Macbeth’s World

While we know little for sure about the man Macbeth, we know a bit more about the context of this historical king. There were several political and social powers in the area during the early 11th century, and understanding this larger world can help us understand the realm in which Macbeth lived.

The Northmen
This was the height of the Viking era. Norse chieftains held not only Norway and Iceland, but the Orkney Islands just north of Scotland and the tiny Shetland Islands between Scotland and Norway. They also held, at various times, parts of northern Scotland, the Western Isles (Mull, Skye, etc.), and large parts of Ireland. Their longboats were the fastest vessels to ply the seas, and their ruthless piracy was legend. In fact, the word viking means pirate. The Northmen, as they were known, were mostly land-owning farmers, but it was considered great sport–and profitable business–to go a-viking in the spring, before the crops went in, and again in the fall, after the harvest was in. Leif Erikson, reputed to have landed in North America before Columbus, was a contemporary of Macbeth’s father.
The Danes
Another Norse people, with close cultural and linguistic ties to the Northmen, the Danes were a powerful force and held large portions of western England during the early part of the 11th century. Cnut was king of Denmark, Norway and England from 1016 to 1035. Even when Edward the Confessor returned from exile to take the English throne in 1037, many of the earls who served him were Danish. There was contention between Denmark and Norway, however, both before and after Cnut’s supposedly united reign, and there were numerous times when the Norse in Ireland tramped across southern Scotland to attack the Danes in York, and vice versa.
The Irish
At this point in time, the Irish were just battling their way out from under Norse rule. The infamous king Brian Boru won his many battles just prior to the 11th century. They were a Celtic people with cultural and marriage ties to the Scots, and a common language.
The Anglish
Once a Germanic tribe, the Anglish of northern England were mostly a subject people of the Danes. The peasant class and some of the more lowly landowners might be Angles and Saxons, but the aristocracy in Northumbria and Mercia were predominantly Danish, even after King Edward took the throne.
The Church
In the 11th century, there was still a struggle between the Celtic church and the Roman church. Though the Scottish Primate (the Bishop of St. Andrews) officially looked to Rome, the monks and priests working among the people came out of the Celtic tradition, and many of its practices–such as clergy taking wives–were still pervasive in Scotland.

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Next: Macbeth’s Scotland

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