Historical Writers Summer Blog Hop: The Battle of the Seven Sleepers (Dunsinane)

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MOMENTOUS EVENTS IN TIME

Today on the Historical Writers Summer Blog Hop, I’m taking you to Scotland in the 11th century to the world of Macbeth – but not Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the REAL Macbeth as far as we know him. As far back as 1054, even pre Conquest England was not averse to interfering in the business of its Scottish neighbours in the north. The Battle of the Seven Sleepers was one of these events which was to completely change the politics of the time in both countries and tragically led to the sad demise of the man called Macbeth, long vilified as a villain of Shakespeare. Here I discuss how the battle came about and what affect it had consequently.

macbeth-scotland

The Protagonists

Scotland in the earlier half of the eleventh century was a hothouse of different factions vying for supremacy. The chief king, Malcolm II of the House of Alpin was without male sons in 1034 when he died. He had three grandsons, all of whom may have been in the running for kingship: Duncan, Thorfinn, and Macbeth. All were sons of Malcolm’s three daughters. Malcolm named Duncan as his heir, and this might have led to resentment amongst the remaining grandsons and their supporters.
One can imagine the three boys growing up at their grandfather’s court like brothers, in happy camaraderie and may have been close until 1034. Thorfinn, who was known as the Mighty, was ruler in the Orkneys from an early age after the death of his father Sigurd. Later, the lordship of Caithness was endowed upon him by his Scottish grandfather who obviously wanted him to have some influence in the mainland. MacBeth had to fight for his own success it seems, for his father, Findlaech, had been cruelly, but not unusually for this time, murdered by a cousin, Gillacomgain and took the Mormaership in Moray that had once belonged to Macbeth’s father. Macbeth wasn’t having this, and he in turn murdered the killer of his father in revenge, married, either with or without her consent, Gruoch, wife of the now deceased Gillacomgain. Gruoch was also of royal descent and also had a claim to the throne through her mother so if Macbeth had his eye on the kingship, his marriage to her would strengthen both their claims.

So, the cousins, who might have once been close like brothers, were now divided. Duncan alienated himself from them by unsuccessfully attacking Thorfinn – according to the Orkneyinga Saga, where he is identified as Karl Hundason. This was either before or after he went south with an army to attack Durham in retaliation for a Northumbrian ravaging of Cumbria. Durham was too far south from his own bases to be of any strategic use to Scotland so it was rather a reckless decision and not only that, the attack caused him to lose many of his cavalry. Adding this to his list of unsuccesses, Duncan rode north, hearing about a rising rebellion amongst the people of Moray who were unhappy with Duncan’s rule. Duncan seemed determined to redeem his military reputation at any cost. Evidently Thorfinn was to join forces with MacBeth in this, surprising Duncan, and a battle was fought where Duncan’s death ensued, , allowing Macbeth to seize power. Thorfinn must have been content or too busy with his position in Caithness and the Orkneys to challenge MacBeth’s claim.

Malcolm Canmore was Duncan’s eldest son, perhaps only a boy of eight or nine at the time of his father’s death, and he was spirited away with other members of Duncan’s family to safety, spending the years of MacBeth’s rule until 1054, growing up in England, perhaps at his kinsman’s Siward’s base in Northumbria, and at the court of Edward the Confessor. It is said that he was related to Earl Siward in some way, though how it is not clear. Malcolm’s father, Duncan, had links in Northumbria, having married a cousin or sister of Siward. It is not clear what exactly the link was, but whatever it was, Siward was willing to lead an army of Anglo-Danes into Scotland to supplant the man who usurped his kinsman’s crown. This might also have had something to do with Edward and Siward plotting to put in place a puppet king over Scotland to mitigate Scottish incursions over the border. And of course there was still the question of Cumbria and the dispute over territory.

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The legendary duel between Malcolm and Macbeth

The Battle

The battle of the Seven Sleepers, later known as the Battle of Dunsinane, took place on the 27th July 1054 – the day of the festival it was named for. No doubt, sponsored by his kinsman, Siward, Malcolm petitioned King Edward for support in his quest to take an army into Scotland to oust the usurper, Macbeth, and to reclaim his father’s crown. Edward was agreeable to send men from his own household guard, suggesting that such an investment in the war meant there was something in it for the English other than a willingness to support a hard-done-by young man. Edward never ventured further than Oxford in his lifetime as king and may not have worried too much about the north unless it was to affect his rule in the south; it was Siward who would benefit the most from Edward’s help. However, as king, it was Edward’s duty to support his vassals, and without Siward safe in the north, he could have turned on his English overlord making things very difficult for the south.

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Dunsinane Hill where the battle is said to have taken place

“This year went Siward the earl with a great army into Scotland, both with a ship-force and with a landforce, and fought against the Scots, and put to flight the king Macbeth, and slew all who were the chief men in the land, and led thence much booty, such as no man before had obtained. But his son Osbeorn, and his sister’s son Siward, and some of his housecarls, and also of the king’s, were there slain, on the day of the Seven Sleepers”

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle D

According to Symeon of Durham, Siward’s Anglo-Danish forces were made up of horse, and a powerful fleet which might have been used to transport supplies for the invading army. It’s likely that the land force took the old ancient tracks used by the Romans, along the east coast of England, through Lothian and fording the River Forth near Stirling and into the heart of Scotland. Malcolm was said to have led the ships which landed at Dundee, and captured the fortress there and gathering Scottish rebels to his cause before sailing around Fife and into the River Tay and up to Birnam, where it is said he met with more Scots willing to join his cause, as Andrew Wyntoun, writing much later in the 15thc suggests with some plausibility.

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The last surviving old oak of Birnam Wood still stands

The Northumbrian Chronicles account, is more colourful than the Worcester Chronicle and describes a huge invading force by the standards of the day. It is not known where Siward and Malcolm met up, it could have been at Dundee or perhaps Birnam or Stirling even. As they marched through the plains of Gowrie on their way past Scone, they would have most likely used the tactics often used in medieval warfare, probably raping and pillaging to draw Macbeth out of his lair to face them. Macbeth would have needed a much larger army than he would have kept in his household and it could be that in order to muster such forces he would need to ride the country to do so.

The campaign of Siward and Malcolm culminated in one of the most massive battles in 11thc Scotland. Malcolm and Siward’s forces were said to have approached from Birnam wood at night, under the cover of tree branches that they carried to disguise them, which was later immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Macbeth.

“Macbeth shall never vanquished be,
Until great Birnam Wood, to High Dunsinane Hill,
Shall Come against Him.”

MacBeth, Act 3, Scene 1
William Shakespeare

Whether or not Malcolm and Siward’s tactics of attrition had the desired affect of drawing Macbeth out of his fortress, identified as Dunsinane, is not known, however Macbeth’s forces charged down from the hills at the combined Northumbrian and Scottish army and were put to flight by the invaders. It was a hard fought battle and the annals of Ulster record as many as 3000 Scottish dead, 1500 English dead, but Macbeth escaped, so it was a semi-victory for Siward and Malcolm for Macbeth went on after this, his power greatly reduced by the battle, but remained ‘king in the north’ to coin the phrase from Game of Thrones, but not used contemporarily.

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An artist’s impression of a Dark Age battle

The surviving English forces returned overloaded with booty, probably acquisitions gained from their pillaging and perhaps the capture of Dundee. Siward deposited Malcolm, inaugurated as King of the Scots in firm control of the Lowlands with his Scottish supporters. Having been away from Scotland for so long, this young man must have seemed more English than Scottish to his new subjects and it was to take him three more years before he was to finally consolidate his power fully, after hunting down Macbeth, who cannot be said to have skulked in his hideaway but worked hard to maintain his power further north and spent the next three years of his life, in his early fifties, an old man in Dark Age terms, carrying out ambitious raids deep into the lowlands.

In 1057 Malcolm Canmore, successfully lead a force across the Grampian mountains and lay an ambush for the unsuspecting Macbeth, at the village of Lumphanon, deep in Moray, as he returned from a southern foray. Macbeth was slain in the battle. Rebels after that placed Macbeth’s stepson, Lulach, in power following Macbeth’s death, but he too was executed also, ensuring no rivals were left, or brave enough, to oppose Malcolm’s rule.

Eerily, Macbeth’s death came on the exact same date of August the 16th as that of Malcolm’s father, Duncan.

Why was this little known 11th century battle a game changer for both English and Scottish history?

In 1066, after the conquest of England by the Norman duke, William, Anglo-Saxon nobility was mostly decimated on the field of Hastings and the continued conflicts that followed. Wives and orphans of those slaughtered were displaced and in came the new ruling class. The royal family was now Norman, and the last remaining prince of the English royal house of Wessex, Edgar, briefly crowned by the survivors of the witan, was prevented from keeping his crown when he was taken hostage by William who then usurped him.

Edgar eventually managed to escape William and he and his sister, Margaret fled to Scotland and were harboured by Macbeth’s replacement, Malcolm Canmore, who by this time had been king for around ten years or so. Malcolm was taken by the very devout Margaret and eventually they were married and their daughter, Edith, went on to marry William the Conqueror’s successor and son, Henry I, and became Queen Matilda.

This meant that the English line of Wessex had returned to the English royal family and also flowed in the blood of Malcolm Canmore’s children thus uniting the two kingdoms through blood and bringing Anglo-Saxon culture to Scotland with both Malcolm and Margaret. The old Gaelic bloodline of the House of Alpin was now replaced by the House of Dunkeld whose outlook was very much influenced by the Anglo-Saxons. Equally it meant that there was also Scottish influence now in the English royal bloodline.

Tragically, MacBeth’s defeat at Dunsinane, led to his eventual removal from the Scottish throne, ending the Gaelic/Pictish influence and his successor, Malcolm’s, look to England to found his new Anglo-Scottish dynasty, (of course with a smattering of Germano/Hungarian).

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A still from the film Macbeth with Michael Fassbender

 

References

Abingdon version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle

Aitcheson, N 1999 Macbeth, Man and Myth Sutton Publishing LTD, Phoenix Hill, Gloucestershire

Symeon of Durham – Historia Regum.

The Northumbrian Chronicles.

To keep up with the rest of the Blog Hop see whose next here.

Tomorrow we visit the blog of Cathie Dunn at https://cathiedunn.blogspot.com/

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The Battle of Dunsinane: MacBeth Vs Malcolm Canmore

Malcolm

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 holed up in his fortress of Dunsinane Hill, expecting to meet Malcolm in battle. This was to be the decisive fight that would see Malcolm take back the crown from the man who was said to have killed Duncan, his father. 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 the whole of Alba, becoming Malcolm III.

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Duncan I

Following the death of his father, King Duncan l , in 1040  Malcolm fled to his kinsman, Siward, Earl of Northumbria. Malcolm’s mother, had been a relative of Siward’s and had died in childbirth.  Malcolm, who was to become known as Malcolm Canmore (meaning head of men, possibly interpreted wrongly later as big head) grew up at the English court of Edward the Confessor. It was there that he may have made friends with Tostig Godwinson, who was to become Siward’s successor in Northumbria in 1055, which may account for their closeness when Tostig later ruled  in the north. In 1054, Edward the Confessor agreed to assist Malcolm in his bid to regain the crown of Alba from 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. Edward was also said to have supplied a large number of his own huscarles.

Macbeth_of_Scotland_(Holyrood)

MacBeth, had been Mormaer of Moray when he killed Malcolm’s father. Duncan and MacBeth had both been grandsons of King Malcolm ll. MAcBeth had killed Malcolm’s father in 1040, most likely during a battle, or after capturing him in 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 grandfather, had been a somewhat cruel and ruthless man, and Duncan had gone the same way, subjecting his people to the rampaging of 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 and protect them. MAcBeth, having had enough, decided to put an end to this undesirable king’s doings. With the support of Thorfinn of Orkney, known as the Mighty, Duncan’s end came 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 Scotland, or Alba, as it was then known.

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Photo c/o Christopher Doyle and Tim Benfield of Regia Anglorum

Thorfinn of Orkney, also ruler of Caithness, and a cousin or half-brother of Duncan, had more reason to be hostile to MacBeth, but he too had been attacked, though unsuccesfully, by Duncan and swore allegiance to MacBeth. The two men joined forces to bring peace and order to the kingdom sending out small bands of men to oversee that justice was carried out. MacBeth is also credited with having brought 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.

But what caused Shakespeare to portray MAcBeth as a monster? Tony Harmsworth  asks this question: with all these good deeds, how did Shakespeare get it so wrong?

“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 as King James was obviously descended from Malcolm who would have been seen as the rightful heir valiantly returning the throne to the rightful king. The English of James court in Shakespeare’s time would not have understood the tanistry system of the Scotland of the eleventh century, meaning that the kings (as they were in Anglo-Saxon England) were elected and not followed by primogeny.

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 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 avenged his father 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 70’s and 80’s writes about Thorfinn and MacBeth in her book, The King Hereafter, as being one and the same based on the fact that they are never mentioned together in the chronicles and a reference in the Orkneyinga saga to Thorfinn killing a Karl Hundason (man son of a dog), King of Scotland, thought to be Duncan.

Malcolm was in his mid twenties 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 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: Dunsinane-Hill

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!

Interestingly, MacBeth had given succour to a couple of Anglo-Normans, Hugh and Osbern, who had been forced with their men, to flee the return of the exiled Godwinsons. It was said that they  reinforced MacBeth’s army at the Battle of Dunsinane. More recently I have found this information that was documented by Byrhtferth in the Northumbrian Chronicles:  A large Northumbrian fleet was led by Malcolm. They captured the city of Dundee and was joined by Scottish rebels on horse. They raided and pillaged (probably where the large amount of booty came from) marching out to the to Gowrie passing Scone and Edinburgh. Macbeth was faced with a huge invasion and would have been forced to ride the country to muster forces.  The  Battle of  Dunsinane occurred on the Seven Sleepers. There is little mention of how things went during the battle,  but Macbeth’s forces charged down from the hills at the Northumbrians but were put to flight. The annals of Ulster record as many as 3000 Scottish dead, 1500 English dead and all of Macbeth’s Normans were wiped out.

The Battle of Seven Sleepers put Canmore in firm control of the Lowlands, for the English this was enough, who made a separate peace with Macbeth and returned overloaded with booty back to London and Northumbria leaving Canmore with only his Scottish forces.

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, but MacBeth eventually got away to safety and spent the next 3 years on the run. Among the English killed were many of Edward the Confessor’s huscarles creating a lot of jobs for any unemployed warriors.

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. 

References

Primary Sources

AS Chronicle C (Abingdon)

AS Chronicle D (Worcester)

Florence of Worcester

The Northumbrian Chronicles

The Annals of Ulster

Secondary Sources

Stenton F 1998, Anglo Saxon England (2nd ed), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Harmsworth T 2015, 1057 – BIRNAM WOOD COMES TO HIGH DUNSINANE HILL, http://harmsworth.net/scottish-history-heritage/1057-birnam-wood-high-dunsinane-hill.html

Further Reading

Aitcheson N (1999)  MacBeth Man and Myth, Sutton Publishing Limited, Gloucestershire.