Mac Bethand mac Findlaích, popularly known as King Macbeth, was a historical Scottish ruler who has been immortalized as the subject of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. However, the real Macbeth was hardly a murderous usurper and unsuccessful king.
The historical Macbeth ruled Alba, the lands that now comprise the heartland of Scotland, from 1040 until his death in 1057. His father was Finlay (Findlaích), Moramer (a high-ranking nobleman) of Moray, and his mother was probably Donada (Doada), the second daughter of King Malcolm II. Historians described Macbeth as tall and handsome, with a ruddy complexion. He was sometimes known as the “Red King” (Rí Deircc).
In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth comes to the throne after murdering his cousin, the aging King Duncan, when he comes to visit his castle. In reality, Macbeth killed Duncan (who was actually 39 years old, a rather ineffective ruler, and with no stronger claim to the throne than Macbeth) in battle near Elgin, Morayshire and made himself king. He cemented his claim to the throne by marrying Kenneth III’s granddaughter, Gruoch (Lady Macbeth).
Macbeth’s reign was actually for the most part peaceful, and he was known for his generosity, especially towards the Church. He is recorded as having made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he “scattered money like seed.”
However, Macbeth’s killing of Duncan would ultimately prove his undoing. Although he managed to defeat and kill Duncan’s father Crinan at Dunkeld, he was eventually killed by Duncan’s son Malcolm Canmore (later Malcolm III) and his English allies at the Battle of Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire. He was buried on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, which is considered the resting place of lawful kings rather than usurpers.
Shakespeare’s negative portrayal of Macbeth is likely due to the fact that his own king, James VI and I, was a descendant of Malcolm III.