July 27th – Malcolm, the exiled son of King Duncan I, marshalled thousands of English and Danish warriors in Birnam Wood, in Perthshire, where he had come, supported by his kinsman Siward, Earl of Northumbria to defeat the king of Alba. Nearby, a few miles from them, MacBeth was camped on Dunsinane Hill, expecting to meet Malcolm in battle. This was meant to be the decisive fight that would see Malcolm take back the crown from the man who was said to have killed his father, Duncan, in battle. But although Malcolm’s troops slaughtered 3000 of MacBeth’s men, MacBeth was not done, and it was not for another 4 years before Malcolm would wear the crown of Alba, becoming Malcolm III, King of Alba.
Following the death of his father, Duncan I, in 1040 at the hands of MacBeth, Malcolm fled to his kinsman, Siward, Earl of Northumbria. Malcolm’s mother, a cousin of Siward, sadly, died in childbirth. Another brother, Donald Ban, was said to have fled to the Hebrides. Malcolm, who was to become known as Malcolm Canmore (meaning bighead) grew up at the English court of Edward the Confessor. It was there that he probably made friends with Tostig Godwinson who was his uncle’s successor in Northumbria after his death in 1055 which may account for their closeness when Tostig later ruled as earl in the north. In 1054, Edward the Confessor, seeing an opportunity to have a friendly face in Scotland, agreed to assist Malcolm in his bid for revenge against MacBeth. Edward allowed Siward to march north into Scotland with thousands of English soldiers, reputed to be 10,000 strong, which, if true, was generous, considering the king was able to call on 14,000 men for the select fyrd.
MacBeth, Mormaer of Moray, was Malcolm’s older adversary (mormaer meaning the equivalent of an earl). He had killed Malcolm’s father in 1040, most likely in battle, or after a pursuit. The reason for the hostility between the two men was said to have been something to do with Donald’s rather violent, unkingly, behaviour. Malcolm, Duncan’s father, had been a somewhat cruel and ruthless man, and Duncan had gone the same way, subjecting his people to rampaging around their lands, stealing their property, and offering them death and destruction if they opposed him or his men. MacBeth’s tennants demanded that MacBeth do his duty to protect them, and he decided to put an end to this undesirable king’s doings. With the support of Thorfinn of Orkney, known as the Mighty, his end came in 1040 somewhere near Elgin or Forres. This led to the Bigheaded one fleeing to England, although his head might not have been that big then, and MacBeth ruled sensibly and peaceably for 17 years over Alba as Scotland was then known.
Thorfinn of Orkney, also ruler of Caithness, and a kinsman of Duncan, had more reason to be hostile to MacBeth, but he too had been attacked, unsuccesfully, by Duncan and swore allegiance to MacBeth. The two men joined forces to bring peace and order to the kingdoms sending out small bands of men to oversee that justice was carried out. MacBeth also brought some social reforms to Alba, seeing to it that widows received a pension and orphans, benefits. Doesn’t sound like the ambitious cousin murdering, avaricious mad man of Shakespeare, does it? Marianus Scottus, the Irish chronicler, tells us that MacBeth went to Rome and gave coins to the homeless in the streets there. A very nice man indeed with a social conscience.
Tony Harmsworth asks this question: with all these good deeds, how did Shakespeare get it so wrong? This is what he says:
“William Shakespeare, was reading the History of Scotland by Holinshed and was living under the rule of King James – you can imagine the Bard interpreting events as Macbeth murdering the king and then stealing the throne from the rightful heir.”
Therefore, it seems, it was a case of making the facts fit the political situation of the time.
Harmsworth claims in his book, Scotland’s Bloody History, that when MacBeth returned from Rome c 1050/51, he pushed Alba’s borders with a substantial army all the way down to Yorkshire and Lancashire; however Harmsworth does not clarify his sources for this, and it is difficult to know the veracity of this information, especially when none of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles mention it. If there is any truth in this, it might have been one of the reasons why Edward allowed Siward to lead the fyrd, including many of his own personal warriors into Scotland to support Malcolm against MacBeth.
Known today as MacBeth, his real name in Medieval Gaelic was Mac Bethad mac Findlaích. His father Findlaich was Mormaer of Moray, and was said to have been murdered by a usurping cousin, Gille Coemgáin in 1032. MacBeth cornered him and his men and got his revenge by burning them in a hall. He then married Gruoch, the wife of Gille Coemgáin and adopted her son Lulach. Gruoch was also of royal blood and so MacBeth could have had a claim on both his own and his wife’s lineage. He has been thought by some to have also been Thorfinn the Mighty. In fact Dorothy Dunnett, the famous historical fiction writer of the 80’s and 90’s writes about Thorfinn in her book, The King Hereafter, as being one and the same as MacBeth based on the fact that they are never mentioned together in the chronicles.
Malcolm was probably around somewhere between the age of 18-25 when he made his expedition into his old homeland with a large army of professional fighters at his back and his uncle Siward at his side. Growing up in the English courts, he would have learned the ways of warriors, trained to fight with numerous weapons and battle strategics. No doubt the doughty character of his uncle would come in use in his first taste of war.
The English army were said to have crossed the river Tweed, raiding, plundering as they went, a sure way to win hearts and minds, but that’s how it was done in those days. According to Hollingshed, whilst planning his strategy in Birnam Wood, Malcolm was hit with the idea of using branches of cut trees as camouflage to approach MacBeth’s position, camped nearby with an elite bodyguard. Harmsworth mentions that this is one of the earliest recorded use of camouflage in battle. This is where Shakespeare gets his lines:
It is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D (Worcester) that:
Siward travelled forth with a great raiding ship army, and raiding land-army, and fought against the Scots and put to flight the king, MacBeth, and killed all that was best there in the land…
The fact that they took ships as well, does suggest a large scale invasion. The battle that took place was also said to have been ‘hard-fought’ and the chronicle goes on to say:
…and led away from there such a great warbooty as no man had ever got before; but his [Siward] son Osbern and his sister’s son, Siward, and some of his huscarles and also the king’s, were killed on the Day of the Seven Sleepers.
The chronicle makes no mention of Malcolm or the purpose of the expedition, which seems to have been to restore Malcolm to his rightful birthright of king of the Scots. Florence of Worcester mentions that Siward, by the King’s orders (Edward the Confessor), made Malcolm king (Florence refers to him as the son of the king of the Cumbrians). Chronicle C, (Abingdon) like the D, mentions Earl Siward only, and fails to mention any ships. It mentions that much slaughter of the Scots was made there and also that many Danish and English died, indicating that both many men died on both sides and that the Danes were probably Siward’s men, being a Dane himself. What was wrong with the English monks that they failed to mention Malcolm’s achievements in this? There was definitely an economy among the monks in their establishment of facts when writing the chronicles in the 11thc! Would mentioning Malcolm’s name overshadow the doings of the English so badly, after all, he was but one Scotsman, and there were plenty of Anglo-Danes. One has to wonder at this seemingly jealousness that riddles the chronicles!
Dunsinane Hill is located near the village of Collace in Perthshire. It has the remains of two early forts and the highest point on the hill is 1020 feet. We do not know where MacBeth was camped, or whether he was in the fort – depending on what state the fort was in – but it seems that if Malcolm’s army were able to sneak up on them, then they were vulnerable so probably not surrounded by defences. It was said that MacBeth’s guard surrounded him and defended him as best they could but they were defeated 3000 – 1,500, apparently, but MacBeth eventually got away to safety and spent the next 3 years on the run.
Malcolm attended a meeting of the mormaers who elected MacBeth’s stepson Lulach as king – perhaps thinking that MacBeth was dead – or that it was time to move on – who knows? Malcolm, of course, was not happy about this, seeing as he had fought really hard to win. He still had a support from the English soldiers, so he chased Lulach, if the king was not to be him, then he would kill whoever it was. And Lulach was – caught and killed – by Malcolm, another victim in the long line of murdered Scots kings. As far as killing their kings went, the Scots seemed to be pretty good at it, perhaps better than the English.
Three years after Dunsinane, MacBeth was finally cornered and killed at Lumphanen and his 17 year reign came to an end. There has to be a moral to this story, that being: ‘you will get yours eventually’. And whatever happened, Malcolm was eventually crowned, not because it was his birthright, but because of the tanistry system that operated in Scotland at this time in which a male successor was elected from among the royal family including extended branches – much like the Anglo-Saxon aethelings.