The title of this blogpost should really be turned into a question: Did a man from Govan become king of Scotland? It takes us into a rather obscure period of Scottish history, a period less well-known than the age of Bruce or the Stewart monarchs, but I believe we can glean enough information to answer the question with a cautious Yes.
Our starting-point is the year 1018, when a great battle was fought at Carham on the River Tweed. On the losing side was an English army led by the Earl of Bamburgh, fighting on behalf of their half-Danish, half-Polish king Cnut (‘Canute’). The victors were the Scottish king Mael Coluim (‘Malcolm’) and his ally Owain the Bald, king of Strathclyde. It was a famous battle, possibly with far-reaching consequences, one of which may have been that the Tweed became the Border between England and Scotland.
Owain and his people weren’t Gaelic-speakers like their Scottish allies. They were known simply as ‘Britons’, and their language was basically a northern dialect of Welsh. It gave us place-names we still recognize today, such as Rhyn-frwd (Renfrew), Llanerch (Lanark) and Glasgu (Glasgow). But the people of the Clyde weren’t ‘Welsh’ in the sense of being ‘from Wales’. Even when their English enemies referred to them as ‘Strathclyde Welsh’, this simply meant that their speech sounded similar (in English ears) to the language of Wales. The Britons of Strathclyde belonged firmly to the North, just like the Scots. They called themselves ‘Britons’, but they also used another word: Cumbri (‘Cumbrians’) which translates roughly as ‘fellow countrymen’.
Carham-on-Tweed is the last battle in which the ‘Cumbrians’ or Strathclyde Britons are listed among the participants. Nor do we hear anything more of Owain the Bald, although there is no reason to believe that he died in the battle. Some historians think he may have been the last king of Strathclyde, and that the kingdom was taken over by the Scots soon after 1018. Others, including myself, see the kingdom continuing for another generation at least. At the heart of the matter is the identity of a mysterious figure called Mael Coluim who makes a brief appearance in history in 1054. In that year, the English king Edward (‘The Confessor’) sent one of his most able commanders, the Danish warlord Earl Siward, to Scotland. The campaign was noted in the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
‘At this time Earl Siward went with a great army into Scotland, with both a fleet and a land-force, and he fought against the Scots, and put to flight their king Macbethad, and he slew all that were best in the land, and brought back much plunder, such as no man had ever obtained.’
Macbethad is the historical character behind Shakespeare’s villainous ‘Macbeth’. In reality, he was a wise ruler who knew how to play the tricky game of eleventh-century politics. Having married a woman of royal blood (probably after slaying her husband, his own cousin) he got close enough to the Scottish crown to make a bid for it. In 1040, he toppled King Donnchad (Shakespeare’s ‘Duncan’) and placed himself on the throne.
Fourteen years later, however, he had to face the onslaught of Earl Siward, described as ‘almost a giant in stature, and of strong hand and mind’. Despite being a competent warlord in his own right, and even with a bunch of tough Norman knights at his side, Macbethad was soundly defeated. He fled the battlefield, and probably went into exile, no doubt getting as far away from Siward as he could.
When the English counted the bodies on the battlefield they discovered Siward’s own son among the slain. A messenger was sent to bring the grievous news to the Earl.
‘Did he receive the mortal wound in front of his body, or behind?’ asked Siward.
‘In front,’ the messenger replied.
‘I rejoice wholly,’ said Siward, ‘for I would deem myself or my son worthy of no meaner death.’
The Scottish throne was now effectively vacant, but Edward the Confessor had already selected Macbethad’s replacement. The English chronicler John of Worcester, writing in the twelfth century but drawing on earlier sources, tells us that Siward ‘as the king had commanded, set up as king Mael Coluim, son of the king of the Cumbrians’ (Malcolmum, regis Cumbrorum filium, ut rex jusserat, regem constituit).
In 1054 the term ‘Cumbrians’ was synonymous with ‘Strathclyde Britons’, so Mael Coluim was a royal prince of Strathclyde. His name, however, is Gaelic rather than Welsh, so perhaps he was of mixed Cumbrian-Scottish parentage. His mother may have been a Scottish princess, maybe a daughter of the Scottish king Mael Coluim who had fought alongside the Britons at Carham in 1018. Did the Scottish Mael Coluim marry his daughter to his ally Owain the Bald? If so, then it is possible that the Cumbrian Mael Coluim of 1054 was Owain’s son, named in honour of his Scottish grandfather.
To be a son of ‘the king of the Cumbrians’, Mael Coluim must have been born when his father was still reigning on the Clyde, at a time before the kingdom of the Britons fell to the Scots. The capital of Strathclyde was Govan, where the royal family worshipped in an old church beside the river, and where they held important ceremonies on the huge mound called Doomster Hill. I think it very likely that Mael Coluim was born at Govan, or perhaps in the royal palace of Partick on the opposite bank, and that he recited his childhood prayers in the church where Govan Old stands today. He may have stood with his father on the summit of the Doomster Hill on days of great ceremony.
In 1054, he became king of Scotland. He was the second man of mixed Cumbrian-Scottish blood to achieve this status, but probably the only Govanite to do so.
Sadly, his reign lasted no more than a year, maybe even less. His position was severely weakened by the death of his patron and protector, Earl Siward, sometime in 1055. In the ensuing uncertainty Macbethad returned from exile, no doubt with help from anti-English factions at the Scottish court. Mael Coluim was removed from the kingship and was either assassinated or forced to flee. If he managed to escape Macbethad’s vengeance, he may have sought refuge with friends in England, perhaps with Siward’s former henchmen. Or he may have gone back to his father’s old kingdom on the Clyde, back home to Govan, to see out his remaining years in what was probably the land of his birth.
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The events of 1054 involving Mael Coluim ‘son of the king of the Cumbrians’ are discussed by Alex Woolf in his book From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp.262-3 and by me in The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010), pp.191-2.
To see why ‘Cumbria’ had the same meaning as ‘Strathclyde’ in early medieval times, check out this piece I wrote a couple of years ago, neatly reproduced by Diane McIlmoyle at her blog.
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