The Women of Bruce–Part Four –
The Sisters of Robert Bruce–Christian
When I first set up my series of
articles on the Women of Bruce, I had
intended to devote a single article to Robert the Bruce’s six sisters. However, as I began writing the blog, I found
one sister earned her own individual story.
For Christian de Brus was a woman to draw admiration and respect. Born about 1273 at Turnberry Castle, she was
the third daughter to Robert and Marjorie, and she is likely the most colorful,
controversial and tragic Bruce sister.
Like most females of this period in history, little is recorded of her childhood, or her life before she married. Controversy pops up quickly at this point, as it is now fashionable to try and cast doubt that her first marriage ever took place. I cannot follow that trend. Too much evidence says otherwise. Her first marriage was to Gartnait mac Domhnail, Mormaer and 7th earl of Mar, sheriff of Aberdeenshire. Gartnait’s father was a longtime supporter of the Bruces; he was ambitious, and blessed with the farseeing vision to back Clan Bruce. The joining of Mar and Bruce bloods was the perfect balance for future rulers of the country—the Bruces coming from Norman ancestry would see the Lowlanders following them, while the ancient line of Mar would open doors through the old Celtic Scots. With that dream in mind, Domhnall mac Uilleim, 6th earl of Mar set out to see his line woven into the Bruces through a double marriage.
In about 1292, he wed his son Gartnait to Christian. As her bride’s gift from her father, she received the lands of Garioch for her life. The earls of Mar eventually inherited the feudal lordship of Garioch through her (not a peerage dignity) and were even latterly styled the "earls of Garioch”. By the Mars inheriting Christian’s holding–her grandson being the first earl of Garioch–it’s clear that she did wed him. That assumption is further backed up by the holding of Kildrummy Castle, seat of the earls of Mar. In 1305, her brother Robert was in possession of the Mar stronghold. This would indicate the castle went to Mar’s small son, his heir, after his death, and Robert, as his uncle, was acting as guardian for his nephew, controlling the fortress until the boy came of age to accept responsibility of the earldom.
To further back up my inference is wording in the truce made with Edward in January 1302. When Robert saw his fighting for Scotland was only opening the door for the return of King John Balliol—which was basically giving all the power to John Comyn earl of Buchan, and to Red Comyn, Robert gave up the struggle. He made peace with King Edward. It is specific to note in the pact, which can still be read, is a listing of the return of all lands in England, Scotland and France to Robert, and that his people wouldn’t suffer for taking up arms and following him in rebellion. Right in the middle of this avowing is reference to the earl of Mar’s son being given over to Robert as his ward. Why else would this be included in this pact, except Robert was trying to protect his nephew by Christian?
“And the King grants to Robert the wardship and marriage of the Earl of Mar's son and heir. And because it is feared the Kingdom of Scotland may be removed out of the hands of the King’s hands which God forbid and handed over to Sir John Balliol…”
Less than three years after Gartnait wed Christian, Gartnait’s sister, Isabel, would marry Christian’s brother, Robert earl of Carrick (with papal dispensation, naturally). Brother and sister marrying brother and sister, saw Mar blood destined to flow through the child, and future children, that would one day sit on the throne of Scotland.
Christian gave Gartnait a son,
Domhnall Mar, and twin daughters, Elyne de Mar and Margaret de Mar. Only, their marriage was short-lived, and his
death mysteriously unexplained. Mar was
on record as having reconciled with Edward in 1302 and the English king
appointed him “warden of Garioch” to enforce Edward’s Peace. Sometime before
1305, Gartnait vanishes from history and not a word of how or why. We might infer he died acting as warden in
the troubled times.
If Christian despaired that her life was filled with sorrow at losing her husband, she could little foresee what would come at her in the year following. A little over a year later, in March of 1306, she wed her second husband, Sir Christopher Seton. A close companion to her brother, Christopher was at his side when Bruce faced Red Comyn at Greyfriars Abbey. Some report it was he, not Bruce, who struck the fatal blow to Comyn (though other sources credit this deed to Sir James Kirkpatrick, another close ally of Robert). Legend records Seton saved Robert’s life at the Battle of Methven on 19th June 1306, when the new king fell from his horse. The battle was a total rout, setting the Scots to fleeing.
arms of Seton
Christian was sent to solitary confinement at
the Gilbertine nunnery at Sixhills in Lincolnshire, England. She wasn’t the only female prisoner of
nobility housed there. Gwladys ferch Dafydd was the daughter of Dafydd ap Gruffud, the Last Free Prince of
Wales. After executing her father for
treason, Edward sent Gwladys–a mere child—to the remote Sixhills Priory. She died there in 1336, having spent her
whole life as a prisoner to three English kings. While
Christian’s fate was grim, it was much kinder than what her sister suffered,
and that of Isabella Macduff. That Christian
did not face being held in a cage outside also reinforces the validity of her
marriage to Mar. The Setons were a
family rising in prominence, but held little sway in either country at that
time; on the other hand, the powerful earls of Mar traced their lineage back to
the early kings of Scotland. Edward
could be brutal, cruel; however, he was also mindful of forgiving perceived
offenses from nobles–when it was to his benefit. He didn’t dare risk harming Christian for
fear the Mars might raise their countrymen against him. Her sister, Mary, was married to Sir Neil Campbell, son of Cailean Mór Campbell, coming from the mighty earls of Argyll. Why that connection didn’t help save Mary from the cage was simple—Neil was one of Bruce’s most trusted lieutenants, and had fought by his side at every point of Bruce’s rebellions. Thus, she suffered the full force of Edward’s vindictive fury.
Sixhills Abbey, Lincolnshire, England
The next we learn of Seton’s
whereabouts comes in the attack at Loch Doon Castle. Some try to say he was not at the Battle of
Methven, citing his presence at Loch Doon. However, the castle was a vital fortress for the earls
of Carrick, and was one of three strongholds that Robert tried desperately to
hang on to in order to keep power. It is
reasonable to assume, Robert sent Seton there just after the Methven defeat. The
castle was built on an island within Loch Doon, and consisted of a formidable
eleven-sided curtain wall. Yet, in spite
of Seton’s heroic defence, the castle fell the 14th of August 1306. It would not be retaken for another eight
years. The castle’s surrender supposedly
came by the hand of the Governor, Sir Gilbert FitzRoland de Carrick
(son of the illegitimate half-brother to Marjorie Carrick). The truth that would come out much later: it
was Gilbert’s brother-in-law who gave over to the English. Christopher was hanged, drawn and quartered
at Dumfries in accordance with Edward's new hardline policy of giving no quarter to Scottish prisoners.
Loch Doon Castle ruins
(relocated in 1937 due to raising the level of the loch for a hydroelectric project)
More controversy arises—there is a
question that Christian was pregnant with Christopher’s child when she was
captured. Possible? Perhaps. As in the question I raised in my last article
over concerns that Robert’s queen had been with child –there are no
records referring to a child taken as prisoner, nor one born in captivity— I see
the same circumstances reflected in this child of Seton.
Two different Alexander Setons are listed as her son. One is cited as born in 1252 (which is two
decades before Christian’s own birth!) and another as 1290 (at which time she
hadn’t married her first husband!).
Thus, I surmise it reasonably safe to assume she was neither pregnant, nor
had a newborn infant at the time of her capture. Worse, some historians credit her with giving
birth to a daughter by Seton before 1306 named Margaret. I think they are confusing her daughter,
Margaret de Mar, by Gartnait with a 'daughter' with Seton. Possibly, an attempt of those to forge a link
for their family lines to Bruce blood?
Poor Christian even sees historians trying to deny her as mother of the son by Mar. I suppose since they see it as target of choice to refute the marriage took place, so the next step would be to claim the children from that union aren’t hers. Mar’s son was also held prisoner by Edward. The naysayers point to no correspondence between the two during their captivity. It is not hard to envision a man who commanded women held in cages, also capable of preventing correspondence to and from his prisoners.
Christian went on to live as a hostage to the English for eight years. She was made prisoner to Edward I, and it would be another king—Edward II—that would finally recognize her brother as the true king of the Scots, and agree to send the Bruce women home in 1314. Christian returned home to her lands, to children who were nearly grown, and once more she was a widow.
The little over a year after her release her brother, Edward, invaded Ireland, and the following year on the 2nd May 1316 he was crowned king of Ireland. That same year Marjorie Bruce died, giving birth to her son, who would one day be King Robert II. Bruce joined his brother in Ireland for a spell, but by 1318, Edward was slain at the Battle of Dun Delgan on 5th October.
Still, life was far from through with this woman of Bruce. There was talk of another marriage with Sir Andrew Harclay – at the time he was raised from baron of Carlisle to earl– as part of peace talks instigated by Harclay. Nothing came of it. I would guess Christian would not accept an Englishman for a husband. It's just as well they didn't wed, because Harclay was arrested after signing the treaty with King Robert. Edward II had him executed for treason, hanged, drawn and quartered, and his body parts sent to different parts of the country as a warning.
Instead, Christian married a third husband of her choosing—Sir Andrew de Moray. This man was the son born posthumously to the late Andrew de Moray, lord of Bothwell, the same warrior, who fought with William Wallace at Stirling Bridge. Moray, quite possibly, would have been crowned king instead of her brother, had young Andrew not died of wounds received in the decisive battle. It is reported that Christian gave him two sons: Sir John de Moray and Sir Thomas de Moray
arms of Moray
Peace came to Scotland. Edward II died, replaced by his son, Edward
III. Then, King Robert died. Christian was there for the coronation of
Robert’s son, David II. She had lost two
husbands and five brothers at the altar of Scotland, and lived through the
reign of three English kings. Even so, Christian
was not a lady to sit idle with her spinning and weaving. The English came northward, yet again, this
time Edward III, backing the son of John Balliol in claiming he was the real
king of the Scots.
After the Battle of Dupplin in August 1332, Andrew was named Regent of
Scotland, protecting Robert’s small son, King David II. While attacking Roxburgh Castle in 1333, he
was captured and held prisoner for nearly two years. Christian arranged ransom and he was released
in 1335. Upon his return, Parliament
appointed him Guardian of Scotland. He
spent five years fighting the English, and repulsing their attempts to return
Balliol to the throne.
Christian was commander of Kildrummy Castle, and while Andrew was away, she found herself besieged later that year by David Strathbogie, a claimant for the title of earl of Atholl — and Edward Balliol’s chief commander in the north. Strathbogie moved through Scotland with fire and sword, repeating the campaign of Edward I of 1296, in a clear attempt to wipe the freeholder lords off the face of Scotland. Laying siege to Kildrummy Castle was to be the pinnacle of his campaign. Only one obstacle lay in his path—Christian de Brus. The fall of the castle would have been a big setback to the Scots, perhaps to the extent of losing the country. Possibly, since the castle had been lost to the Bruces in 1306, in true warrior fashion, Christian held the castle in resolute determination. She refused to surrender, and kept it and its people safe until her husband could march to her aid with an army of over one thousand strong. Thanks to Christian drawing Strathbogie’s attention to focus on the siege, Andrew was able to attack Strathbogie’ from the rear, and even though outnumbered three to one, he defeated David Strathbogie’ at Culblean 30th November 1335. Strathbogie stood with his back to a tree, pinned there, finally killed in a last stand, along with a small group of followers, including Walter and Thomas Comyn. (A side note–Strathbogie was married to the daughter of Hugh de Beaumont and Alice Comyn, niece of the late John Comyn, earl of Buchan – the very pair who were likely responsible for the death of Isabella Macduff, countess of Buchan).
The Culblean Monument
After contracting pneumonia while besieging Edinburgh Castle in the early winter months of 1337, Andrew retired to Avoch Castle in Ross, and less than a year later died, making Christian a widow for the third time. She still retained possession of Kildrummy Castle and so she returned to her home. King David was generous to his beloved aunt, providing her with an income from a number of sources, and his queen, Joan, was said to visit her at Kildrummy as well.
Through those years, tragedy had continually stalked Christian Bruce — brothers, husbands — so many had died. Now, she was forced to watch her children die one-by-one, outliving all but one son. Her first born son by Gartnait, who had spent years as a prisoner to both Edward and Edward II, was appointed Guardian of Scotland on 2nd August, 1332, following the death of Thomas Randolph, 1st earl of Moray (Christian's nephew). The honor was only for a matter of days. On the 11th of August at Dupplin Moor. Mar led the second division of the Scottish army, while Robert Bruce, lord of Liddesdale (Bruce's illegitimate son) led the first division. Mar never saw his 38th birthday. (Odd happenchance — Domhnall's son, Thomas, Mormaer of Mar, 1st earl of Garioch would also die at the same age.) Domhnall was killed, along with Bruce of Liddesdale, who died leading the first charge. Lost as well was Christian's grandnephew, son of Randolph—Thomas Randolph, 2nd earl of Moray. A cousin, Duncan, earl of Fife a lieutenant under Mar (and brother to the woman who crowned Bruce king) barely escaped. After her son's death, her husband had been appointed Guardian.
Margaret de Mar died in 1338 (the same year Christian had lost Andrew); almost nothing of this daughter is recorded, even the cause of death (Historians have her so muddled with the fictional daughter of Seton). Margaret’s twin sister, Elyne de Mar, of Rusky and Knapdale died in 1342 at age 44, cause not given.
At the Battle of Neville's Cross, the 17th of October 1346, King David II (Bruce’s son) was taken prisoner by the English. Along with him was Christian’s elder son by Andrew – Sir John de Moray. Edward III had allowed Andrew to be ransomed—a decision that came back to cost him dearly – so he refused to allow his son to be ransomed. John died in captivity at age 31 (likely from the Black Death) in September of 1351. Christian would have relived every breath of every day for those nearly six years, knowing what her son suffered being held a hostage. If that wasn’t sorrow enough to break anyone’s heart, Edward demanded that John’s younger brother, Thomas, take the place of John after his death. Christian had to watch as yet another son by Andrew was turned over to be an English hostage. The next blow to the family came in losing Christian in 1358. She passed away three years before Thomas. He died at age 35 — also of the plague, in 1361 — also still a hostage to an English king. He was Christian’s only child to outlive her, but only by three years.
As the fashion for women in history, little is recorded of Christian’s death. Her husband, Andrew, had been buried in the chapel at Rossmarkie. Later, his body was reinterred in Dunfermline Abbey, next to Robert Bruce and Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray. Accordingly, one might presume it Christian’s resting place as well. Many of her ancestors and family were buried there—especially her brother, Robert. Due to the Reformation and destruction of the abbey, many of the royal graves were lost. It wasn’t until 1817 that Robert’s grave was found again. Sadly, Christian’s final resting place remains a mystery.
set in the time of Robert the Bruce in a series, the Dragons of Challon.
you will meet other sisters of Robert the Bruce in Part 5 -
The Tale of Two Isabels