Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot

Gunpowder Plot Conspirators
Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, Contemporary engraving, National Portrait Gallery, Source: Wikipedia

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the link between Shakespeare’s famous play and the event that nearly shook England’s ruling class to its knees. The Gunpowder Plot was a carefully planned event with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder stashed under the House of Lords in order to blow King James and his government sky-high. Most fortunately—as the story goes—it was foiled by a last-minute letter to Lord Monteagle warning him not to attend Parliament the next day. A timely search of the basement exposed Guy Fawkes and his stockpile before he had the opportunity to apply the fuse. England celebrated its miraculous escape from disaster, and the king’s men went after the conspiracy with a vengeance.

What did this have to do with Shakespeare? Well, as it turns out, Warwickshire was a hotbed of conspirators, and some properties near Stratford-Upon-Avon had been leased to provide a meeting house for the plotters. Worse than that, the town was full of closet Catholics known as recusants—and Shakespeare may have been one of them. A search of the properties in question revealed a hoard of forbidden Catholic paraphernalia—or “massing relics”, as they were called. William Shakespeare, unfortunately, was distantly related to some of the plotters themselves and had business relationships with others. Talk about guilt by association!

Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head, by Henry Fuseli
Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head, by Henry Fuseli. Source: Wikipedia

Since we know next to nothing about Shakespeare, we can only speculate about his motivations. But I suspect appeasing the king might have been on his mind. Not so coincidentally, less than a year after the gunpowder plot we see the first performance of Macbeth, demonstrating the consequences of killing a king. Shakespeare also gives a nod to James’s lineage—Banquo was recognized as the ancestor to the Stewarts—as well as a reference to witches—a theme close to the monarch’s heart. It was commonly thought that diabolical agents were responsible for the most evil of human activities.

But that’s not all. Renowned Shakespearean historian James Shapiro tells us that a discovery during the gunpowder plot investigation introduced a new word to the English lexicon: equivocation. Actually, the word wasn’t new; it was just redefined and “had become a byword that transfixed the nation and suffused the play he was writing”.1 The government badly needed a scapegoat—a leader—and they found him in the guise of Jesuit Superior Henry Garnet, who had written a treatise advising Catholics how to lie under oath during interrogation, while seeming to tell the truth. It was a play on words extraordinaire.

A diligent search of the Inner Temple in London had uncovered this amazing manuscript, with a crossed-out title: “A Treatise of Equivocation” which had been changed to “A Treatise of Lying and Fraudulent Equivocation”. Here, too, the word “of” was crossed out and changed to “against”, but no one was fooled; the authorities had, in their hands, a how-to guide for evading prosecution. For example, “You could deny that you were harboring a priest by saying that the priest ‘lyeth not in my house,’ since he wasn’t telling lies there.”2

Anonymous portrait of Friar Henry Garnet
Anonymous portrait of Friar Henry Garnet, Source: Wikipedia

Whether the treatise had anything to do with the gunpowder plot was irrelevant; Garnet apparently knew about the conspiracy and kept silent. This was good enough, and so much better than prosecuting a handful of disgruntled Catholic gentry. Now the detested fingers of the Jesuits were all over the plot, and the treatise took on a major role in the legal proceedings. The word equivocation had gone viral, so to speak, and a high-profile trial of Garnet himself ended in the inevitable conviction of treason.

In Macbeth, as Professor Shapiro tells us, “Equivocation permeates the play”.  The witches equivocate when they tell Macbeth he shall be king—not informing him that he will need to kill in order to get the crown. And of course, later on, they equivocate, telling him he should never be vanquished ‘till Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Macbeth equivocates to his wife, not telling her that Banquo’s heirs will be kings rather than his own. He equivocates when he kills the guards, then again when he hires Banquo’s murderers. Lady Macbeth equivocates when she tells the banquet guests that “my lord is often thus” after they watch him shriek at an empty chair. Even Lady McDuff equivocates, pretending to her son that his absent father is dead. But the most telling aspect of all is the porter scene, in which the word equivocate is used over and over again:

Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.” 

The word is used five times by the porter and later, once by Macbeth. There’s no doubt that equivocation truly is the byword this time around, made even more interesting that it is only used once in all Shakespeare’s plays written before Macbeth.

As he often did, Shakespeare wrote his play in response to concerns pervading London society. A fear of unseen forces was very real to his contemporaries, and Macbeth would have struck a chord in the unsettled atmosphere pervading King James’s court. One wonders what the playgoers might have thought when passing underneath the severed heads of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, while crossing London Bridge from Southwark on their way home.

1  Shapiro, James, THE YEAR OF LEAR, SHAKESPEARE IN 1606, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2015, p.156
2  ibid, p.158

An Author’s Journey: Heir To A Prophecy

Before I even realized Historical Fiction was a genre, I was fascinated with MACBETH and the witches’ prophecy. If you recall, after they told Macbeth he would be king hereafter, Banquo wanted to know what they had to say about his future. They answered:

“Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.”
“Not so happy, yet much happier.”
“Thou shalt ‘get kings, thou be none.”

Just what kings were they talking about? And what happened to Fleance after he escaped from Banquo’s murderers? I can only suppose Banquo’s legacy was common knowledge to the Elizabethans, for Shakespeare dropped the Fleance subplot, leaving later generations to puzzle over its meaning.

Shakespeare’s story of Macbeth, taken from Raphael Holinshed (who took it verbatim from Hector Boece 1465–1536), was a legend, not real history. Macbeth did NOT kill King Duncan in his bed; King Duncan was killed in battle. In fact, Macbeth was considered by historians to be a good king who reigned fourteen years. But really, who would want to give up such a juicy tale?

I knew none of this at the time—when I started this novel a good 35 years or so ago (some first novels take a long time to mature). In the early ’80s—when the internet wasn’t even a twinkle in Al Gore’s eyes—I only had access to books in my local libraries, and in St. Louis that was a severe handicap. Once I moved to New York and discovered the NY Public Library, my research venue improved considerably. I was surprised to discover that Banquo was thought to be the ancestor of the Stewarts, and James I had only mounted the throne of England a couple of years before this play was written. Shakespeare was giving a nod to James I’s ancestry—and his work on demonology—while showing his audience that killing the king was a really bad idea. It wasn’t until much later—only recently, as a matter of fact—did I discover that MACBETH was written in response to the gunpowder plot of 1605. As it turns out, Shakespeare’s family had some disconcerting connections to the conspirators, and it is thought that the great bard wrote Macbeth to clear himself of any guilt-by-association; the play was first performed nine months after the gunpowder plot was foiled.

But I digress…

Portrait of James VI and 1
Portrait of James VI and 1, c. 1606, by John de Critz (Source, Wikipedia)


As it turns out, connecting Banquo to King James Stewart was the whole purpose of the witches. So when the weird sisters told Banquo “Thou shalt ‘get kings”, they were talking over 500 years into the future! The witches, such an integral part of the play, were already embedded in Shakespearean society; much of that can be attributed to King James (also James VI of Scotland) who was pretty much responsible for the witch burning craze that infested Scotland in 1597. To this day I still don’t understand why this would be a good plot device for Shakespeare. In fact, it is popularly thought that James was so displeased he banned the play for five years, though I can’t find any credible documentation to support this speculation. However, it has also been suggested that the weird sisters (or wyrd sisters) were a manifestation of the Norns—the Norse goddesses who controlled our destiny, much like the Greek Fates. What did Shakespeare have in mind? Considering that paganism was alive and well in the 11th century, it’s not really all that far-fetched. And indeed, this is the interpretation I chose for my novel. It was the Norns who set up a chain of events that placed the Stewarts on the throne. It made so much sense to me!

I discovered a history called Cambria Triumphans, written by Percy Enderbie in 1661; it referred to the old legend, and from this came the plot of my novel. He told us about Fleance and “during his residence in the Welsh court, he became enamoured of Nesta, the daughter of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn; and violating the laws of hospitality and honour, by an illicit connection with her, she was delivered of a son who was named Walter.” Aha! I struck gold. Little did I realize (until I was deep into my research) how many historical figures were actually related to Walter; on his mother’s side he was grandson of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, Prince of Wales and Ealdgyth, daughter of Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia (and future queen of England); on his father’s side he was grandson of Banquo. He was a distant relation to Alain le Rouge, Count of Brittany and future Earl of Richmond. And, to fulfill his destiny, Walter was created the first Steward of Scotland, a hereditary post. Walter’s quest to unravel his legacy took him through many historical events like the Battle of Dunsinane, the Battle of Hastings, and Malcolm III’s court, and gives us a rare look at eleventh century Scotland as well as King Malcolm’s relationship with William the Conqueror.

I hadn’t planned to write a historical novel, but by the time I figured it all out, my course was already charted. While researching this book I became fascinated with Earl Godwine and his family, which inspired me to write my “Last Great Saxon Earls” trilogy. All three books overlap this one, and Walter even makes a cameo appearance in “The Sons of Godwine”. This year I was able to regain my rights and publish a revised edition of “Heir To A Prophecy”. It was great fun to revisit my old friend.

Now available on   

Review for HEIR TO A PROPHECY by Frank Watson

Get out of the way, Philippa Gregory! There’s a new sheriff in town.

Or, considering the historical setting, should I say “high sheriff.”

Maybe “steward” (an important official who manages another’s property or financial affairs) might be even more accurate, because Mercedes Rochelle has entered the popular and competitive historical fiction field with Heir to a Prophecy. This tale follows a family from a penniless young man exiled from the court of Macbeth, the Scottish king made famous by Shakespeare, to becoming the first steward of Scotland. The story takes place during the early mid-11th century in Anglo-Saxon England, Wales, and Scotland. Rochelle tells the story in her own unique way that transcends genres and comfortable conventions, combining hints of the supernatural, hard-edged geopolitics, and  historical characters presented as believable human beings living in that place and time. She uses well-researched details to depict scenes of home and hearth as well as cataclysmic battles.

The story starts with an excerpt from a scene in Macbeth, probably familiar to most of us, though it might be considered a throw-away scene. This is early in Shakespeare’s play, when Banquo and his son, Fleance, are leaving a banquet given by the ambitious Macbeth, and are attacked in a base betrayal.

Here is the excerpt from the original:

BANQUO: It will be rain tonight.

FIRST MURDERER: Let it come down.


BANQUO: O treachery! Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!

Here is Rochelle’s spin:

It was a quiet night, punctuated by the crunch of stones underfoot. Not a cricket was heard – nor birds – only the sigh of leaves rustling far overhead.

“It shall be rain tonight,” Banquo said.

From behind came the cry: “Let it come down!”

In an instant, three dark forms were among them. Banquo was their main target, and two of them fell upon him, slashing the startled man in the face. The worthy lord was blinded by his own blood even as he shouted, “Villains, Murderers! Fly, Fleance, Fly!”

Fleance escapes, but where Shakespeare drops the father and son from his story, Rochelle traces the family through Fleance, his illegitimate son, Walter, and ultimately Walter becoming the first Steward of Scotland.

And the witches? What would any story with any connection to Macbeth be without the witches that Shakespeare included in his play? Some of us would have been tempted to turn the story over to the supernatural elements, which at that time and place were as real as the rocks or sky. The author, however, took a different approach. She incorporates the occult, allowing the witches to be seen and heard, but more as a whisper than a shout. They prophesize about Banquo’s lineage, but to what end? (Hint: Take a close look at the title.)

Making these fantastic elements easier to believe is that they are slipped in as easily as political intrigues, military strategies, and vivid, concrete, descriptions, such as at the Battle of Dunsinane:

Seward saw the danger and retreated, finding himself among friends, who had come to his aid. Together, four of them attacked the horseman, who reared up his mount, using the sharpened horseshoes to ward them off. He didn’t see the fifth man leap up from behind and throw crushing arms around his waist. The Norman was pulled from his horse slashing wildly with his sword. His random stroke met with flesh, but he didn’t know how successful he was; a blow to his face finished him off before he hit the ground…

Heir is the Rochelle’s first published book in a planned series exploring the late Anglo-Saxon period.  Rochelle has a rich vein to explore, and she seems to a good candidate to become not sheriff, but steward, of these riches.


Follow Frank’s blog at Frank Watson, Writer

Review for HEIR TO A PROPHECY by Helen Skinner

“Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.” In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, these are the words spoken by the three witches to Macbeth’s friend, Banquo. Soon after this, Banquo is murdered and his son, Fleance, flees Scotland and does not appear again in the play. In Heir to a Prophecy, we follow Fleance as he escapes to Wales and joins the court of the Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. Here he meets Gruffydd’s daughter, Nesta, and they have a child together. The name of this child is Walter and it is through him that the witches’ prophecy will eventually be fulfilled.

According to some legends, the Stewart monarchs of Scotland were descended from Fleance, although more recent research has shown that in reality Banquo and Fleance probably never even existed. However, this doesn’t make Heir to a Prophecy any less enjoyable to read. The witches’ prophecy is a starting point which the author uses to explore the history of the 11th century, mixing fact, fiction and fantasy together into one fascinating story.

As we accompany first Fleance, then Walter on a journey through medieval Scotland, England and Wales, we witness the unfolding of important historical events which will shape the future of the British Isles. We spend some time in France where William of Normandy, with his eye on the throne of England, is preparing to cross the Channel. His invasion will result in victory over Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but a period of further discontent and rebellion will follow. We also join Walter as he embarks on a personal mission to discover the truth behind his grandfather Banquo’s murder and ultimately to return to his rightful place by the side of Scotland’s King Malcom III.

Read the rest of the review here


Shakespeare’s Recipe For Disaster, Guest Post by Kit Perriman

The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse (source, Wikipedia)

In Act IV – Scene I of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” prepare a “hell-broth” to produce a series of apparitions for Macbeth, that set in motion a chain of deadly events.  Written only six years before the Lancashire Witch Trials, this script provides a good insight into magical beliefs of that time.

“Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights hast thirty one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.”

Seeing this dramatic scene live on stage, the Jacobean audience would believe the witches had brewed some diabolical charm.  They would be terrified, fascinated, mesmerized, and revolted by the disgusting ingredients – exactly as Shakespeare intended.  But let’s take a closer look at his recipe.

The bard was not only a master playwright, he was also a shrewd psychologist who understood the minds of the masses who flocked to The Globe Theatre in London. Therefore it isn’t surprising that one of the first things thrown in the pot is the fenny snake, a nod to the snake who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The Catholic Church claimed all women were necessarily evil because of Eve’s transgression and that’s why the majority of witches were female.  The next three ingredients – eye of newt, toe of frog, and wool of bat – get added to the first item swelter’d toad venom – highlighting four nocturnal creatures that are often associated with witches and their familiar spirits.  The liver of blaspheming Jew endorses the common anti-Semitic beliefs of that era, alongside the racial prejudices held against the Turk and Tartar.  And Shakespeare further played into the beliefs of his class-conscious, biased audience by having a good man like Macbeth brought down by his scheming wife and a band of wicked hags.

A country audience, however, may have interpreted Macbeth’s cauldron quite differently from the royal courtiers and city dwellers.  Many of these exotic ingredients are actually poetic variants on the common names for herbs.  Fenny snake = chickweed; Eye of newt=mustard seed; Toe of frog = frog’s foot or bulbous buttercup; Wool of bat = bog moss; Tongue of dog = hound’s tongue; Adder’s tongue = adder’s tongue fern; Lizard’s leg = ivy; Howlet’s wing = henbane; Scale of dragon = dragonwort; Tooth of Wolf = wolf’s bane; Hemlock root = hemlock; Liver of Jew = Jew’s myrtle or box holly; Gall of goat = St. John’s Wort or honeysuckle;  Slips of Yew = yew tree bark; Nose of Turk = Turk’s cap; Tartar’s lips = ginseng or tartar root; Tiger’s chaudron = lady’s mantle; and the Finger of birth-strangled babe= foxglove, also known as “bloody fingers”.   The remaining items – toad venom, powdered mummy, shark, and baboon’s blood – were all widely thought to have medicinal properties.

Why did Shakespeare choose these fierce-sounding ingredients?  Joyce Froome (Wicked Enchantments) argues that, for the wise women of Pendle, these herbs would be part of their everyday folk magic.  Catt Foy (Witches & Pagans) suggests that maybe “Shakespeare knew a little more about herbcraft than he was letting on,” and Nigel Beale (Literary Tourists Blog) believes he chose names “designed to gross out the masses, to stop them from practicing magic.”

But William Shakespeare was  also a poet.  He knew the magic of words and  rhythmical power of his hypnotic witch chant.  It didn’t matter that these characters may have been throwing armfuls of common hedgerow roots and leaves into a boiling cook pot.  What mattered was the awful-sounding names that conjured up terrifying images in the minds of his audience – and at this he was an unsurpassed wizard!


Kit is trying to raise money for the charity “Stepping Stones”, which continues to defend and uphold the rights of accused “Witch” children in the Niger Delta. You can find more information on
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Shakespeare’s Macbeth Stands Alone

Harvard_Theatre_Collection_-_Ferdinand_Bonn_TCS_1.2793... CREDIT: Wikimedia
Harvard_Theatre_Collection Ferdinand Bonn TCS_1.2793… CREDIT: Wikimedia

What is it about Macbeth that stands out from the other Shakespeare tragedies? I think it might be easier to ask: what makes Macbeth a tragedy at all? Even though his eerie meeting with the Three Witches sets him on a destructive path, his rise and fall are truly of his own making, driven by his hunger for power. We the audience don’t cry for him when he gets killed in the end; rather, we are pretty satisfied by the event. Nor do we mourn Lady Macbeth as she descends into madness and suicide. Shakespeare has other heroes destroyed by their inner demons: Othello is eaten up by jealousy; Hamlet is doomed by his own indecision; King Lear, that old fool, is humiliated by his wicked daughters. Actually, none of these seem tragic to me, but at least we get a morality play of sorts. But not with Macbeth. His is a fairly straight-forward tale of ambition led astray; the bad guy gets it in the end.

Or is it that simple? Macbeth is a pretty multi-faceted story if we take a closer look at it. First of all, there is the supernatural angle. King James I, reigning monarch and Shakespeare’s patron, was the Witch Hunter extraordinaire. Why throw in the witches who seem to get away with wreaking havoc on poor unsuspecting Macbeth (not to mention Banquo, who certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered). Perhaps this was called a tragedy because Macbeth couldn’t resist the Witches’ spells, and so he was really a victim of their evil designs?

If you look at Shakespeare’s source, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, he suggested the Witches could have been “weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie“. The word “weird” has its origins in the Saxon word wyrd meaning fate, or personal destiny.  Some even attribute the first modern use of the word “weird” to Shakespeare. If you look at the Weird Sisters from the Scandinavian point of view, the word wyrd  translates to Urðr  in Norse, namely one of the Norns of Scandinavian mythology who controlled the destiny of mankind. I favor this interpretation and used it in my novel, HEIR TO A PROPHECY.

Back to James I, if we remember that the King had only been on the throne for three years, there’s a good possibility that Shakespeare was introducing Scottish history to the English masses by glorifying the ancestors of their new King. Macbeth was written one year after the Gunpowder Plot, when James was nearly blown up with his Parliament. Guy Fawkes and his accomplices were horribly tortured, and it has been thought by some that the play was intended as a cautionary story for any other potential king-killers.

So it has been said that Shakespeare wrote this play specifically to please James I, which certainly makes it unique. I would be inclined to throw it in with the History Plays instead of Tragedies; after all, we have the Tragedy of Richard II and the Tragedy of Richard III grouped in with the Histories. Why is that? I see Richard II as much more a tragic figure than Macbeth. Who made this decision, anyway?

On the other hand, the historical Macbeth died two years after the Battle of Dunsinane (and not by the hand of Macduff), so I suppose the play is more imagination than history anyway.

Review of HEIR TO A PROPHECY by Nimue Brown

I’ve read Macbeth a number of times and seen it live as well, including an amazing production in the ruins of Ludlow Castle. If you come at it just as a reader of fiction, it seems to exist in that ancient never never time of mystery and maybe was and probably wasn’t… along with figures like King Lear and King Arthur.

Only, it turns out that Macbeth is a real, historical person who existed at a period of great significance for the British and that his history would have had resonance for Shakespeare’s Jacobean audience.

Mercedes Rochelle picks up on one of the conundrums in Macbeth. For the modern reader/ audience, it’s a bit of an oddity that Macbeth is told he will be King, while his friend Banquo is told he will have heirs who are kings. This apparently drives Macbeth mad with jealousy and leads to him later murdering his friend (sorry if that was a Macbeth spoiler, but it’s where Heir to a Prophecy starts). Banquo’s son Fleance flees for his life, and disappears out of the play. If you don’t know what Shakespeare was alluding to here, then the fact that Fleance is not the chap who shows up to take the throne at the end, rather suggests Macbeth’s witches were having a bit of a laugh, and that Banquo’s bit of prophecy was not truth, but a way of getting him killed. The witches seem to be manifestation of chaos and malevolence, if you don’t know the history.

What Mercedes Rochelle does, is takes us into the history, known and mythologized, of the Stuart line. The line of Kings that led to James the 1st, the intended audience for the play. Many of the characters from Macbeth are visible in this tale. We find out what happened to Macolm, Seward, MacDuff, and others. Shakespeare took actions that lasted more than a decade and condensed them down into five acts. Mercedes puts the time scales back in, following the journey of Fleance, and then his son Walter, to unravel the threads of fate that do indeed seem to make Banquo an ancestor of kings. It is a fascinating tale, blending fiction, fact and myth into a very convincing whole.

While Macbeth murders his way to the top, one Harold Godwineson is wangling for position as the aging King Edward fails to produces a Saxon heir, and on the continent, William of Normandy looks hungrily to the north. What follows is, of course, epic, and will change the face of England forever.


Readers of historical fiction will love this book. If you tend towards fantasy then the mix of supernatural influence, castle building, backstabbing politics and epic battles could easily tempt you out of your usual genre.

On that supernatural subject, Mercedes takes the implication of the Wyrd Sisters, and runs with it. The name alone makes it clear that these three women were never meant to be a random trio of witches, but a manifestation of the three Fates, or Norms, of Norse mythology. They hark back to more Pagan times, but Britain pre-Norman conquest had not entirely forgotten its ancestral roots. The England Shakespeare wrote for, probably largely had, while James the 1st is the monarch responsible for changing the Bible’s ‘thou shall not allow a poisoner to live’ to ‘thou shall not allow a witch to live’.  He does seem to have been aware of Pagan and occult influences, and deeply troubled by them, which in turn begs some interesting questions about what Shakespeare intended in all of this.


Preface for HEIR TO A PROPHECY by Mercedes Rochelle

It is of legends that I write in this story, rather than facts; for after almost a thousand years of history, what can we call truth out of the tiny scraps that survived?  When men claimed descent from a bear, and people believed that dragons  roamed the earth, who is to say what is fact and what is fancy?  Hence, with this thought in mind, I give you the origin of the royal Stewarts, as it was handed down to Shakespeare.

It all began with the witches’ prophecy.

Macbeth’s friend Banquo was with him when the three witches appeared on the heath – strange, weird creatures with seductive words.

“All hail, Macbeth!” the first had said, “Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!” – calling him by his true title.

“All hail, Macbeth!” quoth the second, “Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!” – giving him a title belonging to another.

“All hail, Macbeth,” cried the third, “that shalt be King hereafter!” – giving voice to his secret desire.

Macbeth did not know it yet, but the second witch had spoken the truth; already King Duncan had declared the Thane of Cawdor traitor, and awarded the title to Macbeth for his courage in battle.

Then the witches spoke their prophecy to Banquo.  They said:

“Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.”

“Not so happy, yet much happier.”

“Thou shalt ‘get kings, though thou be none.”

The witches vanished, leaving the pair with gladsome prospects.

All might have gone well, but Macbeth’s ambitions were too strong to wait for chance to bring them about.  King Duncan’s life stood in his way; before long, King Duncan was murdered.  The true heirs, Malcolm and Donald Bain, fled the country, thus leaving the throne empty for Macbeth to mount.

Only Banquo had reason to suspect that Macbeth was the murderer.

As of yet, however, good Banquo showed no signs of betraying his friend’s secret.  But as time went on, the king brooded – hating him – begrudging Banquo’s every breath.

It really wasn’t treachery Macbeth suspected; rather, his anger had sprung from the futility of his own position.  Although he was king, he had thrown away his peace of mind – jeopardized his very soul – so that Banquo’s heirs would sit on the throne he had bought so dearly.

Having gone so far, there was only one thing to do.  Banquo had to be dealt with…and his son, Fleance.  To that end, Macbeth ordered a great feast to be prepared, and commanded their presence as guests of honor…

(Hence my story. Shakespeare did not pursue the Banquo/Fleance theme, because I believe it was  common knowledge in post-Elizabethan England that Banquo was the ancestor of James I Stewart.  This is how it began…)


What was the Tanist Succession?

The Tanist (or Tannist) is an interesting concept, and not much has been written about it.  In its simplest terms, a Tanist was a royal successor.  Tanistry seems to be Celtic in origin, and appears to have been imported into Scotland from Ireland in the fifth century.  In the earliest days, the Tanist was not necessarily directly related to the king, or even the same branch of the royal family; however they would share a common ancestor.  In fact, during the early middle ages, the King was elected by the noble princely families, and the Tanist was elected as well.  It was a lifetime post.

In theory, the Tanist would have been an ambitious and capable successor, “without blemish”, able to take on the rulership in a time when a chieftain’s life expectancy often did not allow for his sons to achieve manhood.  The Tanist Succession would encourage rotation between branches of a family, and was considered a fair way to keep balance. However, more often than not, it led to dynastic infighting.

Malcolm II, in 1005, was the first Scottish monarch to introduce hereditary monarchy and female-line succession at the same time, since his heir, Duncan II, was descended from his eldest daughter.  This innovation caused great conflict and he had to spend many years clearing the way to the throne for his grandson.

In fact, Grouch (known as Lady Macbeth) was descended from the rightful King Kenenth III, who was killed by Malcolm II.  Then Grouch’s father, Boede, recognized as the logical Tanist of his branch, was also killed by Malcolm II.  In 1032 Grouch’s first husband Gillecomgain was killed by Malcolm II in an attempt to get rid of her, but she was elsewhere when her husband and 50 men were burnt to death in his fortress.  No wonder Lady Macbeth urged her second husband to kill Duncan!

So the concepts of Tanist Succession and Patrilinear Succession bumped into each other and wreaked havoc for centuries until Tanistry was abolished by James I (James VI of Scotland).  The system lingered in a diminished form in Ireland until the mid-19th century.

Duncan was not killed in his bed by Macbeth

Lady Macbeth and Duncan by George Cattermole; Wikipedia

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.