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Time of Macbeth in Scotland

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Time of Macbeth

Period: 997 AD — 1070

997 AD Kenneth III begins his reign as King of Alba. He is known as the brown haired one, and is thought to have been the grandfather of Macbeth's wife Gruoch.

1000 The end of the first millennium. Scotland, like the rest of Europe, is gripped by fears that the world will end. It doesn't, so everyone goes back to killing each other again.

1005 Macbeth born, most probably in the North east of Scotland. His father is Finnleach, High Steward of Moray.

1005 Kenneth III murdered by his cousin Malcolm at Monzievaird, who then takes the throne of Alba (Scotland) as King Malcolm II.

1020 Macbeth's father, Finnleach, is murdered by his nephew's, Malcolm (a different one to the King) and Gillacomgain. Malcolm then succeeds to the throne of Moray. The young Macbeth swears to get his revenge.

1029 Malcolm dies, and his position as High Steward of Moray is taken by Gillacomgain.

1032 Macbeth seizes his chance. Helped by his allies, he rounds up Gillacomgain along with 50 others and burns them all to death.

1034 King Malcolm II of Scotland is murdered at Glamis. It is said that the so-called Malcolm Stone in the manse garden there is his grave slab. He is succeeded by Duncan I - the Duncan of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

1039 Duncan mounts a raid on Durham, but it is a disaster and he is chased by the Northumbrians back into Scotland.

1040 Duncan marches on Macbeth, but is killed in battle against him near Elgin. The story in Shakespeare's version that Macbeth invited Duncan to his castle and then murdered him in bed is totally fictitious. Macbeth then assumes the throne of Scotland.

1046 Margaret, who is to become Scotland's first female saint, is born in southern Hungary. As a child, she moves to England and settles into the English court.

1050 Macbeth goes on pilgrimage to Rome along with Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney. He returns to find his kingdom intact.

1054 Earl Siward of Northumberland invades Scotland. He defeats Macbeth at the battle of Birnam Wood in Perthshire. Most of Macbeth's army are slaughtered, but Macbeth himself escapes and continues to rule.

1057 Macbeth is finally killed in a battle at Lumphanen in Aberdeenshire by Duncan's son Malcolm. The throne is then taken by his stepson Lulach.

1058 Lulach survives only a few months before being defeated and killed by Malcolm at Strathbogie. Malcolm then takes the throne as Malcolm III or Canmore.

1070 Malcolm III (Canmore) marries Margaret at Dunfermline. He meets her when she arrived in Scotland as a refugee and is instantly besotted with her. Their marriage is said to be an extremely happy one. Margaret introduces many of the customs of England to Scotland and carries out many acts of piety and charity. She dies in 1093 and is canonised in 1250.


Over the course of history, Scotland has had many kings. Some have been heroes, some have been villains, and some have been so useless and weak that we've forgotten everything about them.

The greatest of them all, however, was Macbeth - a figure so powerful and larger than life that even now, 1000 years after his reign on the throne, we all still instantly recognise his name.

Macbeth was a towering, dashing figure who managed to keep a grip on Scotland for a remarkable 17 years at a time when kings were deceived, betrayed and slaughtered more often than most nobles ate wild boar for dinner.

Because he combined utter brutality with real compassion, and because ordinary people saw him as a ruler who was firm but fair, he outshines even William Wallace or Robert the Bruce in terms of romantic appeal.

Like Wallace, Macbeth ends up as an ultimately tragic figure, dying a heroes' death on the field of battle. Yet, like Bruce, his reputation as a fighter meant that he ultimately won the respect of Scotland's great enemies, the English.

Of course, most of our modern awareness of Macbeth comes from Shakespeare's famous play, which made him a legend not by showing his strengths, but by painting him as the bad guy.

In the play, Macbeth begins as a trusted and brave soldier in King Duncan's army. But he is gripped by blind ambition and egged on by his equally ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth, murders Duncan. She later dies, Macbeth is killed in battle by his rival Macduff, and Malcolm becomes the rightful king.

Shakespeare's play is wonderful drama - it was by far one of his most successful works, and Elizabethan crowds flocked to see it - but it bears little resemblance to historical reality.

The real Macbeth was undoubtedly a plotter and had no scruples about murdering opponents, but then you had to be tough and ruthless to survive in those days. However, he was also clever, confident, just and deeply religious, taking care to look after his subjects and giving away some of his wealth to the poor.

In fact, he was so settled as King of Scots and loved by his subjects that he left Scotland for the better part of a year to go on a pilgrimage to Rome - the only Scottish ruler to this day to do so. If there had been any question of anyone seeking to overthrow him, he wouldn't have dared step outside the country.

Sadly, there is an awful lot about Macbeth which we simply don't know. At the time of his reign, which was from AD1040 to 1057, only the most rudimentary details about the way Scotland was ruled was written down. It wasn't until the time of David I, after 1124, that proper records and documents began to be kept.

Some journals and chronicles of that time have survived, however - many of them originating in Ireland, which had a close affinity with Scotland. They tell of Macbeth's legendary capacity for keeping the peace at home, of his compassion, and of his desires to help the poor.

Macbeth is thought to have been born around the year 1005, probably in the north east, His father Findlaech was High Steward - ruler - of Moray, which at the time was a semi autonomous kingdom.

It probably looked after its own affairs, though it may well have had an agreement with the rest of Scotland, known then as Alba, to share foreign policy. In fact, the arrangement may have been similar to Scotland's relationship with the rest of Britain under the devolved Scottish parliament to be established later this year!

Macbeth's mother's name is unknown, though she was almost certainly a royal and may have been the daughter of King Kenneth II or Malcolm II. In 1020, when Macbeth was 15, his father was murdered by his nephews Gillacomgain and Malcolm. Malcolm then succeeded to the throne of Moray until the year 1029, when he died and in turn was succeeded by Gillacomgain.

As Macbeth grew older, however, he swore revenge for the murder of his father. His chance finally came in 1032, when he is believed to have rounded up Gillacomgain along with 50 others and burned them all to death.

Having carried out this barbarous act of mass murder, he then assumed the throne of Moray himself. At the same time, he married Gillacomgain's widow. Shakespeare, of course, calls her Lady Macbeth, though in reality, she wasn't - her real name was Gruoch.

There is absolutely no evidence that Gruoch was the scheming, plotting, fearsome woman that the bard painted her to be - though she is thought to have had royal blood and must have been pretty feisty to consider marrying a character as single minded as Macbeth.

She also brought her son from her first marriage, Lulach, with her. Incredibly, despite having slaughtered his father, Macbeth seems to have taken to the boy, adopting him as stepson even though he was nicknamed Lulach the Simple - in other words, he wasn't very bright.

By all accounts, Macbeth was a good King of Moray. He is said to have been fair, and to have looked after his subjects - though, like most rulers and politicians of the time, the thought of having to kill someone to retain power didn't bother him at all.

His chance to seize the throne of all Scotland (or Alba, as it was then known) came when Duncan I, who held the throne, mounted a raid on Durham in Northumbria in 1039.

The battle turned out to be a disaster, and Duncan was quickly driven back over the border and into Scotland. The next year - perhaps in an attempt to assert his authority, or perhaps because his counterpart in Moray was laughing at him - he decided to march north and mount an attack on Macbeth.

The two armies clashed near Elgin and this time, Duncan failed to escape with his life. He was killed in the battle and Macbeth, who had a legitimate claim to the Scottish throne through his mother's line, assumed rulership of all Scotland.

Once king, Macbeth and Gruoch would have adopted all the traits of monarchy. Rather than having one palace, They would have moved around Scotland with their court and armed retinue - probably amounting to at least some dozens of people - and stayed in one place until they had exhausted the food supplies of the long suffering locals. Then they would have moved on, probably constantly travelling between places such as Scone, Dunkeld, St Andrews and Forteviot in Perthshire.

David Brown, a lecturer in Scottish history at Glasgow University and an expert on the period, says that Macbeth's court would have been a fairly impressive sight. "It would have been a pretty grand affair, and the size of the gathering would have been pretty substantial. On special days such as feast days, others would have arrived and it would have been even greater."

As well as being a good king, Macbeth was also a clever politician. He quickly formed an alliance with a Norseman, Thorfinn of Orkney and the son of the wonderfully named Sigurd the Fat, who was otherwise known as Thorfinn Skullsmasher. The two men often formed a common front, and in 1050 decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome together.

It is this pilgrimage - a journey of more than 3000 miles which took nearly a year to compete - which tells us about Macbeth's compassion and concern for his fellow man. According to one of the writers of the time, the Irish hermit Marianus Scotus, when Macbeth arrived in Rome he "scattered money to the poor like seed."

This visit is thought to have been hugely important. Macbeth would almost certainly have met the Pope and told him all about Scotland. It was probably the first time that a reigning Pontiff had learned much about this small and wild country at the far north of Europe - and about which subsequent Popes were to hear much in the coming centuries.

Alex Woolf, a lecturer in Celtic and early Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh, believes that Macbeth may have gone to Rome as a penance for killing Duncan.

"In England, King Canute had been there about 15 years before, and it was beginning to get quite popular. Macbeth may have felt that killing Duncan was a sin", he says. "The Bishops may have suggested the trip to him as a form of repentance."

Four years later, Macbeth suffered a serious challenge to his kingdom when Earl Siward of Northumberland - with which Scotland was almost perpetually at war - invaded Scotland. He defeated Macbeth at the battle of Birnam Wood near Dunkeld in Perthshire - again, mythologised by Shakespeare in his version.

The truth, though, is that Macbeth was not slain during this encounter. He suffered a heavy defeat and most of his army were slaughtered, but he slipped away and continued to rule.

By this stage, though, the writing was on the wall. After another three years, Macbeth was finally killed in a battle at Lumphanen in Aberdeenshire by Duncan's son Malcolm, and his rule was over.

Strangely, though, Malcolm didn't take the throne. Instead it went to Macbeth's stepson Lulach, though he survived only a few months before being ambushed and killed by Malcolm at Strathbogie. Malcolm then took the throne as Malcolm III or Canmore.

Isn't this a bit odd? David Brown believes there may be a plausible explanation. "It may be that Lulach and Malcolm had done a deal whereby Lulach got the throne but Malcolm followed him. However, one contemporary account describes Lulach's death as treachery, which perhaps means Malcolm did the dirty on him too.

"You have to remember that these were bloodthirsty times, and that politics often involved murdering your opponent. When they talked about stabbing someone in the back in those days, they really meant it."

Meanwhile around the world...

*1020 The Shetlands, Orkneys and Faroes recognise Olaf Haraldsson as their king

  • 1027 Omar Khayyam, Persian scientist and poet - writer of the Rubaiyat - is born
  • 1035  King Canute divides his kingdom between his three sons, giving England to Harold
  • 1016 King Canute takes the throne of England
  • 1041 The Lombards and the Normans defeat the Greeks at the Battle of Montemaggiore
  • 1045 One of Spain's national heroes, El Cid, is born
  • 1050 The astrolabe arrives in Europe from the East
  • 1053 The Normans conquer Southern Italy and found an empire there
  • 1054 There is no Pope during this year, and there is a permanent schism between the Roman and Eastern churches
  • 1066 William of Normandy invades and conquers England, taking the throne from King Harold who is killed at the Battle of Hastings
  • 1070 The Order of St. John is founded in Jerusalem

*1000 Around this time artistic and literary expression in Japan was at its peak.

  • 1054 Orthodox and Catholic Churches split apart.
  • 0997 St Stephen, King of Hungary began his reign.
  • 1013 The Danes conquer all of England.
  • 0997 From 0976-1026, Basil II rebuilds the Byzantine Empire.

*1000 Southwestern and Mississipi cultures begin to peak in North America.

  • 1056 Henry IV begins conflict with the Pope.
  • 1000 Tiahuanaco and Huari abandoned in the Americas.
  • 1038 Seljuks conquer Khorasan (Afghanistan).
  • 1055  Seljuks conquer Baghdad.
  • 1000 Culture and economy thrive in China (Song dynasty begins in 0960).
  • 1068 Wang Ashi's reforms begin (1068-1086).
  • 1071 Seljuks defeat the Byzantines at Manzikert.
  • 1081 Founding of the Seljuk sultanate of Rum.

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