A brief historical and literary overview of the portrayal of Malcolm Canmore

My first blog post will place my PhD project—and King Malcolm III—in historical and literary context. Since the name “Malcolm III” might not be as recognisable as Malcolm Canmore, I will continually refer to the king as the latter. Those who recognise the name Malcolm Canmore do so because of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and it is precisely in Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy where my interest for Malcolm began. Shakespeare’s Malcolm is Scottish prince exiled in the court of the King of England, Edward the Confessor, during the mid-eleventh century. King Macbeth is a tyrant who, not only committed regicide by murdering his cousin King Duncan, but also usurped the throne from the true heir, Malcolm. In conjunction with Siward of Northumbria and King Edward of England, the Scottish nobles, particularly Macduff, back an English invasion of Scotland to depose Macbeth and plant Malcolm as king in his stead. While this exceptional plot has captivated readers and audiences for nearly 400 years, it is worth asking: can we draw a line between the historical and the literary King Malcolm? Has Malcolm always been portrayed as the saviour of Scotland, as the true heir of the Scottish kingdom? Can we trace his portrayal to previous sources, and are there any changes to this portrayal? These questions fuelled my curiosity to find more about Malcolm III—the literary character and the historical King of Scots.

William Shakespeare used Raphael Hollinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, printed in 1577, with a second edition printed in 1587, as historical source for his plays, especially for Macbeth. The University of Oxford has done an excellent DH project about it, which you can access here. Hollinshed’s Chronicle is considered the most important historiographical work of the Tudor era; his sources for the historical material on Scotland form the thirteenth century onwards were, among others, John Mair and George Buchanan. The early sixteenth century saw various histories of Scotland published, not least important Mair’s Historia majoris Britanniae, tam Angliae quam Scotiae (Paris, 1521), and Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scottorum (1527), which directly influenced Hollinshed’s portrayal of King Macbeth. Buchanan also relied heavily on Boece’s account for his Rerum Scoticarum Historia of 1582. Boece’s Historia became the go-to source for Scottish history in the sixteenth century. His sources for medieval Scottish history were John Fordun’s Chronica gentis Scotorum (c. 1360) and Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon (c. 1440). These texts first introduced Macbeth and the witches and already presented Malcolm as an exiled prince who took refuge at the court of Saint Edward the Confessor. The development of Macbeth as a tyrannical character in fourteenth century Scottish historiography is surprising, considering how little he is featured in earlier (i.e. twelfth century) literature. However, King Malcolm was featured considerably in twelfth century Anglo-Norman chronicles, though he was far from the “savior of Scotland” of Shakespeare’s tragedy. For twelfth-century chroniclers, King Malcolm was the husband of Saint Margaret of Scotland and a barbaric King of Scots who continually attacked Northumbria throughout his reign. For this thesis I will not examine either Buchanan nor Hollinshed; however, I will focus my attention on Mair and Boece, as well as Fordun, Bower and Andrew Wyntoun’s Oryginale Cronikyl (c. 1420), and Turgot of Durham’s Life of Saint Margaret, Queen of Scots (c. 1100-7).

So, how did Malcolm’s portrayal evolved from Scottish barbarian to true heir of the Scottish kingdom, and what purpose? These are the main questions my research seeks to answer. King Malcolm was the founding member of Scotland’s first dynasty,* known usually as the Canmores. Understanding how authors have consistently shaped and manipulated his portrayal throughout the medieval period will shed light on the relationship between kingship, Scottish identity and historiography. It will illuminate how historiography was used as political propaganda through the study of Malcolm’s portrayal, and who exactly benefitted from this propaganda, apart from the royal family. Late medieval Scottish magnate-crown relations are famously complicated, filled with both moments of violent outburst and mutual cooperation. Many histories, such as Fordun’s Chronica, Bower’s Scotichronicon and Wyntoun’s Cronikyl were commissioned by either aristocrats or clergymen, and it worth examining if Malcolm’s portrayal in these chronicles can be linked to the political intricacies of noble-crown relations during this period.

Nonetheless, historiographies are also literary works, and this should not be ignored when analyzing Malcolm’s portrayal. Does the portrayal of King Malcolm conform to conventions of specific literary genres, for example, hagiographies and chronicles, or to other contemporary literary tropes? What can this say about how Scotland responded to literary innovations and genres? Were they on par with English and continental developments, and if so, how did they differ? Recently, Emily Wingfield argued that the appropriation of the Trojan Legend in medieval Scottish literature resulted in the production of specifically Scottish responses to this legend; can the same be true for Malcolm’s portrayal? I am do not have any answers for the questions posed above yet, but I aim to find some answers throughout the course of my PhD. Needless to say, while I have barely begun my journey in the research and writing of a PhD thesis, I am aware of the necessity to study my sources in both its historical and literary contexts to ensure that the analysis of Malcolm’s portrayal is as thorough as possible.

The challenges to my research are various. First, the interdisciplinary approach is a necessity, but also can prove daunting. Second, the timespan that I propose for my study is quite vast and I am admittedly scared of it. Third, my manuscript sources are in the United Kingdom and other places in Europe; living in Canada I have limited opportunities to engage in archival research but I will have my first research trip to the UK this summer and will try to do as much as possible in two months!


*Editor’s note: While historiographically, Malcolm has been portrayed as the founder of the Canmore dynasty, it was in fact King Duncan I who founded the dynasty. I thank Dr James Fraser for the correction, as well as Drs Elizabeth Ewan and R. Andrew McDonald for further comments on this matter, and on my thesis proposal in general.


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