like.

Thursa Wilde is a writer and member of the support team at Highland Titles. Highland Titles sells plots of Scottish land to people all over the world, many of whom have an affinity with Scotland and Great Britain.

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