Macbeth: Why the King of Scotland was More Than a Shakespearan Despot

Shakespeare’s Macbeth was based on a real King of Scotland, but it has little resemblance to the actual history, a regicidal drama in itself.

Jan 4, 2020By Monique Galloway, BA Archaeology
macbeth shakespeare
Macbeth and the Witches by Henry Daniel Chadwick, in a Private Collection, via Thought Co.
Macbeth, the King of Scotland from 1040-1057, via


Macbeth was a blood-soaked, politically inspired drama written to please King James VI & I. Written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Shakespeare’s tragedy is a warning to those who were considering Regicide. The real Macbeth did kill the ruling King of Scotland, but in medieval Scotland, regicide was practically a natural cause of death for kings.


The real Macbeth was the last Highlander to be crowned and the last Celtic King of Scotland. The next King of Scotland, Malcolm III, only won the throne through the help of Edward the Confessor of England, bringing the countries closer politically.


Macbeth’s fierce Celtic independence is the very reason Shakespeare chose him to be the villainous king. The play was to be performed in front of England’s new king, James Stuart, the man who united the Scottish and English thrones.


Macbeth’s Background: 11th Century Scotland 

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Discovery of Duncan’s Murder – Macbeth Act II Scene I by Louis Haghe, 1853, via Royal Collection Trust, London


Scotland was not one kingdom in the 11th century, but rather a series, some more powerful than others. The actual Kingdom of Scotland was the southwest corner of the country, and its king was loosely the overlord of the other kingdoms.


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It was still subject to Viking Invasions, and the Norsemen, as they were known, controlled much of the North of Scotland and the Islands. The Scottish king had no influence here.


engraving pictish warrior medieval period
Engraving of a Pictish Warrior of the Medieval Period by Theodore De Bry, 1585-88


The Kingdom of Moray in the 11th century was originally the Kingdom of the Picts, centered on what is now Inverness. It stretched from the West Coast facing the Isle of Skye to the East Coast and River Spey. Its northern border was the Moray Firth, with the Grampian Mountains forming the southern extent of the kingdom. It was a buffer zone between the Norsemen in the North and the early Scottish kingdom to the south and thus needed a strong king.


Culturally the southern Kingdom of Scotland was influenced by the Anglo Saxons and Normans, the west still demonstrated some of the Gaelic traditions of their Irish ancestors. The Kingdom of Moray was the successor to the original Pictish Kingdom and culturally Celtic.


The kingship of Scotland was not hereditary, instead, the kings were elected from a pool of suitable candidates who were all descended from King Kenneth MacAlpin (810-50). The practice was known as tanistry and in Scotland included both the male and female lines, although only a mature male could become king. In this period a king was a warlord as he needed to be able to lead his men in battle. This automatically disqualified women.


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James I & VI by Paul Von Somer, ca. 1620, via The Royal Collection Trust, London


The first woman to be a regnant Queen who lived in Scotland rather than a consort or regent was the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots (r. 1542-67). She was the mother of James and was beheaded by Elizabeth I of England. James succeeded both Queens to their Thrones, becoming James IV of Scotland and James I of England and incidentally also the patron of Shakespeare.


King Of Moray

ellen terry lady macbeth
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, 1889 via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, anglicized to Macbeth, was born around 1005, the son of the King of Moray. His father, Findlaech mac Ruaidrí was the grandson of Malcolm I, who was the King of Scotland between 943 and 954. His mother was the daughter of the ruling king, Malcolm II, who ascended to the Throne the year Macbeth was born. This lineage gave him a strong claim to the Scottish Throne.


When he was 15, his father was murdered and his birthright stolen by his cousins, Gille Comgáin and Mael Coluim. Revenge would be taken in 1032 when Macbeth, in his 20s, defeated the brothers, burning them alive with their supporters. He then married the widow of Gille Comgáin.


In the 21st century, the idea of a woman marrying the murderer of her husband is completely unthinkable. But in the medieval world, it was not unusual, regardless of the thoughts of the lady involved. Gruoch was the grand-daughter of Kenneth III, King of Scotland. She had also proven that she could produce boys, two of the most important qualifications for any medieval aristocratic woman.


Macbeth had his lands, a Princess, and a new baby step-son who had a claim to the Throne of Scotland on both sides of the family. Two years later, Malcolm II, the King of Scotland, died and violated the succession of tanistry when his grandson Duncan I took the Throne. Macbeth had a much stronger claim to the Throne but did not dispute the succession.


duncan i king of scotland
Duncan I, King of Scotland (1034-40) by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II, 1684-86, via The Royal Collection Trust, London


Rather than being the elderly kindly king of Shakespeare, Duncan I was only four years older than Macbeth. A king had to be politically strong and successful in battle; Duncan was neither. He was defeated first after invading Northumbria. Then he invaded the Kingdom of Moray, effectively challenging Macbeth.


Duncan’s decision to invade was fatal and he was killed in battle near Elgin on the 14th August 1040. Whether Macbeth actually delivered the mortal blow has been lost to history.


The “Red King” Of Scotland


After that the Red King will take sovereignty, the Kingship of Noble Scotland of hilly aspect; after slaughter of the Gaels, after slaughter of the Vikings, the generous King of Fortriu will take sovereignty.

The red, tall, golden-haired one, he will be pleasant to me among them; Scotland will be brimful west and east during the reign of the furious red one.”


Macbeth described in The Prophecy of Berchan


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Macbeth by John Martin, ca. 1820, via National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh


Macbeth became the last highlander to ever sit on the Scottish Throne and the last Celtic King of Scotland. Malcolm II and Duncan I were both much more Anglo Saxon and Norman than Celtic. Duncan I was married to a princess of Northumbria and incidentally, both kings were the ancestors of King James I & VI.


Macbeth was the perfect character for Shakespeare to vilify. He is not an ancestor of King James’, he represents Regicide and the separation of Scotland and England.


In 1045 Duncan I’s father Crinan, the Abbott of Dunkelk, attacked Macbeth in an attempt to regain the crown. An Abbott was a feudal position rather than strictly religious. Many were fighting men of ability and married with families.


Crinan was killed in the battle at Dunkeld. The next year, Siward, the Earl of Northumbria invaded but also failed. Macbeth had proven he had the strength to defend the kingdom, an essential requirement to hold the Throne at the time.


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Battle of Brunanburh, 937 AD, via Historic UK


He was an able ruler; his reign as King of Scotland was prosperous and peaceful. He passed a law enforcing a Celtic tradition of noblemen protecting and defending women and orphans. He also changed the law of inheritance to allow women the same rights as men.


He and his wife gifted land and money to the monastery at Loch Leven where he was educated as a boy. In 1050, the couple went on a pilgrimage to Rome, possibly to petition the Pope on behalf of the Celtic Church. It was around this time that the Church of Rome was attempting to bring the Celtic Church under its complete control. Pope Leo IX was a reformer, and Macbeth may have been seeking religious reconciliation.


arrest of christ gospel of matthew
The Arrest of Christ, Gospel of Matthew, Folio 114r from the Book of Kells, ca. 800 AD, via St. Alberts Catholic Chaplaincy, Edinburgh


The Pilgrimage to Rome indicated that he was secure enough as King of Scotland to leave for the best part of a year. He was also wealthy enough for the royal couple to distribute alms to the poor and gift money to the Roman Church.


The lack of records at this period also shows that Scotland was at peace. This may have influenced the decision of exiled Norman Knights to seek the protection of Macbeth in 1052. It is not recorded who these knights are, but they may have been the men of Harold Godwin, the Earl of Wessex. He and his men had been exiled by King Edward the Confessor for rioting in Dover the year before.


Macbeth’s Reign As King Of Scotland Comes To An End

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The Norman Army in Battle, from the Bayeaux Tapestry, 1066, in the Bayeux Museum, via History Today


He ruled well for seventeen years, until another challenge to his throne in 1057, again from Duncan I’s family. At the time, he was the second longest-ruling King of Scotland. Regicide was almost an accepted form of succession; ten of the fourteen Scottish kings in the Middle Ages would die a violent death.


Malcolm Cranmore, Duncan’s son was raised in England, probably at the court of Siward of Northumbria, Macbeth’s enemy. Malcolm was nine years old when Macbeth defeated his father and in 1057, he was fully grown, ready for revenge and the crown. He invaded Scotland with a force supplied by King Edward the Confessor and was joined by some of the southern Scottish Lords.


Macbeth, then in his 50s, was killed at the Battle of Lumphanan, either on the field or soon after from wounds. Macbeth’s Cairn at Lumphanan, now a scheduled historic site, is traditionally his burial place. The countryside around this area is rich in sites and monuments attributed to him by the romantic Victorians.


Macbeth’s followers put his stepson Lulach on the throne. He was crowned at Scone on the ancient coronation stone. Unfortunately, Lulach ‘the Simple’ or ‘the Fool’ was not an effective king and was killed the year after in another battle with Malcolm.


william shakespeare john taylor
William Shakespeare by John Taylor, ca. 1600-10, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


King Malcolm III had the throne of Scotland, but he was now beholden to the King of England. English interference would plague Scottish kings until James VI united the Scottish and English Thrones in 1603. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, first performed in 1606, was the perfect political propaganda for the new king.

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By Monique GallowayBA ArchaeologyI’m a former Australian soldier and historical archaeologist with a degree from the University of Sydney. After almost 20 years as a practicing archaeologist I now live in Cambodia and was running a social enterprise to help improve lives here. I have a special interest in the layers of history of a site and evidence of subversion, especially ancient graffiti on monuments.