Nestled between the River Tyne and the Seven Arches Bridge at the Old Wall was a large jumbled structure of fieldstone, timber, borrowed blocks, and enough ivy to fill in the holes called the Spotted Cock. This was an Inn where boat builders and sheep wranglers, noblemen and masons, profiteers and lawyers would share a story and a pint under the same roof. Such was the case on a day in 1059 when a King and an Earl sought a hot bowl of rabbit stew and refuge from a punishing cold rain.
On that day the Inn’s cook needed help to keep up with the demands of no less than three large parties who enjoyed a workman’s holiday due to rain, or completion of work, or simply because their friends were at the pub. There was a group of ship builders who celebrated completion of their contract for five stout merchant vessels which would make countless journeys to the continent and back.
There were the tradesmen, mostly masons and carpenters, whose project was a motte and bailey structure on the south shore originally commissioned by Earl Uhtred the Bold before his death, now being finished by local guilds as a meeting hall they affectionately called Heads Gallery. The completed wing of the building was adorned with the mounted heads of all manner of stag, boar and beast, and a single cow’s head as testimony to the victory Uhtred won over the Scots at Durham, when to each a cow he paid the women for the washed heads of his fallen enemies, so to mount them on display.
Into this happy mayhem arrived nine mud-soaked riders led by Malcolm Canmore, the King of Scotland, on their way back home from diplomatic assembly with King Edward at the Clarendon Hunting Lodge. They did not look regal in their road weary vestment and unpretentious guard, as they had been given warm welcome and safe passage the entire three weeks of their journey, although it took little time for news to spread among the rabble of the noble guest.
Travelling with Canmore was his cousin Máel Coluim, who was the son of the Maldred of Allerdale, three loyal thanes and a small group of well-armed men. After the rabbit stew, which was loaded with more onions and parsnips than rabbit he thought, Malcolm opened his purse to all the mead his men could drink, for he had no intention of travelling further until they were well rested, clean and dry. After all, Malcolm reasoned, it is one thing to travel in England looking like a highwayman, but more appropriate to ride with dignity in the land where his fathers ruled before him as Kings of Alba. After many pints they lamented the loss of Sigeweard, that old Earl of York who had been a friend to their grandfather Crínán, and his sons Duncan and Maldred.
He was a brave man, an honorable man,” said Malcolm Canmore to the raised cups around his table. His name Canmore – Big Head – was used affectionately now that his adult body had grown into the proportion of his oversized brow, something he had long desired after years of childhood taunts.
“HO, HO,” came the response, and Coluim began the oft told lament of Sigeweard’s unfortunate death.
“Fearing that he would expire piteously,” he began with a burp, “A-Ahhp – bellowing like a cow in the field, Sigeweard the Stout adorned sallet and jack with the boldness mustered to wage any war and he fought even the internal enemies of his bowels, but in the end fell at the base of an old bog oak – ,”
“Squatting in a pile of poop – blade in one hand, battle-axe the other,” came a voice from two tables away, along with great laughter from its inhabitants.
“Sir, must you be so bold about the dead?” asked Coluim. The Scottish thanes looked at Malcolm for some clue to the response, but Malcolm showed only a curious smile at the rude Saxon.
“He was indeed a bold warrior and fair leader, I meant no offense, good sirs,” the Saxon responded as one of his tablemates fell backwards off of his bench, too drunk to stable himself. This got the attention of the masons and carpenters who had downed plenty themselves, and the laughter was contagious. Above it all, the Saxon further addressed the Scottish King’s party, “I only hope the new Earl can be even bolder and braver. In fact, I have heard that he is,” and he raised the bragging cup as his table followed suit in agreement.
“Well, good sir,” said Malcolm, “To whom do we have the honor of addressing?”
“I confess I have the advantage, good King of Alba, for your identity was no secret to me even as you crossed the midlands into this Earldom,” said the Saxon. “I am Tostig, the Earl of York, and your welcoming host.”
It took little time for the groups to drag tables around and combine as one rowdy crowd. The talk turned to Malcolm’s reason for the diplomatic call to the English Court. Malcolm had been to Wessex to propose marriage of politics and practicality.
“But then I sawr her,” said Malcolm as he became less dignified with drink.
“Sawyer? You hacked her to bits, did you?” asked one of the carpenters.
“Yes-s. No. I saw the princess whom I had come to, to, to acquire in marriage contract,” replied Malcolm.
“And were you not successful, Canmore?” asked Tostig, sensing how this story was going.
“Ugly, was she?” asked a mason. Malcolm tried to stand as he reached for his blade, but Coluim held him down to his seat.
“She was lovely, such beautiful brown eyes,” sighed the young king. “Still only fourteen in years,” he cautioned, “but soon will be…” He trailed off as the men around him chuckled and rolled their eyes at such unmanly behavior.
The proprietress of the Spotted Cock, who brought another round just then, defended the King’s performance, saying, “Let him be you brutes, His Royalty is in love. What lady wouldna’ wont a king to woo ‘er?” Then, over her shoulder, she hollered at her husband behind the bar, “I certainly would,” and he swatted his hand at her as he went back to the kitchen.
“It is your brother who is to blame,” said Malcolm Canmore with sudden fire and fervor, finger pointed at Tostig.
“My brother? You mean Harold stood in your path? That dirty man, he is married,” said Tostig with a howl.
“He counseled Edward against it, all while acting the statesman to me,” said Canmore with a frown, “that East Anglian small-earl.”
“Hey-hey,” yelled Tostig, and Coluim patted the King on the back. “Let us not start a flap over such matters,” said Tostig, careful not to publicly criticize his brother, no matter how little he thought of the man. Tostig had enough problems with the nobleman of the north under his oppression, he could ill afford confrontation with the south.
“I was wrong about you,” said Malcolm Canmore to his new friend Earl Tostig Godwinsson. “Waltheof painted a grim picture of you indeed,” he added as Tostig tilted his head for further explanation.
“Waltheof? Who is this Waltheof?” asked Tostig, looking at Coluim and shrugging.
“Waltheof is the son of the late Sigeweard who we earlier lamented,” said Coluim with a stone face.
“Ah-h-h, I see,” said Tostig, “the Earl who I replaced when his son was a child. And he wants to kill me, I presume. He should stand in line and wait his turn.” Only those closest to Tostig laughed at this. Even the locals would only look deep into their mead cups, avoiding the appearance of taking sides. One never knew when the wind would change direction. Succession was a bloody business.
“Was Thurbrand what killed his father. He should seek vengeance there, with that family, I say,” added Tostig, and there was a long pause.
“Here, here,” said Malcolm, again raising the bragging cup, “Tostig is welcome in my Court anytime, even if for sanctuary against his enemies, diplomat that I am.”
Tostig raised his cup, then clasped Malcolm’s forearm in promise, solidifying this ethereal talk into sober and solemn vow. “Canmore, I thank you for your friendship. I may take you at your word, and you at mine, all ways against all enemies,” said Tostig as the two stood and embraced one another.
“My only enemy is that one who should not be named,” said Malcolm with a growl.
“He is long dead now, good cousin and King,” said Coluim, knowing how the hatred still burned in Malcolm’s soul for his predecessor.
“You mean MacBeth?” asked Tostig, knowing it was he whom Canmore detested even unto death.
“Yes I mean MacBeth,” hissed Canmore at his new friend Tostig.
Four years earlier, just before Midsummers Eve in 1055, Malcolm was reunited in Caithness at Wick with his younger brother Donald, called Don Bane by all who knew him well, and their mother Sybilla Soothen, called Cilla by most and loved dearly by all. All, that is, except for Cnut’s wife Emma the Norman, who replaced Cnut’s first wife Ælfgifu, mother of Harefoot, and called dear friend Edyth by Cilla. Both were experiencing exile now, although Edyth’s banishment to cold Norway was far more severe than Cilla had ever experienced. With Sigeweard’s death, nowhere in York was safe for Cilla and her now teenage son Don Bane. Nor was it safe for the young orphaned Waltheof, who accompanied them as Don Bane’s best friend.
Years earlier, Cilla and her infant son fled Scotland to the safety of Sigeweard’s Court in Durham when her cherished husband and partner Duncan I, King of Alba, was killed by MacBeth for his crown. Being the older, and for the sake of separating the treasure of posterity, Malcolm Canmore was sent north at this murderous treachery, to be raised by Thorfinn the Black, Jarl of the Orkney’s, Caithness and other realms.
Malcolm Canmore grew up strong and proud, molded into a capable leader under the foster care of Thorfinn, kin to the young prince by way of his mother Olith the daughter of young Canmore’s namesake, Malcolm II. Thorfinn’s wife Ingibiorg was not much older than Malcolm, and she provided much of the tutoring and scholarship a young man of destiny requires in those early days at Caithness. The maritime and swordplay prowess was drilled by The Mighty, as Thorfinn liked to be called. Calling him The Black was also acceptable, but never just Finn, as the ugly old warrior thought it a childish pejorative. Being at the precipice between child and man, Malcolm enjoyed the company of Ingibiorg all too well, and the stirrings young men feel beneath the belt buckle drew him ever closer to Ingibiorg when The Black was at sea.
But in 1055, when they were reunited in Caithness, Malcolm’s blood began to boil at thoughts of vengeance, toward righting all the wrongs of the world. The wrong done to make his mother Cilla a widow when love was at full bloom. The wrong done to his grandfather Crínán, who lost his head by the stolen blade of Thomas Rede, the Swordsmythe of Morpeth. The wrong done his namesake Malcolm II, murdered ruler of all the Scottish kingdoms. All of these wrongs, and more, laid squarely atop that one whose name Canmore dare not utter, lest he lose himself into a rage. MacBeth.
“Our fight is over Cumbria, and the Lothian, good brother,” said Don Bane. “MacBeth is but a distraction who idles in Scone while the English raid our borderlands.”
Malcolm answered, “Scone, where he rests his head ‘gainst the Sacred Stone perched so reverently atop the Old Throne of Alba.” The Stone of Destiny, it was believed, was the very rock used as a head rest by that Jacob of the Israelites, carried Patrick to the Isles, then brought to Scone by Kenneth Mac Alpin not long ago.
“Unworthy murderers cannot be cleansed by Holy Relics,” added Waltheof, wise beyond his youthful appearance, who himself sought to exact his own justices. “But MacBeth is not my fight. Mine is with Cnut, and by proxy Tostig, who murdered my father Ealdred with the sword of the surrogate Thurbrand,” said the young fire brand, turning to spit and curse his resolve, vowing more brutality than any Norseman named Skullsplitter who landed his war horses on Britain’s shores.
Don Bane and Malcolm agreed to raid the Cumbrian frontier that year, along with Waltheof, in a young man’s sowing of his own oats campaign. On one of their exploratory missions south, before their fantasized brutality and pillaging took place, they found themselves in the Spotted Cock, where they met old family friends, the Redes of Morpeth.
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