Who was the real Macbeth?

Macbeth fighting Malcolm III
Macbeth fighting Malcolm 19th cent. drawing by F.Wentworth

Let me start by saying that Macbeth is my favorite Shakespeare play, hands down. But that doesn’t mean I was disappointed to discover that most of it is not true! I like Macbeth (especially the Jon Finch Macbeth), even though he is pretty wicked in the play. Yes, he really existed and had an apparently successful 17-year reign starting in 1040. No, he was not killed at the battle of Dunsinane, although the battle did take place and he lost.

Did Macbeth kill Duncan? There is a good chance he did, but not in his bed. As it turns out, Duncan in his 30’s was a reportedly rascally king. He fought five wars in five years and lost them all, then really got into trouble trying to claim Caithness which was rightfully ruled by his cousin Thorfinn of Orkney. Duncan met his end at the Battle of Burghead on the Moray Firth, where he faced either Thorfinn or Macbeth (or both).  It was also recorded elsewhere that Duncan was killed by his own men immediately after the battle.

Did Macbeth have a claim to the throne? Yes, through possibly his own and definitely his wife’s ancestry. It was thought that Macbeth’s mother may have been the second daughter of Malcolm II, so he may have been cousin to Duncan. The stronger claim was through Grouch (Lady Macbeth). Until the early 11th century, the Scottish kings were essentially elected from a group of nobles in a Celtic tradition known as the Tannist Succession. Grouch was descended from the rightful King Kenneth III, killed by Malcolm II along with her father, who was recognized as the Tanist candidate of his branch.

The Battle of Dunsinane took place in 1054, and it was led by the great Earl Siward of Northumbria in the company of Prince Malcolm. Macbeth escaped and retained his crown. It seems he kind of skulked around for the next couple of years until Malcolm caught up with him in Aberdeenshire at the battle at Lumphanan. After a short and bloody encounter Macbeth met his end; he may have been beheaded, or he may have expired a few days later, 60 miles south at Scone. No one knows for sure. He was succeeded by his stepson Lulach, who needed to be dispatched before Malcolm III could be declared King of Scotland.

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