BLOODY TYRANT OR BENEVOLENT KING: WILL THE REAL MACBETH PLEASE STAND UP?
by Catherine Wells
copyright 2007
all rights reserved

The Bare Facts

We know very little for sure about Macbeth, not even the proper spelling of his name. Spelling at that time was a matter of choice, transliterating Gaelic speech into Latin letters. Historical documents use Maelbeatha, Macbeth, Makepath and assorted others.

We do know that he was the son of Findlaech of Moray, and that he came to power in 1040 by killing Duncan, though the phrasing in the source text implies this was in battle rather than by assassination. It also leaves doubt as to whether Duncan died by Macbeth's own hand, or if he simply perished when Macbeth's forces met his own.

Prior to that time, Macbeth had married Gruoch, daughter of Boite and granddaughter of a former King of Scots, Kenneth mac Dubh (Kenneth III, 997-1005). When Macbeth claimed the high kingship, he did so in his own name and the name of his wife. Gruoch was the widow of Macbeth's cousin Gillecomgain, by whom she had a son, Lulach. Lulach succeeded Macbeatha as King of Scots, but was killed within the year by Malcolm Canmore “by treachery.” It is also recorded that Gruoch donated some lands near Loch Leven to the Church.

Macbeth ruled for at least 14 years, possibly 17, and his name is associated with many "humane" laws protecting women and children. Toward the end of his reign, he visited Rome and "distributed silver," meaning he tossed coins to the people in the streets. He was defeated in battle by Malcolm Canmore, Duncan's son, in 1054 on the plains near Dundee, but his death took place at Lumphanan in 1057.

With the exception of some family history, that's about it. Someone named Macbeth is placed at Malcolm's court in 1031 and introduced to Cnut as a king, but Gillecomgain, not Macbeth, was Mormaer of Moray at that time. Was this a different Macbeth? Was Macbeth called King of Moray at this time, with Gillecomgain as his Mormaer? Or is it simply an error? As with everything else, there is ample room for interpretation.

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