Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Women of Bruce — Part 4 — The Sisters of Robert the Bruce — Christian

 


The Women of Bruce–Part Four 
The Sisters of Robert Bruce
Christian 

When I first set up my series of articles on the Women of Bruce, I had intended to devote  a single article to Robert the Bruce’s six sisters.  However, as I began writing the blog, I found one sister earned her own individual story.  For Christian de Brus was a woman to draw admiration and respect.  Born about 1273 at Turnberry Castle, she was the third daughter to Robert and Marjorie, and she is likely the most colorful, controversial and tragic Bruce sister.

Like most females of this period in history, little is recorded of her childhood, or her life before she married.  Controversy pops up quickly at this point, as it is now fashionable to try and cast doubt that her first marriage ever took place.  I cannot follow that trend.  Too much evidence says otherwise.  Her first marriage was to Gartnait mac Domhnail, Mormaer and 7th earl of Mar, sheriff of Aberdeenshire.  Gartnait’s father was a longtime supporter of the Bruces; he was ambitious, and blessed with the farseeing vision to back Clan Bruce.  The joining of Mar and Bruce bloods was the perfect balance for future rulers of the country—the Bruces coming from Norman ancestry would see the Lowlanders following them, while the ancient line of Mar would open doors through the old Celtic Scots.  With that dream in mind, Domhnall mac Uilleim, 6th earl of Mar set out to see his line woven into the Bruces through a double marriage.   

In about 1292, he wed his son Gartnait to Christian.  As her bride’s gift from her father, she received the lands of Garioch for her life.  The earls of Mar eventually inherited the feudal lordship of Garioch through her (not a peerage dignity) and were even latterly styled the "earls of Garioch”.  By the Mars inheriting Christian’s holdingher grandson being the first earl of Gariochit’s clear that she did wed him.  That assumption is further backed up by the holding of Kildrummy Castle, seat of the earls of Mar.  In 1305, her brother Robert was in possession of the Mar stronghold.  This would indicate the castle went to Mar’s small son, his heir, after his death, and Robert, as his uncle, was acting as guardian for his nephew, controlling the fortress until the boy came of age to accept responsibility of the earldom.

To further back up my inference is wording in the truce made with Edward in January 1302.  When Robert saw his fighting for Scotland was only opening the door for the return of King John Balliol—which was basically giving all the power to John Comyn earl of Buchan, and to Red Comyn, Robert gave up the struggle.  He made peace with King Edward.  It is specific to note in the pact, which can still be read, is a listing of the return of all lands in England, Scotland and France to Robert, and that his people wouldn’t suffer for taking up arms and following him in rebellion.  Right in the middle of this avowing is reference to the earl of Mar’s son being given over to Robert as his ward.  Why else would this be included in this pact, except Robert was trying to protect his nephew by Christian?

“And the King grants to Robert the wardship and marriage of the Earl of Mar's son and heir.  And because it is feared the Kingdom of Scotland may be removed out of the hands of the King’s hands which God forbid and handed over to Sir John Balliol…”

Less than three years after Gartnait wed Christian, Gartnait’s sister, Isabel, would marry Christian’s brother, Robert earl of Carrick (with papal dispensation, naturally).  Brother and sister marrying brother and sister, saw Mar blood destined to flow through the child, and future children, that would one day sit on the throne of Scotland.


arms of Mar

Christian gave Gartnait a son, Domhnall Mar, and twin daughters, Elyne de Mar and Margaret de Mar.  Only, their marriage was short-lived, and his death mysteriously unexplained.  Mar was on record as having reconciled with Edward in 1302 and the English king appointed him “warden of Garioch” to enforce Edward’s Peace.  Sometime before 1305, Gartnait vanishes from history and not a word of how or why.  We might infer he died acting as warden in the troubled times.

If Christian despaired that her life was filled with sorrow at losing her husband, she could little foresee what would come at her in the year following.  A little over a year later, in March of 1306, she wed her second husband, Sir Christopher Seton.  A close companion to her brother, Christopher was at his side when Bruce faced Red Comyn at Greyfriars Abbey.  Some report it was he, not Bruce, who struck the fatal blow to Comyn (though other sources credit this deed to Sir James Kirkpatrick, another close ally of Robert).  Legend records Seton saved Robert’s life at the Battle of Methven on 19th June 1306, when the new king fell from his horse.  The battle was a total rout, setting the Scots to fleeing.



Ruins of Kildrummy Castle

Robert had sent his second wife, Elizabeth, his daughter by his first marriage, Marjorie, Isabella Macduff (the cousin who crowned him) and his two sisters—Christian and Mary—to Kildrummy Castle.  The people of Kildrummy were still devoted to Christian.  The stronghold was a formidable one, and clearly Bruce assumed they would be safe there.  Their brother Nigel was in command of the castle.  When a blacksmith betrayed all by setting a grain store afire, Nigel bravely defended the stronghold, knowing all was lost, giving his sisters and kinswomen time to flee.  Nigel lost his life for the valiant effort, along with the entire garrison of the castle.  The women were later captured by William, earl of Ross, and turned over to King Edward as prisoners.

arms of Seton

Christian was sent to solitary confinement at the Gilbertine nunnery at Sixhills in Lincolnshire, England.  She wasn’t the only female prisoner of nobility housed there.  Gwladys ferch Dafydd was the daughter of Dafydd ap Gruffud, the Last Free Prince of Wales.  After executing her father for treason, Edward sent Gwladys–a mere child—to the remote Sixhills Priory.  She died there in 1336, having spent her whole life as a prisoner to three English kings.  While Christian’s fate was grim, it was much kinder than what her sister suffered, and that of Isabella Macduff.  That Christian did not face being held in a cage outside also reinforces the validity of her marriage to Mar.  The Setons were a family rising in prominence, but held little sway in either country at that time; on the other hand, the powerful earls of Mar traced their lineage back to the early kings of Scotland.  Edward could be brutal, cruel; however, he was also mindful of forgiving perceived offenses from nobleswhen it was to his benefit.  He didn’t dare risk harming Christian for fear the Mars might raise their countrymen against him. Her sister, Mary, was married to Sir Neil Campbell, son of Cailean Mór Campbell, coming from the mighty earls of Argyll.  Why that connection didn’t help save Mary from the cage was simple—Neil was one of Bruce’s most trusted lieutenants, and had fought by his side at every point of Bruce’s rebellions.  Thus, she suffered the full force of Edward’s vindictive fury.

 

Sixhills Abbey, Lincolnshire, England 

The next we learn of Seton’s whereabouts comes in the attack at Loch Doon Castle.  Some try to say he was not at the Battle of Methven, citing his presence at Loch Doon.  However, the castle was a vital fortress for the earls of Carrick, and was one of three strongholds that Robert tried desperately to hang on to in order to keep power.  It is reasonable to assume, Robert sent Seton there just after the Methven defeat.   The castle was built on an island within Loch Doon, and consisted of a formidable eleven-sided curtain wall.  Yet, in spite of Seton’s heroic defence, the castle fell the 14th of August 1306.  It would not be retaken for another eight years.  The castle’s surrender supposedly came by the hand of the Governor, Sir Gilbert FitzRoland de Carrick (son of the illegitimate half-brother to Marjorie Carrick).  The truth that would come out much later: it was Gilbert’s brother-in-law who gave over to the English.   Christopher was hanged, drawn and quartered at Dumfries in accordance with Edward's new hardline policy of giving no quarter to Scottish prisoners. 

 

Loch Doon Castle ruins
(relocated in 1937 due to raising the level of the loch for a hydroelectric project)

More controversy arises—there is a question that Christian was pregnant with Christopher’s child when she was captured.  Possible?  Perhaps.  As in the question I raised in my last article over concerns that Robert’s queen had been with child there are no records referring to a child taken as prisoner, nor one born in captivity— I see the same circumstances reflected in this child of Seton.  Two different Alexander Setons are listed as her son.  One is cited as born in 1252 (which is two decades before Christian’s own birth!) and another as 1290 (at which time she hadn’t married her first husband!).  Thus, I surmise it reasonably safe to assume she was neither pregnant, nor had a newborn infant at the time of her capture.  Worse, some historians credit her with giving birth to a daughter by Seton before 1306 named Margaret.  I think they are confusing her daughter, Margaret de Mar, by Gartnait with a 'daughter' with Seton.  Possibly, an attempt of those to forge a link for their family lines to Bruce blood? 




Poor Christian even sees historians trying to deny her as mother of the son by Mar.  I suppose since they see it as target of choice to refute the marriage took place, so the next step would be to claim the children from that union aren’t hers.  Mar’s son was also held prisoner by Edward.  The naysayers point to no correspondence between the two during their captivity.  It is not hard to envision a man who commanded women held in cages, also capable of preventing correspondence to and from his prisoners.

Christian went on to live as a hostage to the English for eight years.  She was made prisoner to Edward I, and it would be another king—Edward II—that would finally recognize her brother as the true king of the Scots, and agree to send the Bruce women home in 1314.  Christian returned home to her lands, to children who were nearly grown, and once more she was a widow.

The little over a year after her release her brother, Edward, invaded Ireland, and the following year on the 2nd May 1316 he was crowned king of Ireland.  That same year Marjorie Bruce died, giving birth to her son, who would one day be King Robert II.  Bruce joined his brother in Ireland for a spell, but by 1318, Edward was slain at the Battle of Dun Delgan on 5th October.

Still, life was far from through with this woman of Bruce.  There was talk of another marriage with Sir Andrew Harclay – at the time he was raised from baron of Carlisle to earl– as part of peace talks instigated by Harclay. Nothing came of it.  I would guess Christian would not accept an Englishman for a husband.  It's just as well they didn't wed, because Harclay was arrested after signing the treaty with King Robert.  Edward II had him executed for treason, hanged, drawn and quartered, and his body parts sent to different parts of the country as a warning.

Instead, Christian married a third husband of her choosing—Sir Andrew de Moray.  This man  was the son born posthumously to the late Andrew de Moray, lord of Bothwell, the same warrior, who fought with William Wallace at Stirling Bridge.  Moray, quite possibly, would have been crowned king instead of her brother, had young Andrew not died of wounds received in the decisive battle.  It is reported that Christian gave him two sons: Sir John de Moray and Sir Thomas de Moray

arms of Moray

Peace came to Scotland.  Edward II died, replaced by his son, Edward III.  Then, King Robert died.  Christian was there for the coronation of Robert’s son, David II.  She had lost two husbands and five brothers at the altar of Scotland, and lived through the reign of three English kings.  Even so, Christian was not a lady to sit idle with her spinning and weaving.  The English came northward, yet again, this time Edward III, backing the son of John Balliol in claiming he was the real king of the Scots.



After the Battle of Dupplin in August 1332, Andrew was named Regent of Scotland, protecting Robert’s small son, King David II.  While attacking Roxburgh Castle in 1333, he was captured and held prisoner for nearly two years.  Christian arranged ransom and he was released in 1335.  Upon his return, Parliament appointed him Guardian of Scotland.  He spent five years fighting the English, and repulsing their attempts to return Balliol to the throne. 

Christian was commander of Kildrummy Castle, and while Andrew was away, she found herself besieged later that year by David Strathbogie, a claimant for the title of earl of Atholl — and Edward Balliol’s chief commander in the north.  Strathbogie moved through Scotland with fire and sword, repeating the campaign of Edward I of 1296, in a clear attempt to wipe the freeholder lords off the face of Scotland.  Laying siege to Kildrummy Castle was to be the pinnacle of his campaign.  Only one obstacle lay in his path—Christian de Brus.  The fall of the castle would have been a big setback to the Scots, perhaps to the extent of losing the country.  Possibly, since the castle had been lost to the Bruces in 1306, in true warrior fashion, Christian held the castle in resolute determination.   She refused to surrender, and kept it and its people safe until her husband could march to her aid with an army of over one thousand strong.   Thanks to Christian drawing Strathbogie’s attention to focus on the siege, Andrew was able to attack Strathbogie’ from the rear, and even though outnumbered three to one, he defeated David Strathbogie’ at Culblean 30th November 1335.  Strathbogie stood with his back to a tree, pinned there, finally killed in a last stand, along with a small group of followers, including Walter and Thomas Comyn.  (A side note–Strathbogie was married to the daughter of Hugh de Beaumont and Alice Comyn, niece of the late John Comyn, earl of Buchan – the very pair who were likely responsible for the death of Isabella Macduff, countess of Buchan).


The Culblean Monument

After contracting pneumonia while besieging Edinburgh Castle in the early winter months of 1337, Andrew retired to Avoch Castle in Rossand less than a year later died, making Christian a widow for the third time.  She still retained possession of Kildrummy Castle and so she returned to her home.  King David was generous to his beloved aunt, providing her with an income from a number of sources, and his queen, Joan, was said to visit her at Kildrummy as well.


Through those years, tragedy had continually stalked Christian Bruce — brothers, husbands — so many had died.  Now, she was forced to watch her children die one-by-one, outliving all but one son.  Her first born son by Gartnait, who had spent years as a prisoner to both Edward and Edward II, was appointed Guardian of Scotland on 2nd August, 1332, following the death of Thomas Randolph, 1st earl of Moray (Christian's nephew).  The honor was only for a matter of days.  On the 11th of August at Dupplin Moor. Mar led the second division of the Scottish army, while Robert Bruce, lord of Liddesdale (Bruce's illegitimate son) led the first division.  Mar never saw his 38th birthday.  (Odd happenchance — Domhnall's son, Thomas, Mormaer of Mar, 1st earl of Garioch would also die at the same age.)  Domhnall was killed, along with Bruce of Liddesdale, who died leading the first charge.  Lost as well was Christian's grandnephew, son of Randolph—Thomas Randolph, 2nd earl of Moray.  A cousin, Duncan, earl of Fife a lieutenant under Mar (and brother to the woman who crowned Bruce king) barely escaped.  After her son's death, her husband had been appointed Guardian.

Margaret de Mar died in 1338 (the same year Christian had lost Andrew); almost nothing of this daughter is recorded, even the cause of death (Historians have her so muddled with the fictional daughter of Seton).  Margaret’s twin sister, Elyne de Mar, of Rusky and Knapdale died in 1342 at age 44, cause not given.  

At the Battle of Neville's Cross, the 17th  of October 1346, King David II (Bruce’s son) was taken prisoner by the English.  Along with him was Christian’s elder son by Andrew – Sir John de Moray.  Edward III had allowed Andrew to be ransomed—a decision that came back to cost him dearly – so he refused to allow his son to be ransomed.  John died in captivity at age 31 (likely from the Black Death) in September of 1351.  Christian would have relived every breath of every day for those nearly six years, knowing what her son suffered being held a hostage.   If that wasn’t sorrow enough to break anyone’s heart, Edward demanded that John’s younger brother, Thomas, take the place of John after his death.  Christian had to watch as yet another son by Andrew was turned over to be an English hostage.  The next blow to the family came in losing Christian in 1358.  She passed away three years before Thomas.  He died at age 35 — also of the plague, in 1361 — also still a hostage to an English king.   He was Christian’s only child to outlive her, but only by three years.

As the fashion for women in history, little is recorded of Christian’s death.  Her husband, Andrew, had been buried in the chapel at Rossmarkie.  Later, his body was reinterred in Dunfermline Abbey, next to Robert Bruce and Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray. Accordingly,  one might presume it Christian’s resting place as well.   Many of her ancestors and family were buried there—especially her brother, Robert.  Due to the Reformation and destruction of the abbey, many of the royal graves were lost.  It wasn’t until 1817 that Robert’s grave was found again.  Sadly, Christian’s final resting place remains a mystery.


Dunfermline Abbey

Christian Bruce de Mar de Seton de Moray was every bit the warrior her brother was.  In return, her legend has suffered the indifference of a history that little paid her life heed, now works to deny her a husband, denied her children by both Mar and de Moray as not being hers, and then contrarily gave her three sons named Alexander and a daughter by a man who was her husband but for a few fleeting months.  In the end, it has even deprived her of a final resting place, where people could come to pay their respects. Thousands visit Robert’s tomb each year.  How many ask, “Where is the grave of Lady Christian?” Few, if any.  Sadly, I fear Christian Bruce will never get the true homage she deserves, simply because she was a woman of Bruce and not a man.










Deborah writes Scottish Medieval Historical Romances
set in the time of Robert the Bruce in a series, the Dragons of Challon.



coming in August
you will meet other sisters of Robert the Bruce in Part 5 - 
The Tale of Two Isabels



Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Women of Bruce - Part Three The Two Wives of Robert Bruce

The Women of Bruce - Part Three 

 The Two Wives of Robert Bruce

What do we know of the two women that married Robert the Bruce, king of the Scots?  There have been four, maybe more films made about Bruce’s life in the last 20 years, all iffy history at best, which is sad since the story of Bruce’s rise from the earl of Carrick to the man who fought his cousin to determine who would claim the crown is a wonderful tale.  Did the women who became his brides fare any better?  For the most part they were simply omitted, or if included written with questionable inaccurately.  Both women were born to be a queen, but only one reached that pinnacle.  They were both young, both reputed to be lovely, and both came from lineage that had ancient and royal blood running through the lines.

 

Isabel of Mar

 

Arms of Isabel of Mar

Isabel of Mar was born 1278 at Kildrummy, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.  She was the first wife of Robert Bruce, and she carried blood royal on both sides of her family.  Her father, Donald "Domhnall mac Uilleim" Mar, 10th earl of Mar, whose lineage goes back to origins of Clan Macdonald and “King of the Hebrides”—Somerled.  He also was the great grandson of Henry I Beauclerc, king of England, younger son of William "the Conqueror" FitzRobert, duke of Normandy, king of England.  An impressive lineage but it is matched by  Isabel’s mother—Elen “the Younger” ferch Llywelyn was a princess of Wales, and widow of Mormaer Maol Choluim II, earl of Fife.  Her grandfather on her mother’s side was Llywelyn Fawr 'the Great' Llywelyn prince of Wales and Gwynedd, who married Lady Joan Siwan Fitzjohn of Wales, lady of Snowdon, illegitimate daughter of King John of England.  So in the marriage to Isabel, Bruce was cementing bonds not only to powerful clans of Scotland, but to the high English and Welsh rulers as well.  Isabel was a woman bred to be a queen, the perfect wife to rule at Robert’s side when the time came.


Isabel’s father was an ardent supporter of Robert Bruce, 5th lord of Annandale—Bruce’s grandfather, known as 'the Competitor'—and was there at Annandale’ back during The Great Cause.  Of the seventeen lords vying for the crown of the Scots, Annandale was one of the top three contenders, if not the candidate to wear the Scottish crown.  And it wasn’t arrogance for Annandale to expect, when all was said and done, that he would become the ruler of Scotland.  When Alexander II, his cousin, lacked an heir, the king had name Annandale as tanist—a Scottish term for heir apparent.  If Alexander had died at that point in history, Annandale would have become king of the Scots with none to lay challenge.  Later, he was Regent of Scotland during the minority of his second cousin, King Alexander III.   I am sure it came as a shock, which turned to outrage, when Edward chose John Balliol over him.  Edward had deliberately held the Bruces close to him, rewarded them richly in ways he wouldn’t do with other nobles, yet at the back of his mind was the truth—the men of Bruce were not to be taken lightly.  The ultimate goal for the English king was to fold Scotland into the kingdom of England, along with Wales, and then to add France.



The Earl of Mar was one of the seven Guardians of Scotland and he had believed Robert the Bruce was the lawful King of Scots. Mar could see great advantage in aligning his family with the Bruces.   In 1292, Isabel’s older brother, Gartnait mac Domhnaill, married Robert’s older sister, Christian.  Three years later, by papal dispensation, and at the age of 18, Isabel married Robert, earl of Carrick, who was four years her senior.  In a time when marriages for nobles were little more than political power moves, legend has it that Robert and Isabel were very much in love.  Few were surprised, when a short time later, Isabel was soon with child. They seemed blessed; she had a healthy pregnancy.  Late in 1296, Isabel gave birth to a daughter.  They named her Marjorie after Bruce’s late mother, Marjorie, countess of Carrick.  Then, Fate waved a hand on the night of December 12th, Isabel died at Castle Cardross, on the Firth of Clyde, in Renfrewshire.



Paisley Abbey

 Following her death, Isabel of Mar was buried at the Cluniac Paisley Abbey. Her tomb has not survived.  In his last act of revenge against Robert Bruce, Edward had the abbey burnt to the ground in 1307, thus destroying both the tomb of Isabel and her daughter Marjorie.  William Wallace was born in nearby Elderslie, and is believed to have been educated in the abbey when he was a boy.  Scots not being deterred had the Abbey was rebuilt.  An eerie circumstance arose when Isabel’s daughter, now grown and married to Walter Stewart, was riding near the abbey and was thrown from her horse. She was pregnant at the time.  They carried her to abbey for medical care.  I suppose saving the life of a princess came second to the child who might be king.  Robert II was born by caesarean section.  Considering the lack of anesthetics, it was small wonder she did not recover.  Marjorie was interred at the rebuilt abbey, as her mother before her had been once, and as the line of Stewarts after her.

 


 

Elizabeth de Burgh

Arms of Elizabeth de Burgh 

Elizabeth de Burgh was likely born in 1284 at Connaught Province, Ireland.  Some sources cite Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland as her place of birth.  However, since her father had been fighting in Wales with the king of England, and another daughter, Eleanor (named after Edward’s queen) was born in Wales, there is an outside chance Elizabeth might have been born there as well.  Without question she was conceived in Wales.  At this point in history, male historians barely noted the arrival of another de Burgh female, little need in their minds for accuracy of place and date of birth; they never suspected she would be one of the most famous queens of  Scotland, her legend only eclipsed by Mary queen of the Scots. 

She was the third daughter of seven, out of eleven children of  Richard Óg de Burgh, the ‘Red Earl’.  He was the 2nd earl of Ulster, 3rd baron of Connacht, Lieutenant of Ireland, Keeper of Athlone, Randown, and Roscommon Castles—and unarguably the most powerful man in Ireland.  His wife was Margaret Guines, daughter of Arnoul de Guines III and Alice de Coucy.  Margaret was a 2nd cousin once removed of Queen Eleanor.  Margaret was also a first cousin of Alexander III of Scotland, Edward I's brother-in-law.  Edward was Elizabeth’s godfather. As impressive as Margaret’s lineage was, her husband Richard matched it.  He was educated at the Court of Henry III (Edward’s father), thus cementing a lifelong friendship between Edward and Richard.  Through the years Richard was Edward’s closest friend and one of his most trusted advisers.  At nearly every battle Edward fought in England, Wales and Scotland, Richard was there at his back.

Elizabeth most likely met Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick, at the English Court.  The Bruces and de Burghs dancing to Edward’s whims, living and fighting nearly in the other’s pockets, there had to be occasions where both were in attendance.  With Isabel Mar’s death in 1296, Robert was a good catch for mothers looking for arranged marriages for their daughters. By 1300, there was some hint Edward was considering giving Robert a new bride.  Richard had three daughters of age at the time—Aveline, Eleanor and Elizabeth, the youngest.  The second daughter married Sir Thomas de Multon, 1st Lord Multon of Egremont, so that left the other two as candidates. Edward was playing a game of chess with the Bruces, often lavishing money on Robert after he refused to pay homage to John Balliol, and his lands in Scotland were seized in punishment.  At Court, he was mocked and called Edward’s Lordling. Some say, Edward paid more attention to Robert than he did his own son.  I truly think he hoped by keeping Robert close, he could curb the hunger to be the king of the Scots that had filled Robert’s father and grandfather.  And what better way than presenting him with a new wife?  Not just any bride—but one that was his goddaughter.


The English invaded Scotland in 1301.  In 1302, Robert married Elizabeth at Writtle, near Chelmsford in Essex. Robert would have been close to 28 and she was 18.  In 1304, Edward again invaded Scotland to regain control of Stirling Castle.  So, it’s not surprising to see the political turmoil around their marriage was coming to a head. 

On February 10th, 1306 at Greyfriars, Bruce met with John Red Comyn to settle, for once and all, who would be the future king of Scotland.  Comyn or his uncle tried to kill Bruce; in return, Bruce pulled his dirk from his boot and struck back, wounding Comyn.  Bruce staggered outside and told his trusted friend, Sir Alexander Seton, that he stabbed Comyn but the man was still alive. Roger de Kirkpatrick rushed inside to see, and came back with the tides that he killed Comyn. Events that would soon propel Elizabeth’s life out of control.


After meeting with the Church of Scotland, it was decided to crown Bruce king as soon as possible.  So on 27th March 1306, Robert and Elizabeth were crowned king and queen of Scots at Scone.  One might infer Elizabeth lacked faith that her husband’s bold move to be king would be a lasting one, for it is reported that she smiled faintly after the coronation and said, ‘Alas, we are but king and queen of the May that children crown for sport.’  The May King and May Queen only rule for one day.  On the other hand, perhaps it wasn’t a lack of faith in Bruce’s ability to hold the kingship as much as she understood her godfather’s ruthlessness when betrayed, and knowing also that her father would be backing Edward’s every move to put the new king down.  As well, two-thirds of Scotland aligned with Clan Comyn would be the hounds for Longshanks hunting Robert Bruce.

Thus, once again, the English army invaded.  Bruce was forced to contend with facing the English, and hampered by raising troops to fight for him.  Gold was offered to any man who could bring Bruce in.  Bruce had little time to form a strong government, or to raise his army, when he was compelled to meet the English at Methven.  Aymer de Valence, the English general acting for Edward I, had not only arrived with an established host of English soldiery and knights, the men of Comyn were flocking to him.  To Bruce’s credit he did have very able commanders in James Douglas, Christopher Seaton and Gilbert Hay to lead his troops.  Aymer de Valence seemed content to outwait Bruce.  In flamboyant fashion, Bruce invited de Valence to leave the walls of Perth and join him on the battlefield.  To his mistake, Robert presumed the preliminaries of feudal battle protocol would be observed.  When de Valence failed to take up the challenge, Bruce figured there would be no battle that day.  He and his forces retired for the night at Methven, expecting to get a good night’s sleep before the coming battle on the morrow.  Instead, before dawn, the English attacked and nearly destroyed Bruce’s forces.

Bruce had to scramble to see his family was moved out of harm’s way.  He sent  Elizabeth, his young daughter by his first marriage, Marjorie, and his sisters Mary and Christian to Kildrummy Castle, under the protection of his brother Nigel.  Kildrummy was the castle of Christian’s first husband Gartnait of Mar, and though she was now newly married to Christopher Seton, the people there were still very devoted to her.   Bruce, I would assume, thought the English would give chase to him, leaving the women safely out of reach.


Ruins of Kildrummy Castle

Again, underestimating the choices the enemy would make, the English laid siege to the castle containing the royal women. The siege finally succeeded when de Valance bribed a blacksmith with 'all the gold he could carry' to set fire to the grain store. Nigel gave a valiant defense, knowing the castle was lost, but giving time for the earl of Atholl to get the ladies safely away.  Nigel was captured alive.  He was taken to Berwick to be hanged, drawn and beheaded.

The Bruce ladies were probably heading to the Orkneys, where they would be beyond reach of Edward.  Isabel, another of Bruce’s sisters, had married Eric II Magnusson, king of Norway and ruler of the Orkneys.  Though Magnusson had died in 1299, Isabel had remained in Norway as dowager queen, and still exerted a great influence in court matter there and abroad.  However, the women only 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 I’s men.  (Odd side noteless than two years later, Robert’s sister Maud would marry the son the earl of RossAodh 0'Beoland)  For his protection of the Bruce women, the earl of Atholl was hanged, drawn and beheaded.  His head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge.

Elizabeth spent the next eight years in captivity.  While Isabella Macduff, the woman who had crowned Bruce king, and Bruce’s sister, Mary, were taken to Berwick and Roxbury Castle, and hanged over the castle walls to punish Robert, his wife suffered a milder fate.  She was housed from October 1306 to July 1308 at Burstwick-in-Holderness, Yorkshire.  At first, she was confined with only two elderly women to take care of her needs, and ordered not to speak with her.  A letter from her during this period complained about her conditions, that she was limited to three sets of clothing and no headgear or linen bed clothing.  That saw a series of moves to other manors and castlesBisham Manor, Windsor Castle, Shaftesbury Abbey, Barking Abbey and finally Rochester Castle.   By the time she reached Windsor Castle, she had been given six servants and an allowance to pay them.  She was even permitted to have her pet Irish wolfhounds to keep her company.  At this point Edward was long dead, and she was dealing with his son, Edward II. 


So why had she been treated so well compared to the dire fates of Isabella and Mary?  Simply because she was Richard de Burgh’s daughter.  Edward had been planning on invading France for over a decade.  He needed men from Ireland to support that invasion, as well to replenish his forces in Scotland to fight Bruce, and de Burgh could do that. 

Bruce’s daughter was kept prisoner at the nunnery at Watton during those eight years.  But a puzzle surrounds Bruce’s daughters by Elizabeth.  They had three daughters:   Maud, Margaret and Elizabeth.  Not surprisingly, historians seem to have the births of the three mixed up, some even try to deny the existence of Elizabeth, and one says her birth was in 1364 (that is her death).   Genealogy sites list the dates of Maud’s birth as 1303, and then Margaret’s as 1307.  This seems perplexing.  Maud would have been three years old when her father was crowned king and her mother captured, if that were the case.  Yet, there is no reference to Elizabeth having a baby with her when captured by the earl of Ross.  John Fordun in his Scotichronicon refers to Maud as “did nothing worth recording”.  I would think if she had been held captive with her mother, or take from her mother by the English, then Fordun might have deemed her worthy of writing about!  And if the second daughter was born in 1307, that would mean Elizabeth have given birth to her after she was a prisoner.  Nowhere have I come across any reference to this.

There is no way a daughter could be born until late 1315.  If Maud’s actual date were 1315, and Margaret in 1316, that would dovetail with Elizabeth’s birth in 1317, backed up by reference to her as Bruce’s “youngest daughter”.

In the case of this Elizabeth, you will see some sites fail to list her as Bruce’s daughter entirely, or suggest she must be the child of one of his mistresses.  Sir David Dalrymple dismisses her out of hand.  He declared Fordun had not mentioned Elizabeth, and that he had not seen any charters of land grants to her, and that if any such charters existed they needed to be “deposited in the Register House”.  Well, they do exist.  There are a number of royal charters, mostly regrants signed by King David II, in which Elizabeth is described as "dilecte sorori me" — my beloved sister or "dilecte sorori nostre" — our beloved sister.  When Dalrymple was shown the proof, he promised to publish a correction to his The Annals of Scotland Volume 2, but he died without fulfilling that promise.  Thus, historians referencing Dalrymple today keep perpetuating the lie that she was illegitimate, or not Robert’s daughter at all.

After the Battle of Bannockburn, Elizabeth was moved to York.  There, she had an audience with Edward II.  In the end, Elizabeth was released as part of the ransom for Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford (Edward’s brother-in-law), who had been captured after Bannockburn on 29th September 1314.  In exchange for Hereford’s release, Edward was forced to give voice that Robert was the legal king of Scots, and to return Elizabeth, Christian, Mary and Marjorie, along with the aging Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow.  Isabella Macduff was not mentioned in the transfer, but as I expressed in my article for her, I believe she was dead by that time.

After being reunited with Bruce, Elizabeth gave birth to daughters Maud, Margaret and Elizabeth.  There were no more children for seven years—miscarriages?—and Bruce likely feared of ever having a son and heir for the throne when Elizabeth became pregnant again.  This time, on 5th of March, a son was born.  They named him David, and he would go on to be David II, king of the Scots. Another son, John, was born in early October 1327, though little is recorded other than he died soon afterward, likely a short time before Elizabeth’s own death.

Rumors were Elizabeth might have been pregnant again when she was out riding near Cullen Castle in Banffshire when she was thrown from her horse.  The circumstances were an eerie echo of the death of Robert’s daughter just ten years before, almost as if Bruce were cursed. Whether it was from illness pertaining to the birth and death of son, John, or perhaps the miscarriage of a child she was carrying, Elizabeth de Burgh closed her eyes on the night of  October 27th, 1327 and slipped away from a world that hadn’t been too kind to her. Her entrails were buried in the Church of St. Mary of the Virgin at Cullen and her body was interred at Dunfermline Castle.  She was forty-three years old.






Deborah writes Scottish Medieval Historical Romances set in the time of Robert the Bruce in a series, The Dragons of Challon.





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.