Mary and Isabella – the Women in Cages

Isabella Buchan crowning Robert the Bruce at Scone

When watching Outlaw King a couple of weeks ago, I was disappointed to see that they had omitted the stories of Robert the Bruce’s sister, Mary, and the woman who crowned him, Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan. And yet, they managed to keep the punishment Edward I meted out to them, but inflicted it on Robert the Bruce’s wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, instead. In a great example of dramatic licence, they also insisted on retelling the age-old fallacy that the cage was hung from the castle walls, exposing the poor woman to ridicule and the elements.

While it is necessary to change stories, and limit the number of protagonists in a movie, in order to avoid confusion, produce a fabulous story and, probably, keep down costs, I thought it a shame that the remarkable stories of Mary and Isabella were ignored, or rather circumvented for the dramatic benefit of the movie.

We know very little of Mary Bruce. She was a younger sister of King Robert, probably born around 1282. A younger daughter of Robert de Brus, 6th Earl of Annandale, and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick in her own right. It may be that she took care of her brother’s daughter, Marjorie, after Robert’s first wife, Isabella of Mar, died giving birth to the baby girl.

Her story has long been intertwined with that of her brother.

From that fateful moment  in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries when Robert the Bruce stabbed to death John Comyn, his rival to the Scottish throne, it was a race against time for Robert to establish himself as king. Whether Comyn’s death was accidental or murder, we’ll probably never know. Almost immediately, Robert made the dash for Scone, hoping to achieve his coronation before the Christian world erupted in uproar over his sacrilege. An excommunicate could not be crowned. His sisters Christian and Mary accompanied him to Scone Abbey, as did his wife Elizabeth and daughter Marjorie. The Stone of Scone was the traditional coronation seat of the kings of Scotland and, although the stone had been stolen by the English and spirited away to London, holding the coronation at the Abbey sent a message of defiance to the English king, Edward I.

The killing of Comyn, by Felix Philippoteaux

On 25 March 1306 Mary, Christian, Elizabeth and little Marjorie were all present when Robert the Bruce was crowned King Robert I by Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, who claimed her family’s hereditary right to crown Scotland’s kings (despite her being married to a Comyn). The ceremony was repeated on 27 March, following the late arrival of William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews. Robert’s coronation was the start of the most desperate period of his life – and that of his supporters. Edward I of England was never one to acquiesce when his will was flouted; he sent his army into Scotland to hunt down the new king and his adherents. After Robert’s defeat by the English at Methven in 1306, he went into hiding in the Highlands.

Robert sent his wife and daughter north to what he hoped would be safety. Mary, her sister Christan and Isabella, Countess of Buchan accompanied them, escorted by the Earl of Atholl and Mary and Christian’s brother, Sir Neil Bruce. It is thought that the Bruce women were heading north to Orkney to take a boat to Norway, where Robert’s sister, Isabel, widow of King Erik II, was still living. Unfortunately, they would never make it. The English caught up with them at Kildrummy Castle and laid siege to it. The defenders were betrayed by someone in their garrison, a blacksmith who set fire to the barns, making the castle indefensible.

The women managed to escape with the Earl of Atholl, but Neil Bruce remained with the garrison to mount a desperate defence, to give the queen, his niece and sisters enough time to escape. Following their capitulation, the entire garrison was executed. Sir Neil Bruce was subjected to a traitor’s death; he was hung, drawn and quartered at Berwick in September 1306 (not in front of the women he had protected, as portrayed in the film). Mary and her companions did not escape for long; they made for Tain, in Easter Ross, probably in the hope of finding a boat to take them onwards. They were hiding in the sanctuary of St Duthac when they were captured by the Earl of Ross (a former adherent of the deposed king John Balliol), who handed them over to the English. They were sent south, to Edward I at Lanercost Priory in Cumbria.

Edward I’s admirer, Sir Maurice Powicke, said Edward treated his captives with a ‘peculiar ferocity’.¹ Mary was treated particularly harshly by Edward I. The English king had a special cage built for her, although within the castle and not, as previously believed, hung from the walls of the keep at Roxburgh Castle, exposed to the elements and the derision of the English garrison and populace. In contrast, her sister Christian was sent into captivity to a Gilbertine convent at Sixhills, an isolated location, deep in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Christian languished at Sixhills for eight years, until shortly after her brother’s remarkable victory over the English at Bannockburn, in 1314. Despite Edward II escaping the carnage, King Robert the Bruce had managed to capture several notable English prisoners, including Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford and Essex. Suddenly in a strong bargaining position, the Scots king was able to exchange his English captives for his family, held prisoners in England for the last 8 years.

The remains of Berwick Castle

Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, also suffered the harshly under Edward I’s not inconsiderable wrath. Isabella was probably born around 1270; she was the daughter of Colban, Earl of Fife, and his wife, Anna. Isabella was married to John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, and was first mentioned in 1297, when she was in England, managing her husband’s estates while he was in Scotland. Captured after the Scottish defeat at Dunbar in 1296, the Earl of Buchan had been sent north by Edward I, ordered to take action against Andrew Murray; however, he only took cursory action against the loyal Scot and soon changed sides, possibly fighting for the Scots at Falkirk in 1298. The Comyn family were cousins of Scotland’s former king, John Balliol, and constantly fought for his return to the throne, putting them in direct opposition to Robert the Bruce.

Isabella’s story remained unremarkable throughout Scotland’s struggles in the early years of the 1300s; until Robert the Bruce made his move for the throne in 1306. By birth, Isabella was a MacDuff, her father had been Earl of Fife and, in 1306, the current earl was her nephew, Duncan, a teenager who was a loyal devotee of Edward I. The Earls of Fife had, for centuries, claimed the hereditary right to crown Scotland’s kings. Although Duncan had no interest in being involved in the coronation of Robert the Bruce, Isabella was determined to fulfil her family’s role. It cannot have been an easy decision for her. Isabella’s participation was an act of bravery and defiance. She went against not only Edward I but her own husband, the Earl of Buchan. Isabella’s husband and the murdered John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, were not only cousins but had a close relationship. It seems likely that Isabella’s husband was in England at the time of Bruce’s coronation, and she did not have to face him personally; but she would have known that her actions would mean there was no going back. Supporting Robert the Bruce, the man who stood accused of John Comyn’s murder, meant she turned against her husband and his entire family, people she had lived among for her entire married life.

Isabella reached Scone on 27 March 1306, two days after Robert had been crowned by Bishop Lamberton. She insisted on her family’s hereditary right to crown the new king and the ceremony was repeated for a second time, with Isabella placing the crown on the new king’s head. There are some rumours of a more intimate relationship between Isabella and Bruce, but these seem to be without foundation and are only to be expected, given that Isabel acted so decisively – and publicly – against her husband.

There was no going back for Isabella – crowning Robert the Bruce meant she was on her own; she couldn’t go back to her family, so she stayed with the royal party, travelling with Elizabeth de Burgh, the new queen, when Bruce sent her, his daughter and sisters, north for their safety. Isabella was with them when they escaped Kildrummy Castle by the skin of their teeth, and when they reached the shrine of St Duthac at Tain and were captured by William, Earl of Ross, in September 1306. As the party were sent south, Isabella must have faced the future with trepidation. Her placing the crown on Robert the Bruce’s head was the clearest challenge to Edward I and guaranteed that she would receive no sympathy from England’s king.

Statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn

Even knowing that she would receive harsh treatment, it is doubtful that she, or indeed anyone, could have foreseen the punishment that Edward I would mete out. He ordered the construction of wooden cages, for Isabella and Bruce’s sister Mary; the two women were to be imprisoned in these cages close to the Scottish border, Isabella at Berwick Castle and Mary at Roxburgh Castle. Tradition has these cages were suspended from the walls of the castles’ keeps, open to the elements and the harsh Borders weather, the only shelter and privacy being afforded by a small privy. According to the Flores Historiarum, written at the Abbey of St Albans, Edward I said of Isabel’s punishment:

“[o]ne who doesn’t strike with the sword shall not perish by the sword. But because of that illicit coronation which she made, in a little enclosure made of iron and stone in the form of a crown, solidly constructed, let her be suspended at Berwick under the open heavens, so as to provide, in life and after death, a spectacle for passers-by and eternal shame.”²

It is doubtful, however, that the St Albans annalist was present when the order was given. The original royal writ still survives, written in French and reads a little differently;

“It is decreed and ordered by letters under the privy seal sent to the Chamberlain of Scotland, or his Lieutenant at Berwick-uponTweed, that, in one of the turrets within the castle at the same place, in the position which he sees to be most suitable for the purpose, he cause to be made a cage of stout lattice work of timber, barred and strengthened with iron, in which he is to put the Countess of Buchan.”³

This type of cage, within a room in the keep, was also used by Edward I to hold Owain, the son of Daffydd ab Gruffuddd; he had been held at Bristol Castle since 1283 and had been secured in a cage, overnight, since 1305. The construction of the cages was intended to humiliate their occupants and, at the same time, Scotland’s new king. They were also a taunt; placing Isabella and Mary in these cages, in castles on the border with Scotland, it is possible they were intended as a challenge to Robert the Bruce, showing him that he was not powerful enough to protect his women, but also teasing him, hoping he would be drawn into a rescue attempt that would, almost certainly, lead to the destruction of his limited forces.

Despite Edward I’s death in 1307, Isabella, Countess of Buchan was held in her little cage in Berwick Castle for four years in total. Attempts to secure her release were made by Sir Robert Keith and Sir John Mowbray, by appealing to Duncan, Earl of Fife, but the appeals came to nought. It was only in 1310 that Mary and Isabella were released from their cages; Isabella was moved to the more comfortable surroundings of the Carmelite friary at Berwick. In 1313 she was put into the custody of Sir Henry de Beaumont, who was married to Alice, niece and co-heir of Isabella’s husband, John Comyn, Earl of Buchan. This is the last we hear of Isabella, Countess of Buchan, as she slips from the pages of history. It seems likely that Isabella died within the next year, probably due to her health being destroyed by the years of deprivation; she was not among the hostages who were returned to Scotland following the Scots’ victory at Bannockburn.

The ruins of Roxburgh Castle

Mary, on the other hand, survived her ordeal and was returned to Scotland with the prisoner exchange that followed her brother’s victory at Bannockburn. She would be married twice after her release. Mary’s first husband was Sir Neil Campbell, a staunch supporter of her brother; the marriage being Neil’s reward for a lifetime of service to his king. The couple was to have one son, Iain (also John), and received the confiscated lands of David Strathbogie from the king; lands which passed to Iain on Neil’s death in 1316.  In 1320 Iain was created Earl of Atholl as a consequence of his possession of the Strathbogie lands, and despite the rival claims of Strathbogie’s son. After Neil’s death Mary married a second time, to Alexander Fraser of Touchfraser and Cowie, by whom she had 2 sons, John of Touchfraser and William of Cowie and Durris.

Mary died in 1323, she had survived four years imprisoned in a cage at Roxburgh Castle before being transferred to a more comfortable imprisonment in 1310. It wouldn’t be surprising if this inhumane incarceration had contributed to Mary’s death in her early forties, as it had shortened the life of poor Countess Isabella.

The strength and bravery of these  two women should never be underestimated, nor ignored. To survive 4 years imprisoned in a cage within a castle is remarkable. Even though they were not exposed to the elements, their movements, ability to exercise and exposure to fresh air were severely limited. Their courage and tenacity deserves to be remembered and celebrated. Their story deserves to be told.

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Footnotes: ¹Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain; ²Interim annalist, Flores Historiarum, Volume III; ³Pilling, David, Ladies in Cages (article)

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Ladies in Cages (article) by David Pilling; Kings & Queens of Britain by Joyce Marlow; educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandhistory 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; A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris; Buchan, Isabel, Countess of Buchan (b. c.1270, d. after 1313) by Fiona Watson, oxforddnb.com thefreelancehistorywriter.comenglishmonarchs.co.uk.

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Out Now!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is available from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Mother’s Day Treat

Sunday 11th March 2018 is Mother’s Day in the UK this year

Mum is everyone’s favourite Heroine, in whatever era, and I could not think of a better way to celebrate Mother’s Day than with a giveaway of a hardback copy of Heroines of the Medieval World.

About Heroines of the Medieval World

Heroines come in many different forms, and it is no less true for medieval heroines. They can be found in all areas of medieval life; from the dutiful wife and daughter to religious devotees, warriors and rulers. What makes them different compared to those of today are the limitations placed on them by those who directed their lives – their fathers, husbands, priests and kings. Women have always been an integral part of history, although when reading through the chronicles of the medieval world, you would be forgiven if you did not know it. We find that the vast majority of written references are focussed on men. The chronicles were written by men and, more often than not, written for men. It was men who ruled countries, fought wars, made laws and treaties, dominated religion and guaranteed – or tried to guarantee – the continued survival of their world. It was usually the men, but not all of them, who could read, who were trained to rule and who were expected to fight, to defend their people and their country…

 

If you would like to win a signed copy of Heroines of the Medieval World to give to your mum on Mother’s Day, or someone else’s mum – or even as a gift to yourself, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

The draw will be made on Wednesday 7th March, so you should get the book in time for the day.

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The winner is ….. Janet Carter.

The draw is now closed and I would like to thank everyone for taking part.

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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.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

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.

Robertthebruce
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.

RobertBruceAndElizabethDeBurgh (280X280)_tcm4-562387
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 books

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

23593407_1968209250117704_6252461679001074025_oa

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly