(first published March 24, 2018 in Dodging the Rain)
In 1050, Macbeth went on a pilgrimage to Rome, the only Scottish king ever to do so. The chronicler, Marianus, wrote that Macbeth gave money to the poor of Rome ‘as if it were seed.’ Pope St. Leo IX was one of the great reforming popes, campaigning against the sale of ecclesiastical offices and against married priests. But Leo IX also appears in popular history as a tragic figure, his letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople having brought about ‘The Great Schism’ between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Leo IX was a German speaker and Macbeth (Mac Bethad mac Findlaich) was a native Gaelic speaker, so it is possible that they conversed with the help of a monk from one of the Scottish monasteries that brought the Gospels into Germany.
‘… Indeed, Your Holiness, it has been an arduous journey. But with my entry at last into Rome, my dirty soul has felt a little cleaner.’
‘Have you found it so, Mac Bethad mac Findlaich? In my own case, I have found many times that re-entering the city, being once more among the ruins of barbarous paganism, engenders in me a sense of futility, of the transience of earthly kingship. The ancient emperors of the known world built here, piling carved stone on carved stone in salute to their pagan Gods. Great artists swarmed to Rome to celebrate the might of its rulers. Yet all that has endured is… rubble.’
‘I understand. My long journey to Rome has impressed upon me that Scotland is only a small country on the cold shoulder of the world, but Brother Colm here may have told you that we too have our ruins: great circles of upended stones, so huge that our legends tell us they must have been fashioned by giants. They too are deserted now – roosts for the hoodie crow. Yet it has seemed to me that those who dwelt there – men, or giants, or evil trows – are to be pitied, having had no knowledge of Our Saviour. To look upon those ruins among the heather lifts my heart, because I know Christians are right and those old pagans were wrong.’
‘That is so. Your heart told you true. But Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. Because of Adam’s sin, we who rule in this world can only rule in error, as the pagans ruled in error. Is that not what has dirtied your soul, Mac Bethad mac Findlaich?’
‘Perhaps so, Your Holiness. But a man can only plough a field as he finds it, likewise with a ruler and a kingdom. I burned my cousin, Gille Coemgain, and his retainers in his hall, but justice demanded his death for his slaughter of my father. Thereafter, for peace and unity, I took to wife Gruoch, my cousin’s widow, and I have named Lulach, my stepson, as my heir. Duncan, the usurper, fell in battle at Pitgaveny and it was well that I had the victory, because Duncan was a young and foolish ruler. Like many a king, I have stepped in blood to reach the throne, but I have tried long and hard to rule wisely and well.’
‘I begin to understand why you have felt impelled to make this pilgrimage, Mac Bethan mac Findlaich. But you speak well when you qualify your rule as an attempt at wisdom. It may be some consolation to you to know that I, your holy father, have laboured long and hard to rule God’s Church wisely and well… And yet, and yet… I have travelled Christendom, I have cast down bishops who have bought their sees, I have cast out priests who flaunt their concubines… But for all my little victories over the sins of simony and clerical incontinence, I can only wonder if I have always ruled wisely and well. This matter of the appointment of Humbert as Archbishop of Sicily, for example: inadvertently, I seem to have angered Patriarch Michael Cærularius in Constantinople… Hmm, I see from your face, and that of Brother Colm, that I am wandering along paths that are strange to you — my apologies.’
‘Please, Your Holiness, I am honoured by your confidences. And I understand the lesson you would teach: that all rulers – secular and ecclesiastic – must strive for righteousness, but in this life they can never know whether they succeed. They will only know when they stand before your Apostolic Predecessor, St Peter.
‘That is so: Heaven shall be our judge. But I also wonder about the judgement of posterity. I am told that, among your people you are known as “the red king”. Take care that posterity names you thus for the colour of your hair, rather than the blood of your enemies. Go in peace with my blessing, Mac Bethan mac Findlaich.’