Who Was MacBeth?

The real MacBeth was the High King of Alba from 1040-1057. (In the eleventh century the name Scotland was beginning to appear, but Alba was how the area would have been most commonly named at the time.) Chroniclers from the time describe him in complimentary terms. He is referred to as “ruddy of countenance, tall with yellow hair; a
liberal king fair and tall”. St. Berchan called him a “handsome youth”.

Macbeth: King of Scotland (c. 1005–1057)
Macbeth: King of Scotland (c. 1005–1057)

The early Scottish High Kings were actually elected to their thrones — something that probably would have been an unusual concept to Shakespeare when he wrote “The Scottish play” 500 hundred years later. This system of law seems to have been a direct descendant of similar laws among most of the early Celtic peoples. Later chroniclers who did not understand the system assumed the Scots of the time were barbarians who flouted the “natural order” of kingship through hereditary lines. But it was actually this system of elective kingship that made Macbeth the first king of a progressive (for the time) and increasingly united country.

Alba was ruled by elected chieftains whose offices were part of a system that had been long defined by ancient law. These started at the low end with heads of prominent families, to the more powerful Mormaers (provincial rulers), to the lesser or petty kings. New leaders, “tanists” were selected as successors by their chieftain and required approval by the tribe or clan before taking power. Of course, these offices tended to follow family lines, but there was no requirement or guarantee that an eldest son would inherit the power as under English law.

It is partially a lack of understanding of this system that seems to have lead to the drama portrayed by Shakespeare. The ideal behind elected kings was that they could be drawn from among those most capable and worthy to lead. The people could even depose kings, or chieftains who were corrupt, or abusive. As opposed to the concept of a king’s divine right to rule which had grown in strength by Shakespeare’s time. Naturally, even this elective system was subject to abuse. Members of certain great families were most often elected to the office of High King and feuds still arose over the selection, but it was not Macbeth who was the hated tyrant.

In the case of Macbeth, his assumption of the throne seems to be the opposite of what Shakespeare portrayed. Shakespeare describes his predecessor as a gracious king who was slain by a usurper. However no complaints seem to have been raised when the historical Duncan was deposed and Macbeth was elected by his peers to replace him. Shakespeare’s MacDuff portrays Macbeth as “Fit to govern! No, not to live! O nation miserable with an untitled tyrant, bloody sceptered?” Whereas his contemporary, St Berchan said “The liberal king will possess Scotland. This strong one was fair, yellow haired, tall. Very pleasant was that handsome youth to me. Brimful of food was Scotland, east and west, during the reign of the brave ruddy king.” -Certainly a glowing review, practically along the lines of the modern campaign promise of “a chicken in every pot”

Other contemporary writers confirm that Macbeth and his wife were good rulers and even instituted legal reforms early in his reign. These included statutory support for orphans and women, legal inheritance for daughters, and regulation of itinerant and non-productive citizens for the benefit of the community. These were not actually uncommon, or novel laws, even for the time, and were based in surviving Celtic oral traditions. But even if Macbeth only reaffirmed existing legal traditions it paints a much more favorable portrait than the one presented centuries later in the infamous “Scottish Play.”


Alba, macbeth
The Celtic Church

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