August 14: The Historical Macbeth

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Some of our favorite stories from history are about people, like Sir Francis Drake from last episode and about whom we’ll be hearing more a week from today, who seem almost larger than life. Such characters become the stuff of legend as much as history, and often enough the actual history and the legend become blurred over time. Sometimes, after years of the telling, the legendary character may have almost nothing in common with the historical person on whom they were once based. And this week, we take a look at what surely must be one of the most egregious examples of this in history. And it’s all Shakespeare’s fault.

Well, not really. But to understand what I’m talking about, and appropriately distribute blame as well as right a few historical wrongs in the process… we have to turn back the clock.

August 14, 1040

Today, Donnchad Mac Crinain, King of Scotland, was killed. And his successor is the man who kills him: Mac Bethad mac Findlaich. Or, as their names are commonly Anglicized, King Duncan and MacBeth.

If this immediately brings to mind bloody knives, the untimely murder of a kindly old king in his bed, prophetic witches, and the like, then you likely know exactly as little about the real historical events in question as I did before I began my research for this podcast. Obviously some elements of the story were a fabrication (probably no actual witches, for example) but I had made the innocent assumption that perhaps Shakespeare’s tale was at least somewhat rooted in the historical record. And, to be fair, it was. Somewhat. 

Because I’m going to be referencing Shakespeare’s account a few times along the way, it’s worth briefly summarizing it for those of you who missed it in high school English class… or just forgot. Essentially, Macbeth and his close friend and fellow general Banquo have just helped their king Duncan to win a great victory, and then meet three witches who tell them each a prophecy. Macbeth is told that he will become the thane of Cawdor and then the King of Scotland, at which he scoffs. Banquo is told that he will never be king, but his descendants will be. Both men leave without thinking much more of it, but then Macbeth is told that the old king Duncan has decided to reward him for his aid in the victory by naming him the thane of Cawdor. Seeing that part of the prophecy turned out to be true, Macbeth begins obsessing over the second half, and his wife Lady Macbeth encourages him to take matters into his own hands. He murders old King Duncan in his sleep, blames the murder on some servants, and then takes the throne of Scotland. But Duncan’s son Malcolm and his right hand man MacDuff, whose family Macbeth had murdered, soon invade and defeat Macbeth in a climactic battle outside his palace at Dunsinane. Oh, and somewhere along the way MacBeth had ordered his old friend Banquo and his son Fleance killed once he’d become king, worrying about that other prophecy and that Fleance might overthrow him. He’d successfully killed Banquo, but Fleance got away.

How much, if any, of this story about Macbeth is rooted in history?

To give Shakespeare some credit, he did use at least one major historical source in the creation of the play–namely, the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, compiled by Raphael Holinshed, first published in 1577. Holinshed’s primary source for the MacBeth story, in turn, seems to have been an earlier work called the Historia Scotorum, or, “The History of the Scots,” written half a century earlier by Hector Boece (rhymes with choice). Boece was a Scottish philosopher and historian, the first Principal of King’s College in Aberdeen, and under the patronage of King James IV of Scotland. The three men’s tellings of the tale, when looked at side by side, have the feel of one of those old games of “telephone” in which a simple sentence or two is passed in whispers from one person to the next and inevitably changes over time. But even the original source, Boece, is… well, a bit suspect, to say the least. The three witches of Shakespeare’s account even make an appearance in this supposedly historical account, although in this case are fairies, and they make substantially the same prophecy as Shakespeare records regarding the future of Macbeth and Banquo’s descendants. But in Boece’s story, it is the prophecy about Banquo which is more important.

In point of fact, Boece’s version of the Macbeth story is the first appearance in the entire historical record of the characters of Banquo and Fleance. They were almost certainly fictional characters. And to understand what Boece was doing here, we have to remember that he was writing the Historia Scotorum for his patron, James IV of Scotland. And if we pay attention to the story he tells about Banquo and Fleance, everything may become clear. Because he records that after Banquo is killed by MacBeth, Banquo’s son Fleance escapes and flees all the way south to Wales, where he marries a Welsh princess who may possibly be descended from King Arthur. They have a son, Walter, who returns to Scotland years later. This Walter, known as Walter FitzAlan, became the royal steward to the Scottish King, a title which his descendants would hold for generations, so that eventually their family name would be Steward, which then shifted over time to Stuart. As in, James IV Stuart, king of Scotland. Boece’s patron.

In other words, in Banquo and Fleance, Boece was creating a legendary origin story for the family of the current king of Scotland which not only rooted their history in ancient Scottish history but suggested a claim on the throne of England as well, thanks to that whole “Fleance married a Welsh princess who might be a great great something grand daughter of King Arthur” business. So the so-called history upon which Shakespeare was basing his play was, well, less than entirely historical. Or, it was historical in precisely the same way, and to the same degree, as something like Virgil’s Aeneid.

Even so, we must acknowledge that Shakespeare is exercising extreme poetic license even with these already questionable sources. Even Boece and Holinshed get a few things right that Shakespeare decides to modify for the sake of drama.

So, if we look back to older sources, what do we find about the historical Macbeth, and the historical Duncan?

Honestly, less than we’d like. But it’s still enough to paint a shockingly different picture of the characters involved than we find in Shakespeare.

Macbeth, or, once again, Mac Bethad Mac Findlaich, was born probably around the year 1005. His first name, incidentally, means “Son of Life,” and the second name is what’s called a “patronymic,” indicating the name of his father–Findlaich, the mormaer of the region of Moray. A mormaer, a term in Scots gaelic, is in essence a minor but independent ruler who owes fealty to a high king. We might even use the term “petty king.” Because the Kingdom of Scotland was effectively a united grouping of several other more or less independent kingdoms; the northern Jarldom of the Orkneys, predominantly settled by what popular culture would label as “vikings” from Norway, the region of Moray, Macbeth’s home which included modern Aberdeenshire and Inverness, the heartland of Alba which was the primary seat of King Malcolm II of Scotland when young Macbeth was growing up, and Strathclyde, sometimes called Cumbria. And though in theory partly bound together, these small independent kingdoms fought among themselves as much as they banded together against other forces. 

Macbeth spent his early years in the household of his father Findlaich mac Ruaidri. Findlaich was an impressive ruler, it seems; one early record of him appears in a Scandinavian source, the Orkneyinga saga, in which Jarl Sigurdr of Orkney fought against a Scottish ruler described as “Jarl Finnlekr” and was soundly defeated. Given the timeframe, this was almost certainly an approximation of the name of Macbeth’s father. Some early sources describe Finnlaich as a “ri Alban”, the same title given to King Malcom II, which suggests that at least some in the north of Scotland considered him to be the true high king of Scotland–a not uncommon sort of dispute of this day and age. And his wife seems to have been the daughter of Malcolm II–making young Macbeth the grandson of the high king of Scotland and the son of a man who was regarded by at least some as equally deserving that title.

When Macbeth was still a young man he left his father’s house to be educated at a monastery. This was not in preparation to become a clergyman, but was in fact a common practice at the time; monasteries were houses of learning as well as houses of God, and being sent off to one was a bit like being sent off to boarding school. While he was there, probably about age 15, he received word that his father had been murdered. Several early accounts suggest that his own nephews, Macbeth’s cousins, were responsible. What is certainly true is that these cousins took power in Moray, leaving Macbeth in a dangerous position. It seems from some sources that he may have fled Moray and gone to the court of King Malcolm II in Alba. If so, it is entirely possible that this would have been the first time he met King Malcolm’s grandson, Duncan… who would have been only four years older than him.

A number of years later, the murderous cousin who was currently operating as the ruler of Moray, Gille Coemgain, died under suspicious circumstances; he and 50 of his men were trapped inside a feasting hall that then suddenly caught fire. No early source records the arsonists, but many assume that Macbeth was finally taking revenge for the murder of his father. In any case, Macbeth returns to Moray, marries Gille Coemgain’s widow and adopts her son, and takes power as the Mormaer of Moray.

The significance of his position can be seen when, in 1031, King Cnut of England, Denmark, and Norway marches north to demand promises of peace and alliance with Scotland as had been tradition with several of his English predecessors, King Malcolm II is joined in their meeting by two men, the most powerful men beside himself in all of Scotland. One, Echmarcach, was the petty king of Mann and the Isles. The other was Macbeth.

When the elderly Malcolm II finally died in 1034, his succession seems to have been a simple affair. His sons having already died through various means, his grandson Duncan took the throne as Duncan I. He was probably about 33 years old. And his reign went… Poorly. 

Duncan was evidently a very weak military leader. Several sources suggest that his own attempts to lead military expeditions almost inevitably seemed to end in disaster. For a king whose public perception had more to do with his caliber as a war leader than almost any other quality, this was a particularly problematic trait. And so Duncan seems to have turned to Macbeth. Macbeth is described in sat least one early source as being a “dux” for King Duncan. And to understand what that means, we have to take a step back into older British history.

Nearly a thousand years before Duncan and Macbeth, the Romans invaded Britain and took almost the whole of the south during the reign of Emperor Claudius. But to maintain their control of Britain, the Romans were almost constantly at war… primarily with the great great great great etc. grandparents of people like Malcolm, Macbeth, and Duncan, in point of fact–the Gaels, the Picti, the Scotti, and other northern tribes. Hence the building of Hadrian’s wall and a whole lot of other fascinating history. But in order to maintain that almost constant fighting, Rome appointed a military leader over all of Britain to attempt to maintain peace. The title of this leader was Dux Britanniarum; literally, the Leader of the Britons. The dux, as a military leader, would work alongside the roman governor, the political leader, to maintain peace in Britain. And long after the Romans left, many regions of Britain were still using the old term to describe leaders with military responsibility. Eventually, it would morph into our word Duke.

Back to the mid 1030s, Duncan seems to have appointed Macbeth as his military right hand man. And then a series of things happen at the end of that decade. Taken individually, they seem extremely odd. But if we read between the lines, I think we can begin to understand the story they tell.

First of all, in 1039 King Duncan leads a military campaign south into Northumbria at the same time as he sends other troops north to subjugate the jarldom of the Orkneys, whose allegiance to the Scottish throne was a rather tenuous arrangement at the best of times. Macbeth is not listed as the leader of either of these two expeditions. And both fail disastrously, with Duncan retreating from a failed siege of Durham having lost many of his men. The very next year, King Duncan raises an army and marches into Moray to attack Macbeth. And it is in that context that today, August 14 of 1040, that Duncan dies on the battlefield and Macbeth becomes the new High King of Scotland.

What leads Duncan to march an army against the lands of the man who has been, up to this point, his military right hand man? And why wasn’t Macbeth involved in the failed campaigns of 1039?

I think the key to this mystery lies in this: several sources strongly suggest that Macbeth is related by blood to the current Jarl of the Orkneys, Thorfinn the Mighty. In fact, the two are likely cousins.

It is also recorded in several sources that while the attack on Northumbria was agreed to by all the powers of Scotland, there were several advisors who repeatedly urged Duncan not to attack Orkney. Most have suggested that these unnamed advisors were probably primarily concerned about the dangers of opening a war on two fronts. But I suggest that chief among these advisors would have been Macbeth, whose ties of kinship with Thorfinn would make him refuse to be any part of an attack to the north. One can easily imagine the two men exchanging harsher and harsher words until Macbeth storms out, resigning his role as dux and returning to Moray with steam coming out his ears. In fact, at least one account suggests that Macbeth may have fought alongside Thorfinn against Duncan’s attempted invasion of the Orkneys. And so, after returning from his failed expedition into Northumbria, King Duncan decided to that he needed to punish and subjugate his rebellious former warleader.

So it is that the two men met on the battlefield as enemies, and King Duncan, probably 39 years old, falls.

A pretty far cry from an old man being knifed in his bed, no?

Duncan’s son Malcolm Caennmor (yes, the Romans don’t have a monopoly on constantly reusing names–one of the cousins who killed Macbeth’s father was named Malcolm too)–anyway, Duncan’s son Malcolm was too young to reign, so would need a regent if he were to ascend to the throne. And besides, Scottish rules of inheritance were complicated. Kings were officially elected by the nobles from among members of the royal family based on the strength of their claims and their potential merit. And after some minimal debate, the nobles will decide that Macbeth, having at least as strong a claim to the throne based on his ancestry and great merit as a leader, should be named the high king of Scotland. And so he will be.

Poor Macbeth. The degree to which his name has been maligned in recent retellings of this history is truly shocking when you look at the record. He will rule for a total of 17 years in Scotland, during which he will be secure enough in the safety of his realm to go on pilgrimage to Rome. He will maintain peace with the northern territories of the Orkneys and Caithness, but be plagued constantly by invasion attempts from the south, mostly sponsored by Earl Siward of Northumbria. One of the earliest records of him will call him “Mac Bethad the renowned”. Another early source, a verse history of Scotland told as a literary conceit as though it is an ancient prophecy, will call him “the generous king” and describe him as “red, tall, and golden haired,” and says of his rein that during it “Scotland will be brimfull west and east,” indicating great prosperity. Other accounts suggest the same. In the end, though, Earl Siward will sponsor a final invasion on behalf of the now grown Malcolm III, son of Duncan, which will manage to defeat Macbeth in battle at Dunsinane. But, to once again stun those who know their Shakespeare, Macbeth will NOT die in battle at Dunsinane, but rather grant much of his southern territory to young Malcolm and continue ruling the northern regions of Scotland as king. A second war with young Malcolm will finally result in Macbeth’s death on the battlefield, not at Dunsinane but at Lumphaham. Even then, Malcolm will not manage to become king of Scotland immediately; the nobles will support Macbeth’s adopted stepson Lulach instead. A few months later, though, Malcolm will have Lulach assassinated and finally take the throne.

With all these details in mind, Shakespeare’s rendition which makes Macbeth out to be a murderous tyrant and young Malcolm Caennmore to be the triumphant hero who restores moral order to Scotland isn’t just nonhistorical. It’s downright shocking.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Shakespeare. He never really claimed that “the Scottish play” was 100% historical. And, like Boece, he had reasons for the changes he made. At the time that Macbeth was first performed, Shakespeare was putting it on for James I of England, aka James VI of Scotland, who had come to power after Elizabeth I died without heirs. James I/VI Stuart, supposedly descended from the mythical Banquo. That’s probably why in Shakespeare’s account, Banquo is an even more overtly moral and good character than he was in the accounts of Boece or Holinshed; both of them have Banquo as accomplice in the murder of Duncan, while Shakespeare paints him as a moral and upright foil to Macbeth’s descent into evil and madness. The change from fairies to witches was also almost certainly tailored to please the king, who was frankly obsessed with witchcraft and had even written a book on the subject himself. In other words, Shakespeare was reframing a story in order to please and entertain his audience.

And the truth is that all tellings of history are going to do the same, to greater or lesser degrees. We know this, because we can see it even in the retellings of stories in our own lives. The farther away we get from an event, the less our narratives about it probably resemble the reality. You’ve all probably heard a father or a grandfather tell the same story of their youth many times, and each time it seems to become just a little more magical, a little larger than life. Some recent studies on memory have suggested that when we remember or recount an event from our lives, we are not actually remembering the event so much as remembering the last time we remembered or told it, and so little changes over time tend to build up, as though we are playing a game of telephone with ourselves. History works the same way. As different people tell and retell stories, each from our own perspectives and with our own motivations, we will tend to distort the reality more and more.

It’s tempting, when we consider this, to despair of ever really knowing the truth about the past. We can try our best to read past the biases we guess are present, and reconstruct what may lie behind them, but even then we are subject to our own biases and our own perspectives. How can we ever be sure of what “really happened”? 

Personally, this is something I’m still wrestling with. I will say that one of the real pleasures of being an amateur historian is precisely the wrestling with biased accounts and trying to make sense of the real history behind them. But besides that, I also have a great deal of sympathy for Salman Rushdigh’s definition of man, not as a “rational animal” as Aristotle would have it, but rather as a “storytelling animal.” Human beings are capable of taking almost anything and turning it into a story. And two people with exactly the same experiences may shape it into entirely different stories because of their perspectives and perceptions. Rather than bemoaning the difficulty of sorting out the objective data points, perhaps there is value in embracing the stories themselves, and the ways we choose to tell stories, as perhaps showing us more about the truth of what it means to be human than any set of factual data points could. And isn’t that, when it comes right down to it, what history is all about?

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