"O Scotia! my dear, my native soil!
For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent;
Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil
Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet content"
Robbie Burns

Thursday, September 16, 2010

ISABEL MacDUFF (Countess Buchan) COMYN

As promised from the last post I wanted to share with you the heroics of a Scottish woman of the medieval period. In this period it was only the girls who behaved badly who made it into the annals of history. Though it is important to remember there were no female chroniclers in this period of history whose work survived so the history if from the male pov. And our Isabel MacDuff, a daughter of Scotland was one such “naughty” girl.

Isabel was born around 1285 in Scotland to Duncan MacDuff, (7th or 9th Earl of Fife descended from the long line of mormaers of Fife) and Joan de Claire (daughter of Gilbert de Claire who later married the Joan, the sister of Edward I of England). She was the elder of the two children, her brother Duncan most historians believe that he was at least two years younger than her. Her father Duncan was a mean man and in 1288 when the children were mere toddlers he was murdered by his own clansman. Leaving her young brother Duncan now the new heir to the earldom of Fife. Because their mother was English young Duncan became award of the English court and that is where he was raised. It is not clear that Isabel was raised there because of her strong patriotic feelings for Scotland's independence.

In the late 1290’s or early 1300, Isabel married John Comyn, Earl of Buchan who was her senior by a good 30 to 40 years, not all that uncommon as marriages such as this were for political gain not girlish dreams of love. Unfortunately for Isabel though her 2nd cousin was the young Robert de Bruce (King Robert I), she was married into the wrong family. The Comyn’s were the heredity enemies of the Bruce family and add to this John Comyn was cousin to John Balliol, who was chosen to the kingship of Scotland over the Bruce claim. For Isabel, who some historians and authors believe may also have been one of Bruce’s lovers, things were made worse when Robert de Bruce stabbed to death John “Red” Comyn, her husband’s cousin, in the Kirk of Greyfrairs in Dumfries (February 1306). Bruce believed he was being betrayed by the Comyns and from here he quickly rode to Scone in Perth to capture the crown of Scotland.

Current Greyfriars in Dumfries, Galloway, Scotland

Now it is tradition that all Scottish kings be crowned at Moot hill at Scone the home of the Stone of Destiny. Unfortunately the Stone (or was it?) was removed by King Edward and taken back to England in the 1296. So it was important that some traditions of the crowning be observed. Usually the Kirk would anoint the king but Bruce’s actions at Greyfriars and the Comyn family’s connection with the current Pope made that unlikely. There was also the tradition of the MacDuff family to crown the Scottish kings but that wasn’t going to happen because young Duncan, Earl of Fife was a ward of the English court. So on March 26, 1306 Robert de Bruce was crowned at Scone.

Scone chapel with replica of Stone of Destiny

Meanwhile our heroine of the day Isabel MacDuff, married unfortunately to a loyal supporter of Edward I, decides her loyality lies with Bruce and Scotland and will represent the MacDuff family to crown her cousin king of Scotland. As luck would have it her husband John was in England at the time so she took many of his horses and rode to Scone arriving a day late. However, because so many traditional elements of the crowning were absent from the first crowning, a second crowing with Isabel representing the MacDuff family tradition solidified Bruce’s right to the kingship of Scotland. Through this action Isabel cut off herself from her Comyn family, though her own mother did remarry a Scottish noble who came out for Bruce which would later cost her mother her lands from her father Gilbert de Claire that she received as her dowry. So Isabel’s only choice was to join the group of Bruce women who included his second wife Elizabeth de Burgh (whose father was a friend and supporter of Edward I- her saving grace later on), Marjory de Bruce (Robert’s daughter from his first marriage to Isabelle, countess of Mar) and his sisters Christina (or Christian) and Mary.

Head of Bruce at St Duthac Kirk

As the fighting became intense for the Bruce army, it was imperative his women were taken to safety. Some believe he had sent them to Kildrummy Castle which was being held by his brother Nigel (Neil) and other sources believe the women headed north to gain access to the Orkney’s as the Bruce’s sister Isabel was the queen consort of the Norwegian king Eric III and the Orkney’s were part of Norway in this period. I believe the women made it to the castle being held by Nigel Bruce, but the English quickly laid siege to it, and when it looked like the tide would turn in the English favor, the Earl of Atholl helped the women to escape and they may have sought sanctuary at Girth of Tain, a twelve mile square around the shrine of St Duthac protected by the Church. However, they were betrayed and captured by Earl William de Ross who violated the santucary, whose mother was a Comyn, so we know whose side he was on. The earl of Atholl was killed as were the troops and it is said that the earl of Ross later set up endowments at the shrine so that the priests would say daily prayers for those he slain that day. What a guy!!

Berwick Castle

What happened to the women? Well Queen Elizabeth was only 17 and because of her father’s connection to Edward she was placed under house arrest in England. Marjorie, Bruce’s daughter was only 9 and Edward threatened to place her in a cage that would hang from the Tower of London, but relented (what a chump!) and she was guarded at Watton Priory. Christina, 33 and married to her second husband a Seton was sent to the Sixhills nunnery. (a side note Christina was married for third time to Sir Andrew de Moray, the son of the Scottish hero of Stirling Bridge-see post 9/11). But for two of the women, Mary and our Isabel their punishment was cruel even for mean old Edward I. Both women were put on display in England and Scotland.

"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, that both in life and after her death, she may be a spectacle and eternal reproach to travellers."

These were the words of King Edward of England in regards to our Isabel MacDuff. Both Mary and Isabel were hung from cages from the side Roxburgh Castle and Berwick Castle respectively. Why Mary[i] received such a fate is unknown, but for Isabel it is clear not only did she not respect the wishes of her husband who was loyal to Kind Edward, but also she legitimized Bruce’s kingship by crowning him at Scone. Edward was clearly going to make an example of her and could get away with it in large part because she had no family able to defend or revenge her treatment. These cages were made of lattice wood and iron hinges, they were completely open to the elements, however they were given a privy for privacy, (Edward was such a humanitarian!). In Isabel’s case she was given 4 pence a month for her needs and had two women to help her, but again she was in a cage by herself open to all sorts of elements through all the seasons of Scotland.

How long were they caged? Isabel probably was in the cage from late 1306/1307 for either 3 years or 7 years depending on sources. Some believe that in 1310 Edward released her sending her to a nunnery (as he released Mary), however there are no records to support this. In 1313 surviving records show Isabel was released into the care of Henry Beaumont whose wife was the niece of her husband (he died in 1308 in England having lost all of his lands in Scotland).

“ To Edmund Hastings, keeper of the town of Berwick-on-Tweed and constable of same Order to deliver Isabel, late wife of John, Earl of Boghan (Buchan) to Henri de BelloMont (Beaumont) or William de Felyng, his attorney, to be guarded by him as the King enjoined him.” [ii]

After the Scottish victory at Bannockburn 1314 when there was a trade of prisoners the Bruce women were all returned to Scotland. Mary who suffered a hardship like Isabel married twice and only had a son, Iain who survived her. Marjorie marries Walter Stewart and dies after an early childbirth induced by a fall from a horse. Christina marries a third time and in 1333 successfully held her husband’s (de Moray) Kildrummy Castle from the English until Scottish troops could relieve her. What happens to Isabel after this point is unknown. That she was not part of the women exchanged after Bannockburn leads historians to believe that she died before this date.

“I lie in this cage in full public gaze,

and I don't give a pin for all their scorn.

for I've crowned my lover king,

such glorious days I've seen.

give me the chance I'd do it all again.

“Isabel” by Steeleye Span (click to hear song)

Isabel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan was a true Scottish patriot who suffered for the Scottish cause unlike many men of her ilk in that period.

[i] Mary was released in 1310 source: Calendar of Close Rolls 1307-1313 pg 105

[ii] Calendar of Close Rolls 1307-1313 pg 209


Maeve said...

What an interesting post, Jody. But *whew* the thoughts of poor Isabel hanging in that cage gave me the heebie jeebies.

Chicks of Characterization said...

Another great post Jody! Wow, there were some really, really brave women in them days.

Jody said...

The women had to be brave because when the men were off doing their "thang" the women not had to keep the homefires burning but had to make sure that their castles and keeps were defended. That wasn't isabel's fate hers was much more serious. If you haven't read KINGDOM OF SHADOWS by Barbara Erskine I highly recommend it. It is the "fictional" account of Isabel's life but it is wonderful reading.

Cathie Dunn said...

Great research again, Jody. I've been fascinated by Isabel since I read 'Kingdom of Shadows' many years ago, and it's sad so little is known of her fate. She must have been a headstrong, independent and brave woman to defy her husband in that manner.

I love Kildrummy Castle and when I lived in Aberdeenshire I regularly visited, just to sit on a bench with a notepad, listening to the ancient voices. It's a highly evocative place.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

We certainly don't have heroes and heroines like these nowadays. What has happened to the human spirit that we don't??

Love the books and will probably not be able to resist ordering a couple of them.

Winona said...

Your blog has to be one of the best in any genre. I look forward to every post. Fiction Friday is akin to receiving a carefully wrapped gift. I'm off to Amazon. I can only afford one or two a month, but that's better than nothing.

And, genetic memory . . . what a beautiful concept. I've had those feelings but didn't have words for them.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Jody said...

I think we have women like this in our time but because women seem to be told from all directions that they have to be everything for everyone who don't celebrate those who stand our with courageous spirits unless they do something so incredible. I think some of the women in our military who fly planes and get shot down and captured are just like Isabel, strong smart and dedicated to a patriotic cause. Maybe we are to busy to celeberate them.

Enjoy the books you can buy and save the title for later. I know I promised myself I wouldn't buy anymore books, yeah right. I blame it on my kindle and how easy it is to buy.

Jody said...

Thanks Cathie, I also LOVED KINGDOM OF SHADOWS. Have you read her CHILD OF THE PHOENIX? WOW! Scotland, Wales and England and almost 100 years of history in 944 pages. I love that book. But then I think there are only a few I haven't enjoyed as much as the others. Her new one is really great also if you are into the mysteries of Glastonbury and Druids. Next trip to the UK have to go there and at least spend a day.

Jody said...

There are a number of books that use the genetic memory theme here are a few...
REMEMBERANCE by Jude Deveraux the romance writer- this is one of my favorites but many readers were upset that she moved away from her more traditional romance but it is one of my favorites of hers. And her...
A KNIGHT IS SHINNING ARMOR sort of ends with gentic memory of different sort.

Erksines uses the two line plot in many of her books so that the person in the past effects the behavior of the person in the present which is also a bit like genetic memory. Her latest book though not Scottish set is incredible but I like these kind of twisted stories.

Anonymous said...

Isabel was definitly a woman of extreme power in her day. You state a few times that the Comyn's were loyal to England's Edward. I do think you need to be clear that the Comyn's fought against Edward for years after William Wallace lost at Falkirk. The Comyn's, as did many other nobles (over 1900 of them), paid homage to Edward beasue they were beaten in battle. It was pay homage to Edward or lose all the land in that time it was vast.

Corinne said...

I was so thrilled to discovery that the little 9 year old Marjorie Bruce was a many times Great Grandmother of mine. Googling her name brought me to your wonderful "Scribbles". Have you read the book "Girl in a Cage" by Jane Yolen & Robert Harris?

Jody said...

I am sure ther were some comyns who might have been loyal to the cause of Scottish independence but Isabel's husband was not one of them and he continued to fight angst Robert Bruce even after he was crowned. Comyn fled back to England where he died and it was his niece'/ husband a Frenchman who gained the title of Earl of Buchan.
As I said their were probably comyn who fought with Bruce, but they were first and foremost loyal to the family and there was no love lost between them and the Bruce family. Didn't they also support Edward balliol's claim to the throne instead of David II?

Jody said...

Corrine I have that book on order but haven't gotten it yet. You should read Kingdom of Shadows by Erskine great book. I wish we could have known what had happened to Isabel. And it is said that Marjory Bruce died so young in child birth, she might have breathed new life into the Stewart family who seemed to be kind of weak and self serving.

kimmietrublue said...

Hello! I think this post on Isabella MacDuff was amazing! I sometimes wonder at all the hardships that the families endured in that time. I believe the English were so wrong for what they had done to Scotland, reading it is truly horrific, being there must have been absolute Hell. I would still love to see Scotland someday before I leave this life. It looks to be a magical place. It must have been to have a history like that and still have all their pride, as they should!

sue s said...

Hi! I fell in love with The Kingdom of Shadows several years ago.. I read and reread it over and over! Isobel is a great heroine of mine. What an inspiration! I would love to know ( as would many others) how she met her fate and where indeed she is laid to rest.. I also would love to know where Erskine got her inspiration for Duncairn! I am north northumbrian and i feel so drawn to Isobel - Requiescat in Pace Lady Isobel....

Scott Alan said...

Great story……but for one detail. It is stated that Isabelle's husband John Comyn, Earl of Buchan was in English favor. That could not be farther from the truth. For it was John Comyn Earl of Buchan along with Simon Fraser that led Scottish victory against Sir John Segrave and the English in the Battle of Roslin in 1303. John Comyn was also a Guardian of Scotland at the time and while he did negotiate peace with England several times……he also spend time in France trying to convince King Phillip to side with Scotland against England. Hardly a man that can be said to be in favor of England.

J. R. Tomlin said...

There is absolutely NO evidence that Isabella MacDuff was a lover of Robert the Bruce. NONE. The accusations that was the reason for her actions was nothing more than misogyny, that a women couldn't take risk for her beliefs and that it had to be for sex.

ktaylor said...

I am afraid there is absolute no truth in the so called affair between Isabella Macduff and Robert Bruce, I use to work at the renowned Bannockburn Heritage Centre and did various Historical accounts on the 3d experience as well as providing a more detailed account of the battle, a lot of the information is merely guess work, reading between the lines in many of the primary and secondary sources as somewhere in the middle is the truth, these women played a prominent part in a male domineering society, but also Christina MacRuairi, who married Duncan of Mar, played a fundamental role in 1306-07 and because of that Robert Bruce was deeply indebted to her and referred to her as his protector, this lady was off immense power and held many lands, she too requires recognition for her part in the wars of independance