I’ve always had a soft spot for little Marjorie Bruce. Dead before her 20th birthday, her short life was filled with tragedy and adversity from the moment of her birth. I could find no pictures of her, just ones of her tomb; which just about sums it up for poor Marjorie.
Marjorie was born at a time of great upheaval for Scotland; Edward I was claiming overlordship of the country, and the right to choose its next king. John Balliol was picked as king, only for Edward to humiliate and dethrone him a short time later.
Marjorie’s father, Robert the Bruce, was one of the chief claimants of the Scots crown.
Marjorie was the only daughter of Robert the Bruce, Lord of Annandale and Earl of Carrick, and Isabella of Mar. Isabella was the daughter of Donald, 6th Earl of Mar, and Helen, possible illegitimate daughter of Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Wales (although this seems to be far from certain).
Isabella and Robert had married in 1295 and Marjorie arrived about 2 years later. At the age of only 19, Isabella died shortly after giving birth and poor Marjorie was left motherless, with a father who was fighting, alternately, for and against the English.
Marjorie was named after her paternal grandmother, Marjorie, Countess of Carrick in her own right. It seems highly likely that Marjorie’s care was handed to one of her father’s sister, either Mary or Christian.
At 6 years old Marjorie acquired a new step-mother when Robert married Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, and god-daughter of Edward I. Although Edward I appears to have arranged the marriage in order to keep the Bruce’s loyalty, it was only a short while after the marriage that Robert the Bruce finally decided to join William Wallace and fight for Scotland.
In 1306, following his murder of his rival for the throne, John Comyn, Robert the Bruce defied Edward I by having himself crowned King of Scots at Scone Abbey. Little 8-year-old Marjorie was suddenly a Princess of Scotland as the daughter of King Robert I; although her uncle Edward Bruce was designated Robert’s heir.
Unfortunately Robert’s coronation infuriated Edward I even more. After King Robert was brought to battle, and defeated, at Methven in June 1306 he and his family became fugitives in their own land. Edward I of England was determined to hunt him down; sending men after Robert and all his adherents.
In August 1306 Robert split his party; while he headed west he sent Marjorie and Elizabeth to the north-east, possibly hoping they could escape to Orkney and onto Norway, where his sister, Isabel, was queen.
Accompanying Elizabeth and Marjorie were Robert’s other 2 sisters, Christian and Mary, and Isabella, Countess of Buchan, who had crowned Robert at Scone. They were escorted by John of Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, and Robert’s younger brother, Sir Niall Bruce.
By September 1306, the women and their escort had reached Kildrummy Castle in Aberdeenshire; where Edward’s forces caught up with them. While Sir Niall Bruce and the garrison stoically attempted to hold off the English troops, the Earl of Atholl escaped with the women. Having made it to the far north of Scotland, but were apprehended at Tain, near Inverness, by the Earl of Ross, a supporter of the Comyns.
Kildrummy had fallen in the mean time.
Sir Niall Bruce and the Kildrummy garrison were handed over to the English and executed; Sir Niall suffered hanging, drawing and quartering at Berwick. The Earl of Atholl and the Bruce women, along with the Countess of Buchan, were sent south to King Edward.
When they reached London, the Earl of Atholl suffered the same fate as Sir Niall, the first earl to ever suffer a traitor’s execution.
Although Edward did not order the executions of the women folk, it cannot be said he treated them kindly. They were used to set an example; a demonstration of the price of rebellion against Edward.
For Mary Bruce and the Countess of Buchan, he ordered the construction of iron cages. Isabella, Countess of Buchan, who had set the crown of Scotland on Robert the Bruce’s head, was imprisoned in one such cage suspended high from the walls of Berwick castle; open the elements and the mockery of the people of Berwick. The same was ordered for Mary Bruce at Roxburgh.
Christian Bruce, whose husband had recently been executed as a traitor at Dumfries, was ordered to be confined at a convent at Sixhills in Lincolnshire; while Elizabeth de Burgh was confined to various manors and treated more kindly due to her father’s friendship with the king.
For Marjorie Bruce, these events must have been terrifying. Edward ordered her confined in an iron cage in the Tower of London, where no one was to speak to her. Whether Edward relented of his own free will, or was advised against such treatment of a child of not yet 10 years old, the order was rescinded and she was confined to a convent at Watton in Yorkshire.
Although loyal to their king, we can only hope that the nuns took pity on the poor child, and treated her kindly. She was held at Watton for 8 years and it was only her father’s victory at Bannockburn, in 1314, that eventually secured her freedom.
Robert the Bruce’s resounding victory over Edward I’s son and successor, Edward II, in the 1314 battle meant Bruce was finally in a position to insist on the return of his queen, daughter, sisters and the Countess of Buchan. With so many English nobles taken prisoner, the women were the price demanded in the exchange of hostages.
On Marjorie’s return to Scotland, King Robert almost immediately set about arranging her marriage. With the queen not yet having produced a child, the now-17-year-old Marjorie was needed to produce an heir for the Bruce dynasty.
Just 5 years older the Marjorie, Walter Stewart, the wealthy and powerful 6th High Steward of Scotland was the ideal candidate as a husband. Walter had distinguished himself as a commander at the Battle of Bannockburn, and was the man entrusted by Bruce to bring his family home for their English captivity.
Walter and Marjorie were married shortly after, with Marjorie’s dowry including the Barony of Bathgate in West Lothian. Whatever happiness – if any – Marjorie derived from the marriage, however, was short-lived.
In 1316, whilst heavily pregnant, she fell from her horse when out riding near Paisley Abbey. Going into premature labour, Marjorie was taken to the Abbey, where she was delivered of a son, Robert, on 2nd March 1316. It is possible that Robert was delivered by caesarian as his mother was close to death. Marjorie survived the birth by just a few hours and died the same day.
Poor little Marjorie Bruce was dead at the tender age of 19 – the same as her mother before her – having lived through some of the most turbulent years of Scottish history.
Had she lived she would have seen her son succeed her brother, David II, on the Scots throne as King Robert II, founder of the Stewart dynasty.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.
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; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The Plantagenets, The Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of the Kings & Queens of Britain by Charles Phillips; Kings & Queens of Britain by Joyce Marlow; englishmonarchs.co.uk; educationscotland.gov.uk; Sisters of the Bruce; electricscotland.com.
©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly