Friday, May 14, 2021

Countess Mabel Montgomerie -- a woman ahead of her times or a monster in men's eyes?

 The first in a series of blogs about ancestors, 

the past and the truth

Ever notice the media tends to be harder on women than men?  They critique their hair, what they wear.  If a women is strong she is portrayed as being hateful, mean or—excuse the slur—a bitch.  Men are not subjected to such criticisms.  You cannot go anywhere that you won’t see this in action: she’s too fat, too short, too skinny, her nose is too long, eyes close together, omg—she wore a pantsuit!  There is Miss America, Miss Universe, Mrs. America, Miss Black America—but where is the Mr. America or Mr. Universe?  Just stop and try to think of a platform that subjects men to those same demoralizing nitpicking.  Tapping my nails on the table, waiting.  Fashion throughout history was a means to see women conform.  Whatever the era the dress, customs, protocols and positions in life, all were dictated by men’s critical eye and control.  Along with the male point of view on the woman’s role in life, they have also managed what we know of how women lived, survived and dealt with their roles in a man’s world. 

Now extend that throughout history. There were a few matriarchal societies through the ages, the belief being you cannot tell a man’s true father at birth, but you knew who the mother was.  Those societies were stamped out, or consumed by male dominance.  This is not a rant of hating men, for I find them endlessly fascinating, only I am humbugged that women’s pasts are increasingly lost to our knowledge due to being relegated to “unknown mother”.  There were women over the centuries that seized life and molded the course of their destiny, their fortunes, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (my 24th great-grandmother).  Only rarely have historians portrayed these women in the light of admiration.  Randall Wallace, in the screenplay for Braveheart, opens the movie with the line “...history is written by those who have hanged heroes”.  Women had often been portrayed as little more than servants to their husbands, a brood mare to bear heirs, and a piece of property easily discarded, once they have worn themselves out birthing babies one after another.  They were set aside, locked away in some nunnery— or sometimes died in highly suspect circumstances i.e. murdered— to make way for another younger, richer wife. 

 I had to wonder about this slant against women as I looked at my first ancestor in this series of blogs about unusual women:  Mabel Montgomerie.  She has been called many unflattering things, murderess, "l'Empoisonneuse", evil, greedy, wicked—and she paid the price for her deeds—real or rumored slander.  However, with history turning a blind eye to granting women their true recognition, it’s very hard to find the facts to refute these claims.  I can only ponder and try to be impartial in judging my ancestor, especially since some of the writings about her come from Orderic Vitalis, who was only two years old at the time of her death. 

(Countess Mabel Montgomerie's arms)

My 31st great-grandmother on my mother’s side, Mabel Montgomerie was born Mabel Talvas dame de Bellême et d'Alençon in Alençon, Orne, Basse-Normandie, France, sometimes around 1030.  As often the case for females, the exact date was not noted.  Neither was the name of her mother recorded, only singled out as “Hildegard, daughter of Raoul V de Beaumont”.   Even in death, Mabel is not allowed to rest in peace, as her tomb has been destroyed due to the hatred of her.  She was a wealthy Norman noblewoman.  She inherited the lordship of Bellême from her father, Guillaume II "Talvas" de Bellême, seigneur d'Alenço.  Mabel was a loyal woman, but that loyalty cost her when her brother exiled their father for various offences—his cruelty was legendary, they say—including killing their mother for daring to disagree with him on the way to church.  Being a loving daughter, favorite of her father over her brothers, she accompanied him in his exile, thus earning the amenity of everyone, automatically believing she was “cut from the same cloth”. 

Mabel and Guillaume sought the protection of Roger II "The Great" de Montgomerie, 1st earl of Shropshire, earl of Arundel & earl of Shrewsbury.  He was one of William the Conqueror’s counselors, but stayed behind for the 1066 invasion of England, actually left in power to run the whole of Normandy.  For that, William rewarded him with holdings of two powerful positions in England, and immediately he began building the massive Ludlow Castle.  Besides this, he eventually built his honours to number eight-three, over half of England and Normandy.  Small wonder, people called him Roger “The Great”.

(Ludlow Castle)

Mabel saw him as a husband worthy of her goals.  The Talvas convinced Roger they were the aggrieved party, and that her brothers were plotting to get rid of her, since Guillaume had named her as his heir.  Well, the brothers were plotting, so we have that much truth.  Her dowry was worth a king's ransom—if they could get his oldest son off their backs.  Mabel came with massive lands, endless wealth and a shrewdness that attracted Roger.  He was as ambitious as Mabel, if not more so, thus they seemed a perfect match.  Theirs was not only a brilliant political bond, it must have been a marriage of love, since she bore him eleven children!  Thus, Mabel became Countess Shrewsbury, Shropshire, Arundel—and eighty other titles—through her marriage to the eminently pious, Roger Montgomerie. Through the ages, Montgomerie men have proved time and again to warm to intelligent wife, relishing the challenge of women willing to step outside of the normal roles afforded females.  Following that tradition, Mabel was given free rein to be an equal partner to Roger.   

(Abbey of St Evroul)

But not in one matter—religion.  Montgomerie supported many churches and abbeys, and even built several abbeys on his different fiefs.  The biggest thorn in her side was the Abbey of St Evroul.  Religious views likely was one their first clashes of wills.  She was determined he curtail the huge fortunes he was placing in the hands of these monks and priests.  Roger was very devout, and the religious sects ran their monastery on his largess, frequently prevailing upon him to give more than the general tithing. Tithing was required in ancient times—everyone was to give ten percent of their income to the church.  Since he inherited control of her lands through the marriage, coin from her holding of Bellême, in northwest France, was going into the hands of these ever-needy monks without a bye your leave.  That didn’t sit well with Mabel. Most of this tale comes from writings of the monks, especially the head of the order—Abbot Thierry.  He was Roger’s confessor, so in spite of Montgomerie’s ever growing greed, the abbot proved adept at bending his lord’s will on concerns of the monastery.  Thierry heard the man’s confessions.  It was reasonable he likely knew Montgomerie’s nature, as well as Mabel’s.  Since the strong-willed Mabel’s attempt to curtail their monies, we have to take their reporting of incidents with a thimble full of salt.

(Abbey of St Evroul)

No matter what, Mabel could not influence her husband on this issue, especially this tug of war with Abbot Thierry.  Being a cunning woman, she devised an end run.  She began visiting the monasteries, with her full entourage.  Castles and the monasteries, in medieval times, were basically required to serve as hotels for traveling lords and ladies. Mabel created a win-win situation.  She would go traveling the countryside on the excuse of checking on her husband’s vast holdings, along with her one hundred knights and ladies, and various servants. These abbeys dare not offer insult to the countess, or run the risk of Roger withdrawing his support. They were forced to open their gates and all Mabel and her retinue in, to stay as long as they liked.  They would have to feed them—and all the horses.  Mabel saved money by not feeding the lot at the Montgomerie honours, and she was draining away the supplies bought with her husband’s monies. 

The Abbot tried to reason with her, that they were a poor monastery (which was not the truth and she knew it) and it would drain them completely to support her entourage.  Mabel was unmoved by his appeals.  When he said feeding one hundred knights, and providing for her “worldly pomp” was simply too much, Mabel said fine, she would leave.  But—she would return the next week with one thousand knights!  Thierry was furious—a mere woman daring to best him.  Likely, he knew he was losing this battle of the wills, so he countered, “Believe me, unless you depart from this wickedness, you will suffer for it!”  Much to no surprise, a few hours later at supper, Mabel suddenly was seized by stomach pains.  She retired for the evening and the queasiness turned to agony.  From this distance, we can assume one of the learned monks put something in her supper, and you can bet the incisively smart Mabel knew it, too.  Ceding the battle for the moment, she took her troops and left the monastery.  The monks were not content with that bit of mischief.  On the way home, Mabel stopped at the holding of Roger Suisnar.  Still feeling ill—according to the Abbot—Mabel demanded Suisnar he give her his infant child to suckle at her breast.  The child drew the poison from Mabel, who instantly recovered.  Only the small child died doing it. Mabel knew the monks had poisoned her, but instead of demanding her husband punish them, she wisely never went to the abbey again.

The next big black mark history sees against Mabel was endlessly hunger for more land—and vengeance against those who had opposed her, her father and her husband. Arnold de Echauffour, the son of Lord William Giroie, presented himself to Roger, seeking his aid.  William was an old enemy of Mabel’s father, and there was a long running blood feud between the Montgomeries and the Giroies.  Arnold was making his way back from Italy, and stopped to present himself to Earl Roger, hoping to gain favor.  Arnold sought to barter a truce between his family and the Montgomeries.  He even presented a fine fur cloak to Roger as a gift.  He wanted Roger to throw his might behind him, so he could see his ancestral lands restored to his father.  As Roger’s holdings were so widespread, he was always in the need of loyal knights, so having one less enemy was worth putting aside old grievances. Arnold swore homage to Roger, who gave him a writ for Arnold and his father to travel across Montgomerie lands without bother, and agreed the Giroies lands in Montgomerie’s hands would be returned to them.

It is reported that Mabel was less than happy with this turn of events.  She decided to avenge her father on her own, so it is written.  Here is where it’s murky, more rumors than fact, but history seemed determined to paint Mabel as a monster.  Tales say she prepared a celebratory drink to seal the pact, and had one of her prettiest ladies take the potion to him, before he left the holding.  Whatever the circumstances, Arnold did not trust the daughter of his old enemy, and refused her kindness.  Unfortunately, Gilbert Montgomerie, Roger’s only brother, was showing off, grabbed the goblet and gulped it down.  Gilbert was some miles away, when he fell ill.  Three days later he died in anguish.  Roger’s brother had been a valiant knight, and was much loved by all.  Roger adored his brother and grieved deeply.  

Some time later, Arnold did fall gravely ill.  Rumors swirled Mabel had poisoned him by sending some “special” refreshments to him.  It seems rather unlikely, if Arnold did not trust her, and proved that by refusing the drink she offered before, why would he accept another such beverage sent from her? Arnold, Lord Grioie, and his chamberlain, Roger Goulafre, all fell ill, and had to be carried back to their castle.  Both Goulafre and Lord Grioie recovered with good care.  Arnold did not.  He died on the first of January 1064.  The lands he sought to claim stayed with Roger Montgomerie's possession.  After those events, the Giroie family fell on hard times.  Arnold’s infant children were sent to live as poor relations within the households of various lords across Normandy.  His wife sought refuge with her wealthy brother, Eudo, steward to the Duke of Normandy.  The Giroie family would never be powerful again.  Who poisoned Arnold?  There were several possibilities, but all fault fell on Mabel’s shoulders.  Few point at Roger Montgomerie, who gained as much as she did.  It’s just too easy to blame a female—just like they blame Helen of Troy for causing the Trojan War.

Roger held great influence with the duke of Normandy, who was paranoid about his vassals rebelling.  When Roger hinted this his neighbors were planning just this thing, the duke listened, and was only too happy to have Roger put down the so-called rebellion by striking first and seizing the lands of Eodolph de Toni, Hugh de Grant-Mesnil and Arnold d’Eschafuour, amongst many others.  So it was clear, Roger was as devious as Mabel, maybe more so.  When Mabel’s brother died in 1070, she finally seized control of that part of the lands of her father.  Between Roger and Mabel, they owned so many honours in three countries, that he was as powerful and wealthy as any king. 

That sort of influence, and sway with the kings of two nations, naturally fermented jealousy and enemies. Hugh Brunel de la roche was one of the knights who lost everything to Roger and Mabel.  Unable to accept the humiliation of losing his ancestral holding, he plotted to take his revenge.  During the long night of December 2, 1079, Hugh led his three brothers to force their way into Mabel’s quarters at Château at Bures-sur-Dives.  Mabel was relaxing in her chamber, enjoying a bath, when Hugh and his brothers burst in.  Before she could raise a cry, Hugh lopped off Mabel’s head with his great sword.  Her son, Hugh de Montgomerie gave chase to the murdering brothers; they evaded pursuers by destroying a bridge, knowing those following could not cross the small river due to wintertide flooding.  They left Normandy, never to return.

Mabel’s decapitated body was buried three days later at Troarn Abbey.  Her tomb was marked by an epitaph.

Sprung from the noble and the brave,
Here Mabel finds a narrow grave.
But, above all woman’s glory,
Fills a page in famous story.
Commanding, eloquent, and wise,
And prompt to daring enterprise;
Though slight her form, her soul was great,
And, proudly swelling in her state,
Rich dress, and pomp, and retinue,
Lent it their grace and honours due.
The border’s guard, the country’s shield,
Both love and fear her might revealed,
Till Hugh, revengeful, gained her bower,
In dark December’s midnight hour.
Then saw the Dive’s o’erflowing stream
The ruthless murderer’s poignard gleam.
Now friends, some moments kindly spare,
For her soul’s rest to breathe a prayer.

Mabel’s tomb survived into the early 18th century, but by 1752 it no longer existed.  No one knows what became of her body.

History, written by men, painted her as a monster, a poisoner.  But you have to wonder how much was really her machinations, and how much was blamed on her because she was an easy target.  She was beautiful, smart, aggressive, and dared to take a place in a man’s world.  I have to wonder if she is guilty more of those thoughts, than the supposed deeds attributed to her.

Her son carried the mantle of her animosity.  Robert de Belême de Montgomerie, comte de Phonthieu, 3rd earl Shrewsbury and Arundel, was known as "Robert the Devil."

Thank you for taking time to stop by and learn about Mabel, a woman ahead of her times.  I hope you will continue to join me on the second Saturday of each month, to learn of another colorful ancestor.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Women of Bruce - Part 2 - Isabel Macduff, countess of Buchan, a woman who crowned a king

Isabella Macduff Comyn's life was not a happy one. 

It didn't start happy. And in spite of one bright shining moment in time, it didn't end happy. 

Isabella Macduff, heir to the earldom of Fife and countess of Buchan by marriage, was born at Methil, Fifeshire, Scotland sometime around 1275-80 to the 3rd earl of Fife, Donnchadh Macduff, and his English wife, Johanna de Clare, daughter of Gilbert de Clare, 7th earl of Gloucester and 6th earl of Hertford (He later divorced his first wife and married Edward Plantagenet’s sister).  By hapchance, Isabella was also a cousin to two very powerful men, both Scottish earls—one she married by a king's decree, and one she made a king.  A pretty Scots lass with bright red hair, the poor lass was but a pawn in the center of games of power and building kingdoms.  I seriously doubt anyone ever asked Isabella what she wanted out of life—not in childhood, not in her teen years, and certainly not in her final years as a woman.

Macduff Castle

Isabella's father was a vicious man; hence few were hardly surprised when in 1289 while on his way to Dunfermline, the earl was murdered at Pittillock by his own clansmen.  In fear, the English Johanna de Clare took her son (Isabella’s younger brother, Duncan) and fled to England where the two were welcomed warmly by Edward I.  Oddly, Isabella, not even eight-years-old, was left behind to be raised in Scotland—possibly because she was the eldest child, and in old Pictish tradition, was the heir of her father, and with that in mind, clan Macduff was not about to let her leave clan control.  Little is recorded of her upbringing.  My heart breaks thinking of young Isabella living alone, men governing her life, her destiny, while her mother and brother thrived lavishly at the English Court.

By decree of Edward I, king of England, and papal dispensation since they were cousins, Isabella was married in her teens to John Black Comyn, 3rd earl of Buchan, a man over twenty years her senior.  John was the head of one of the most powerful families in Scotland.  The son of Alexander Comyn, 2nd earl of Buchan, he was also nephew to John Balliol, king of Scotland. His sister was the valiant Marjorie Comyn, countess of Dunbar and March, about whom I have previously written.  In Comyn marrying the heiress of another influential clan—this time the ancient one of Macduff—you see a pattern repeated for centuries by Comyn males.  They married heiresses, in their own right, drawing these powerful holdings into the Comyn honours, ever increasing and widening their power base and control of the northern half of Scotland.  It’s hard to judge, outside the prestige and lands that Isabella brought to the union, if John cared for his young bride.  They were wed in 1290, the same year as John’s father died, making him the 3rd earl of Buchan, but it was seven years later before Isabella produced their first child—a daughter she named Isabel.  I am reasonably sure John resented Isabella hadn’t produced a son and heir.  History almost ignores the existence of this daughter, and it’s clear John certainly tried.  However, documents in Edward II’s daily papers dated 3rd  December 1308 make references of the female child’s presence, controlling her future and lands, and later, a marriage to the son of Reginald le Chayne, Justiciar of Scotia, so there is little denying her place in history.

Inverlocky Castle, a Comyn stronghold

During the Scottish War for Independence, the Comyns—backers of John Balliol (their cousin and uncle)—led the Scottish host at Dunbar, fighting against King Edward.  In spite, they were smart enough: they had half of the clan support Balliol, while the other half stayed home or rode with the English.  John, on the side fighting against Longshanks, was captured and sent to the Tower of London as prisoner in April 1296. Regardless, Edward was always quick to make peace where it benefitted him.  He was planning an invasion of France, and thus needed the most influential clan in Scotland on his side and to supply him men and coin.  After the Scottish defeat, and time as prisoner in the Tower of London, you see the earl of Buchan pledging allegiance to Longshanks and reclaiming his lands.  John’s name was on the Ragman Roll in August 1296 at Berwick, swearing his fealty to Edward:


Comyn comes de Bouchan, Dominus Johannes
(Johan Comyn comte de Bouchan)


There’s no mention of Isabella being with him.  Likely, she was pregnant, and since it was one of the hottest and driest summers ever, and conditions of Berwick on Edward's command saw bodies from the 3-day sack back in April still lying, rotting on the ground, John might not have wanted to risk Isabella losing the baby.  In my first Challon novel, A Restless Knight, I make reference to these vile conditions, when Julian and Tamlyn were summoned to Berwick, and how this situation was deliberately created by Edward’s orders to force the nobility of Scotland to witness what happened to a town when they defied him.

Outside the date of birth of her daughter, Isabella was largely ignored by history at this point.  Just another woman given in marriage as a reward to a powerful lord.  Only, the battle of cousins would soon shape her destiny, and forevermore forge her name into the legend and lore of Scotland. 

Her husband’s cousin (and yes, her cousin, too) was also named John Comyn— John Comyn III of Badenoch, called John the Red or Red Comyn.  In the vacuum of Longshanks removing John Balliol from the throne of Scotland, the Comyns assumed control of the northern two-thirds of the country—ruling in Balliol’s name—of course.  Red Comyn, after all, was the grandson of Balliol.  However, as time passed, the mighty Comyn men began to see there would be no hope for returning Toom Taber—the nickname Longshanks hung on Balliol after stripping him of ceremonial regalia of Scotland—ever be king again.   The empty throne saw the eyes of both John Comyns on that prize.   

John "Red" Comyn, Lord Badenoch

Still, they weren’t the only ones with the same desire—another cousin—Robert de Brus (Bruce), the young earl of Carrick, possessed that very dream in his heart and was resolute to undo the crowning of Balliol in 1292.  The Bruces had firmly believed Edward I would rule in favor of Robert’s grandfather, the 5th lord of Annandale instead of Balliol.  After all, the man had been designated as heir by decree by King Alexander II at one point.  Since Alexander had produced no sons, he placed the eldest Bruce in the line of succession as heir presumptive in 1238, and he was to follow the king should anything happen to him.  A heartbeat away from the dazzling prospect of being sovereign of the Scots created a fire in Annandale, which carried over to his son the 6th lord, and now the same hunger grew inside Robert Bruce, the grandson.  Robert was raised tri-lingual, considered one of three men as the first knights of Christendom, had been polished in courtly ways, educated in diplomacy, handsome, arrogant, yet smart enough to play a waiting game—and filled with the belief God intended him to be Scotland’s king.

Some consider the triumph at the Battle of Stirling Bridge was more a victory under the guidance of Sir Andrew de Moray of Bothwell than William Wallace.  Moray died of wounds sustained in the battle, so the credit went and still goes to Wallace.  That assumption of Moray's military brilliance is upheld for at the Battle of Falkirk, when Wallace led the Scottish army alone, the battle had been lost.  After the defeat, Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland and left the country.  In an effort to balance the power, both Red Comyn and Robert Bruce were named Co-Guardians of Scotland. 

Since both men were single-minded to wear the crown of the Scots, the idea of them working together was doomed from the outset.  One incident clearly demonstrates how impossible the situation was between the two men.  At a meeting after Wallace resigned, a knight—Sir David Graham—a Comyn supporter, demanded the lands of Wallace be forfeit and given to him since Wallace had left the country without the permission of the Guardians.  Wallace's brother—Sir Malcolm Wallace—refuted this claim.  He knew his brother was actually on a mission for Bishop Wishart in France, and then on to Italy, trying to bring the King of France and the Pope to side with the Scots against the king of England.  Bruce ruled in favor of Malcolm Wallace.  This in turn set David Graham and Malcolm Wallace to fighting with more than words.  Out of the blue, Red Comyn leapt for the throat of Bruce and began strangling him!  James Stuart, 5th High Steward of Scotland, and others had to drag Red Comyn away from Bruce.  Soon after, Comyn refused to be a Guardian if Bruce remained one; then Bruce said there was no working with Comyn, and quit in 1300.

There is an old Scottish saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  That was never so proven as in this time in Scotland’s history.  The Bruces had been firmly in Edward's camp, while the Comyns were on the Scottish side backing John Balliol, their kinsman.  Edward felt he held control over young Robert.  Not surprising since the king had even gifted Robert with a new bride—Elizabeth de Burgh, Edward’s goddaughter.  Only, like many ruthless monarchs through the ages, Edward was growing suspicious of his councilors.  And though he showed great favoritism toward Robert–even paying his debts when Bruce lands had been seized for refusing to pay fealty to John Balliol—he was increasingly mistrustful about the loyalties of both Bruces. After Edward removed Balliol, Robert's father, Lord Annandale prodded Longshanks to rectify his mistake by placing him on the throne.  Edward was said to sneer and reply that he had better things to do than win a kingdom for Annandale.  Ever since, Edward held the Bruces close, yet never fully trusted them.  And in the case of being paranoid doesn't mean that someone isn't out to get you—Robert was working behind the scenes against Edward's interest.


(yeah, it's Patrick McGoohan playing Longshanks, but I think he did him so well)

Around 1305, Robbie had entered into secret negotiations with Red Comyn—a deal, that they help each other.  Not one of Bruce’s brighter plans!  One would resign their claim to the kingship, leaving the path clear for the other to seize the crown.  In return, the one giving up the claim would receive all the lands and titles of the other.  Comyn had another idea.  Through the backdoor came Red Comyn, plotting to make another deal for the crown.  He turned over these letters from Robert, outlining the details of their pact, in which Comyn basically agreed to step aside so Robert could be crowned king.  Instead, Comyn saw this as the perfect opportunity to eliminate his competition.

Unable to contain his fury, the king confronted Robert with the letters and asked if he had written them—after all it had the Carrick seal upon the documents.  I am sure Robert was furious by the betrayal, but he kept his head.  He replied yes it was one of his seals.  Deftly, he pulled on a chain about his neck and produced his official sigil.  He went on to explain the seal affixed to the paper was one, but an older seal that he’d left at his castle in Scotland, and protested someone surely had stolen it and was using the wax sigil to frame him.  Bruce vowed to get to the bottom of who was the real traitor.  Storming out, the Bruce and his entourage headed to his manor house in Tottenham.  Barely an hour passed, when someone knocked on the door to Bruce’s room.  The man held up his finger to his lips to signal silence, then handed Robert a spur and a gold coin with the face of Edward Longshanks upon it.  The message was clear.  Arrest warrants had been issued by the English king to seize Robert and his brothers.

Riding hard, the men of Bruce headed to Scotland, escaping arrest by barely an hour. He and his party happened upon a messenger wearing the colors of Red Comyn. The men pursued the fleeing rider and dispatched him. On his body were more letters written by Robert to Red Comyn, and now were being sent to Edward Longshanks.  

Once in Scotland, Robert arranged one last meeting with Red Comyn, determined to have it out with the man who was his enemy.  With Bruce were Roger de Kirkpatrick of Fleming and Sir Christopher Seton, another powerful noble, who just weeks before had married Bruce's younger sister, Christian.  At Dumfries church, Bruce confronted Comyn with the captured letters that were being dispatched to Longshanks.  Just as he had at their meeting over William Wallace's lands, when Comyn tried to strangle Robert, Comyn struck out.  Someone—either Comyn or his uncle, Sir Roger Comyn, landed a blow with a sword across Robert's chest—his chain mail saving his life.  Robert desperately reached for his long dirk, hidden in the side of his cross-laced boot.

When the fight was over, Red Comyn and his uncle, Sir Robert, lay wounded.  Robert staggered outside, and told Seton that he had stabbed Comyn, but it was only a flesh wound.  As his brother-in-law helped Bruce up and onto the saddle of his horse, Kirkpatrick rushed into the church and killed Comyn.  When Kirkpatrick came out and confessed Comyn was now dead, Robert knew there would be no turning back.  It was all or nothing.  Robert proceeded with haste through Scotland to Scone Palace where he would be crowned King of the Scots.

Miles away, Robert's cousin, Isabella, was unaware of these men’s matters.  Her husband John was away in England.  One can infer John Comyn, earl of Buchan was in England with purpose—he was the one who carried the first letters and gave them to Longshanks.  The messenger that the Bruces had intercepted, bearing more letters, was intended for Buchan.  Isabella knew nothing of the Comyn’s plots and plans, or how it would soon propel her young life toward a moment of defiance and victory, and then into the nightmare that would follow.

There was all speed to crown Robert as king before word of what happened would cause all of clan Comyn to hunt him down.  In 1296, Edward had removed or destroyed all Scottish regalia—or so he thought—his intent to prevent the pomp and circumstance for placing a crown on a new Scottish king.   

Six weeks after Comyn had been killed in Dumfries, Bruce was crowned king of the Scots by Bishop William de Lamberton at Scone on Palm Sunday 25th of March 1306, with all formality and solemnity. Royal robes and vestments that Robert Wishart had hidden from the English a decade before were brought out by the bishop and set upon King Robert. The bishops of Moray and Glasgow were in attendance, as were the earls of Atholl, Menteith, Lennox and Mar. The great banner of the kings of Scotland was planted behind Bruce's throne.  Only, they lacked the one thing that every monarch of Scotland had had in their coronation—the earl of Fife putting the crown on the head of the new king.

As expected, tides of Bruce’s killing Comyn spread through the countryside, told, retold and embellished until reaching Isabella.  Her younger brother was still in England, and declared by Edward to be the current earl of Fife.  Isabella ignored that she had been robbed of her birthright.  If her brother wasn’t going to do his hereditary duty, and put the crown on Robert the Bruce’s head, then she was determined to fulfill the role. 

Since her lord husband was still in England, she took his valuable destriers, and nearly rode them into the ground, trying to get to Robert in time.  When she reached Scone, it was to her disappointment that she arrived one day too late.  However, wanting to cement the Bruce’s rights as king, Lamberton suggested they redo the crowning, a second one, two days after the first. So, Isabella, as the true countess of Fife and Buchan placed the crown on Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick, sealing his destiny as the new king of the Scots.  And sealing her own fate as well. 

Isabella had just crowned the man responsible for the death of her cousin, Red Comyn, a man who was also cousin to her husband. Worse, her husband was with the English king at the time she was crowning the Bruce, the embarrassment of the deed must have burned inside of John.  To add to the insult—she had taken his five destriers and driven them hard to reach Scone.  Not just any old horse, mind, these were a knight’s shod chargers, animals valued at $15,000-$25,000 at that period.  When jousting, the winning knight claimed a ransom from the loser.  Generally, it was their armor or their destrier.  Knights often paid these prices to get their mounts back.  You didn’t ride a destrier from place-to-place like a regular horse.  Knights rode palfreys for conveyance, and had trained horsemen to lead the valuable destriers to destinations.  Think of them as the Lamborghinis of horses!  She had driven these valuable animals hard to get to Scone, hardly stopping for food and water.  Such treatment could cause the animals to founder—a condition where the horses could never bear a rider again.

By coming to Scone, Isabella forevermore cut ties to her husband and Clan Comyn.  Bruce recognized this, too.  He knew Clan Comyn was coming for him, and soon it would be summer and Edward I would, once again, bring forth his army—nearly a summer event—the invasion of Scotland by Edward Longshanks.  Isabella had to go with the Bruce entourage to safeguard her life.

And come for Bruce, they did.  Edward had received word, and vowed to ride north to avenge Comyn’s death.  Only age and infirmities were beginning to take a toll upon the king, too long a warrior.  The whole country wanted Bruce’s head.  However, the Scottish church, long backers of the rebellion, remained steadfastly at Robert’s back.  He sent for his brother Nigel to fetch his queen, his small daughter, two sisters, Mary and Christian, and the countess of Buchan, and placed them in the care of Kildrummy Castle after he learnt the earl of Pembroke’s army approached. Christian’s first husband was Gartnait, earl of Mar, and she had raised their twin daughters at Kildrummy.  Also, Bruce was originally married to Gartnait’s sister, Isabel, and thus his daughter, Marjorie was half Mar blood.  The people there would remain loyal to them.  In the end, they were forced to flee the castle.  Poor Christian’s second husband, Sir Christopher Seton, was captured aiding her brother to escape after the Battle of Dalrigh.  For his valiant defense of the Bruce women and for saving Bruce’s life, Sir Christopher was hanged, drawn and quartered by the English along with Nigel Bruce.

Ruins of Kildrummy Castle 

In a final desperate move, the Bruce women were given safe passage by John of Strathbogie, 9th earl of Atholl, with the intent to get the women to the Orkneys. Bruce’s sister, Isabel, had married King Eric of Norway, and she was now queen there. They made it as far as the sanctuary of St. Duthac at Tain in Easter Ross. There, they were captured by a Balliol supporter, William earl of Ross, who handed them over to Edward’s men.  (Odd side note—Bruce would wed another of his sisters, Maud, to Aodh 0'Beoland scarcely two years later.  Aodh was the son of the earl of Ross!).  For his role in protecting the Bruce women, Atholl was killed, burnt and his head later set on a pike on London Bridge.

Edward was ever a ruthless king, but in his dealing with the women of Bruce he showed just how merciless he was.  Elizabeth de Burgh’s fate was most lenient—after all Edward was her godfather and he had arranged the marriage with Robert Bruce.  Her father was Edward’s closest friend, Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster, a powerful man.  Edward needed his support.  So, she was placed in a string of different castles under guard, prisoner for nearly eight years.  However, she lacked for nothing, including her favorite Irish wolfhounds at her side.

The other women of Bruce didn’t fare so well.  Christian was sent to a Gilbertine nunnery at Sixhills in Lincolnshire, England.  She was held in a large cage in a room, and not allowed to see anyone, save a single attendant and mother superior to attend to her spiritual needs.  It was puzzling Christian’s fate was milder than that of her niece and sister.  I can only assume since she was the widow of the earls of Mar and Seton, Edward didn’t wish to anger those clans against him.

It was with Mary Bruce, Marjorie Bruce and the countess Buchan where he displayed a most ‘peculiar ferocity’.  He instructed the three women would be held in cages.  He drew up specific designs for them.  From Francis Palgrave, Letters of Privy Seal were sent to the Chamberlain of Scotland that he should make cages in the turrets of various royal castles, so they could be hung over the side, and with especially harsh words for Isabella:

  "Let her be closely confined in an abode of stone
 and iron made in the shape of a cross, and let her
 be hung up out of doors in the open air at Berwick,
both in life and after her death, she may be a spectacle
and eternal reproach to travellers."

Orders originally had been for little Marjorie Bruce to be held in one of these horrid prison.  The cage was constructed.  But evidently, someone finally swayed Edward's anger long enough to reason that putting a child of barely 10 years old in a cage would be too much for Scots to stomach.  She was sent to a convent in Watton instead.

Mary was unmarried, not blessed with a well-connected husband, so I assume Edward felt leave to come down so harshly on her.  She was caged in his iron and wood prison on the wall of Roxbury Castle.

Poor Isabella had crowned Robert king of the Scots.  And she was married to one of the most powerful men in Scotland—who now held favor with the English king.  You might expect her husband to intercede on her behalf, beg for a less harsh treatment.  John did nothing.  In fact, some historians attributed him saying she needed executing.  Attempts to secure her release were made by Sir Robert Keith and Sir John Mowbray, by appealing to Duncan, earl of Fife—her younger brother—but the appeals came to naught.  Duncan was too happy being the absentee earl, living high at English Court with his mother, grandfather and new step-grandmother—the king’s own sister.

Her cage was built as a front to a turret, and within was a privy so she could dress and relieve herself without exposing her body to the hecklers gathering and often tossing things at her.  However, she was forced to be out in all weather and on display for all to see, but not allowed to speak to anyone.  There is some debate as to whether the women were kept in the open.  Edward’s own commands tell a story otherwise. 

Why did Edward Longshanks treat these women in such a vile manner?  Perhaps it was a challenge to the Bruce to come try to snatch them from their captivity.  Or he might have been doing an in your face to Robert:  These are the women under your protection and you are helpless to save them.  The Bruce women were prisoners of the English for nearly eight years, and long after Edward I had died.  Some writings of the period, speak that Mary and Isabella were removed from their cages after four years and in 1310 were relocated to nunneries.  Mary eventually went on to be returned to her brother in a prisoner exchange under Edward II.

 Sadly, fate wasn’t through with being unkind to Isabella MacDuff Comyn.  Oddly, her husband died suddenly in 1308 barely forty-eight years of age (two years after his wife was put in a cage).  His title was inherited by his younger brother, Alexander, who strangely died at age forty-four, just a couple months after his brother.  It was another five years before Isabella was released.  Eventually, Edward II had her handed over to Alice Comyn, niece of Isabella and John, and to Alice’s husband, Henry de Beaumont, 1st Lord Beaumont.  Immediately after taking control of Isabella, Alice and Henry began calling themselves the countess and earl of Buchan, and Isabella is heard of no more.  A peculiar situation overlooked in assessing what happened to her. 

Henry Beaumont had an unsavory reputation, and was closely aligned to Piers Gaveston the ‘favorite’ of Edward II–a man Edward Longshanks exiled because of the closeness of his son and Gaveston.  Henry and his sister had also been banished from English Court by the Ordainers at the same time as Gaveston for debauched and depraved behavior.  His personal battle to hang onto the title of earl of Buchan grew to legend.  The title was only valid in England—because in Scotland King Robert refused to confirm Alice and Henry.  Beaumont’s battle to regain possession of the earldom was such an obsession that he helped overturn the peace between England and Scotland established by the Treaty of Northampton, and brought about the Second War of Scottish Independence, simply to satisfy his single-minded desire to be earl of Buchan, in his own right.  There is little doubt in my mind that Isabella was murdered sometime after her release to Beaumont.  If he was willing to destroy the peace between two countries merely to hold onto a title that never really was his, disposing of a weakened woman, who had no champion, would’ve hardly caused Henry Beaumont to blink.  At one point, he pushed the powerful Edmund of Woodstock, 1st earl of Kent (half-brother to Edward II) to start a rebellion to put his sibling back on the throne of England—one problem Edward II was already dead!.  Henry knew this, but it shows the lengths he would go to merely to claim the title to Buchan.

 Of all of the Bruce women captured, Isabella is the only one not to return home.  Isabella’s life was little more than a pawn for kings, and an unloved wife of one of the most mighty men in Scotland.  But for one bright shining shard of time, she seized fate and chose her destiny.  And cruelly paid the price.  With Beaumont’s vanishing of Isabella, she was even denied a proper burial, mourning, and a place to pay tribute to the gutsy lass.  They robbed her of that last dignityBut they could never rob her of the legacy of a woman who defied all to crown a king.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Women of Bruce Part One -- Marjorie Carrick, countess of Carrick


In my last blogs, I covered the valiant ladies of Dunbar Castle.  In my next several I will write about some equally strong females who were forced to endure the hardships of Scotland during the War for IndependenceThe Women of Bruce.  Much has been written about Robert “the Competitor” who was one of thirteen claimants to the Scottish crown in the early 1290s, of Robert, lord of Annandale—his ever hungry, ambitious son—and then Robert, earl of Carrick, who went on to become king of Scotland, first of his name, succeeding where his father and grandfather failed before him.  But what about the women around King Robert—his mother, his sisters, wives, the many mistresses and daughters?  Who were they?  What were their stories?

In Part One – I begin with an amazing woman (and my 21st great-grandmother)—Marjorie Carrick, countess of Carrick, lady of Clan Campbell—and mother of King Robert the Bruce.

Turnberry Castle

Marjorie was born in 1252 at Turnberry Castle, Carrick, Ayrshire in southwest Scotland.  Some fix her birth year at 1259, but that would put the birth of her first child before she was ten-years-old, so I seriously doubt that assertion.  Robert’s mother was the daughter and heiress of Niall Mac Dhonnchad, 2nd earl of Carrick, a line that goes back to Scottish kings, David I and Malcolm I, and beyond to the Pictish kings. Her mother’s side traces a direct line back to the kings of France and Henry I of England. Her father was nearly fifty-years-0ld when he finally accepted that he would sire no male heir to replace him.  Roland, his nephew and foster son, had been raised as his son.  With health fading and wanting matters settled, Niall made the bold move to place the chieftainship and control of the clan on Roland’s shoulders, but then, in old Pictish tradition, created his daughter, Marjorie heiress to Carrick, in her own right, and settled vast estates upon her.

Carrick Coat of Arms

Since she was such a prize as a bride, King Alexander III quickly married Marjorie off  at a young age to Sir Adam of Kilconquhar, a man twenty years older than she.  In  rapid time, she was wed, gave birth to her first child—a daughter Isabel (named after Marjorie's mother, Isabel FitzAlan Stewart), and then she had to stand on the castle wall, holding her daughter,  and wave goodbye to her lord husband of barely two years, as he rode off on the Eighth Crusade raised by Louis IX of France.  Adam, the new Earl Carrick, jure uxoris (by right of his wife), participated in a battle near Acre.  Months later, he died of wounds he received in the engagement.  

Fighting at his side, and there as Kilconquhar closed his eyes, was his good companion, Robert de Brus, 6th lord of Annandale.  Before Adam drew his final breath, he extracted a promise from his friend to journey to Carrick to tell his pretty lady wife of his death, and carry a memento to her.  One has to ponder, those in his final moments, as he stared at the handsome Robert (thirteen years his junior) if he was sending Marjorie a suitable replacement for her husband.

It took a few months for Robert to reach Britain and then travel to Carrick in Ayrshire in south western Scotland.  Carrick was just three days travel beyond his holding in Annandale, so it was no trouble to fulfill his vow.  When he arrived, he discovered Marjorie in the midst of a hunt.  The scene is easy to envision (especially to a romance writer!)Marjorie now in her early 20s, vibrant and independent, used to managing her honours on her own.  And feeling time ticking away.  

Neither a Scottish king nor an English one would leave her alone, a widow, for too long.  Already wed to a man closer to the age of her father than hers, and not wanting to stand about while being treated as a royal pawn in the games of marriage and power, she decided to seize control in her hands.  Robert was handsome, a strong warrior, and came with a good lineage—one to match her own.  He would make a good lord for Carrick—one of her choosing. 

Marjorie entertained Robert lavishly for a month.  At the end of the time, he mounted his horse, intending to return to Annandale—some 80 miles to the east.  To Robert’s surprise—as the story goes—he was but a couple leagues away from Carrick, when suddenly he was surrounded by Countess Marjorie’s mounted knights.  They forcibly escorted him back to Turnberry Castle.  Once there, he was met by Marjorie who informed him, in true Highland fashion, she was kidnapping him—that he would remain her prisoner until he consented to wed with her.  A Highland man kidnapping a bride wasn’t anything new.  Quite a few Scottish marriages began this way—called a Scottish Wooing.   Marjorie was being a truly independent woman, and not about to permit men to govern the path of her life any longer.  There was speculation just how hard she had to work to convince Robert to agree to her proposal.   


Bruce was no mouse of a man.  He had fought in the Crusade, witnessed the harshness of war.  And he was very ambitious, with long-ranging, farseeing plans.  One might guess, he was already contemplating that Kilconquhar’s wife would make him the perfect lady—one that someday might be his queen—and was merely playing hard to get.  The best way to win the heart of this strong-willed lass was to allow Marjorie to believe the idea was hers!   With his holding of Annandale not too far from Carrick, surely, he had heard tales of the beautiful countess, knew her royal heritage, and on the long journey home, figured he would be in an excellent position to claim a perfect bride, suited for his future.  Historians—and non-romantics—have cast doubt on the events, and suggest it was a mutual plot, a ploy to get by the wrath of Alexander III, king of the Scots.  Being her 21st great-granddaughter, and a Medieval romance writer, I firmly come down on the side of Marjorie kidnapping her husband because she was in love—and being very practical!

It was within the king’s right to make matches or marriage, or at least add his seal of approval before the couple was wed.  This authority permitted a king to control his lords and barons, to see no one man became so powerful that he might rival the man sitting on the throne—one much like Robert of Annandale.

Alexander III, king of the Scots

Thus, Alexander was naturally furious the couple wed without his royal permission,  or papal consent—nor Marjorie observing a full year of mourning.  In punishment, he seized Turnberry Castle and her other lands.  However, whether the tale of their torrid romance caught the king’s fancy, or he secretly admired Marjorie’s audacity, she was able to regain possession of her holdings by paying a fineabout one hundred pounds—equal to the marriage pact fee they would've had to pay if they had been granted permission by the king and married with the usual steps. 

Arms of Robert Bruce, 6th lord of Annandale

It was clear theirs was a lovematch.  In the nearly two decades they were married Marjorie bore 12 children, 10 lived to full age.  Less than a year after they were married, Marjorie gave birth to twin girls in early 1272

1.         Isabel de Brus  (She became the queen of Norway)

2.         Maud de Brus (Isabel's twin) (married Aodh O'Beland de Ross who became the earl of Ross and Stratherne in 1323)

3.         Their third daughter, Christian de Brus—often called Christina—came in 1273.  (Her first husband was Gartnait de Mar, earl of Mar (and brother to Isabel Mar, first wife of King Robert).  (Her second husband was Sir Christopher Seton,  executed with her brother Niall in 1306.  The third husband was Andrew, the son of Sir Andrew de Moray, hero of the Battle of Stirling Bridge with William Wallace.)

4.         With the fourth child in 1274, Annandale got his male heir—and one that would create a history, which would live forever—Robert de Brus—who would go on to be king of the Scots. 

5.         Mary de Brus was born 1275  (She married Sir Neil Campbell of Lochow, and then Sir Alexander Fraser of Touchfraser and Cowie)

6.         Late 1276, Edward de Brus came—a man who would be the king of Ireland for a brief time.  

7.         Margaret de Brus was born 1276  (She wed Sir William Carlyle)

8.         Niall de Brus, a third son, followed 1279. (He was taken prisoner at Kildrummie Castlewhile giving the Bruce women the chance to escape the Englishwas hanged, drawn and quartered at Berwick-upon-Tweed in September 1306, along with Christopher Seton, husband to his sister, Christian, and the earl of Atholl.)

9.         Alexander de Brus was born 1282  (He was hanged, drawn and quartered 9th February 1307 at Carlisle, Cumberland, captured with Reginald Crawford, cousin to William Wallace)

10.       Thomas de Brus was born 1284. (He was hanged, drawn and quartered 9th February 1307 with his brother at Carlisle, Cumberland, and Reginald Crawford, cousin to William Wallace)

11.      *** 1286 saw the arrival of Elizabeth de Brus, but she didn’t make it to adulthood 

12.     ***  And finally another daughter named Euphemia de Brus came 1287, but like Elizabeth didn’t live to adulthood either.

*** some family trees show both Elizabeth and Euphemia de Brus being alive, married and having children.  Closer inspection will show these are non-Bruce females who married into de Brus family, so NOT the same females.

Also of note, Marjorie's first daughter, Isabel, by Adam Kilconquhar went on to marry Sir Thomas Randolph, and her son, and Marjorie's grandson, was Thomas Randolph of Moray, the brilliant general that served Marjorie's son so well.

 Sadly, Marjorie never lived to see all the accomplishments her children attained, nor had she been forced to mourn the death of four of her sons killed because of their struggles for independence from England.  She died shy of age forty.  The cause isn’t noted, as history so often does, ignoring women and the important role they played, but one has to wonder if the birth of thirteen children took its toll upon her.  There is another daunting possibility—leprosy.  It had long been rumored that her son, Robert, died of the disease, likely acquired from his father, who was said to have perished of it as well—probably infected while he was on the Crusade.   (There are two different groups saying yes and no on if the king did or didn't have it, mostly based on a casting of his skull made 200 years ago.  The side saying he didn't have it are focusing on the face deforming part of the disease, of which Robert displayed none.  Leprosy can caused other issues that can kill).  Leprosy is spread by close contact with someone infected, and has an incubation period of a year or more, often up to five years.  After that period, it can take its time killing you through various means, such as attacking the respiratory system, making it harder to fight pneumonia.  Some are severely affected within a year or two, but others can take ten, fifteen or twenty years to succumb to the disease in the middle ages.  So, it is not unreasonable to wonder if Marjorie might have contracted the disease from her husband, and simply succumbed to the ravages of something that was incurable in the 1300s.  A recent study of the Bruce’s skull brought medical confirmation that the king did suffer from the dread disease, but it didn't destroy his face.  If you follow that line of thought it lends credence to both his father and possibly his mother dying from it as well.  

Majorie's grave at Holme Cultram Abbey

Marjorie is buried with her beloved Robert in Holme Cultram Abbey Churchyard,  Abbeytown, Allerdale Borough, Cumbria, England.  Another amazing woman who refused to submit to the narrow roles afforded women during this period.

Join me for Part 2 - of the Women of Bruce where I will talk about the amazing lady who crowned Robert king, and how she paid the price for that act.

Turnberry Castle

Deborah writers in the period of Robert the Bruce in her Medieval series the
Dragons of Challon.

Deborah writes as if she’s been in Medieval Scotland and can magically take you back there to stand amidst the heather and mist of another time. This is breathtakingly beautiful, award caliber writing
— New York Times bestselling author, Lynsay Sand