Malcolm III of Scotland

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain)

Malcolm III
(Máel Coluim mac Donnchada)
King of Scots
Image:Malcolm III.jpg
Reign 1058–1093
Coronation 1057?/25 April 1058?, Scone
Born c. 1031
Birthplace Scotland
Died 13 November 1093
Place of death Alnwick, Northumberland, England
Buried Tynemouth, then Dunfermline, then El Escorial
Predecessor Lulach (Lulach mac Gille Comgaín)
Successor Donald III (Domnall Bán mac Donnchada)
Consort Ingebjorg Finnsdotter
Margaret of Wessex
Offspring Duncan II (Donnchad mac Máel Coluim)
Edward, Edmund, Edgar,
Alexander I, David I
Royal House Dunkeld
Father Duncan I (Donnchad mac Crínáin)
Mother Suthen

Máel Coluim mac Donnchada ( Modern Gaelic: Maol Chaluim mac Dhonnchaidh), called in most Anglicised regnal lists Malcolm III, and in later centuries nicknamed Canmore, "Big Head" or Long-neck (c. 1031 - 13 November 1093), was King of Scots. It has also been argued recently that the real "Malcolm Canmore" was this Malcolm's great-grandson Malcolm IV, who is given this name in the contemporary notice of his death. He was the eldest son of King Duncan I (Donnchad mac Crínáin). Malcolm's long reign, lasting 35 years, preceded the beginning of the Scoto-Norman age.

Malcolm's Kingdom did not extend over the full territory of modern Scotland: the north and west of Scotland remained in Scandinavian, Norse-Gael and Gaelic control, and the areas under the control of the Kings of Scots would not advance much beyond the limits set by Malcolm II (Máel Coluim mac Cináeda) until the 12th century. Malcolm III fought a succession of wars against the Kingdom of England, which may have had as their goal the conquest of the English earldom of Northumbria. However, these wars did not result in any significant advances southwards. Malcolm's main achievement is to have continued a line which would rule Scotland for many years, although his role as "founder of a dynasty" has more to do with the propaganda of his youngest son David, and his descendants, than with any historical reality.

Malcolm's second wife, Saint Margaret of Scotland, was later beatified and is Scotland's only royal saint. However, Malcolm himself gained no reputation for piety. With the notable exception of Dunfermline Abbey he is not definitely associated with major religious establishments or ecclesiastical reforms.


Malcolm's father Duncan I (Donnchad mac Crínáin) became king in late 1034, on the death of Malcolm II (Máel Coluim mac Cináeda), Duncan's maternal grandfather. According to John of Fordun, whose account is the original source of part at least of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Malcolm's mother was a niece of Siward, Earl of Northumbria, but an earlier king-list gives her the Gaelic name Suthen.

Duncan's reign was not successful and he was killed by Macbeth (Mac Bethad mac Findlaích) on 15 August 1040. Although Shakespeare's Macbeth presents Malcolm as a grown man and his father as an old one, it appears that Duncan was still young in 1040, and Malcolm and his brother Donalbane (Domnall Bán) were children. Malcolm's family did attempt to overthrow Macbeth in 1045, but Malcolm's grandfather Crínán of Dunkeld was killed in the attempt.

Soon after the death of Duncan his two young sons were sent away for greater safety - exactly where is the subject of debate. According to one version, Malcolm (then aged about 9) was sent to England, and his younger brother Donalbane was sent to the Isles. Based on Fordun's account, it was assumed that Malcolm passed most of Macbeth's seventeen year reign in the Kingdom of England at the court of Edward the Confessor.

According to an alternative version, Malcolm's mother took both sons into exile at the court of Thorfinn Sigurdsson, Earl of Orkney, an enemy of Macbeth's family, and perhaps Duncan's kinsman by marriage.

An English invasion in 1054, with Earl Siward in command, had as its goal the installation of Máel Coluim, "son of the King of the Cumbrians (i.e. of Strathclyde)". This Máel Coluim, perhaps a son of Owen the Bald, disappears from history after this brief mention. He has been confused with King Malcolm III. In 1057 various chroniclers report the death of Macbeth at Malcolm's hand, on 15 August 1057 at Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire. Macbeth was succeeded by his stepson Lulach, who was crowned at Scone, probably on 8 September 1057. Lulach was killed by Malcolm, "by treachery", near Huntly on 23 April 1058. After this, Malcolm became king, perhaps being inaugurated on 25 April 1058, although only John of Fordun reports this.

Malcolm and Ingibiorg

Late medieval depiction of Máel Coluim III with MacDuib ("MacDuff"), from an MS (Corpus Christi MS 171) of Walter Bower's Scotichronicon.
Late medieval depiction of Máel Coluim III with MacDuib ("MacDuff"), from an MS (Corpus Christi MS 171) of Walter Bower's Scotichronicon.

If Orderic Vitalis is to be relied upon, one of Malcolm's earliest actions as King may have been to travel south to the court of Edward the Confessor in 1059 to arrange a marriage with Edward's kinswoman Margaret, who had arrived in England two years before from Hungary. If he did visit the English court, he was the first reigning King of Scots to do so in more than eighty years. If a marriage agreement was made in 1059, however, it was not kept, and this may explain the Scots invasion of Northumbria in 1061 when Lindisfarne was plundered. Equally, Malcolm's raids in Northumbria may have been related to the disputed "Kingdom of the Cumbrians", reestablished by Earl Siward in 1054, which was under Malcolm's control by 1070.

The Orkneyinga saga reports that Malcolm married the widow of Thorfinn Sigurdsson, Ingibiorg a daughter of Finn Arnesson. Although Ingibiorg is generally assumed to have died shortly before 1070, it is possible that she died much earlier, around 1058. The Orkneyinga Saga records that Malcolm and Ingibiorg had a son, Duncan II (Donnchad mac Maíl Coluim), who was later king. Some Medieval commentators, following William of Malmesbury, claimed that Duncan was illegitimate, but this claim is propaganda reflecting the need of Malcolm's descendants by Margaret to undermine the claims of Duncan's descendants, the Meic Uilleim. Malcolm's son Domnall, whose death is reported in 1085, is not mentioned by the author of the Orkneyinga Saga. He is assumed to have been born to Ingibiorg.

Malcolm's marriage to Ingibiorg secured him peace in the north and west. The Heimskringla tells that her father Finn had been an adviser to Harald Hardraade and, after falling out with Harald, was then made an Earl by Sweyn Estridsson, King of Denmark, which may have been another recommendation for the match. Malcolm enjoyed a peaceful relationship with the Earldom of Orkney, ruled jointly by his stepsons, Paul and Erlend Thorfinnsson. The Orkneyinga Saga reports strife with Norway but this is probably misplaced as it associates this with Magnus Barefoot, who became king of Norway only in 1093, the year of Malcolm's death.

Malcolm and Margaret

Máel Coluim and Margaret as depicted in a 16th century armorial. Note the coats of arms both bear on their clothing - Malcolm wears the Lion of Scotland, which historically was not used until the time of his great-grandson William the Lion; Margaret wears the supposed arms of Edward the Confessor, her grand-uncle, although the arms were in fact concocted in the later Middle Ages.
Máel Coluim and Margaret as depicted in a 16th century armorial. Note the coats of arms both bear on their clothing - Malcolm wears the Lion of Scotland, which historically was not used until the time of his great-grandson William the Lion; Margaret wears the supposed arms of Edward the Confessor, her grand-uncle, although the arms were in fact concocted in the later Middle Ages.

Although he had given sanctuary to Tostig Godwinson when the Northumbrians drove him out, Malcolm was not directly involved in the ill-fated invasion of England by Harald Hardraade and Tostig in 1066, which ended in defeat and death at the battle of Stamford Bridge. In 1068, he granted asylum to a group of English exiles fleeing from William of Normandy, among them Agatha, widow of Edward the Confessor's nephew Edward the Exile, and her children: Edgar Ætheling and his sisters Margaret and Cristina. They were accompanied by Gospatric, Earl of Northumbria. The exiles were disappointed, however, if they had expected immediate assistance from the Scots.

In 1069 the exiles returned to England, to join a spreading revolt in the north. Even though Gospatric and Siward's son Waltheof submitted by the end of the year, the arrival of a Danish army under Sweyn Estridsson seemed to ensure that William's position remained weak. Malcolm decided on war, and took his army south into Cumbria and across the Pennines, wasting Teesdale and Cleveland then marching north, loaded with loot, to Wearmouth. There Malcolm met Edgar and his family, who were invited to return with him, but did not. As Sweyn had by now been bought off with a large Danegeld, Malcolm took his army home. In reprisal, William sent Gospatric to raid Scotland through Cumbria. In return, the Scots fleet raided the Northumbrian coast where Gospatric's possessions were concentrated. Late in the year, perhaps shipwrecked on their way to a European exile, Edgar and his family again arrived in Scotland, this time to remain. By the end of 1070, Malcolm had married Edgar's sister Margaret, the future Saint Margaret of Scotland.

The naming of their children represented a break with the traditional Scots Regal names such as Malcolm, Cináed and Áed. The point of naming Margaret's sons, Edward after her father Edward the Exile, Edmund for her grandfather Edmund Ironside, Ethelred for her great-grandfather Ethelred the Unready and Edgar for her great-great-grandfather Edgar was unlikely to be missed in England, where William of Normandy's grasp on power was far from secure. Whether the adoption of the classical Alexander for the future Alexander I of Scotland (either for Pope Alexander II or for Alexander the Great) and the biblical David for the future David I of Scotland represented a recognition that William of Normandy would not be easily removed, or was due to the repetition of Anglo-Saxon Royal name—another Edmund had preceded Edgar—is not known. Margaret also gave Malcolm two daughters, Edith, who married Henry I of England, and Mary, who married Eustace III of Boulogne.

In 1072, with the Harrying of the North completed and his position again secure, William of Normandy came north with an army and a fleet. Malcolm met William at Abernethy and, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle "became his man" and handed over his eldest son Duncan as a hostage and arranged peace between William and Edgar. Accepting the overlordship of the king of the English was no novelty, previous kings had done so without result. The same was true of Malcolm; his agreement with the English king was followed by further raids into Northumbria, which led to further trouble in the earldom and the killing of Bishop William Walcher at Gateshead. In 1080, William sent his son Robert Curthose north with an army while his brother Odo punished the Northumbrians. Malcolm again made peace, and this time kept it for over a decade.

Malcolm faced little recorded internal opposition, with the exception of Lulach's son Máel Snechtai. In an unusual entry, for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains little on Scotland, it says that in 1078:

Malcholom [Máel Coluim] seized the mother of Mælslæhtan [Máel Snechtai] ... and all his treasures, and his cattle; and he himself escaped with difficulty.

Whatever provoked this strife, Máel Snechtai survived until 1085.

Malcolm and William Rufus

William Rufus, "the Red", King of the English (1087-1100).
William Rufus, "the Red", King of the English (1087-1100).

When William Rufus became king of England after his father's death, Malcolm did not intervene in the rebellions by supporters of Robert Curthose which followed. In 1091, however, William Rufus confiscated Edgar Ætheling's lands in England, and Edgar fled north to Scotland. In May, Malcolm marched south, not to raid and take slaves and plunder, but to besiege Newcastle, built by Robert Curthose in 1080. This appears to have been an attempt to advance the frontier south from the River Tweed to the River Tees. The threat was enough to bring the English king back from Normandy, where he had been fighting Robert Curthose. In September, learning of William Rufus's approaching army, Malcolm withdrew north and the English followed. Unlike in 1072, Malcolm was prepared to fight, but a peace was arranged by Edgar Ætheling and Robert Curthose whereby Malcolm again acknowledged the overlordship of the English king.

In 1092, the peace began to break down. Based on the idea that the Scots controlled much of modern Cumbria, it had been supposed that William Rufus's new castle at Carlisle and his settlement of English peasants in the surrounds was the cause. However, it is unlikely that Malcolm did control Cumbria, and the dispute instead concerned the estates granted to Malcolm by William Rufus's father in 1072 for his maintenance when visiting England. Malcolm sent messengers to discuss the question and William Rufus agreed to a meeting. Malcolm travelled south to Gloucester, stopping at Wilton Abbey to visit his daughter Edith and sister-in-law Cristina. Malcolm arrived there on 24 August 1093 to find that William Rufus refused to negotiate, insisting that the dispute be judged by the English barons. This Malcolm refused to accept, and returned immediately to Scotland.

It does not appear that William Rufus intended to provoke a war, but, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports, war came:

For this reason therefore they parted with great dissatisfaction, and the King Malcolm returned to Scotland. And soon after he came home, he gathered his army, and came harrowing into England with more hostility than behoved him ...

Malcolm was accompanied by Edward, his eldest son by Margaret and probable heir-designate (or tánaiste), and by Edgar. Even by the standards of the time, the ravaging of Northumbria by the Scots was seen as harsh.


While marching north again, Malcolm was ambushed by Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria, whose lands he had devastated, near Alnwick on 13 November 1093. There he was killed by Arkil Morel, steward of Bamburgh Castle. The conflict became known as the Battle of Alnwick. Edward was mortally wounded in the same fight. Margaret, it is said, died soon after receiving the news of their deaths from Edgar. The Annals of Ulster say:

Mael Coluim son of Donnchad, over-king of Scotland, and Edward his son, were killed by the French i.e. in Inber Alda in England. His queen, Margaret, moreover, died of sorrow for him within nine days.

Malcolm's body was taken to Tynemouth Priory for burial. It may later have been reburied at Dunfermline Abbey in the reign of his son Alexander or perhaps on Iona.

On 19 June 1250, following the canonisation of Malcolm's wife Margaret by Pope Innocent IV, Margaret's remains were disinterred and placed in a reliquary. Tradition has it that as the reliquary was carried to the high altar of Dunfermline Abbey, past Malcolm's grave, it became too heavy to move. As a result, Malcolm's remains were also disinterred, and buried next to Margaret beside the altar.

Depictions in fiction

Malcolm's accession to the throne, as modified by tradition, is the climax of Macbeth by William Shakespeare.

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