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Gaelic Territories

MacBeth: The True History of the Man and His Times

by Mick Baker, 2 June 2007

Part 1: Duncan

Scottish kingship in the eleventh century was not strictly hereditary.

Instead it was based on a system called tanistry, or thanistry (as in 'thane'), whereby the new king would be drawn from a large pool of suitable candidates, called tanists - any one of whom may have a legitimate claim to the throne through ancestry or marriage.

Therefore, when Duncan I took the throne in 1034 his rival, MacBeth, had as much if not more of a claim to the crown, as he claimed his descent via not one but two royal lines.

Compare this system with that of Saxon England, for whilst kingship was generally hereditary south of the border, the Witanegamot nonetheless had the final say in the monarch's selection. Sons of kings would naturally be groomed for kingship, hence the seemingly hereditary nature, but the accession of Harold II in 1066 exemplifies the role of the Witan.

In theory, tanistry should have worked, but in practice, what often happened was the strongest and most cunning of the tanists would rise to power. As a result, the best person did not necessarily become king, as tanistry encouraged open conflict as well as the assassination of reigning kings and other tanists.

Any would-be future monarch would be sorely tempted to try to gain the kingship more quickly by speeding the demise of the reigning king and, particularly so, if the king had been unfortunate in war or policy. Dynastic faction and rivalry therefore led to insecurity and quick changes in succession.

The list of of kings (see sidebar link for Scotland) reveals six who were killed by their successors and four who were killed in feuds, perhaps in favour of their successors. So when Duncan I was killed by MacBeth, such a removal of the reigning king by his successor to the throne was neither new nor strange. Malcolm II, Duncan's predecessor, had himself succeeded by killing Kenneth III; Kenneth III had succeeded by killing Constantine III; and, in due course, MacBeth was to be killed by Malcolm III, Duncan's son.

King Duncan I

Duncan I became the first king of a fully united Scotland when he added Strathclyde to his grandfather's kingdom. He was married to a kinswoman of the Danish Earl Siward of Northumbria, and produced two sons - Malcolm (Ceann Mor) and Donald Bane - whose hereditary claim was threatened by Duncan's cousin, MacBeth.

Duncan's accession was the first instance of succession in the direct line since the mid-ninth century, the usual method being via the aforementioned tanistry.

The combined evidence of the sources for Duncan's six-year reign amounts to a relentless chronicle of defeats in battle, leading inevitably to his own demise. The first of these military reverses can be dated to the earlier years of his reign.

Part 1: Duncan
Part 2: MacBeth

Evidence drawn largely from the Orkneyinga Saga identifies Duncan as one 'Karl Hundisson' (see boxout, right), succeeding after the 'death of the king of the Scots' (Malcolm II).

Duncan claimed all of Scotland, including Caithness, which lay in the hands of Jarl Thorfinn, a grandson of Malcolm II, and consequently another of Duncan's cousins with an equal claim to the throne!

The Scots war band which had been deployed to the north found itself hopelessly outnumbered in the ensuing engagement and was pursued all along the course of its retreat by a jubilant Thorfinn who 'subdued Sutherland and Ross and plundered far and wide over Scotland'.

Furious at this setback, 'King Karl' came north with a fleet of eleven warships, catching up with Thorfinn's fleet moored off the south-east coast of Orkney. Alas, he was no more successful here than earlier and suffered an ignominious defeat, losing his own flagship in a sea-fight off Deerness.

Thorfinn's lieutenant, Thorkell the Fosterer, slew Duncan's nephew - Muddan - whom Duncan had installed in Caithness, before joining his jarl in Moray where, according to the saga, a great war band had assembled, 'raised in Caithness and throughout Sutherland and Ross'. The ensuing battle occurred at Torfnes (Burghead, or perhaps Tarbat Ness).

Arnor the Skald sang of this encounter: 'Well the red weapons fed wolves at Tarbat Ness' Thorfinn emerged triumphant from the carnage to follow up this victory with the plundering "as far south as Fife"... Karl took flight, though some men say he was killed'.

Defeat and yet more defeat

Those 'some men' were mistaken because Duncan (Karl) re-emerged a few years later to face defeat in yet another engagement, this time far to the south in Cuthbert's land. Duncan had become embroiled in Northumbrian power politics before his accession, when he had married Sybil, a daughter or sister of the Danish warlord Siward, who was to become the earl in 1033.

Siward's rival, Eadulf of Bamburgh, launched an attack on Scots territory, raiding Cumbria in 1038. In a revenge attack, Duncan laid siege to Durham in the following year, only to once more be put to flight. Symeon's History of the Church of Durham records the event:

... a great proportion of his cavalry was slain by the besieged and he was put to disorderly flight, in which he lost his foot-soldiery whose heads were collected in the market place and hung up upon posts. Not long afterwards the same king, upon his return to Scotland, was murdered by his own countrymen...

Roman Polanski's MacBeth: King Duncan's welcome
  I concur with historian John Marsden, who sees the saga-maker's disparaging cognomen ('low-born son of a dog') as an epithet for Duncan mac Crinan (pictured). Other scholars propose MacBeth himself, or a mormaer of Ross or Sutherland who annexed Argyll in 1029.

Mick Baker  

Duncan's countrymen, the men of Moray under MacBeth, their mormaer (sub-king), rejected a monarch whose prestige was damaged beyond repair and rose up - it is suggested - when Duncan engaged upon a royal progress, accompanied by an intimidating show of force.

It was a common practice for a Gaelic monarch to personally undertake the collection of taxes and tribute. It could be seen that such a flourish of sovereign authority would present a ceremonial challenge to a recalcitrant sub-king. Duncan's lack of wise judgement was not limited only to the battlefield it would seem! To issue such a challenge to a mormaer of Moray with an equal if not better claim to the kingship than his own was to tempt providence beyond endurance.

MacBeth, at the head of the disgruntled men of Moray, rose up and defeated Duncan, killing him on 14 August 1040 at Bothngouane (now Pitgaveny) near Elgin. He was buried on Iona.

Duncan's defeat and MacBeth's subsequent long reign however, can only really be explained by the probable co-operation of 'the man of the sword seeking Scotland's throne'; a man with an equal mother-right to it; another cousin of both Duncan and MacBeth - Thorfinn, earl of Orkney. As Professor G Donaldson puts it:

...it would be understandable if Duncan's two cousins, Thorfinn and MacBeth, then ganged up against him... and the circumstances suggest that he fell victim to a joint attack by his two cousins, who after thus disposing of him partitioned the kingdom between them. MacBeth got the royal title, but Thorfinn, the Saga says, held nine Scottish earldoms, which by any reckoning looks like a generous share.'

King MacBeth reigns

MacBeth reigned in Scotland from 1040 until 1057. As can be seen by his long reign, MacBeth was a good and strong king; a far cry from the evil villain portrayed in Shakespeare's work of fiction.

No one reigned for seventeen years unless they were strong and worthy of the respect of the people. However, one must not lose sight of the fact that such peace and prosperity would not have been possible had he not reached some accommodation with the mighty Thorfinn.

Such an arrangement would imply a political alliance if not a personal friendship between cousins. It is both curious and interesting therefore, that there is no mention of Thorfinn in the Irish or Scottish sources, neither is there any appearance - at least under that name - of MacBeth in the Orkneyinga Saga.

This has led to at least one enterprising hypothesis which advocates MacBeth and Thorfinn as being one and the same individual! All the genealogical evidence immediately invalidates this proposal, of course.

MacBeth was powerful enough during his reign, to go on pilgrimage to Rome (1050), where he 'scattered silver like seed to the poor', safe in the knowledge that his kingdom would be intact on his return. There is also evidence to suggest that Thorfinn was also in Rome at about the same time.

Professor Donaldson suggests that 'even if they were not one man under two names, MacBeth and Thorfinn may have been fellow travellers.'

Roman Polanski's MacBeth: Bamburgh Castle stands in for MacBeth's castle

Part 1: Duncan
Part 2: MacBeth


Images © Caliban Films/Playboy Productions. Text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature for the History Files.