On this day in 1057: Scottish king Macbeth dies in battle

Michael Fassbender in Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel.
Michael Fassbender in Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel.
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On this day in 1057, Macbeth, or Mac Bethad mac Findlaích as he was known, died in battle after an English invasion of Scotland.

It is hard to think of any historic king with a worse reputation than the much-maligned anti-hero of the Scottish Play. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was a no-good murderer who killed the good and fair King Duncan, only to receive his comeuppance in the end.

Circa 1040, Macbeth, King of Scots (1040 - 1057). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Circa 1040, Macbeth, King of Scots (1040 - 1057). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Shakespeare probably sourced his play from the 16th century chronicler Raphael Holinshed, and the story is loosely based on truth. But, to put it mildly, Shakespeare took liberties.

For a king to be murdered was not uncommon at the time of Macbeth. Ascension to the throne was complex, as leaders were chosen according to the ancient practice of tanistry. Instead of a simple hereditary line to decide succession, tanistry encouraged many claimants to the throne who had a right by blood or marriage. This invariably led to a jockeying for position, and it was not unusual for kings or other claimants to die young.

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Macbeth was Thane of Ross by birth and Thane of Moray through his marriage to Lady Gruoch, which under the system, gave him as much claim to the throne of Scotland as Duncan.

Actor Kirk Bage  portrays Macbeth in Bard in the Botanics in Glasgow.

Actor Kirk Bage portrays Macbeth in Bard in the Botanics in Glasgow.

The Duncan of Shakespeare’s play was an elderly wise king, but this too is misleading. Duncan was young, had only ruled for six years and was considered a weak, arrogant monarch. When Macbeth defeated him in battle and assumed the throne, it was generally regarded as a good thing.

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Furthermore, having gained power he is commonly thought to have ruled well. His 17 years as king brought peace and unity to Scotland, so much so that in 1050 he was able to make a pilgrimage to Rome.

But trouble was never too far away with Duncan’s two sons waiting in the wings. Donal was brought up in the Hebrides and did not pose much of a threat, but on his father’s death, Malcolm had escaped to Cumberland where he was brought up by English relatives.

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A number of attempts were made by Malcolm’s supporters to put him on the Scottish throne. Siward, the powerful Earl of Northumberland and a relation of Malcolm, led an army into Scotland in 1054. They marched as far north as Dunsinane, in Perthshire, and engaged Macbeth in furious battle. Thousands of Scots died, and Macbeth was forced to retreat further north to Moray. Two years later Malcolm led another army into Scotland and met with Macbeth at Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire, in 1057.

Macbeth was mortally wounded in battle - not necessarily by Macduff - and died a few days later. His stepson Lulach ruled for a year until he too was killed by Malcolm at Essie in Strathbogie, Aberdeenshire.

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