13 May 2021

Women of Bruce - Part 2 - Isabel Macduff, countess of Buchan, a woman who crowned a king

Isabella Macduff Comyn's life was not a happy one. 

It didn't start happy. And in spite of one bright shining moment in time, it didn't end happy. 

Isabella Macduff, heir to the earldom of Fife and countess of Buchan by marriage, was born at Methil, Fifeshire, Scotland sometime around 1275-80 to the 3rd earl of Fife, Donnchadh Macduff, and his English wife, Johanna de Clare, daughter of Gilbert de Clare, 7th earl of Gloucester and 6th earl of Hertford (He later divorced his first wife and married Edward Plantagenet’s sister).  By hapchance, Isabella was also a cousin to two very powerful men, both Scottish earls—one she married by a king's decree, and one she made a king.  A pretty Scots lass with bright red hair, the poor lass was but a pawn in the center of games of power and building kingdoms.  I seriously doubt anyone ever asked Isabella what she wanted out of life—not in childhood, not in her teen years, and certainly not in her final years as a woman.

Macduff Castle

Isabella's father was a vicious man; hence few were hardly surprised when in 1289 while on his way to Dunfermline, the earl was murdered at Pittillock by his own clansmen.  In fear, the English Johanna de Clare took her son (Isabella’s younger brother, Duncan) and fled to England where the two were welcomed warmly by Edward I.  Oddly, Isabella, not even eight-years-old, was left behind to be raised in Scotland—possibly because she was the eldest child, and in old Pictish tradition, was the heir of her father, and with that in mind, clan Macduff was not about to let her leave clan control.  Little is recorded of her upbringing.  My heart breaks thinking of young Isabella living alone, men governing her life, her destiny, while her mother and brother thrived lavishly at the English Court.

By decree of Edward I, king of England, and papal dispensation since they were cousins, Isabella was married in her teens to John Black Comyn, 3rd earl of Buchan, a man over twenty years her senior.  John was the head of one of the most powerful families in Scotland.  The son of Alexander Comyn, 2nd earl of Buchan, he was also nephew to John Balliol, king of Scotland. His sister was the valiant Marjorie Comyn, countess of Dunbar and March, about whom I have previously written.  In Comyn marrying the heiress of another influential clan—this time the ancient one of Macduff—you see a pattern repeated for centuries by Comyn males.  They married heiresses, in their own right, drawing these powerful holdings into the Comyn honours, ever increasing and widening their power base and control of the northern half of Scotland.  It’s hard to judge, outside the prestige and lands that Isabella brought to the union, if John cared for his young bride.  They were wed in 1290, the same year as John’s father died, making him the 3rd earl of Buchan, but it was seven years later before Isabella produced their first child—a daughter she named Isabel.  I am reasonably sure John resented Isabella hadn’t produced a son and heir.  History almost ignores the existence of this daughter, and it’s clear John certainly tried.  However, documents in Edward II’s daily papers dated 3rd  December 1308 make references of the female child’s presence, controlling her future and lands, and later, a marriage to the son of Reginald le Chayne, Justiciar of Scotia, so there is little denying her place in history.

Inverlocky Castle, a Comyn stronghold

During the Scottish War for Independence, the Comyns—backers of John Balliol (their cousin and uncle)—led the Scottish host at Dunbar, fighting against King Edward.  In spite, they were smart enough: they had half of the clan support Balliol, while the other half stayed home or rode with the English.  John, on the side fighting against Longshanks, was captured and sent to the Tower of London as prisoner in April 1296. Regardless, Edward was always quick to make peace where it benefitted him.  He was planning an invasion of France, and thus needed the most influential clan in Scotland on his side and to supply him men and coin.  After the Scottish defeat, and time as prisoner in the Tower of London, you see the earl of Buchan pledging allegiance to Longshanks and reclaiming his lands.  John’s name was on the Ragman Roll in August 1296 at Berwick, swearing his fealty to Edward:


Comyn comes de Bouchan, Dominus Johannes
(Johan Comyn comte de Bouchan)


There’s no mention of Isabella being with him.  Likely, she was pregnant, and since it was one of the hottest and driest summers ever, and conditions of Berwick on Edward's command saw bodies from the 3-day sack back in April still lying, rotting on the ground, John might not have wanted to risk Isabella losing the baby.  In my first Challon novel, A Restless Knight, I make reference to these vile conditions, when Julian and Tamlyn were summoned to Berwick, and how this situation was deliberately created by Edward’s orders to force the nobility of Scotland to witness what happened to a town when they defied him.

Outside the date of birth of her daughter, Isabella was largely ignored by history at this point.  Just another woman given in marriage as a reward to a powerful lord.  Only, the battle of cousins would soon shape her destiny, and forevermore forge her name into the legend and lore of Scotland. 

Her husband’s cousin (and yes, her cousin, too) was also named John Comyn— John Comyn III of Badenoch, called John the Red or Red Comyn.  In the vacuum of Longshanks removing John Balliol from the throne of Scotland, the Comyns assumed control of the northern two-thirds of the country—ruling in Balliol’s name—of course.  Red Comyn, after all, was the grandson of Balliol.  However, as time passed, the mighty Comyn men began to see there would be no hope for returning Toom Taber—the nickname Longshanks hung on Balliol after stripping him of ceremonial regalia of Scotland—ever be king again.   The empty throne saw the eyes of both John Comyns on that prize.   

John "Red" Comyn, Lord Badenoch

Still, they weren’t the only ones with the same desire—another cousin—Robert de Brus (Bruce), the young earl of Carrick, possessed that very dream in his heart and was resolute to undo the crowning of Balliol in 1292.  The Bruces had firmly believed Edward I would rule in favor of Robert’s grandfather, the 5th lord of Annandale instead of Balliol.  After all, the man had been designated as heir by decree by King Alexander II at one point.  Since Alexander had produced no sons, he placed the eldest Bruce in the line of succession as heir presumptive in 1238, and he was to follow the king should anything happen to him.  A heartbeat away from the dazzling prospect of being sovereign of the Scots created a fire in Annandale, which carried over to his son the 6th lord, and now the same hunger grew inside Robert Bruce, the grandson.  Robert was raised tri-lingual, considered one of three men as the first knights of Christendom, had been polished in courtly ways, educated in diplomacy, handsome, arrogant, yet smart enough to play a waiting game—and filled with the belief God intended him to be Scotland’s king.

Some consider the triumph at the Battle of Stirling Bridge was more a victory under the guidance of Sir Andrew de Moray of Bothwell than William Wallace.  Moray died of wounds sustained in the battle, so the credit went and still goes to Wallace.  That assumption of Moray's military brilliance is upheld for at the Battle of Falkirk, when Wallace led the Scottish army alone, the battle had been lost.  After the defeat, Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland and left the country.  In an effort to balance the power, both Red Comyn and Robert Bruce were named Co-Guardians of Scotland. 

Since both men were single-minded to wear the crown of the Scots, the idea of them working together was doomed from the outset.  One incident clearly demonstrates how impossible the situation was between the two men.  At a meeting after Wallace resigned, a knight—Sir David Graham—a Comyn supporter, demanded the lands of Wallace be forfeit and given to him since Wallace had left the country without the permission of the Guardians.  Wallace's brother—Sir Malcolm Wallace—refuted this claim.  He knew his brother was actually on a mission for Bishop Wishart in France, and then on to Italy, trying to bring the King of France and the Pope to side with the Scots against the king of England.  Bruce ruled in favor of Malcolm Wallace.  This in turn set David Graham and Malcolm Wallace to fighting with more than words.  Out of the blue, Red Comyn leapt for the throat of Bruce and began strangling him!  James Stuart, 5th High Steward of Scotland, and others had to drag Red Comyn away from Bruce.  Soon after, Comyn refused to be a Guardian if Bruce remained one; then Bruce said there was no working with Comyn, and quit in 1300.

There is an old Scottish saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  That was never so proven as in this time in Scotland’s history.  The Bruces had been firmly in Edward's camp, while the Comyns were on the Scottish side backing John Balliol, their kinsman.  Edward felt he held control over young Robert.  Not surprising since the king had even gifted Robert with a new bride—Elizabeth de Burgh, Edward’s goddaughter.  Only, like many ruthless monarchs through the ages, Edward was growing suspicious of his councilors.  And though he showed great favoritism toward Robert–even paying his debts when Bruce lands had been seized for refusing to pay fealty to John Balliol—he was increasingly mistrustful about the loyalties of both Bruces. After Edward removed Balliol, Robert's father, Lord Annandale prodded Longshanks to rectify his mistake by placing him on the throne.  Edward was said to sneer and reply that he had better things to do than win a kingdom for Annandale.  Ever since, Edward held the Bruces close, yet never fully trusted them.  And in the case of being paranoid doesn't mean that someone isn't out to get you—Robert was working behind the scenes against Edward's interest.


(yeah, it's Patrick McGoohan playing Longshanks, but I think he did him so well)

Around 1305, Robbie had entered into secret negotiations with Red Comyn—a deal, that they help each other.  Not one of Bruce’s brighter plans!  One would resign their claim to the kingship, leaving the path clear for the other to seize the crown.  In return, the one giving up the claim would receive all the lands and titles of the other.  Comyn had another idea.  Through the backdoor came Red Comyn, plotting to make another deal for the crown.  He turned over these letters from Robert, outlining the details of their pact, in which Comyn basically agreed to step aside so Robert could be crowned king.  Instead, Comyn saw this as the perfect opportunity to eliminate his competition.

Unable to contain his fury, the king confronted Robert with the letters and asked if he had written them—after all it had the Carrick seal upon the documents.  I am sure Robert was furious by the betrayal, but he kept his head.  He replied yes it was one of his seals.  Deftly, he pulled on a chain about his neck and produced his official sigil.  He went on to explain the seal affixed to the paper was one, but an older seal that he’d left at his castle in Scotland, and protested someone surely had stolen it and was using the wax sigil to frame him.  Bruce vowed to get to the bottom of who was the real traitor.  Storming out, the Bruce and his entourage headed to his manor house in Tottenham.  Barely an hour passed, when someone knocked on the door to Bruce’s room.  The man held up his finger to his lips to signal silence, then handed Robert a spur and a gold coin with the face of Edward Longshanks upon it.  The message was clear.  Arrest warrants had been issued by the English king to seize Robert and his brothers.

Riding hard, the men of Bruce headed to Scotland, escaping arrest by barely an hour. He and his party happened upon a messenger wearing the colors of Red Comyn. The men pursued the fleeing rider and dispatched him. On his body were more letters written by Robert to Red Comyn, and now were being sent to Edward Longshanks.  

Once in Scotland, Robert arranged one last meeting with Red Comyn, determined to have it out with the man who was his enemy.  With Bruce were Roger de Kirkpatrick of Fleming and Sir Christopher Seton, another powerful noble, who just weeks before had married Bruce's younger sister, Christian.  At Dumfries church, Bruce confronted Comyn with the captured letters that were being dispatched to Longshanks.  Just as he had at their meeting over William Wallace's lands, when Comyn tried to strangle Robert, Comyn struck out.  Someone—either Comyn or his uncle, Sir Roger Comyn, landed a blow with a sword across Robert's chest—his chain mail saving his life.  Robert desperately reached for his long dirk, hidden in the side of his cross-laced boot.

When the fight was over, Red Comyn and his uncle, Sir Robert, lay wounded.  Robert staggered outside, and told Seton that he had stabbed Comyn, but it was only a flesh wound.  As his brother-in-law helped Bruce up and onto the saddle of his horse, Kirkpatrick rushed into the church and killed Comyn.  When Kirkpatrick came out and confessed Comyn was now dead, Robert knew there would be no turning back.  It was all or nothing.  Robert proceeded with haste through Scotland to Scone Palace where he would be crowned King of the Scots.

Miles away, Robert's cousin, Isabella, was unaware of these men’s matters.  Her husband John was away in England.  One can infer John Comyn, earl of Buchan was in England with purpose—he was the one who carried the first letters and gave them to Longshanks.  The messenger that the Bruces had intercepted, bearing more letters, was intended for Buchan.  Isabella knew nothing of the Comyn’s plots and plans, or how it would soon propel her young life toward a moment of defiance and victory, and then into the nightmare that would follow.

There was all speed to crown Robert as king before word of what happened would cause all of clan Comyn to hunt him down.  In 1296, Edward had removed or destroyed all Scottish regalia—or so he thought—his intent to prevent the pomp and circumstance for placing a crown on a new Scottish king.   

Six weeks after Comyn had been killed in Dumfries, Bruce was crowned king of the Scots by Bishop William de Lamberton at Scone on Palm Sunday 25th of March 1306, with all formality and solemnity. Royal robes and vestments that Robert Wishart had hidden from the English a decade before were brought out by the bishop and set upon King Robert. The bishops of Moray and Glasgow were in attendance, as were the earls of Atholl, Menteith, Lennox and Mar. The great banner of the kings of Scotland was planted behind Bruce's throne.  Only, they lacked the one thing that every monarch of Scotland had had in their coronation—the earl of Fife putting the crown on the head of the new king.

As expected, tides of Bruce’s killing Comyn spread through the countryside, told, retold and embellished until reaching Isabella.  Her younger brother was still in England, and declared by Edward to be the current earl of Fife.  Isabella ignored that she had been robbed of her birthright.  If her brother wasn’t going to do his hereditary duty, and put the crown on Robert the Bruce’s head, then she was determined to fulfill the role. 

Since her lord husband was still in England, she took his valuable destriers, and nearly rode them into the ground, trying to get to Robert in time.  When she reached Scone, it was to her disappointment that she arrived one day too late.  However, wanting to cement the Bruce’s rights as king, Lamberton suggested they redo the crowning, a second one, two days after the first. So, Isabella, as the true countess of Fife and Buchan placed the crown on Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick, sealing his destiny as the new king of the Scots.  And sealing her own fate as well. 

Isabella had just crowned the man responsible for the death of her cousin, Red Comyn, a man who was also cousin to her husband. Worse, her husband was with the English king at the time she was crowning the Bruce, the embarrassment of the deed must have burned inside of John.  To add to the insult—she had taken his five destriers and driven them hard to reach Scone.  Not just any old horse, mind, these were a knight’s shod chargers, animals valued at $15,000-$25,000 at that period.  When jousting, the winning knight claimed a ransom from the loser.  Generally, it was their armor or their destrier.  Knights often paid these prices to get their mounts back.  You didn’t ride a destrier from place-to-place like a regular horse.  Knights rode palfreys for conveyance, and had trained horsemen to lead the valuable destriers to destinations.  Think of them as the Lamborghinis of horses!  She had driven these valuable animals hard to get to Scone, hardly stopping for food and water.  Such treatment could cause the animals to founder—a condition where the horses could never bear a rider again.

By coming to Scone, Isabella forevermore cut ties to her husband and Clan Comyn.  Bruce recognized this, too.  He knew Clan Comyn was coming for him, and soon it would be summer and Edward I would, once again, bring forth his army—nearly a summer event—the invasion of Scotland by Edward Longshanks.  Isabella had to go with the Bruce entourage to safeguard her life.

And come for Bruce, they did.  Edward had received word, and vowed to ride north to avenge Comyn’s death.  Only age and infirmities were beginning to take a toll upon the king, too long a warrior.  The whole country wanted Bruce’s head.  However, the Scottish church, long backers of the rebellion, remained steadfastly at Robert’s back.  He sent for his brother Nigel to fetch his queen, his small daughter, two sisters, Mary and Christian, and the countess of Buchan, and placed them in the care of Kildrummy Castle after he learnt the earl of Pembroke’s army approached. Christian’s first husband was Gartnait, earl of Mar, and she had raised their twin daughters at Kildrummy.  Also, Bruce was originally married to Gartnait’s sister, Isabel, and thus his daughter, Marjorie was half Mar blood.  The people there would remain loyal to them.  In the end, they were forced to flee the castle.  Poor Christian’s second husband, Sir Christopher Seton, was captured aiding her brother to escape after the Battle of Dalrigh.  For his valiant defense of the Bruce women and for saving Bruce’s life, Sir Christopher was hanged, drawn and quartered by the English along with Nigel Bruce.

Ruins of Kildrummy Castle 

In a final desperate move, the Bruce women were given safe passage by John of Strathbogie, 9th earl of Atholl, with the intent to get the women to the Orkneys. Bruce’s sister, Isabel, had married King Eric of Norway, and she was now queen there. They 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’s men.  (Odd side note—Bruce would wed another of his sisters, Maud, to Aodh 0'Beoland scarcely two years later.  Aodh was the son of the earl of Ross!).  For his role in protecting the Bruce women, Atholl was killed, burnt and his head later set on a pike on London Bridge.

Edward was ever a ruthless king, but in his dealing with the women of Bruce he showed just how merciless he was.  Elizabeth de Burgh’s fate was most lenient—after all Edward was her godfather and he had arranged the marriage with Robert Bruce.  Her father was Edward’s closest friend, Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster, a powerful man.  Edward needed his support.  So, she was placed in a string of different castles under guard, prisoner for nearly eight years.  However, she lacked for nothing, including her favorite Irish wolfhounds at her side.

The other women of Bruce didn’t fare so well.  Christian was sent to a Gilbertine nunnery at Sixhills in Lincolnshire, England.  She was held in a large cage in a room, and not allowed to see anyone, save a single attendant and mother superior to attend to her spiritual needs.  It was puzzling Christian’s fate was milder than that of her niece and sister.  I can only assume since she was the widow of the earls of Mar and Seton, Edward didn’t wish to anger those clans against him.

It was with Mary Bruce, Marjorie Bruce and the countess Buchan where he displayed a most ‘peculiar ferocity’.  He instructed the three women would be held in cages.  He drew up specific designs for them.  From Francis Palgrave, Letters of Privy Seal were sent to the Chamberlain of Scotland that he should make cages in the turrets of various royal castles, so they could be hung over the side, and with especially harsh words for Isabella:

  "Let her be closely confined in an abode of stone
 and iron made in the shape of a cross, and let her
 be hung up out of doors in the open air at Berwick,
both in life and after her death, she may be a spectacle
and eternal reproach to travellers."

Orders originally had been for little Marjorie Bruce to be held in one of these horrid prison.  The cage was constructed.  But evidently, someone finally swayed Edward's anger long enough to reason that putting a child of barely 10 years old in a cage would be too much for Scots to stomach.  She was sent to a convent in Watton instead.

Mary was unmarried, not blessed with a well-connected husband, so I assume Edward felt leave to come down so harshly on her.  She was caged in his iron and wood prison on the wall of Roxbury Castle.

Poor Isabella had crowned Robert king of the Scots.  And she was married to one of the most powerful men in Scotland—who now held favor with the English king.  You might expect her husband to intercede on her behalf, beg for a less harsh treatment.  John did nothing.  In fact, some historians attributed him saying she needed executing.  Attempts to secure her release were made by Sir Robert Keith and Sir John Mowbray, by appealing to Duncan, earl of Fife—her younger brother—but the appeals came to naught.  Duncan was too happy being the absentee earl, living high at English Court with his mother, grandfather and new step-grandmother—the king’s own sister.

Her cage was built as a front to a turret, and within was a privy so she could dress and relieve herself without exposing her body to the hecklers gathering and often tossing things at her.  However, she was forced to be out in all weather and on display for all to see, but not allowed to speak to anyone.  There is some debate as to whether the women were kept in the open.  Edward’s own commands tell a story otherwise. 

Why did Edward Longshanks treat these women in such a vile manner?  Perhaps it was a challenge to the Bruce to come try to snatch them from their captivity.  Or he might have been doing an in your face to Robert:  These are the women under your protection and you are helpless to save them.  The Bruce women were prisoners of the English for nearly eight years, and long after Edward I had died.  Some writings of the period, speak that Mary and Isabella were removed from their cages after four years and in 1310 were relocated to nunneries.  Mary eventually went on to be returned to her brother in a prisoner exchange under Edward II.

 Sadly, fate wasn’t through with being unkind to Isabella MacDuff Comyn.  Oddly, her husband died suddenly in 1308 barely forty-eight years of age (two years after his wife was put in a cage).  His title was inherited by his younger brother, Alexander, who strangely died at age forty-four, just a couple months after his brother.  It was another five years before Isabella was released.  Eventually, Edward II had her handed over to Alice Comyn, niece of Isabella and John, and to Alice’s husband, Henry de Beaumont, 1st Lord Beaumont.  Immediately after taking control of Isabella, Alice and Henry began calling themselves the countess and earl of Buchan, and Isabella is heard of no more.  A peculiar situation overlooked in assessing what happened to her. 

Henry Beaumont had an unsavory reputation, and was closely aligned to Piers Gaveston the ‘favorite’ of Edward II–a man Edward Longshanks exiled because of the closeness of his son and Gaveston.  Henry and his sister had also been banished from English Court by the Ordainers at the same time as Gaveston for debauched and depraved behavior.  His personal battle to hang onto the title of earl of Buchan grew to legend.  The title was only valid in England—because in Scotland King Robert refused to confirm Alice and Henry.  Beaumont’s battle to regain possession of the earldom was such an obsession that he helped overturn the peace between England and Scotland established by the Treaty of Northampton, and brought about the Second War of Scottish Independence, simply to satisfy his single-minded desire to be earl of Buchan, in his own right.  There is little doubt in my mind that Isabella was murdered sometime after her release to Beaumont.  If he was willing to destroy the peace between two countries merely to hold onto a title that never really was his, disposing of a weakened woman, who had no champion, would’ve hardly caused Henry Beaumont to blink.  At one point, he pushed the powerful Edmund of Woodstock, 1st earl of Kent (half-brother to Edward II) to start a rebellion to put his sibling back on the throne of England—one problem Edward II was already dead!.  Henry knew this, but it shows the lengths he would go to merely to claim the title to Buchan.

 Of all of the Bruce women captured, Isabella is the only one not to return home.  Isabella’s life was little more than a pawn for kings, and an unloved wife of one of the most mighty men in Scotland.  But for one bright shining shard of time, she seized fate and chose her destiny.  And cruelly paid the price.  With Beaumont’s vanishing of Isabella, she was even denied a proper burial, mourning, and a place to pay tribute to the gutsy lass.  They robbed her of that last dignityBut they could never rob her of the legacy of a woman who defied all to crown a king.

12 May 2021

Links to female ancestry blogs to date

Coming in September
Women of Bruce - Part 6 - Sisters of Robert the Bruce--Maud, Margaret and Mary

Coming in August
Women of Bruce - Part 5 - Sisters of Robert the Bruce--A Tale of Two Isabels

Coming in July -

Women of Bruce - Part 4 - Sisters of Robert the Bruce--Christian

Women of Bruce - Part 3 - The Wives of Robert the Bruce

Women of Bruce - Part 2 - Isabel Macduff, countess of Buchan, a woman who crowned a king

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

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

Countess Mabel Montgomerie -- a woman ahead of her times, or a monster in men's eyes