The Women of Bruce - Part Three
The Two Wives of Robert Bruce
What do we know of the two women that married Robert the Bruce, king of the Scots? There have been four, maybe more films made about Bruce’s life in the last 20 years, all iffy history at best, which is sad since the story of Bruce’s rise from the earl of Carrick to the man who fought his cousin to determine who would claim the crown is a wonderful tale. Did the women who became his brides fare any better? For the most part they were simply omitted, or if included written with questionable inaccurately. Both women were born to be a queen, but only one reached that pinnacle. They were both young, both reputed to be lovely, and both came from lineage that had ancient and royal blood running through the lines.
Isabel of Mar
Arms of Isabel of Mar
Isabel of Mar was born 1278 at Kildrummy, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. She was the first wife of Robert Bruce, and she carried blood royal on both sides of her family. Her father, Donald "Domhnall mac Uilleim" Mar, 10th earl of Mar, whose lineage goes back to origins of Clan Macdonald and “King of the Hebrides”—Somerled. He also was the great grandson of Henry I Beauclerc, king of England, younger son of William "the Conqueror" FitzRobert, duke of Normandy, king of England. An impressive lineage but it is matched by Isabel’s mother—Elen “the Younger” ferch Llywelyn was a princess of Wales, and widow of Mormaer Maol Choluim II, earl of Fife. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was Llywelyn Fawr 'the Great' Llywelyn prince of Wales and Gwynedd, who married Lady Joan Siwan Fitzjohn of Wales, lady of Snowdon, illegitimate daughter of King John of England. So in the marriage to Isabel, Bruce was cementing bonds not only to powerful clans of Scotland, but to the high English and Welsh rulers as well. Isabel was a woman bred to be a queen, the perfect wife to rule at Robert’s side when the time came.
The Earl of Mar was one of the seven Guardians of Scotland and he had believed Robert the Bruce was the lawful King of Scots. Mar could see great advantage in aligning his family with the Bruces. In 1292, Isabel’s older brother, Gartnait mac Domhnaill, married Robert’s older sister, Christian. Three years later, by papal dispensation, and at the age of 18, Isabel married Robert, earl of Carrick, who was four years her senior. In a time when marriages for nobles were little more than political power moves, legend has it that Robert and Isabel were very much in love. Few were surprised, when a short time later, Isabel was soon with child. They seemed blessed; she had a healthy pregnancy. Late in 1296, Isabel gave birth to a daughter. They named her Marjorie after Bruce’s late mother, Marjorie, countess of Carrick. Then, Fate waved a hand on the night of December 12th, Isabel died at Castle Cardross, on the Firth of Clyde, in Renfrewshire.
Elizabeth de Burgh
Arms of Elizabeth de Burgh
Elizabeth de Burgh was likely born in 1284 at Connaught Province, Ireland. Some sources cite Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland as her place of birth. However, since her father had been fighting in Wales with the king of England, and another daughter, Eleanor (named after Edward’s queen) was born in Wales, there is an outside chance Elizabeth might have been born there as well. Without question she was conceived in Wales. At this point in history, male historians barely noted the arrival of another de Burgh female, little need in their minds for accuracy of place and date of birth; they never suspected she would be one of the most famous queens of Scotland, her legend only eclipsed by Mary queen of the Scots.
She was the third daughter of seven, out of eleven children of Richard Óg de Burgh, the ‘Red Earl’. He was the 2nd earl of Ulster, 3rd baron of Connacht, Lieutenant of Ireland, Keeper of Athlone, Randown, and Roscommon Castles—and unarguably the most powerful man in Ireland. His wife was Margaret Guines, daughter of Arnoul de Guines III and Alice de Coucy. Margaret was a 2nd cousin once removed of Queen Eleanor. Margaret was also a first cousin of Alexander III of Scotland, Edward I's brother-in-law. Edward was Elizabeth’s godfather. As impressive as Margaret’s lineage was, her husband Richard matched it. He was educated at the Court of Henry III (Edward’s father), thus cementing a lifelong friendship between Edward and Richard. Through the years Richard was Edward’s closest friend and one of his most trusted advisers. At nearly every battle Edward fought in England, Wales and Scotland, Richard was there at his back.
Elizabeth most likely met Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick, at the English Court. The Bruces and de Burghs dancing to Edward’s whims, living and fighting nearly in the other’s pockets, there had to be occasions where both were in attendance. With Isabel Mar’s death in 1296, Robert was a good catch for mothers looking for arranged marriages for their daughters. By 1300, there was some hint Edward was considering giving Robert a new bride. Richard had three daughters of age at the time—Aveline, Eleanor and Elizabeth, the youngest. The second daughter married Sir Thomas de Multon, 1st Lord Multon of Egremont, so that left the other two as candidates. Edward was playing a game of chess with the Bruces, often lavishing money on Robert after he refused to pay homage to John Balliol, and his lands in Scotland were seized in punishment. At Court, he was mocked and called Edward’s Lordling. Some say, Edward paid more attention to Robert than he did his own son. I truly think he hoped by keeping Robert close, he could curb the hunger to be the king of the Scots that had filled Robert’s father and grandfather. And what better way than presenting him with a new wife? Not just any bride—but one that was his goddaughter.
On February 10th, 1306 at Greyfriars, Bruce met with John Red Comyn to settle, for once and all, who would be the future king of Scotland. Comyn or his uncle tried to kill Bruce; in return, Bruce pulled his dirk from his boot and struck back, wounding Comyn. Bruce staggered outside and told his trusted friend, Sir Alexander Seton, that he stabbed Comyn but the man was still alive. Roger de Kirkpatrick rushed inside to see, and came back with the tides that he killed Comyn. Events that would soon propel Elizabeth’s life out of control.
Thus, once again, the English army invaded. Bruce was forced to contend with facing the English, and hampered by raising troops to fight for him. Gold was offered to any man who could bring Bruce in. Bruce had little time to form a strong government, or to raise his army, when he was compelled to meet the English at Methven. Aymer de Valence, the English general acting for Edward I, had not only arrived with an established host of English soldiery and knights, the men of Comyn were flocking to him. To Bruce’s credit he did have very able commanders in James Douglas, Christopher Seaton and Gilbert Hay to lead his troops. Aymer de Valence seemed content to outwait Bruce. In flamboyant fashion, Bruce invited de Valence to leave the walls of Perth and join him on the battlefield. To his mistake, Robert presumed the preliminaries of feudal battle protocol would be observed. When de Valence failed to take up the challenge, Bruce figured there would be no battle that day. He and his forces retired for the night at Methven, expecting to get a good night’s sleep before the coming battle on the morrow. Instead, before dawn, the English attacked and nearly destroyed Bruce’s forces.
Bruce had to scramble to see his family was moved out of harm’s way. He sent Elizabeth, his young daughter by his first marriage, Marjorie, and his sisters Mary and Christian to Kildrummy Castle, under the protection of his brother Nigel. Kildrummy was the castle of Christian’s first husband Gartnait of Mar, and though she was now newly married to Christopher Seton, the people there were still very devoted to her. Bruce, I would assume, thought the English would give chase to him, leaving the women safely out of reach.
The Bruce ladies were probably heading to the Orkneys, where they would be beyond reach of Edward. Isabel, another of Bruce’s sisters, had married Eric II Magnusson, king of Norway and ruler of the Orkneys. Though Magnusson had died in 1299, Isabel had remained in Norway as dowager queen, and still exerted a great influence in court matter there and abroad. However, the women only 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 I’s men. (Odd side note—less than two years later, Robert’s sister Maud would marry the son the earl of Ross—Aodh 0'Beoland) For his protection of the Bruce women, the earl of Atholl was hanged, drawn and beheaded. His head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge.
Elizabeth spent the next eight years in captivity. While Isabella Macduff, the woman who had crowned Bruce king, and Bruce’s sister, Mary, were taken to Berwick and Roxbury Castle, and hanged over the castle walls to punish Robert, his wife suffered a milder fate. She was housed from October 1306 to July 1308 at Burstwick-in-Holderness, Yorkshire. At first, she was confined with only two elderly women to take care of her needs, and ordered not to speak with her. A letter from her during this period complained about her conditions, that she was limited to three sets of clothing and no headgear or linen bed clothing. That saw a series of moves to other manors and castles—Bisham Manor, Windsor Castle, Shaftesbury Abbey, Barking Abbey and finally Rochester Castle. By the time she reached Windsor Castle, she had been given six servants and an allowance to pay them. She was even permitted to have her pet Irish wolfhounds to keep her company. At this point Edward was long dead, and she was dealing with his son, Edward II.
Bruce’s daughter was kept prisoner at the nunnery at Watton during those eight years. But a puzzle surrounds Bruce’s daughters by Elizabeth. They had three daughters: Maud, Margaret and Elizabeth. Not surprisingly, historians seem to have the births of the three mixed up, some even try to deny the existence of Elizabeth, and one says her birth was in 1364 (that is her death). Genealogy sites list the dates of Maud’s birth as 1303, and then Margaret’s as 1307. This seems perplexing. Maud would have been three years old when her father was crowned king and her mother captured, if that were the case. Yet, there is no reference to Elizabeth having a baby with her when captured by the earl of Ross. John Fordun in his Scotichronicon refers to Maud as “did nothing worth recording”. I would think if she had been held captive with her mother, or take from her mother by the English, then Fordun might have deemed her worthy of writing about! And if the second daughter was born in 1307, that would mean Elizabeth have given birth to her after she was a prisoner. Nowhere have I come across any reference to this.
There is no way a daughter could be born until late 1315. If Maud’s actual date were 1315, and Margaret in 1316, that would dovetail with Elizabeth’s birth in 1317, backed up by reference to her as Bruce’s “youngest daughter”.
In the case of this Elizabeth, you will see some sites fail to list her as Bruce’s daughter entirely, or suggest she must be the child of one of his mistresses. Sir David Dalrymple dismisses her out of hand. He declared Fordun had not mentioned Elizabeth, and that he had not seen any charters of land grants to her, and that if any such charters existed they needed to be “deposited in the Register House”. Well, they do exist. There are a number of royal charters, mostly regrants signed by King David II, in which Elizabeth is described as "dilecte sorori me" — my beloved sister or "dilecte sorori nostre" — our beloved sister. When Dalrymple was shown the proof, he promised to publish a correction to his The Annals of Scotland Volume 2, but he died without fulfilling that promise. Thus, historians referencing Dalrymple today keep perpetuating the lie that she was illegitimate, or not Robert’s daughter at all.
After the Battle of Bannockburn, Elizabeth was moved to York. There, she had an audience with Edward II. In the end, Elizabeth was released as part of the ransom for Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford (Edward’s brother-in-law), who had been captured after Bannockburn on 29th September 1314. In exchange for Hereford’s release, Edward was forced to give voice that Robert was the legal king of Scots, and to return Elizabeth, Christian, Mary and Marjorie, along with the aging Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow. Isabella Macduff was not mentioned in the transfer, but as I expressed in my article for her, I believe she was dead by that time.
After being reunited with Bruce, Elizabeth gave birth to daughters Maud, Margaret and Elizabeth. There were no more children for seven years—miscarriages?—and Bruce likely feared of ever having a son and heir for the throne when Elizabeth became pregnant again. This time, on 5th of March, a son was born. They named him David, and he would go on to be David II, king of the Scots. Another son, John, was born in early October 1327, though little is recorded other than he died soon afterward, likely a short time before Elizabeth’s own death.
Rumors were Elizabeth might have been pregnant again when she was out riding near Cullen Castle in Banffshire when she was thrown from her horse. The circumstances were an eerie echo of the death of Robert’s daughter just ten years before, almost as if Bruce were cursed. Whether it was from illness pertaining to the birth and death of son, John, or perhaps the miscarriage of a child she was carrying, Elizabeth de Burgh closed her eyes on the night of October 27th, 1327 and slipped away from a world that hadn’t been too kind to her. Her entrails were buried in the Church of St. Mary of the Virgin at Cullen and her body was interred at Dunfermline Castle. She was forty-three years old.
Deborah writes Scottish Medieval Historical Romances set in the time of Robert the Bruce in a series, The Dragons of Challon.