Thursday, July 31, 2014

Duncan was not killed in his bed by Macbeth

Shakespeare told some great stories, but historians will agree that real history often gets buried beneath the great Bard’s verses.  The death of King Duncan was one of those exaggerations.  For anybody who hasn’t read or seen Macbeth, in essence he meets three witches on the heath who plant the suggestion in his mind that he will be king.  The best way to achieve this is to treacherously kill King Duncan in his bed (as Lady Macbeth goads him on), put the blame elsewhere and seize the throne.  Righteous countrymen attack his castle in the end and restore the throne to Duncan’s heir.

Just for the record, when king Malcolm II died in 1034 at age 80, there were many claimants to the throne.  Duncan’s claim was from Malcolm II through his mother’s side (the first of three daughters).  Thorfinn of Orkney,  the great Viking warrior, was Malcolm’s grandson through the third daughter, and was raised under the protection of the King.  Malcolm  eventually made him Earl of Caithness (the first time the title of Earl was used in Scotland); this could have been a consolation prize.  Macbeth had a claim to the throne through his wife Grouch, who was considered the real heir based on the customary Tanist succession practiced in Scotland; her father’s claim had been put aside by Malcolm II in favor of Duncan.

So  Malcolm II had cleared the way for his favorite grandson, although the 33 year-old Duncan did little to recommend himself to his contemporaries.  He fought five wars in five years and lost them all.  Ultimately, he made the mistake of trying to claim Caithness which was rightfully ruled by his cousin Thorfinn.  This led to a sea battle where Duncan’s forces were ignominiously thrashed, and the king was forced to flee.

That same year in August, Duncan raised an army including many Irish mercenaries, and met either Thorfinn or Macbeth (or both) in the Battle of Burghead on the Moray Firth.  This could be same battle I found reference to stating that Macbeth killed Duncan at Pitgaveny, which was nearby.  It was also recorded elsewhere that Duncan was killed by his own men immediately after the battle.  Regardless of who actually killed him, it is clear that Duncan met his end on the battlefield rather than treacherously in bed.  Macbeth was properly elected high king by a council of Scottish leaders, apparently without dissent.   In fact, Macbeth ruled for 14 years.  This is a far cry from the grasping, tortured protagonist of Shakespeare’s dark tragedy.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Death of Alfred Aetheling

When Queen Emma (widow of Aethelred the Unready) married Canute around 1017, they agreed that the sons from their own marriage would take precedence over any previous children.  Things didn’t entirely work out that way, but for the duration of Canute’s reign, her first two sons, Edward and Alfred, remained exiles in her native Normandy.

The second son Alfred’s story is a pitiful one, though it has come down to us full of contradictions.  The part we are certain of tells us that during the reign of Harold Harefoot, while Emma lived at Winchester, Alfred landed on the Kentish coast with a band of followers.  On orders of the King he was seized, his followers either killed or sold into slavery, and Alfred had his eyes put out, soon dying of his wounds.  What we don’t know was why he came to England in the first place, and who exactly was responsible for the dastardly deed, looked upon by disgust even by the Anglo-Saxons hardened to such violence.

One of the rumors was that Emma, discouraged by the non-appearance of Harthacnut, sent a letter to Edward and Alfred encouraging them to invade England and claim the crown. Others conjectured they were testing invasion plans on their own volition. Some say King Harold forged a letter in their mother’s name, intending to lure them to their deaths. Still others said that her sons were simply paying her a visit.

It was said that Edward landed with 40 ships at Southampton and Alfred landed at Dover; the Norman account numbered Alfred’s followers at 600, though other accounts said he came with less than a dozen friends. It has even been stated that Edward fought a battle and defeated the English with great slaughter (considering Edward’s later peaceable reign, I tend to doubt this).  However, on hearing of Alfred’s fate, Edward made a hasty retreat back to the safety of Normandy.

It seems relatively certain that Alfred’s capture came as a surprise, and Earl Godwine of Wessex has invariably been linked with his arrest. It is alleged that Godwine wined and dined Alfred, lodged his men throughout the town, then in the middle of the night, either Godwine’s men or Harold’s men raided the town, capturing, torturing and killing the Aetheling’s companions. Whether Godwine followed direct orders from King Harold or whether he acted on his own recognizance is total conjecture. Or he simply might have stepped aside and refrained from interfering with the King’s business.

Did Godwine turn the Aetheling over to Harold’s soldiers, or was he personally responsible for taking Alfred to the island of Ely and blinding him?  Nobody really knows, but Godwine was blamed by many of  his contemporaries; even though he later cleared himself in court, he was never able to rid himself of the stigma attached to the murder. In any event, the brutal circumstances gave Godwine’s enemies a great deal of ammunition to fling at him.  Even at the end of his life, the legend persists that during a feast, Godwine made an oath to Edward that he should choke on a piece of bread if he was responsible for Alfred’s death. Then suddenly, the great Earl was taken with a siezure and collapsed at the table, thus confirming his guilt for all eternity.