Mac Bethad mac Findlàech, known in English and Scots as Macbeth c. 1005 – August 15, 1057 was the Àrd Rìgh or High King of Scotland from August 14, 1040 to August 15, 1057. Mac Bethad in Middle Irish literally means "Son of Life," which translates figuratively as "an Anointed One" (compare mac báis ("son of death" or "damned one"), used as a term for fíanna warriors ).
Macbeth was the son of Findlàech, who found himself on the wrong side of the regnal dispute with their cousins. Findlàech had married Dabhda (Anglicised 'Dovda'), a daughter of Malcolm II and sister of Bethoc (mother of the future Duncan I). This alliance with the House of Atholl estranged him from his own line, the House of Moray, and his own brother eventually ordered Findlàech's death by the hands of his nephews, Gillecomgain and Malcolm X.
Malcolm died in 1029 and was succeeded by Gillecomgain, who died in 1031 or 1032, in a raid mounted against him by High King Malcolm II. Macbeth then succeeded his cousin as Mormaer of Moray, and married Gillecomgain's widow, Princess Gruoch - a granddaughter of Kenneth III through his son, Prince Bòidhe; thus becoming step-father to her son by Gillecomgain, Lulach.
According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, Macbeth was one of three Scottish kings who submitted to Canute the Great in 1031. 'King' in this context, as it pertains to Macbeth, refers to his rulership of the province of Moray.
At this time, Scotland was still a tribal and quasi-federal "High Kingdom," like Ireland. There was one High King of Scots and Picts, but there were many regional kings and underkings - the terms "maormaer" and "earl" being more commonly used in Scotland (whereas in Ireland one reads of the High King of Tara, the King of Munster, etc.).
Despite a lack of direct evidence for it, it has been supposed that Scotland used an old Irish/Pictish matrilineal system of kingship at this time, and for nearly another two centuries after. Under this proposed system, the grand chief of Scots and Picts was always a king, but he was eligible to be king because his mother was a ranking Princess Royal. She, and the woman who became Queen, were representatives of the Goddess of Sovereignty, whom the king symbolically married upon his accession. Kings were thus succeeded by their mother's other sons, then their sisters' sons, then their maternal aunts' sons. This resulted in the crown traveling from brother to brother, uncle to nephew, and cousin to cousin - a system that became ripe for corruption by ambitious men, as the sacred role of womanhood dimished.
Alternatively, the system known as tanistry may have been in use, resulting in the crown regularly moving from one branch of the royal line to another. In contrast to the matrilinear suggestions, there is substantial evidence for tanistry from several sources, even up to relatively modern times.
Macbeth's own grandfather, Malcolm II, was one such ambitious man. He wished the crown to be settled upon his grandson Duncan, son of his daughter, Bethoc, who had married Crinan, the Maormaer ("provincial king") and Abbot of Dunkeld. This may have been because Bethoc was his favourite daughter, or because political alliance with Crinan was important - or both.
Sometime before his death in 1034, Malcolm II proceeded to eliminate the heirs to the throne who were ahead of Duncan in the succession. Of these, only Lulach survived, then a very young child and rumoured (successfully) to be half-witted. Having the protection of Macbeth did not hurt, and being step-father and husband of Gruoch bolstered Malbeth's own position under the old system.
To challenge Duncan's position, Macbeth formed an alliance with his and Duncan's cousin Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, son of Malcolm II's youngest daughter. They engaged Duncan in battle, who died fighting them near Elgin on August 14, 1040.
Macbeth was a strong king and ruled over a kingdom stable enough for him to be able to leave for several months on a pilgrimage to Rome. He instituted a new form of law and order in Scotland. His reign was noted as a time of prosperity. However, in 1054, Malcolm Canmore, Duncan's son, began his campaign for the throne with the assistance of Siward, Earl of Northumbria, by capturing the south of Scotland. Macbeth was killed by Malcolm's forces at a battle near Lumphanan and the throne passed to Macbeth's stepson, Lulach, in August, 1057.
Macbeth is buried on Iona, Scotland's sacred isle and the traditional burial place of High Kings of Scots and Picts at that time.
Some claim the context of the 13th century Chronicle of Huntingdon, which names Macbeth a nepos (meaning "grandson" as well as "nephew") of King Malcolm, refers to Malcolm III Canmore, rather than Malcolm II - but this is impossible, since it was Malcolm III Canmore, son of Duncan I, who succeeded Macbeth - after defeating him in battle in 1057 and killing him either then or shortly thereafter.
William Shakespeare's play Macbeth is very loosely based upon the career of the real Macbeth, greatly maligning him and his Queen (a princess royal reduced to the status of a mere "Lady"). But the principal objective of Shakespeare's play is political patronage, not history. James VI & I, whose Stewart/Stuart line descended from Malcolm III Canmore, was newly on the throne of England. The Stewart succession and James VI & I himself are obliquely refered to in the play.
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