12 February 2021

A Tale of Two Women and One Castle – The Ladies of Dunbar - Part One


A Tale of Two Women and One Castle – The Ladies of Dunbar - Part One

(Ruins of Castle Dunbar)

 I had intended this blog to be about one castle and two valiant women.  Only, these are ladies I have long admired, thus I cannot keep their roles in history brief.  With an eye to showcasing each, I will present them in two parts.  I think they have earned that.

In In my second blog on women, famous or infamous ancestors, and how history can shift the view on their roles in the past or ignore them, I will be talking about two special women and one castle.  These women, both my direct ancestors, both valiantly defended their castle, the same one—Dunbar Castle.  While a ruins today, Dunbar was one of the strongest fortresses in all of Scotland.  Situated on a prominent position overlooking the harbor town of Dunbar in East Lothian, this castle played a pivotal part in Scottish history throughout the medieval era.  The first woman held this castle in a siege against the king of England—and her own husband.  Then, nearly forty years later, another woman—countess of the same castle and daughter-in-law of the first—held out against another siege by the English for six months and won.  These acts of defiance earn one a near legend, while the other is all but forgotten by historians.

When I got my first computer, I was amazed at the access to research online.  Instead of hands on investigations of days, weeks, months of going to specific places to research documents (IF you were permitted access), suddenly, you could do the same amount of work in a matter of a few minutes.  It was a researcher’s dream come true!  No more “limited access” to vital records because of their age, no expensive traveling, and no more time drain.

One of the first projects I posted online was my research into Marjorie Comyn, Countess of Dunbar and March (my 25th great-grandmother).  Marjorie came from Scottish nobility on both sides of her family. Daughter of Alexander Comyn, 2nd earl of Buchan and Elizabeth de Quincy (daughter of Sir Roger de Quincy, earl of Winchester), Marjorie married Cospatrick Dunbar, 8th earl of Dunbar, 7th earl of March (an ancient lineage going back to the original warrior kings of the Scots).  Cospatrick carried the nickname "Blackbeard the Competitor" for he was one of thirteen men vying for the crown of the Scots in 1290, after the deaths of Alexander III and his only heir the Maid of Norway.

(Crest of Clan Comyn)

Cospatrick's strongest opposition was from Robert the Bruce (King Robert I’s grandfather), John Balliol (who eventually won by Edward Longshanks' decree) and John "the Black" Comyn, Lord of Badenoch.  All had direct lines going back to David, earl of Huntingdon, who had been prince and heir to the crown, making this basically a family dispute!  These challengers, having rather similar lineages, each claimed they held the right to rule Scotland.  In the vacuum of no clear path to crowning a monarch, King Edward declared himself “overlord” to Scotland.  The contenders yielded to him on this point, each hoping he would then back their bid to be Scotland’s new king.  Without realizing the enormity and future repercussions of the move, they made the error of going to Edward and laying their claims before his consideration, asking him to be the judge.

(Crest of Dunbar)

Edward was considered a great legal mind.  Many of the legal reforms that are still used today originated with him.  While he might have loved the legal system, he had one single focus above all: uniting the kingdoms of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland—and France—under one crown—his.  When the Scots nobles deferred to Edward to rule who should be king of the Scots, Edward seized the opportunity to flex that power.  In the end, Edward chose John Balliol.  John Black Comyn and John Balliol were both trying to snatch the crown, but they were also close kinsmen.  Being of an incisive mind, Edward knew Black Comyn was no man to be controlled.  To further his own aims, Edward thought by choosing Balliol he could unite the majority of Scotland behind King John, after all Clan Comyn was one of the most powerful clans in the Highlands.  Balliol proved as malleable as Edward assumed, and he ended up bending knee to Edward as his overlord.  If the nobles thought this would be the end to the question of who ruled Scotland, they soon learned the English monarch had other ideas.  He used every excuse to yank on the puppet strings attached to Balliol.  Edward's excessive demands for men and money to support the upcoming war with France placed the new Scottish king in an impossible position. Balliol was left with little choice but to rebel, and to seek an agreement to a mutual defense pact with France.  Edward Longshanks' machinations and deliberate humiliations of King John would push the barons to finally say enough!  Balliol—prodded by the Comyns—found spine enough to defy Edward (likely what the king of England wanted to happen all along, thus giving him the excuse to invade Scotland).  Both Robert Bruce “the Competitor” and Cospatrick sought to curry favor with the English King, each thinking to offer themselves as a replacement for Balliol.

In this swirling toxic mix of political strife, Marjorie’s marriage only complicated matters.  Her father was Alexander Comyn, 6th earl of Buchan, both he and her brother wanted the crown for themselves.  Since the men were close kin to Balliol, they eventually backed his claim.  However, the man she married, Cospatrick earl of Dunbar and March, was also a contender, and he was not letting go of his ambition to be king so easily.  He rode at Edward’s side when the king of England came northward with his army of 10,000 infantry and 1000 heavy-horse.

Marjorie stood on the curtain wall, waving bye bye to her lord husband.  There in the spring of 1296, she was now commander of a fortress smack in the middle of the English army and the Scottish army.  Her husband was in charge of part of the English forces under Balliol’s father-in-law John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey.  Her brother and uncle, and a slew of cousins, were commanders in Balliol’s army.

I suppose Cospatrick chauvinistically assumed his lady wife would abide by his decision to side with Edward Longshanks, and carry out his wishes.  He failed to consider his wife was a true Scots lass, bred to think and act on her own.  She was Marjorie Comyn, after all, not Marjorie Dunbar, in the tradition of Scottish females keeping their maiden name, instead of assuming their husband’s surname.  After the horrible sacking of Castle Berwick, where three days of killing left the town filled with thousands of dead Scots—men, women and children—word spread like wildfire throughout the Highlands. Marjorie was determined her people would not suffer a similar fate.

In Medieval times, women often were in charge of fortresses and castles while their husbands went off to war or the Crusades.  They had to deal with getting crops out, and harvesting them so their people had food enough for the winter.  They were responsible for commanding the fortress troops to keep their people safe.  They had to deal law locally, maintain the peace, and manage with taxes and more.  The portrait of the damsel in distress, waving her kerchief from the castle bastion and waiting for a valiant knight to save her, was as much a myth back then as it is now.  Women had to be capable, self-reliant, politically savvy, able to command soldiers and have a just mind to deal with day-to-day grievances of her vassals and villeins.  With that in mind, I’m not certain why Cospatrick failed to heed what his wife’s reaction would be to his presence at Edward’s side when Berwick was slaughtered—especially when she knew those same troops would soon fight her family, her clan.  Cospatrick intended she hold the castle against the Scots—her brothers, uncle and cousins—until Edward came with his army.  There they would rest and refit before the battle brewing nearby.

 April 1296 found Cospatrick in Berwick, a town littered with thousands of rotting corpses.  Edward had commanded the defeated citizens rot in place as a warning to the Scots of what happened to a town when they defied the mighty king of England.  Cospatrick was attending the council of war convened by Edward when tides came that Marjorie had handed over his castle to her brother, John Comyn of Buchan. One can imagine how Cospatrick felt.  He lived in a strange mix of fear and awe of Edward Plantagenet.  Edward’s view on women was well known. Here, Cospatrick was hoping to curry favor with the king, on the chance Edward would put the crown of Scotland on his head, to that goal, he had pledged Dunbar Castle for Edward’s forward base of operations.  The castle was vital to Edward’s plans since it lay on the road that went straight to Edinburgh.  Suddenly, the rug was yanked from beneath his feet!  His lady wife had defied him and was supporting the Scottish forces.  I am sure Cospatrick knew his chance of ever being king of the Scots died with the news of Marjorie’s defiance.  Edward was forced to change his plans and send John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey, and William de Beauchamp, 9th Earl of Warwick (the latter a veteran of Edward’s campaigns in Wales) northward with the express purpose of retaking the castle. On the 25th of April, one-third of Edward’s force marched out of Berwick with a brigade of 400 heavy cavalry and 4500 infantry.

Can you imagine the embarrassment of the mighty earl of Dunbar and March?  A man who dreamt of being king of Scotland, and seeing that objective within grasp only to learn his lady wife was destroying his ambition—not only defying him, but defying his king?  Edward demanded the castle taken before the coming battle.  It didn’t happen.  Marjorie refused to yield. The troops had arrived late in the day on April 26th.  Edward Longshanks and her husband were forced to deal with being locked out.  Already undermanned due to her husband stripping the fortress of men to fight for Edward, Marjorie used her disobedience to buy time to get her people out by the sea. Edward ordered Cospatrick to retake his own castle.  He was impatient to see the deed done before they engaged the Scottish army. 

(Dunbar Castle 1296)

I suppose her brother and uncle hoped to catch the English in the midst of trying to take the castle.  On the sunny, but cold spring morn of the 27th, the Scottish host was camped near Doon Hill.  Comyn, Lord Badenoch could easily see Warenne’s army, marching on the road to Spott Village.  Dust raised by the men and horses would have signaled where the English forces were a mile away.  The Comyns were confident in their numbers, but failed to take into account they lacked heavy horse, archers, and their infantry was hardly more than farmers with pitchforks and axes.  Compared to well-seasoned warriors and shock troops in the English army, doom rode on the horizon.  The Scots didn’t stand a chance.  Comyn’s single plan of battle was a full frontal attack.  The whole battle was over in less than an hour.  Hundreds —thousands, if you believe some English historians—of Scots lay dead on the battlefield, and nearly all of Scottish nobility was taken prisoner to be sent south for trial.

(Battle of Dunbar 1296)

That left Edward to turn his attention back to Dunbar castle.  Some sources say the castle just surrendered when Edward rode up to the gates after the battle had been won.  However, his exchequer receipts hint at a different story. Edward paid for “repairs, restocking and refitting” and for the English troops to remain behind and secure the castle.  Since Edward was a pinchpenny, it is doubtful he would have paid such large sums had the fortress not been severely damage during the retaking.

There are only a few references to the storming of the castle, and even less about Marjorie’s fate.  The great Scottish author Nigel Tranter featured the Dunbars heavily in several of his novels, and even made mention of Marjorie’s defiance in his Scottish Castles: Tales and Traditions.  Still, he made no mention of her fate.  I was honored to develop a bit of email correspondence with him on the topic, just before his death.  He was just learning the internet, still puzzled by it, and said it might take time to answer my questions about Marjorie’s fate.  Sadly, he died before he could reply with his thoughts.

Through the years, I met Scottish historians who traveled in my grandfather’s circle. The “lit test” I used to weed out people, who truly knew their history from the ones that just repeated the works of others, was by posing this: “What happened to Marjorie Comyn, Countess of Dunbar and March in 1296?”. Sadly, most never tried to follow up with an answer.  One came to me at a party and said Marjorie went back north to Clan Comyn and died in 1308.  I busted that bubble.  That was Marjorie’s daughter—Margaret, also called Marjorie—who was a teen at the time.  Historians keep getting all the Cospatricks/Patricks and Marjorie/Marjorys mixed up.  Her daughter did escape and go back to Clan Comyn and lived a long life, marrying William Douglas, earl of Douglas.  Another man, a professor of Scottish History—emailed me with a photocopy of a record, retelling of her death, recorded 1286.  No.  That is incorrect.  Since Marjorie was holding the castle against her husband and his king in 1296, she could hardly have been dead 10 years earlier.  I pointed out how similar an 8 and 9 could look when done by a hand using pen and ink.  I even had one tell me she was alive and signed the Ragman Roll in August 1296.  There is only one name for Dunbar and March.  Patricio de Dunbar et Marchia.  I was never certain if he was outright lying, trying to trip me up for not knowing who was on the document, or he was just running a bluff, hoping I would defer and not call him on it.  Cospatrick did die in 1308, so I think some just ascribe the date to Marjorie, too.  I even had one tell me she died in 1358 and he had her bearing children in her late 60s.  Humm…no….lol.

(List of Names in Ragman Roll showing only Cospatrick of Dunbar and March)

It was always my contention she died either in the siege of the castle or sometime shortly thereafter.   I make reference to Marjorie’s defiance and the question of her fate in my first novel, A Restless Knight.

“What shame for Cospatrick.  He curries favor at the English’s side, thinking Edward might consider him as the next king of the Scots, whilst the Lady Marjorie commands Castle Dunbar.  She be a Comyn born and bred, daughter to Buchan.”

“Aye, she sided with her brother and father, turning the castle over to the Scots.  Battle took place.  Though outnumbered three times over, Warenne’s troops are battle-hardened horsemen, veterans from campaigns in Wales and Flanders.  They held and repulsed the Scots.  After that, the Scots crumbled.  Edward ordered Cospatrick to invest Castle Dunbar.  The castle fell...”

“And the Lady Marjorie?”

He hoped Tamlyn would not empathize too strongly with Marjorie Comyn, Lady Dunbar.  “No one knows for sure.  Some of Dunbar’s people escaped, using tunnels to the sea.  Possibly, she slipped out with them, and has returned north to the Comyn stronghold in the Highlands.”

Tamlyn shivered.  “Or she was in the castle when it was stormed?  Many mislike the Earl Dunbar.  His persecution of True Thomas be nigh well legend.  Pride wouldst not stand the disgrace of his countess handing his castle over to her kin.”


Great strides are being made since the internet to reexamine and correct bad history.  For centuries, and in the movie Braveheart, William Wallace’s father was named as Malcolm Wallace.  Just recently, they turned over Wallace’s great seal from when he was Guardian of Scotland, and lo!—was “William Wallace son of Alan Wallace”.  All these years they had it wrong!  To my excitement, in the past few years, I am finally seeing sources listing Marjorie’s death as 29th April, 1296 and at Dunbar Castle, Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland.  The battle of Dunbar was on the 27th, two days before.  This new information fits with my long held belief that Marjorie died either defending her castle and people, or was killed afterward, and her death hushed up because it would have been a rallying cry for Clan Comyn.

She was a valiant lady who defended and saved many of her people, who did make it northward to Clan Comyn because of her.  She defied a husband and a king—and likely died for it.  Now history largely has erased her heroic effort.  She was a true brave heart!  She was forty-years-old when she died.

In Part two of The Ladies of Dunbar, I will tell you of another countess of Dunbar—daughter-in-law of Marjorie, who was just as stubborn and savvy, who once again held the castle against the English.  So until next month, I will leave you with the Dunbar motto “In Promptu”, which means “In Readiness”.  I do believe Marjorie did those words honor.

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