Ah, Shakespeare. That wondrous weaver of sonnets and timeless plays. In MacBeth, he wrote: “What’s done cannot be undone.” And perhaps he was right. Perhaps not.
Shakespeare was a genius, this I dare not dispute, but he was also a man who, unfortunately, did some damage with his words – damage to historical figures who would otherwise have been looked upon with greater sympathy by later generations were it not for the Bard taking creative license with their lives.
I speak of MacBeth and of his wife and queen, Gruoch.
Gruoch lived from approximately 1015 to 1060, deep within the medieval period – an era traditionally seen as a time of darkness and shadow in European history, when accuracy is a fleeting, ethereal thing and true facts are sometimes hard to come by.
But some things we do know.
According to the British Peerage, Gruoch mi Boedhe was born sometime around 1015 AD. She was the daughter of Boedhe mac Cinaed. Before marrying Mac Bethad mac Findlaích (MacBeth), she first wed his cousin, Gille Coemgain Macrory, Earl of Moray. After the death of her first husband, she married Macbeth, King of Scotland, son of Findlaech MacRory, Mormaer of Moray and Donalda of Alba, in 1032.
Shakespeare wrote his play sometime between 1603 and 1607. He wrote the play specifically for King James I, the newly reigning king who was a great supporter of the theater. And one can only suppose that then, as now, a story of ambition, betrayal, deceit, and murder would be far more fascinating and entertaining than a tale of a devout Christian king who ruled generally peaceably for seventeen years with his loyal wife at his side.
The historical facts as we know them are that MacBeth killed Duncan in battle — an honorable way to be killed at the time — and a perfectly reasonable way for MacBeth to rise to power as king given the societal norms of the medieval era. This is a far cry from Shakespeare’s version, in which Duncan is murdered ruthlessly in his home, with MacBeth feeling remorse over the killing later.
As for the historical Lady Gruoch, when Macbeth became king after the death of Duncan, he claimed the throne of Scotland in both his and his wife’s name. This was utterly unheard of for the times. And Lady Gruoch became the first queen ever recorded in Scottish history.
As king, Macbeth brought peace to Scotland during a time of violent upheaval. He was a popular ruler and the first Scottish king recorded to have made a pilgrimage to Rome. During his reign, Macbeth gave to the poor, imposed order, and supported Christianity throughout Scotland. He lasted seventeen years as king, when the average Scottish king of the time barely lasted ten. All the while, Queen Gruoch ruled at his side.
Queen Gruoch is named in charters endowing the Culdee monastery at Loch Leven, the home to an aesthetic group of monks devoted to community and to living in the ways of the Christian faith.
During MacBeth’s reign, Gruoch wielded power and influence alongside him as his queen. Their reign was rich enough that MacBeth was said to have “scattered silver like seeds” to the poor.
A royal princess by birth, Gruoch was already the mother of a son, Lulach, when she married MacBeth, and became the mother of the new king when Lulach ascended the throne of Scotland after MacBeth’s death.
According to Scottish historian, broadcaster, and author of MacBeth: A True Story, Fiona Watson:
“Medieval women may be more or less silent to us, but I believe this doubly royal woman played an active role in both in her marriage and in public life generally. Remember, she made a political match with Macbeth: what she and her son needed was a strong protector. In the circumstances, Macbeth fitted the bill perfectly.”
So rid yourself of the Shakespearean concept that Queen Gruoch was a nagging, manipulative, and guilt-ridden woman driven to suicide by her own scheming. The true Gruoch, the woman we should all remember, was a noble queen who ruled at her husband’s side for seventeen years, raised a son to be a king of Scotland, gave to the poor, and outlived her husband by many years.
In the end, she became innocent fodder for the imagination of one of the world’s greatest writers, and as a result, the world has remembered a nefarious Lady MacBeth through literature for more than four centuries.
Perhaps it is time for history to set things right.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
– MacBeth, Act V, Scene V
Fiona Watson’s non-fiction book on the life of MacBeth, MacBeth: A True Story.
Read an interview with Fiona Watson at the scotsman.com.