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Macbeth remains one of the William Shakespeare’s bestknown characters. His The Tragedy of Macbeth was based on a true story, but it was informed by wildly inaccurate later tradition.The real Macbeth was not a tragic hero, but a fairly run-ofthe-mill player of the dangerous game of 11th-century politics.
Macbeth – Mac Bethad mac Findlaích – was the son of Findlaech mac Ruaidrí, king or mormaer of Moray (d.1020). Moray seems to have been a semi-independent polity, probably acknowledging the king of Scots as a kind of ‘high king’, but in practice functioning independently. It was also much larger than the area referred to a ‘Moray’ today, likely including much of the central highlands, alongside parts of Aberdeenshire and, possibly, Rossshire. Mac Bethad himself became ruler of Moray in 1032, and his main preoccupation was attempting to expand his realm to include Norse-controlled Sutherland and Caithness, apparently without success.
Mac Bethad’s attention was soon drawn southwards, however. In 1034, the powerful king of Scots, Malcolm
II, died, and was succeeded by his grandson, Duncan I. Duncan’s reign got off to a rocky start when an invasion of northern England led to comprehensive defeat. It was perhaps to compensate for this loss of face that Duncan invaded Moray in 1040, attempting to assert his dominance over Mac Bethad. Duncan’s insecurity was sharpened by the fact that Mac Bethad himself had some claim to the throne, either in his own right (he may have been a relative of Malcolm II, possibly a nephew or grandson), or through his wife, Gruoch, who certainly had royal blood. Whatever the motivation, Duncan’s invasion proved a disastrous miscalculation, for he was defeated and killed by Mac Bethad’s forces, probably in a battle near Elgin. Mac Bethad immediately moved to have himself inaugurated as the new king of Scots.
Little is certain about Mac Bethad’s subsequent reign. He is said to have visited Rome in 1050, suggesting both a degree of security at home and an intense interest in religious issues.
In a similar vein, he seems to have patronised a Céli Dé community at Loch Leven.There are also indications that he was aware of wider political developments, most notably his employment in 1052 of two Norman knights. What is clear, however, is that Mac Bethad’s kingship was rarely uncontested. He faced a rebellion led by Duncan I’s father, Crinán, abbot of Dunkeld, in 1045, but was able to crush it. Nine years later, a more robust challenge came from Duncan’s son, Malcolm Canmore, who invaded from England with the backing of a powerful Northumbrian army. When the opposing forces met in battle, probably at Dunsinane in modern Perthshire, Mac Bethad was defeated, and forced to concede significant amounts of territory and authority to Malcolm. This uneasy compromise endured until 1057, when Malcolm made another move to oust Macbeth. By end of the next year had had emerged triumphant, ascending the throne as Malcolm III.
The exact course of events by which Malcolm won his throne is, however, unclear. The ‘standard’ narrative is that he killed Mac Bethad in battle at Lumphanan in 1057, and then the following year defeated Mac Bethad’s stepson Lulach, who had been established as king of Scots by Mac Bethad’s supporters, in another battle near Essie, Strathbogie. An alternative account has it that Lulach and Malcolm allied with each other to overthrown Mac Bethad, and then fought each other over the spoils. Still a third suggestion is that Mac Bethad abdicated some time after Dunsinane in favour of Lulach; that it was Luclach who died in battle in 1057; and that Mac Bethad was not killed until 1058, having come out of retirement to avenge his stepson. Whatever the truth, the death of Mac Bethad and Lulach cleared the way for Malcolm to establish the ‘Canmore’ dynasty, which would go on to rule over Scotland until 1290.