Battle of Lumphanan 1057: Macbethian era Scotland

On this day in History 1057, Macbeth, the King of Scots, then known as the King of Alba, was killed at the Battle of [the Peelring of] Lumphanan in what is today Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Macbeth was killed in battle by the combined Scottish-Scandinavian army of Prince Malcolm Canmore, the son of the dethroned and murdered King Duncan I.

Macbeth in combat, 19th century depiction

The Battle of Lumphanan began when a small band of Macbeth’s retainers, 300-450 mounted warriors and the former King Macbeth were ambushed as they were on the march south by Prince Malcolm’s army near or at the Peelring of Lumphanan, southeast of Essie.

An odd looking landmark, the Peel of Lumphanan is a sort of pudgy hill fortification or redoubt, which the saga writers and chroniclers believed was the likely place where the battle was fought and the usurper-king killed. Macbeth was either found amongst the dead on the battlefield by Prince Malcolm or captured and summarily executed immediately after the end of the skirmish. He was succeded by his adopted son Lulach who reigned for less than seven months before he was dethroned and killed in 1058.

Ambush of Macbeth at Lumphanan

The Peelring

Very little is known about the real King Macbeth who is most certainly one of the more infamous and yet unaccomplished monarchs in Scottish history. Made immortal by William Shakespeare’s famous "Scottish play", the tragedy of Macbeth. The now famous character of Macbeth,  from the original play and from various derived films since the Orson Welles adaption of 1948, the "Thane of Glamis & Thane of Cawdor" and later King of Scotland, is a highly fictionalized and inaccurate caricature, borrowing very little from the real life and reign of Macbeth, Lord of Moray and King of Alba (Scotland), 1040-1057. Though literary scholars may debate the Stuart influences and undertones of Shakespeare's "Scottish play" both the socio-political and military history of this period are even more fascinating and certainly under researched.

What is known of the real Macbeth is that he was born around the year 1005 AD to Finlay, Mormaer (high steward) of Moray. Some scholars agree that Macbeth was most certainly a grandson of Malcolm II, King of Alba 1005-1034, making his hereditary claim to the throne in 1040, however weak, very much valid. Macbeth's father was murdered by his nephews Máel Coluim and Gille Coemgáin sometime in 1020. Macbeth most likely gained his vengeance when he burned Coemgáin alive with 50 of his men in 1032, gaining both the title of Mormaer of Moray as well as Gruoch, the widow of his cousin, as his wife. Macbeth adopted their son, Lulach, who was born sometime before the year 1030, A modern family psychologist would have love to have done a study of this family; Macbeth marrying the widow of the man who killed his father and who he had in turned killed, fostering the boy and later making him his heir.

In August of 1040, Macbeth usurped the throne and his longtime rival King Duncan I was slain. The King, who had himself been a usurper, led an army north into Macbeth's kingdom where he was killed in battle outside Elgin (Pitvageny, Morayshire). There is no evidence in the antiquarian Irish or Scots sources which clearly chronicle Macbeth physically murdering the king, as is so iconic in the famous "Scottish play". Duncan's father Crinan the abbot of Dunkeld was killed five years later during the reign of Macbeth, perhaps after leading a revolt against his son's usurper. Macbeth's reign was generally peaceful for the standards of his epoch and several accounts note that he ruled well and that Alba enjoyed many bountiful harvests. King Macbeth even visited Rome in 1050-1051, where he lavished the poor with alms.

Macbeth as depicted in the 19th century

Before and especially during the era of Macbeth 1000-1100, Scotland remained divided into warring fiefdoms and regional kingdoms, ruled primarily by Scots-Gaelic kings and lords locally, and the Dano-Norse Viking descendants who held territory outlying territories and the Orkney and the Western Isles, fiefdoms of the Norwegian Kings. Many of these gimcrack kingdoms were entirely autonomous from the rule of the King’s of Alba.

The Dano-Norse jarls  and Northumbria/Cumbria (England) earls were at constant war with the Scottish lords, who in turn frequently challenged the rule of the King of Alba. Long before Macbeth took power, usurpation, regicide, and rebellion were the rule not the exception. Hereditary rights meant to the lords and kings of Scotland during this era, with usurpation becoming one of the very critical components to early Scottish history in 10th and 11th centuries.

Eventually Macbeth’s usurpation did come back to haunt him, no pun intended, when Duncan’s son, Prince Malcolm Canmore with the help of his uncle Siward, Earl of Northumbria, invaded Scotland with an allied English, Scottish, and Scandinavian host.

Siward’s armies met Macbeth’s at Dunsinane Hill in July 1054 smashing Macbeth’s host, forcing the king and his armies to withdraw north. Though Siward had mauled Macbeth's army he had lost thousands in the battle including his eldest son and many of his housecarls (household retainers/bodyguards). Despite this great defeat Macbeth still held on to power as King of Alba, moreover as Mormaer of Moray.

Kingdom of Alba (Scotland), Moray, & North England (Northumbria)

This first invasion of Macbeth’s kingdom lost steam shortly after the Battle of Dunsinane with Siward’s death in 1055. Malcolm would not avenge his father until the Battle of Lumphanan on 15 August 1057, not taking the title of King of Alba until a year later in 1058 after the death of Macbeth's stepson and heir Lulach, who died treacherously at he own hands.

Major Kings of Alba (Scotland) during the Macbethian Age 1000-1100 AD

Kenneth III reigned 997-1005-Son of Dubh. Usurped the throne from King Constantine III (r.995-997), known as Constantine the Bald, killing him and his heir at Rathinveramon near Scone in 997 AD. His eldest son Giric was an active member of Kenneth's reign and war council. Both the King and his son killed by Malcolm's rebels in battle at Monzievaird, Strathearn 1005.

Malcolm II reigned 1005-1034-Son of Kenneth II, inherits his fathers throne after his death at Monzievaird. Nearly killed when his forces are massacred by the Northumbrians in 1006. Captures Lothian in 1018 after the Battle of Carham. At war during most of reign with Orkney and Northumbria. Makes several alliances with the Danes, and an important treaty with King Cnut of England, Denmark, Norway, and 'some' Swedes, in the year 1032, establishing the Anglo-Scottish border. Dies of wounds sustained in a siege of Glamis castle in 1034 with no direct heir.

Duncan I r.1034-1040-Son of Crínán. Grandson or perhaps a nephew of King Malcolm II, who made war with the lords of Moray, Orkney, and Northumbria during his reign. Killed at Pitgaveny near Elgin in a "blacksmiths hut" by Macbeth's army or perhaps by Macbeth himself in August of 1040 after leading an army against Macbeth.

Macbeth I r.1040-1057- Son of Finlay of Moray. Thane of Cromarty and later Mormaer of Moray who fought Danish invaders during his early career. Usurped the throne from King Duncan I in 1040 after he raised an army and invaded Moray. Crowned King in Scone of the same year. Macbeth kills Duncan’s father and 180 of his men during the Revolt of Crínán in 1045. Forms an alliance with the Leinster Irish king Diarmait mac Mal and with Earl Thorfinn of Orkney. Makes a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050, known for his piety and generosity. Defeated in the Battle of Dunsinane Hill in 1054, but holds onto the kingship of Alba until he abdicated in favor of his step-son Lulach. King Macbeth was Malcolm Canmore's men in battle in 1057 at Lumphanan, and buried on Iona. Leading scion of the house of Moray in the 11th century.

Lulach r.1057-1058- Known as the ‘Fool, or the Unlucky’ & the 'Simple King of Scotland'. Stepson of Macbeth, crowned near Scone shortly before Macbeth was killed at Lumphanan. Killed by Prince Malcolm either in the Battle of Essie (Strathbogie) in what is today Huntly, Aberdeenshire, or perhaps before the battle under treacherous circumstances, perhaps when parlay was offered by Malcolm Canmore. Buried on Iona.

Malcolm Canmore (Caennmor), King Malcolm III r.1058-1093- Son of Duncan I, Prince Malcolm Canmore, meaning literally “large or great head” or a leader/chief, lived in exile in Northern England after the death of his father King Duncan. Kills Macbeth and his only heir in 1057-1058. Makes war with England three separate times trying to expand south. Pays homage in 1072 to William the Bastard, known also as the Conqueror, King of England, 1066-1087. Killed at the Battle of Alnwick, Northumbria, in 1093 along with his eldest son by the Mormaer of Bamborough, steward of the Norman Robert Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria.

Donald the Fair, Donalbane, King Donald III r.1094-1097-Younger brother of Malcolm III who took the throne after his brother’s death by exiling his eldest surviving sons. Ruled jointly with his nephew Prince Edmund, who was later exiled to England, becoming a monk a dieing of old age. Deposed for a year in 1094 by his nephew Duncan II but restored after his death in the same year. Died after being captured, imprisoned, and later blinded by King Edgar. Last true King of Alba (the ancient kingdom of Scotland) and the last buried on Iona presumably.

Duncan II r.1094- Son of Malcolm III who lived for most of his youth in Norman England as a noble hostage of King William beginning in 1072. Deposed his uncle Donalbane in 1094 with the help of a Anglo-Norman army. Killed at the Battle of Monthecin (Mondynes) by the Mormaer of Mearns Novemeber.

Edgar, The Valiant, King of Scots r. 1097-1107-Third Son of Malcolm III who invaded Scotland in 1097, with the help of William II, King of England 1087-1100. In 1098 he cedes control of the Western Isles to the King of Norway Magnus 'Barefoot'. Deposed his uncle King Donald and his brother Edmund and took the throne. Died without issue passing the throne to his brothers, Alexander I, 1107-1124 and David I, 1124-1153.

Suggested Further Reading

Macbeth: A True Story, by Fiona Watdon (Quercus, London 2010)

The Historical Macbeth, by Edward J. Cowen, (The City University of New York)

John Marsden's Kings, Mormaers, Rebels: Early Scotland's Other Royal Family 

Marsden's Alba of the Ravens (First English Edition, London. September, 1997)

John Matthews & Bob Stewarts', Macbeth, as it appears in Celtic Battle Heroes (Firebird Books, 1988)


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