Friday, August 22, 2014

The Unsung Heroines of Bannockburn

by Glen Craney

When Robert Bruce seized the Scottish crown in the spring of 1306, his new queen consort was said to have volunteered a dire prediction on his odds for surviving the year: A summer king you may be, but a winter king, no.

Berwick Panorama - Copyright Glen Craney

Some historians have questioned if Elizabeth de Burgh—the Irish daughter of the Earl of Ulster, an ally of Edward I of England—ever delivered that marital scolding. Others have surmised that, if she did, she was likely voicing public skepticism about Robert’s legitimacy in order to curry favor with her former Plantagenet benefactors should the Bruce clan fail in its dangerous game of thrones.

There's another interpretation possible, one that I find more persuasive: The strong-willed Elizabeth may have been trying to shame and goad her wavering husband—who no doubt felt some remorse for his complicity in the murder of rival John Comyn—to remain resolute under the threat of an inevitable English retaliation.

Elizabeth de Burgh
Wikimedia Commons
Elizabeth has been portrayed as fraught with doubt and regret during those frenzied first weeks of Robert’s kingship. This should come as no surprise. After all, the shade cast by Scotland’s warrior statuary has long overshadowed the crucial role its women played in the wars of independence. Even the venerable Robert Burns, in his famous martial ballad Scots What Hae, while exhorting the nation's "sons in servile chains" to choose victory or a gory bed, failed to extend that honor to its daughters who were also languishing in English prisons.

This year marks the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, and a popular pastime of those with Scot ancestry is identifying a favorite hero of that era. The Bruce and William Wallace—who did not live to see his crushing defeat at Falkirk avenged—get many votes, as does James Douglas, the feared Borders raider. Thomas Randolph and Angus Og MacDonald garner their share of acclaim, too.

None can deny the contributions made by these Scot patriots, but their victory on the vales below the ramparts of Stirling Castle could not have been gained without the support of distant rebels too often forgotten: the Scot women who languished in English prisons or suffered the brunt of the oppressive English occupation. In fact, I would argue that throughout his life, Robert Bruce owed his unlikely success, first and foremost, to his remarkable good fortune with women. At his many moments of direst need, a courageous Scot lass or matron always seemed to appear just in the nick to salvage his sinking destiny or accept a cruel sacrifice for his survival.

If not for Christina of Gamoran, for example, Bannockburn would never have been fought. During Robert's retreat west after being ambushed at Methven, the influential Isles noblewoman nursed him back to strength during that bleak winter into 1307 and may have shared her bed with him. Risking English reprisals, she also supplied him with the men and galleys he needed for his return invasion of the mainland in the spring.

Then, according to the tradition of the McKees clan, a poor Galloway widow found Robert half-starved and on the run after his botched landing at Turnberry. The crone took him into her wilderness hut and, discovering his identity only after feeding him, sent her three surviving sons to join him on his seemingly doomed campaign to recover his realm.

Later in his life, Robert worried over the survival of his direct male bloodline. Returned from eight years of captivity in England, Elizabeth feared she could no longer bear children after giving birth to two daughters. Yet just three years before her death, she came to Robert’s rescue by delivering him a son. The arrival of David II was heralded as a miracle that, at least for the moment, would save the kingdom from another ruinous war.

Marjorie Bruce, Robert’s star-crossed daughter by his first wife, also endured a harsh imprisonment in England. Released after Bannockburn, Marjorie was married off to a Stewart and, while pregnant, suffered a violent fall from a horse. Minutes before dying, she gave birth prematurely to Robert II, who would firm his grandfather’s royal line and succeed David II. With her short life filled with so much misery and despair, poor Marjorie should be remembered as no less a martyr for Scotland than Wallace.

Marjorie Bruce's tomb
Wikimedia Commons

There are other such heroines, including Robert’s suffering sisters, Mary and Christina, but I have saved my favorite for last.

Robert Bruce crowned by the Countess of Buchan
Exhibit at Edinburgh Castle
Wikimedia Commons license
An ancient Caledonian law gave the Clan MacDuff the privilege of placing the crown on the head of a new king. At the time, the MacDuffs were allied with the Comyns, enemies of the Bruces. Yet Isabelle MacDuff, the Countess of Buchan, defied her Comyn husband and rushed to Scone to perform the sacred deed for Robert in a second ceremony on Moot Hill.

Isabelle MacDuff imprisoned
in the cage at Berwick.

Copyright Andy Hillhouse
English chroniclers at the time suspected that Isabelle, a distant kinswoman of the Bruces, must have been one of Robert’s secret mistresses. Outraged by her betrayal of the loyalty oath that the MacDuffs and Comyns had given him, Edward Longshanks ordered Isabelle tracked down and captured. Cornered with the other Bruce women in the sanctuary kirk at Tain, she was cruelly punished by being exposed for years in an iron cage hung from the ramparts of Berwick Castle.

Why did Isabelle risk her life to crown Robert Bruce? What happened to her during that brutish captivity? And why did so many brave women follow her lead to take up the Bruce’s cause? I unveil my theories about these mysteries and more in my latest release: The Spider and the Stone: A Novel of Scotland’s Black Douglas.

St. Duthac's sanctuary at Tain,
where Isabelle MacDuff and the
Bruce women were captured. 

(Author photo)


Inspired by a headstrong lass from Fife, a frail, dark-skinned boy named James Douglas defies three Plantagenet kings and champions the cause of his friend, Robert Bruce, to lead the armies to the bloody field of Bannockburn. An epic of star-crossed love and heroic sacrifice during the 14th century Scottish wars of independence. Amazon US   Amazon UK    Amazon CA

Glen Craney is a novelist, screenwriter, journalist, and lawyer. A three-time finalist for Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Award, his historical fiction has taken readers to Occitania during the Albigensian Crusade, to the Scotland of Robert Bruce, to Portugal during the Age of Discovery, to the trenches of France during World War I, and to the American Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. More about his writing can be found at

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Glen! These examples really highlight how strong and influential medieval women were. They may not have been "emancipated" in the modern sense of the world but they were not faceless, voiceless or powerless -- or Edward I would not have felt such a rage against them and committed the attrocities he did. Thank you!


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