Elizabeth de Burgh, the Captive Queen

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King Robert I and Queen Elizabeth

Certain periods and people in history hold a particular fascination for me. Robert the Bruce is one such. The grandfather of the Stewart dynasty and hero of Scotland, he started his career with some very divided loyalties. Initially a supporter of Edward I, it was only the arrival of William Wallace that started Bruce on his journey to becoming the saviour of Scottish independence.

Through the murder of his greatest rival and the Battle of Bannockburn, Bruce proved himself determined and resourceful, overcoming defeat to emerge victorious and master of his realm.

Bruce suffered greatly for the crown, but his family and friends suffered equally.

Robert the Bruce’s wife suffered a no less punishing life in support of her husband.

Elizabeth de Burgh was born around 1289. The daughter of Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster and Connaught, and his wife, Margaret, she was a god-daughter of England’s king, Edward I. At the age of 13 Elizabeth was married to Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, in 1302; probably at his manor of Writtle, near Chelmsford in Essex. It is possible the marriage was arranged by Edward; he certainly encouraged it, as a way of keeping his young Scottish noble loyal to his cause.

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Queen Elizabeth de Burgh

However, events in Scotland would soon push the Bruce away from his English alliances; his murder of his greatest rival for the throne, John Comyn, in the Chapel of the Greyfriars in Dumfries. Aware that he would be excommunicated for his actions, Bruce raced to Scone to be crowned before a papal bull could be issued.

6 weeks later, on March 25th 1306, the Bruce was crowned King Robert I of Scotland, with Elizabeth by his side, by the Bishop of St Andrews, William Lamberton. They were crowned in a second ceremony the next day by Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, who had arrived too late to play her part in the ceremony on the 25th. As daughter of the Earl of Fife, Isabella claimed the hereditary right of the Clan MacDuff, to crown the King of Scots.

Unfortunately the coronation was not the end of trouble for the Bruces. If anything, things were about to get much worse.

An ailing Edward I sent his loyal lieutenant, Aymer de Valence, north and he met and defeated Robert’s army at Methven in June of the same year. Robert sent his brother Neil and the Earl of Atholl to escort his wife to safety. They took the Queen, Princess Marjorie (Robert the Bruce’s daughter by his first marriage), sisters Mary and Christian and the countess of Buchan, north towards Orkney.

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Nineteenth Century depiction of Robert the Bruce

However, the English caught up with them at Kildrummy Castle and laid siege to it. The garrison was betrayed from within, the barns set alight and the Bruce women had barely time to escape with the Earl of Atholl before the castle was taken. Sir Neil Bruce and the entire garrison were executed; Neil was hung, drawn and quartered at Berwick in September 1306.

Queen Elizabeth and her companions made for Tain, in Easter Ross, possibly in the hope of finding a boat to take them onwards. However, they were captured by the Earl of Ross (a former adherent of the deposed King John Balliol), who took them from sanctuary at St Duthac and handed them over to the English. They were sent south, To Edward I at Lanercost Priory.

Elizabeth’s capture would have been a hard blow for Robert the Bruce. The new King of Scotland still lacked a male heir, and had no chance of getting one while his wife was in English hands. This made his hold on the throne even more precarious than it already was.

Edward I’s admirer, Sir Maurice Powicke said Edward treated his captives with a ‘peculiar ferocity’. He ordered that 24-year-old Mary Bruce and Isabella, the Countess of Buchan who performed Robert the Bruce’s coronation, should be imprisoned in specially constructed iron cages and suspended from the outside walls of castles; Mary at Roxburgh and Isabella at Berwick. Although it is more likely that the cages were in rooms within the castles, rather than exposed to the elements, they would be held in that way for 4 years, until Edward I’s successor, Edward II, ordered their removal to convents in 1310.

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The Tower of London

It seems Edward ordered a cage to be made Marjorie at the Tower of London, where she was first held. But he relented, possibly because of her age, and the child – not yet 12 years old – was sent to a nunnery in Yorkshire. Initial orders were given that she should be held in solitary confinement, with no one allowed to speak to her; but this may also have been rescinded.

Marjorie’s aunt and Mary’s older sister, Christian, was also sent to a Gilbertine nunnery, this time in Lincolnshire; although her husband, Sir Christopher Seton, was hung, drawn and beheaded at Dumfries.

Elizabeth was treated more kindly than her step-daughter, and the other ladies. Her father was a close ally of Edward I and the king did not want to alienate him. The Queen of Scots was sent to Burstwick Manor in Holderness, Yorkshire, from where she wrote to Edward I, in an undated letter, complaining that she only had 3 changes of clothes, and no bed linen. She then spent 4 years at Bisham Manor in Berkshire.

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King Robert I (the Bruce) and Queen Elizabeth

However in 1312, with her husband gaining strength and raiding into Yorkshire, she was moved to a more secure location, probably the Tower of London (although some sources state Windsor Castle). By this time she was allowed 6 attendants and was given a regular allowance.Elizabeth was later moved to Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset but the political situation was about to change.

In 1314 Robert the Bruce achieved a not inconsiderable victory at the Battle of Bannockburn over Edward II and his English forces. Several notable English lords were taken prisoner, including Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. Negotiations for his release led to a prisoner exchange and Elizabeth and the rest of the Bruce ladies, finally returned to Scotland after 8 years of imprisonment.

Reunited at last, Robert set about consolidating his kingdom, with his queen at his side.

His daughter, Marjorie Bruce, was married to Walter Stewart, hereditary High Steward of Scotland. Following a fall from a horse while heavily pregnant, she gave birth to King Robert’s 1st grandson, also named Robert and the future king Robert II. Marjorie died just a few hours later.

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Victorian brass plate covering the final resting place of Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh in Dunfermline Abbey

Between 1315 and 1323 Elizabeth and Robert had 2 daughters: Margaret married William, 5th Earl of Sutherland and died in childbirth in 1346 or 1347; Matilda married Thomas Isaac and had 2 daughters, she died in 1353.

The  much longed-for son, David, was born in 1324; he was married to Joan of the Tower, daughter of Edward II of England, in 1328 and would succeed his father at the age of 5, as King David II, in 1329.

A 2nd son, John, was born in 1327 but died young.

Elizabeth herself died on the 27th of October 1327 and was buried in Dunfermline Abbey; Robert the Bruce was buried beside her when he died 18 months later.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Kings & Queens of Britain by Joyce Marlow; Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; Edward I A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir; educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandhistory; englishmonarchs.co.uk; berkshirehistory.com; thefreelancehistorywriter.com.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

16 thoughts on “Elizabeth de Burgh, the Captive Queen

  1. Jean Setering 25/04/2015 / 04:36

    The “Bruce” is my ancestor .

    Like

  2. evelynralph 24/08/2016 / 12:16

    Reblogged this on evelynralph and commented:
    Loads here that I had no idea about. Very interesting indeed.
    Evelyn.

    Like

  3. carolwarham 25/08/2016 / 14:08

    A fascinating post. It’s incredible to realise the life these women lived – four years in cages!

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 25/08/2016 / 14:47

      Thank you Carol. I find it incredible that anyone – let alone a king – could be so vicious and cruel. 😦

      Like

  4. Catherine Overkamp 17/01/2017 / 21:13

    Researching this line was exhausting, but found out that I have a direct line to the Robert The Bruce. Fascinating history lessons learned here! Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge

    Like

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