The Real Macbeth
In this Macbeth essay, I’m going to discuss the real Macbeth. Most people know the character Macbeth from William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. What some of the bard’s fans might not realize, however, is that Macbeth was an actual person. Ole Will took a lot of “artistic license” when he wrote his play, and in fact, the real Macbeth was much different in real life than he was depicted in Shakespeare’s work. The plot in the Macbeth play is also somewhat different than what actually happened, historically speaking.
Scottish history is confusing. For one thing, the term “king” or “kingship” didn’t mean what it means now. In Macbeth’s day, Scotland was tribal. Each tribe had its own “righ,” or leader. Over all the righs, an ard righ, or high king, ruled. The righs and tribes often fought with each other, and even most high kings ruled for just a few years before being overthrown. Another confusing element is the names of the men and women who played a part in the historical events. History wasn’t always well documented in the 11th century, either, so please keep that in mind as you read this Macbeth essay.
Macbeth's Early Life
The character we know as Macbeth was born Mac Bethad mac Findlaich, sometime around the year 1005, in Moray. Moray is in northeastern Scotland, on the Moray Firth. His father was Findlaech mac Ruaidri, a Scottish lord. Many historians believe that Macbeth’s mother was Donada, the daughter of Malcolm II, high king of Scotland from 1005 until 1034. As was a custom of the nobles at the time, Macbeth was probably sent away at the age of seven to be educated and to be trained for battle. He would have returned to Moray at the age of seventeen.
Macbeth came from a family of rulers. His father was mormaer of Moray. The mormaer was the ruler of a region. Macbeth’s grandfather, Ruadhri, had also ruled Moray.
King Malcolm II and Duncan
King Malcolm II had no male heirs. He broke with tradition in two ways when he chose his grandson, Duncan, as his successor to the throne. Before Malcolm’s rule, only the male line could be selected for the throne, and the successor was chosen by tanistry. Tanistry required that the heir-apparent be chosen by an assembly, alternating the throne among different royal lines. The elected heir, called the Tanist, would be the next in line to be king. Duncan wasn’t selected by tanistry – he was chosen by Malcolm. Malcolm II was the first Scottish king to introduce achieving the throne directly through heredity.
Even though Malcolm’s choice of Duncan broke with tradition, the selection of Duncan as king seemed to be accepted. He was crowned in 1034, following the death of Malcolm. Duncan I wasn’t the aged king depicted in Macbeth. He was probably about thirty-three years old when he became king. He had two sons – Malcolm and Donalbane. Little is recorded about the first five years of Duncan’s reign, but in 1039, he and his army attacked Durham, a Northumbrian city in northeastern England, and the king barely escaped with his life. Thousands of his men were killed in the battle, which didn’t set well with the Scottish people.
King Macbeth - The Rise to Power
Remember – Macbeth was the son of the Mormaer of Moray, and Macbeth had been groomed to be a ruler and leader in his own right. When Macbeth was in his teens, his father’s role as mormaer was challenged by two kinsmen. Findlaech was killed, and his nephew, Malcolm (not King Malcolm), became mormaer. Malcolm died in 1029, however. Another of Macbeth’s cousins, Gillecomgain, became Mormaer of Moray. Gillecomgain’s rulership was cut short when he was killed in a fire, and Macbeth became Mormaer of Moray. Interestingly, Macbeth not only assumed Gillecomgain’s position, but he also married Gillecomgain’s wife, Gruoch.
Macbeth was one of Duncan’s dukes, and many have speculated that Macbeth wielded a lot of power. In 1040, Duncan led his army into Moray, which was Macbeth’s territory. Duncan was slain by Macbeth in the battle, and Macbeth became king. Malcolm, Duncan’s oldest son, was too young to be crowned, according to Celtic law. He was only nine at the time, and the minimum age required for kingship was seventeen.
According to most historical accounts, Macbeth wasn’t the dastardly villain depicted by Shakespeare. On the contrary, he appeared to be brave, reasonable, and generous. Under his rule, Scotland enjoyed law and order and stability. As a follower of Christianity, Macbeth made at least one pilgrimage to Rome during his reign, and while there, he gave large amounts of silver to the poor.
The Death of Macbeth
At some point after Duncan’s death, his widow and her sons left Scotland and went to England. We know that the oldest son, Malcolm Canmore, wound up in the court of the English King, Edward the Confessor. Malcolm came around to believing that the Scottish throne was rightfully his, and when he became old enough, he raised an army to challenge Macbeth’s reign.
In 1054, Malcolm and his uncle, Siward, Earl of Northumbria, and their armies arrived in Scotland on ships and on horses. The two divisions converged on the Plains of Gowrie to meet Macbeth’s forces, and Macbeth was defeated. This is where it gets really confusing. Some historians believe that the Malcolm with Siward at the time was not Malcolm, son of Duncan. Either way, it appears that Malcolm was made king of southern Scotland, while Macbeth retained rule of northern Scotland.
In 1057, Macbeth and Malcolm met in battle again, this time at the Battle of Lumphanan, in Aberdeenshire. Macbeth was seriously wounded and died several days later as a result. Upon the death of Macbeth, his stepson, Lulach, was crowned king. Shortly thereafter, Lulach was killed by Malcolm Canmore, and Malcolm became King Malcolm III.
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