Macbeth (c. 1005 – 15 August 1057) was King of Scots from 1040 until his death. He was titled King of Alba during his life, and ruled over only a portion of present-day Scotland.
MacBeth, King of Alba (Scotland).
During this time period Scotland was called the Kingdom of Alba and I’d like to give some background on that terminology.
The Kingdom of Alba refers to the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland) between the deaths of Donald II in 900 and of Alexander III in 1286. The name is one of convenience, as throughout this period the elite and populace of the Kingdom were predominantly Pictish-Gaels or later Pictish-Gaels and Scoto-Norman, and differs markedly from the period of the Stuarts, in which the elite of the kingdom were (for the most part) speakers of Middle English, which later evolved and came to be called Lowland Scots. There is no precise Gaelic equivalent for the English terminology “Kingdom of Alba”, as the Gaelic term Rìoghachd na h-Alba means ‘Kingdom of Scotland’. English-speaking scholars adapted the Gaelic name for Scotland to apply to a particular political period in Scottish history during the High Middle Ages.
Little is known about Macbeth’s early life, although he was the son of Findláech of Moray and may have been a grandson of Malcolm II. He became Mormaer of Moray – a semi-autonomous lordship – in 1032, and was probably responsible for the death of the previous mormaer, Gille Coemgáin. He subsequently married Gille Coemgáin’s widow, Gruoch, although they had no children together. Grouch was the granddaughter of Kenneth III of Scotland via Boite mac Cináeda (“Boite son of Kenneth”; d. 1058) was a Scottish prince, son of King Kenneth III of Alba (Scotland).
In 1040, Duncan I launched an attack into Moray and was killed in action by Macbeth’s troops. Macbeth succeeded him as King of Alba, apparently with little opposition. His 17-year reign was mostly peaceful, although in 1054 he was faced with an English invasion, led by Siward, Earl of Northumbria, on behalf of Edward the Confessor.
Macbeth did not survive the English invasion for long, for he was defeated and mortally wounded or killed by the future Malcolm III (“King Malcolm Ceann-mor”, son of Duncan I) on the north side of the Mounth in 1057, after retreating with his men over the Cairnamounth Pass to take his last stand at the battle at Lumphanan. The Prophecy of Berchán has it that he was wounded and died at Scone, sixty miles to the south, some days later. Macbeth’s stepson Lulach was installed as king soon after.
Macbeth was initially succeeded by his stepson Lulach, but Lulach ruled for only a few months before also being killed by Malcolm III, whose descendants would rule Scotland until the late 13th century. Macbeth is today best known as the main character of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth and the many works it has inspired. However, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is based on Holinshed’s Chronicles (published in 1577) and is not historically accurate.
Macbeth’s full name in Medieval Gaelic was Mac Bethad mac Findlaích. This is realised as MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh in Modern Gaelic, and anglicised as Macbeth MacFinlay (also spelled Findlay, Findley, or Finley). The name Mac Bethad, from which the anglicised “MacBeth” is derived, means “son of life”.Although it has the appearance of a Gaelic patronymic it does not have any meaning of filiation but instead carries an implication of “righteous man”or “religious man”. An alternative proposed derivation is that it is a corruption of macc-bethad meaning “one of the elect”.
It is questioned by historians whether or not MacBeth had any royal ancestry at all. Some sources make Macbeth a grandson of King Malcolm II and thus a cousin to Duncan I, whom he succeeded. He was possibly also a cousin to Thorfinn the Mighty, Earl of Orkney and Caithness. Nigel Tranter, in his novel Macbeth the King, went so far as to portray Macbeth as Thorfinn’s half-brother. However, this is speculation arising from the lack of historical certainty regarding the number of daughters Malcolm had.