A Curious Account of Malcolm Canmore and his daughter, Queen Matilda of England

Many twelfth-century accounts of King Malcolm, excluding the Life of Saint Margaret, present the king in a military light. William of Malmesbury commented how Malcolm gave “false oaths” to the king of England and he “was slain soon after together with his son, by Robert of Mowbray, earl of Northumberland, while, regardless of his faith, he was devastating the province with more than usual insolence.” Symeon of Durham’s Historia Regum recalled how Malcolm, while raiding northern England in 1070, ordered his men to “either slay them all [the captives] or drive them away under the yoke of perpetual slavery.” Symeon further elaborated on Malcolm’s attack of York, explaining that “the Scots, crueler than beasts, delighted in this cruelty as in the sight of games; Malcolm watched all these things without pity; merely ordering his slave-drivers to make haste.” According to these chronicles, Malcolm was not winning popularity contests.

While English chroniclers highlighted Malcolm’s bellicose character, it is easy for the reader to forget that he was the father of four kings of Scots, a queen of England, and a countess of Boulogne. His sons, particularly David I, were better regarded because of their descent from Saint Margaret, of the Wessex line of Anglo-Saxon kings. But what about Malcolm’s relationship with his sons and daughters? One curious account by Abbot Herman of Tournai, in his Liber de restauratione, linked Malcolm with his daughter Edith, later re-christened as Matilda after he married Henry I of England. In 1093, Edith spent some time at either Romsey or Wilton Abbey (or both) and was there shortly before her mother and father died that year. In this account, the abbess recalled Edith-Matilda’s stay at the abbey in 1093:

“The king [William Rufus] had entered our cloister as if for the purpose of inspecting our roses and other flowering herbs. As soon as he saw her [Edith-Matilda] with our other girls wearing a veil on her head, he withdrew from the cloister and left the convent, and so openly revealed that he had come for no other reason than her. When King David, the girl’s father, came to our convent within the week and saw the veil upon his daughter’s head, he was angry. He tore the veil into pieces, threw them on the ground, and trampled them under his feet. He then took his daughter away with him.”

This account had happened in 1093 when Malcolm and Margaret were in Gloucester to meet with William Rufus; Rufus then refused to see Malcolm and, enraged, Malcolm made his way back to Scotland to assemble an army an invade northern England. On his way to Scotland, though, he stopped by the abbey to see his daughter. Therefore, the chronicler is wrong in saying that King David was Edith’s father; he meant Malcolm. The confusion could have come because when Herman was writing the account, David was already king of Scots. In any case, here we see a father enraged (remember, he was already in a foul mood!) because his daughter is dressed as a nun. Apparently, Malcolm had betrothed Edith to Alan Rufus, Lord Richmond,  and if this version of events is true, then any sign that the girl would have taken the veil could easily jeopardize her betrothal. Malcolm’s instinct at seeing his daughter with a nun’s veil was to take her away from the abbey. This allowed him to avoid that Edith would be made to take any religious vows and also placed Edith directly under his control, in case William Rufus had any plans with his daughter in mind. Malcolm’s actions showed his political shrewdness in recognition that Edith, as a princess and because of her Anglo-Saxon royal blood, was a very desirable marital commodity.



For more insight into this topic, also consult Lois Huneycutt, Matilda of Scotland: A Study in Queenship, pp. 18-25.


Malcolm’s English origins in twelfth-century Anglo-Norman chronicles

One of the greatest difficulties in researching King Malcolm is the nature and content of the sources themselves. Though there are some sources that are contemporary to Malcolm’s reign, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, most of the sources that contain information about Malcolm’s life were written in the twelfth century. Likewise, many of these later sources include details about Malcolm that do not appear in the more contemporary sources, which complicates research. For this blog post, I want to explore how the extant sources for King Malcolm’s life can become problematic because of the multiple gaps they present in their evidence.

The first mention of King Malcolm as a refugee in Saint Edward’s court comes from a twelfth century Anglo-Norman chronicle, written in the first half of that century. Florence (and/or John) of Worcester’s Chronicon ex chronicis is the first source to mention that Malcolm had been placed on the Scottish throne in 1054 by order of Edward the Confessor. The Chronicon explains that,

Siward, the stout earl of Northumbria, by order of the king entered Scotland […]; he then, as the king had commanded, raised to the throne Malcolm, son of the king of the Cumbrians. However, his own son and many English and Danes fell in that battle. (Chronicle, s.a. 1054)

The Chronicon was commissioned by Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester and probably written, until 1118, by a monk called Florence; it is believed that entries after 1118 were written by another monk, John, who finished the chronicle. In this passage, the Malcolm that was made King of Scots is not the son of King Duncan; however, Alex Woolf argues that this was later confused with Malcolm Canmore (in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Duncan gave Malcolm the title of ‘Prince of Cumberland’). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) D noted that Siward did take a large naval and land force to Scotland and fought Macbeth while plundering the land; it never mentioned that Siward placed Malcolm on the throne, much less by orders of the English king. On the contrary, ASC C specified that Macbeth escaped. Therefore, the Chronicon was the first source that attributed Malcolm’s kingship to English intervention; this was a twelfth-century addition.

Likewise, we do know that Malcolm’s first wife was Ingibjorg, most possibly the daughter of Earl Thorfinn of Orkney. Malcolm’s first marriage is documented in the Orkneyinga Saga and Archie Duncan has already argued that, in light of this evidence, Malcolm was probably raised in Orkney rather than England. Another twelfth-century chronicler, Geoffrei Gaimar, suggested that in 1059 Earl Tostig of Northumbria, bishop Æthelwine of Durham and Kynsinge, archbishop of York conducted Malcolm to King Edward’s court. Gaimar’s chronicle, L’Estoire des Engles, was composed of a translation of the ASC, among other texts, into Anglo-Norman; Malcolm’s submission before King Edward’s court does not appear in the ASC. Here, it seems that Gaimar added more information about Malcolm Canmore and his involvement with England that is not found in a closer, more contemporary source.

Yet the Life of Saint Margaret provides an intriguing fact about King Malcolm and his engagement with the English language. In the Life, Turgot wrote:

In this discussion the king himself took part as an assessor and chief actor, being fully prepared to both say and do whatever she might direct in the matter at issue. And as he knew the English language quite well as his own, he was in this council a very careful interpreter for either side (Life of St Margaret, p. 44-5).

Turgot’s comment on Malcolm’s bilingualism is rather perplexing. Note how the text specifies that Malcolm knew English as well as his own language; this description is not surprising if we accept the notion that Malcolm was raised in England at the court of Saint Edward the Confessor. However, Turgot did not claim that Malcolm was raised in England even when he discusses Queen Margaret’s lengthy Anglo-Saxon royal ancestry. The earliest sources hat mention King Malcolm provide insufficient evidence for proving that he was raised in the English court or that Margaret taught him English. Notions of King Malcolm as a refugee in England seemingly began with Florence of Worcester’s Chronicon (at least to the best of my knowledge and research), adding information that was not found in the ASC C or D entry for the year 1054. The passage in the Life of St Margaret about Malcolm’s bilingualism serves to focus on Malcolm’s ability to be an obedient and supportive husband. In this passage, King Malcolm acknowledged his wife’s sanctity and was ready to act according to her instructions. The passage emphasized Margaret’s effect on Malcolm’s behaviour and her work in reforming the Scottish Church.

While this post is not meant to resolve whether Malcolm was raised in England or not, it is meant to reflect on the difficulties of using twelfth century Anglo-Norman evidence for assessing the life of an eleventh-century King of Scots. Admittedly, the political, cultural and religious reasons why these chronicles were written in a particular manner are not addressed in this post since they are very complex, but they matter tremendously in how we analyse chronicles as sources for history in general. In the case of Malcolm, research about him is complicated by the fact that the extant evidence can be ambiguous and, at times, contradictory.


Darlington, the late R. R., P. McGurk, Jennifer Bray, and P. McGurk, eds. The Chronicle of John of Worcester: Volume II: The Annals from 450 to 1066. Clarendon Press Oxford Medieval Texts, 1995.

Gaimar, Geoffrey. The Anglo-Norman Metrical Chronicle of Geoffrey Gaimar. Edited by Thomas Wright. Publications of the Caxton Society 9. B. Franklin, 1967.

Keene, Catherine. Saint Margaret, Queen of the Scots: A Life in Perspective. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Turgot. Life of St. Margaret Queen of Scotland. Edited by William Forbes-Leith. Edinburgh: W. Paterson, 1884. http://archive.org/details/lifeofstmargaret00turguoft.

Whitelock, Dorothy, David C. Douglas, and Susie I. Tucker, eds. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961.

Woolf, Alex. From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

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.