Macbeth (died 1057) was king of Scotland from 1040 to 1057. Although he is best known through the Shakespearean drama bearing his name, his historical importance lies in the fact that he was the last Celtic king of Scotland.

The career of Macbeth is hidden in obscurity, but certain facts make it clear that Shakespeare's portrayal of the character of the man is at marked variance with reality. Macbeth was a person of great importance before he became king. As holder of the office of mormaer of Moray by virtue of inheritance from his father, he was a district chieftain and one of a handful of the most important men of the realm. His own ancestry could be traced back to royalty, and he was cousin to Duncan I (reigned 1034-1040), whom he served as commander of the royal army. His wife, Gruoch, was also descended from royalty. Macbeth came to represent opposition to the king at several points: in him northern and Celtic sentiments found a defender against southern and Saxon influences supported by Duncan; and Macbeth had personal claims to kingship in his own name and in that of his stepson, Lulach.

There was some question about the right of Duncan to be king since, as grandson of Malcolm II, he represented the first instance of the rule of primogeniture in the history of the Scottish crown. The usual principle of succession required that the crown pass to a collateral of the king, not to heirs of the direct line. As Macbeth pressed his claim, he had tradition on his side; he won the crown by slaying Duncan at Bothgowanan in 1040.

During Macbeth's reign there was only one native uprising, that led by Abbot Crinan, Duncan's father. The realm was peaceful enough for Macbeth to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050. An invasion from Northumberland in the name of Duncan's son, Malcolm (later, Malcolm III), was repulsed in 1054. A second invasion, in 1057, led by Malcolm was successful, and Macbeth fell in battle; but rather than accept the "Saxon" Malcolm, Macbeth's supporters took Lulach for their king. Within a few months LuIach was defeated, and Malcolm was able to inaugurate the Canmore dynasty.

This dynastic revolution seems to be the basis for the identification of Macbeth as a monster and usurper. When later Canmore kings fought Celtic forces of decentralization, they exalted their ancestor Duncan and developed a hostile vision of Macbeth, the last Celtic king, so as to discredit the Celtic cause. The first written picture of Macbeth in this new light came in the Scotichronicon of John of Fordun (ca. 1380). From this base the legend grew until it reached its fullest statement in the writing of Raphael Holinshed, the immediate source for Shakespeare.


Further Reading on Macbeth

William Henry Gregg, Controversial Issues in Scottish History (1910), contains a valuable chapter on Macbeth's place in the chronicles of Scotland and England. An excellent bibliography on the career of Macbeth is in William Croft Dickinson, A New History of Scotland (1965). A readable general account is in Gordon Donaldson, Scottish Kings (1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Ellis, Peter Berresford, MacBeth, High King of Scotland, 1040-57AD, London: F. Muller, 1980.