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King Duncan I

King Duncan I - King of Scotland

Duncan I of ScotlandKing Duncan I (King of Scotland 1034 - 1040). Duncan was born the son of Crinan, a powerful lay abbot of Dunkeld and Atholl noble, and Bethoc, the daughter of Malcolm II. Very little is known of Duncan but it can be reasonably assumed that he was far younger than the aged Duncan depicted by William Shakespeare. The Annals of Tigernach say that he was killed at an "immature age".

In 1018 Malcolm II's vassal, , Owen the Bald the (last) Welsh king of Strathclyde, died and he granted Duncan the throne. Malcolm II was determined to establish a Royal house, a family claim to the throne. The established system of the right of succession to the Scottish throne tanistry. Under this system the kingship of scotland had, for some time, alternated between two branches of the royal family. Malcolm had decided that his grandson, Duncan, should succeed him to the throne and a feud developed between Malcolm and the Gaelic tribes to the west and the Pictish tribes of the north. During this feud Malcolm managed to kill off several 'tanist' claimants to the throne.

In 1304 Malcolm II died after being wounded in battle with the Moray family and Duncan succeeded him. This united the land of the Picts and Scots with that of Lothian and Strathclyde under one rule for the first time. The day before Duncan's investiture one of his rival claimants was killed and another soon after. However much opposition remained in the north of the kingdom. Macbeth of Moray (Macbethad mac Findlaech), son of Finlech and the daughter of Malcolm II, had a strong claim to the throne in his own right because, like Duncan, he was a grandson of Malcolm II. However Macbeth had a double claim to the throne because, under the law of tanistry, his wife Gruoch, the widowed mother of Lulach, was a granddaughter of Kenneth III. Lulach the Fool, son of Gruoch, also had a strong claim but, because he was only a simple-minded child, it would appear that Duncan did not consider him a threat.

Those in the north would have been further antagonised when Duncan, who had married a sister of Siward the Dane, started to introduce many of his Danish relatives into the Royal court. It would appear that, for the first few years of his short reign, Duncan remained unopposed. In 1039 Duncan made a bold attempt at expanding his lands to the south by raiding the north of England. In confidence he made his way to lay siege at Durham but suffered great loses, many of his cavalry slain and most of his infantry were lost during the retreat.

Macbeth, possibly encouraged by the weakened position of Duncan, formed an alliance with their first cousin Thorfinn, earl of Orkney, Caithness and Sutherland under the King of Norway started a revolt. The rival armies met and Duncan was defeated and killed on August 1, 1040 near Elgin in Moray. There is some dispute as to the exact nature of Duncan's death, some texts say he died in battle and others say he was killed shortly after the battle by Macbeth.

Macbeth immediately seized the throne and Duncan's two sons, Malcolm and Donald, either escaped or were exiled. The eldest, Malcolm Canmore, was brought up in England by his maternal uncle, Earl Siward of Northumbria and Donald Bane (Domnall mac Donnchada or Domnall Bán) was brought up by relatives in the Western Isles/Outer Hebrides


Shakespeare's Duncan I

It is widely accepted that the way in which Duncan I is described in Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is incorrect. It must be remembered that Shakespeare was writing for entertainment purposes and not as a historian and, as such, his writings contain errors and elements which are based purely upon legend. It is clear that historical documentation supports the assumption that Duncan was a young man when he died. Shakespeare described him as aged and grey-bearded with Lady Macbeth being reminded of her father. However it is known that Duncan's father did not die until 1045 and if Shakespeare had been correct that would have Duncan's father reaching an impossible age. Furthermore when Duncan I died his sons, Malcolm and Donald, were still children.

Most historians agree that Duncan died in battle against Macbeth, however, there are some that suggest that he was killed by Macbeth shortly after the battle. All historians agree that he was not killed in his sleep by Macbeth. Shakespear paints Macbeth in an unfair light. I am sure, that having read this article, you will realise that Macbeth behaved like any other claimant to the throne and was within his rights to fight for his rights.

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