Sometimes it’s too easy to mock historical fiction or drama. Anyone with an interest in British history should certainly have a look at it, but just not rely on it to tell the whole story. Britain’s greatest-ever dramatist was definitely an aficionado of his country’s past, and used various episodes thereof as the plots to his History plays.
It’s thanks to the Bard’s shortest tragedy that hardly anyone isn’t familiar with the man whom superstitious actors know today as Lord Scottish Play. With apologies in advance for the spoiler alert, Macbeth, a heroic and well-regarded Scottish nobleman, murders King Duncan and seizes his kingdom’s crown after hearing some convincing prophecies from a trio of witches. It’s a foul act that he’s destined never to get away with, as the haggard old astrologers also have other prophecies up their sleeves that ultimately spell doom for the over-ambitious ex-Thane of Glamis and Cawdor. Then again, Shakespeare could get away with his preposterous tale because he lived in a very superstitious time: the Early Modern Age in Britain was one in which most people, whether educated or not, believed in omens and signs, and in an age of Reformation they were frequently on the lookout for Signs of Election (ie clues as to whether they were Saved or not).
In reality, the flesh-and-blood Macbeth from the historical record was a much more complex, but also much more interesting figure than Shakespeare made him out to be. For all the understandable horror and outrage the Man from Stratford aimed to provoke from his audiences over the murder of Duncan, the reality of kingship in 11th-Century Scotland was pretty ruthless, to say the least. In a complicated succession system known as tanistry, kings would be replaced by their cousins, and often bloodily. The first Scottish king to break with the tradition of tanistry was Malcolm II (reigned 1005-34), who, following the example of the Normans, determined to pass his crown on, not to a cousin, but to his eldest surviving direct male heir – who just happened to be his grandson, Duncan. This must have irked Malcolm’s extended family, who included Macbeth, and who had understandably hoped to keep tanistry going, but it seems they held their peace in order to see what kind of a monarch Duncan would turn out to be. This would explain why the early years of Duncan’s reign were fairly uneventful. As it turned out, though, Duncan was an utter disaster for his country (his nickname, “Duncan the Diseased”, wasn’t exactly an auspicious sign). Far from being the wise old avuncular figure of Shakespeare’s play, Duncan was quite a young man when he succeeded his father. Weak and indecisive, he tried the patience of the nation once too often with a disastrous raid on Durham in 1039, in which his footsoldiers were annihilated, with their heads being stuck on posts in the city’s marketplace. Among those angered by this disaster was one of his lieutenants, his cousin Macbeth, and it seems Duncan had guessed that Macbeth would make trouble for him, and so led his army to Pitgaveny, near Elgin, in Moray – Macbeth’s personal territory – apparently to stop a revolt before it started. This proved to be a fatal mistake, as, on 14 August 1040, Duncan was then killed in battle – not stabbed to death in his bed, as depicted in the play.
With tanistry now back in Scotland, the victor at Pitgaveny was the new king – and Macbeth’s claim to the throne was strengthened by the fact that his wife Gruoch (no, her name wasn’t Lady Macbeth) was also from the same immediate family as Malcolm II. Here, fact and fiction diverge even farther – for, far from being the ruthless, paranoid tyrant of Shakespeare’s piece, the real Macbeth turned out to be a very successful and capable ruler. Up until 1054 there was just one serious rebellion against his rule: in 1045, led by Crinan, Duncan’s father and Malcolm II’s son-in-law. This rebellion ended when Crinan, and 180 of his followers, were killed in battle. Such small numbers must surely indicate that the rebellion hadn’t been popular. Far from the times being out of joint, the kingdom was in fact enjoying a rare period of peace and prosperity under Macbeth’s rule. According to the Chronicle of Melrose, ‘Macbeth was King of Scots for seventeen years, and in his reign there were fruitful seasons‘, and the Prophecy of Berchan similarly notes that Scotland in Macbeth’s time was ‘brimful of food from East to West‘.
With such a successful CV, then, what went wrong for Macbeth? Put simply, a serious foreign-policy blunder. In 1051-2 there was a brief civil war in England, between, on the one side, followers of the king, Edward the Confessor, along with his Norman contacts who had set up home in the country and taken government jobs, and on the other side, the king’s chief minister, Earl Godwin, his sons and their followers among England’s various semi-autonomous earls. It was a conflict that would ultimately be won by the Godwin clan, and Macbeth possibly fatally alienated the English earls by his warm welcoming of the Norman exiles as they were chased out of England by Godwin. Unsurprisingly, then, when Duncan’s surviving sons, Donald and Malcolm, came to the earls asking for their help in restoring their family to the Scottish throne, the earls must have felt they had every right to offer that help.
Donald and Malcolm’s first bid for the Scottish crown, and Macbeth’s head below it, came in 1054, as they met the Scottish royal forces in the Battle of the Seven Sleepers (in a still-unidentified location) – and which Shakespeare of course calls “Dunsinane”. Macbeth survived, but only just: according to contemporary chroniclers he had lost 3,000 men in the battle, while Duncan, Malcolm and their English allies had sustained barely half that number of losses. The king was thereafter lethally weakened, as his enemies now controlled most of Strathclyde: it was only a matter of time before they would catch up with him and finish the job off somehow.
The end for the king who inspired one of the most famous stories in English literature came on 15 August 1057 (a day after the seventeenth anniversary of Macbeth’s accession), in the Battle of Lumphanan – somewhere in the Grampians. Macbeth was killed in battle, but was succeeded for a short time by his stepson, Lulach. Seven months later, Lulach was overthrown and murdered, and Malcolm succeeded to the Scottish throne as Malcolm III.
The cliche is a familiar one, but Macbeth’s death really was the End of an Era: he was the last Scottish monarch to accede to the throne through the tanistry system – thereafter, each of Scotland’s monarchs would be succeeded by his eldest surviving male heir (at least until 1542…). Macbeth was also the last Scottish king to rule the country from his powerbase in the Highlands, rather than the Lowlands – and this may go some way to explaining why his reign wasn’t longer: perhaps he didn’t do enough in his otherwise fruitful rule to build up a supportive coalition of supporters in the Lowlands, which fell fairly easily to Malcolm and Donald in 1054.
Macbeth’s fall exactly 960 years ago is significant for a third, and even more fateful, reason: his ultimate successor, Malcolm III, fought two disastrous wars against the English: first, in 1072 (when William the Conqueror forced him to kneel before him and swear allegiance), and again, fatally, in 1093, when he was killed in the Battle of Alnwick. Thereafter, the precise meaning of William’s demand for allegiance would be debated with violence, on and off, for the next three centuries. Moreover, Malcolm’s second wife would have an equally fateful impact on Scotland: she was Margaret, an English noblewoman and a member of the House of Wessex, who had fled the country in the wake of the Norman Conquest of 1066. Thereafter, Scotland’s court would become gradually “anglicised”: the beginning of the decline of the Gaelic language can be traced from that wedding.
With such an exciting story – a much more thrilling one than Shakespeare ended up writing, at any rate – how did the Bard of Avon come up with such a tale so radically different from the historical record? It seems Shakespeare didn’t do the kind of historical research we expect from a professional historian (no kidding!), and that his main source for the play was Holinshed’s Chronicles – a source which, to put it mildly, is a tad cavalier with the facts, packed as it is with stories of witches, fairies, and nymphs as well as kings and warriors. Perhaps the most searching verdict on historical accuracy could come from Shakespeare himself, via the words he puts into Macbeth’s mouth in response to the news that his wife has taken her own life:
...all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,