Three Witches and a 457th Birthday:
Post written by Gwen Sinclair
Banquo: How goes the night, boy?
Fleance: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock
Banquo: And she goes down at twelve.
Fleance: I take’t, ’tis later, sir.
Sometime in April it would have been William Shakespeare’s 457th birthday, and it was on this day [April 23rd] that he departed his mortal coil in 1616. The above is a quote from one of his best-known plays – we expect you’ve probably guessed what one it is…
– Macbeth (shh don’t say it out loud…).
What you may not know though is that this play, which is Shakespeare’s loosely dramatised version of the struggles between Scottish King Duncan I (1034-1040) and his cousin, Macbeth, Chief of the Northern Scots – who were both grandsons of Kenneth II (971-995) – appears to have connections to Dundonald!
To help set the scene – we’ve been marking Royal Dundonald Castle’s 650th anniversary year, in part by finding out as much as we can about Robert II who was the 7th High Steward of Scotland – becoming king in 1371. In many respects, his story is lesser known, and as we spend so much time within the walls of his Castle here, built on his hereditary High Steward lands, we are always curious to find out as much as we can about him to help to bring his story to life. In the process of doing so, we occasionally stumble upon a fascinating new piece of information; this blog post came about from one of those moments when one of our Tour Guides, David Taylor, discovered an old book The Heraldry of the Stewarts by G Harvey Johnston, published in 1906 – (made available on-line via the National Library for Scotland)
A rather intriguing piece of text jumped out from the opening paragraph:
“Back to the earliest recorded ancestor the Stewarts are always found occupying a position of prominence, and the proverbial “first mean man” of this ancient race is still to be discovered. Alan the ‘dapifer’, seneschal or steward was probably the first of the race as far as our present knowledge extends, and his eldest son is supposed to be Alan ‘dapifer’ at Dol in Brittany who took part in the Crusade of 1097 and died apparently without issue. He was succeeded by his brother Flaald (Fleance, son of Banquo of Shakespeare), who had a son Alan FitzFlaald who is believed to have accompanied King Henry I to England…”
“Flaad-Fleance son of Banquo of Shakespeare” – so the character of Fleance in Macbeth was actually based on Flaald?? And if so, this means he had connections to Dundonald Castle!
So, delving deeper into this premise -let’s start by having a quick look at Shakespeare’s Scottish play where a Scottish general named Macbeth receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day, he will become King of Scotland. On hearing this, unleashes in Macbeth a latent megalomania with disastrous consequences for him and those around him. Macbeth decides to murder the king, Duncan, and take the crown for himself!
Then pulsating with paranoia, he ups his game, as his “only vaulting ambition” becoming one “which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other(s)”. Now so out of control he becomes all-consumed by his lust for power and proceeds to murder the MacDuff family and his friend Banquo, the Thane of Lochaber. Most perturbing of all for Macbeth, it seems, is his failure to do away with Banquo’s sweet natured son, Fleance – meaning his attempt to thwart the 3 witches’ prognostication which suggests that it will be Banquo’s sons who will become Scottish kings has failed, miserably…
A pretty grisly tale for sure – and one of the four Shakespeare tragedies – a genre which in modern day terms somewhat belittles its actual content, since we might be forgiven for expecting a tragedy to be a story of sorrow and disappointment, and yet we find that it contains skulduggery, witchcraft, and violent murder instead! So why was this story merely regarded as a tragedy and not the horror story as we might now consider it to be? Fair is foul, and foul is fair, as we now discover that Macbeth’s actions were something of an ordinary political manoeuvre in 10th/11th century Scotland! After all, Duncan’s father, King Malcolm II, had taken the throne previously by murdering his cousin, Kenneth III (997–1005). So, it seems we’ve stumbled upon a rather gruesome trend, as we find that the play is reputed to show Duncan’s death being more akin to a story of an earlier regicide of Malcolm II’s uncle, King Duff (962-966).
Dark days indeed! History for Macbeth is somewhat equally grisly in real life since he did cause the death of his cousin King Duncan I, usurping the crown through a civil war in which Duncan was killed at a battle near Elgin in 1040. Macbeth then took the throne for himself and was king from 1040-1057. We know this wasn’t exactly a success with toil and trouble coming to him when he was killed in yet another crown-usurping civil war this time led, unsurprisingly, by Duncan’s son Malcolm Canmore at a battle at Lumphanan. Malcolm III then took the throne and remained king of Scots for just shy of 40 years. It was he who fathered David I (1124-1153), as the youngest of his 6 sons, who we are glad to report didn’t die from a dastardly bid for his crown by one of his family members. David I instead had much to contend with in terms of warring factions, and did his best to bring Scotland’s churches and local governance into line with continental European usages -having founded many religious communities- which is not really surprising given his back story!
So, what of Fleance actually being Flaald? For this part of the enquiry we need to have a closer look at the lineage of the hereditary Scottish High Stewards since as you will recall, G Harvey Johnston identified their likely origins as having been initiated by Alan of Dol in Brittany c.1080s. Alan of Dol appeared to die heiress, and was then succeeded by his brother, Flaald – who had a son Alan Fitz Flaald – who we know came to Shropshire with King Henry I of England (1100-1135) since he is mentioned in contemporary documents at the time. This takes us closer to the ‘king theory’ as he is the son of Flaald – the potential real life character of Fleance. Sadly, there seems to be no evidence that Alan ever came to Scotland – although trying to find this out appears to have been a subject of much study over the years. Perhaps one day this might be proved, but for now we will move on to what we do know.
One of Alan’s sons, Walter FitzAlan, was invited to Scotland to become dapifer or Steward for King David I and who gave Walter the lands here at Dundonald where he is thought to have built a Norman style motte and bailey structure, c1136, on the hill to utilise its commanding position to help protect David I’s kingdom from unrest by the Lords of Galloway, Lords of the Isles as well as from Norse incursions. Walter FitzAlan became a highly important member of the 12th century Scottish royal household, and became the first High Steward – going on to establish the line of Scotland’s hereditary High Stewards – and by its 6th generation – another Walter was born – who married Princess Marjorie, daughter of Robert the Bruce. It was their son, Robert, who built the current, Royal Dundonald Castle, and unexpectedly became king of Scots in 1371, which then began the long Stewart line of succession. So it seems if it is Flaald who was the actual originator for the character of Fleance, then the witches were right enough, if a little premature, and we can certainly connect the story to Dundonald, (even if we’d rather not, given its content!)
Banquo: ”Oh treachery! Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!
Thou mayst revenge.”
Additionally, Fleance scarpers to Wales on the request of his father Banquo when he realises the extent of Macbeth’s murderous intentions. Interestingly near the border of Wales, lies Oswestry – which was where Walter FitzAlan lived before he came to Dundonald – adding extra weight to the theory, if however, a little in reverse since we can only assume he came to Scotland latterly to work for the king and had not been here before.
Furthermore, to add extra thinking to the issue of one of the early Stewards or Stewarts being Fleance, its worth noting that Shakespeare appears to have created The Play sometime between 1604 and 1606 – during the early years of the reign of the 9th Stewart monarch – James 6th of Scotland and 1st of England. It’s been suggested that Shakespeare may well have deliberately written it as something of a sweetener to help strengthen the fairly fragile right of the Stewart monarchy in England. James turned out to be a bit of a fan of Shakespeare’s work, and only a few months after he ascended to the throne, he officially adopted Shakespeare’s Company. Shakespeare apparently welcomed the new king with the play (sshh!) – set in James’s native Scotland. The theory that Fleance and Banquo became assumed to be the king’s real-life ancestors is interesting also when we consider James was actually a descendent of Macbeth – coming down through the Bruce line splicing with the Stewarts through Robert II – the first Stewart monarch. Perhaps though, Shakespeare was keen to compound the image of James as a good man given that there was a very dark past surrounding the backdrop of Macbeth or indeed to distance him from any connections to the darker past of his lineage and that a decendency from Fleance and Banquo – portrayed to be honourable and honest men – was perhaps a better way to bring favour to James given that he was not exactly popular with England’s Catholics and Puritans. Indeed, there were several plots against him – most notably the Gunpowder plot of November 1605 when Guy Fawkes and other protestors to his kingship were discovered in the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament hastily preparing to blow him and his parliament up!
It would be amiss not to mention the superstition surrounding the so-called ‘Scottish play’ – thus called because it’s regarded as unlucky even to say its name – and apparently it must never be mentioned before any performance of any kind! If you do happen to utter the word, you must immediately leave the theatre, turn round three times, say a swear word, before knocking on the theatre door to be allowed back in as an attempt to disarm the jinx of it! According to the Royal Shakespeare Company this came about after its very first performance ever suffered a series of major mishaps including its Lady Macbeth dying so suddenly that Shakespeare himself had to play the part! Stories of real daggers being used in place of props resulting in the murder of King Duncan, and later surrounding a performance in New York in 1849 where such intense rivalry ensued between 2 players that a riot occurred resulting in the deaths of 20 people and the injury of over 100!
Unsurprisingly, this has created the narrative of it being cursed ever since!
Luckily, we had nothing so drastic to report in July 2019 when The Three Inch Fools – a troupe of players, who travel from village to town up and down the land – delighted the audience with their lively performance of The Play here at Dundonald Castle.Utilising Robert II’s great grey tower as a highly authentic backdrop, the outer courtyard lawn, dotted with fold-up chairs and colourful picnic blankets, doubling up as the stalls, with costume and role changes hastily refreshed behind a wooden stage in truly medieval style!
This was the second of their wonderful performances here in Dundonald after they had firstly brought us A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2018. We’re very hopeful that The Three Inch Fools will be able to come back to Dundonald Castle again this year as part of their 2021 tour – with Romeo and Juliet pencilled in for 24th July. Keep an eye on our social media for details to confirm and how to book.
Before the final curtain falls, let’s raise a toast to Shakespeare for his 457th birthday and to the enormous contribution he made to the world in his lifetime; and so “Let us drink to the general joy of the whole table” (as Macbeth announced in bravado, whilst the ghost of Banquo’s appeared only to him…) by raising a goblet of ale or wine or one of the distillates to which Shakespeare mentioned in 40 or so of his plays, which has made him a high contender for most literary expert in all things celebratory!
Find out more about:
WalterFitzAlan – the First High Steward of Scotland from our blog post about him:
The Three Inch Fools: https://www.threeinchfools.com/
Short review of the Three Inch Fools: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vu2a_CchSO4
Find out more about the Curse of Macbeth: https://www.rsc.org.uk/macbeth/about-the-play/the-scottish-play#:~:text=According%20to%20folklore%2C%20Macbeth%20was,1606)%20was%20riddled%20with%20disaster.
Harvey Johnston, G., The Heraldry of the Stewarts. pII. W & A.K Johnston ltd Edinburgh and London. Digitised by the Internet Archive in 2012 with funding from National Library of Scotland:https://digital.nls.uk/histories-of-scottish-families/archive/95587513#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=27&xywh=-971%2C-823%2C4441%2C5214
MacAlpin- Stewart-Bruce Lineage chart by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC
Three Inch Fools performing The Scottish Play at Dundonald Castle 2019 by kind permission of The Three Inch Fools.