The Women in the Life of King Robert I

William Bruce, M.A., FSA Scot

If you are a student of Scottish history and have read the classic texts and biographies you might be led to the conclusion that women played only incidental roles, with certain rare individuals such as Queen Margaret and Queen Mary being the exceptions.  Most of those who have attempted to tell the story of King Robert I, “The Bruce”, have focused their attention on those brave male heroes such as James Douglas, Robert Wishart, Angus Og MacDonald, William Lamberton, Neil Campbell, Walter Stewart, Thomas Randolph, the Earl of Lennox, and other of his companions in the struggle for independence, and, in my opinion, have insufficiently told the story of the women in his life.  If we wish to dig deeper into the life and personality of the hero king, and are willing to do so while honestly looking for all of the key components, I believe we must focus our attention in significant and balanced measure on the women in his life and experience. I shall describe my impressions of who and what they were in terms of the characteristics they may have brought to bear on his life.  I would urge the reader to look carefully at how they are described not only in the historical/biographical materials available, but also at the descriptions provided in novelized histories such as those composed by Nigel Tranter and our own Randy & Carolyn Bruce.  What follows are my own impressions of these women.  I accept full responsibility for any errors and/or misperceptions they may contain.  I would also encourage the reader to compare these observations with the ones they develop as they read and study.

MARJORY, COUNTESS OF CARRICK:  I believe that the Countess, Robert’s mother, had more influence on him than many give her credit for.  It was she that brought the Carrick title with her when she married Robert’s father, who in turn transferred the title to his son in order to escape having to do homage for it to Edward I of England.  Barrow and others tell us that she was a mixture of the old Celtic nobility and more recent Norman stock, and was steeped in the culture of both.  It appears that she was well versed in the language and culture of her Celtic ancestors and there is plenty of evidence that she passed much of that to her children.  It is probable that Robert was exposed to, understood, and to a significant degree could use the Gaelic, a factor which many times made it possible for him to obtain and use support from the Highland and Isle clans.  It may also have had something to do with his interest in the old Celtic brand of Christianity, yet another element in his perception of himself and his place in the kingdom.

ISOBEL OF MAR:  It is difficult in the extreme in this day and age to imagine what it must have been like for a very young woman, hardly more than a girl, to be given to a man in order to serve some need for an alliance between noble houses, to be a pawn in the game of politics.  Yet this was the role played by Isobel of Mar, first wife of the hero king.  They were married when both were very young, she not more than sixteen or seventeen years of age, with little or no thought given to whether or not they were personally inclined toward one another.  Neither had much choice in the matter.  What we know for sure is that they did consummate the marriage, Isobel becoming pregnant with what would be her first and only child.  We know very little of the nine months of her pregnancy, but it is likely that the young couple spent but little time with each other, Robert off doing things that young noblemen at the turn of that century were want to do, and Isobel confined at home awaiting the child’s birth.  Giving birth in those days was a far different experience than what we know today.  Typically doctors, such as they were, were not even present.  Rather a “midwife”, usually a member of the family or a long experienced lady of the household would attend the birth.  In the vast majority of cases, that was all that mattered and all that was needed.  In this case however, something went terribly wrong.  We do not know exactly what that was, but in all probability a hemorrhage which could not be stanched took Isobel’s life in the process of her giving birth to a female child.  The Mar family assumed the task of caring for the child.  Undoubtedly Robert was grieved over the matter, but because of the fact that he and Isobel hardly knew each other, the grief was again undoubtedly not of the intensity which it might have been.  We know that he delighted in the child, but spent little or no time directly caring for her, leaving that task to his in-laws.  The child was given the name Marjory, named after Robert’s mother.

THE PRINCESS MARJORY BRUCE:  Whether historically accurate or not, Marjory is described by some writers as being a “poppet”, a lively and intelligent child, who was well aware as she grew up of the increasing importance of her father on the national scene.  It is probable that Robert made semi-regular visits to see her and, in his own way, was quite taken with her, taking pride in her intelligence, pleasing appearance and demeanor.  She was born to be a princess, but probably was not fully aware of that destiny till her father’s coronation, when she was about eleven years old.  It was that event which was to change her life forever and for the worse.  From that point on she was a hunted person, no longer safe anywhere from the English and their Scottish minions.  There certainly were attempts to hide.  Eventually she was taken prisoner, and at Edwards direction became a tool in his attempts to capture and punish King Robert.  It is said that she was placed in a cage of wood and iron at the Tower of London, and hung up where she would be on full public view, although others say that this punishment was revoked.  She was little more than twelve years of age at the time.  It was both punishment and humiliation directed not so much at her but rather at her father.  Robert was angry, blistering angry, when he was informed of what Edward had done to her, and although plans were undoubtedly made to try to gain her release, it is likely that none were ever attempted.  If they were, they failed.  After Bannockburn, Marjory was released and returned to Scotland to live with her father and stepmother.  Marjory was severely damaged from a psychological point of view as a result of her treatment by Edward.  She never recovered.  Her father did his best to care for her and to remediate the damage insofar as he was able, but little was ultimately effected.  Robert arranged a marriage for her to the High Steward of Scotland, Walter Stewart, and even that seemed to have little effect.  That marriage resulted in the birth of yet another Robert who was to become King Robert II, the first of the Stewart line of kings.  Unfortunately, Marjory died quite young, falling from a horse while pregnant, never having recovered from her wartime “English” experience.  I believe that her experience is one of the reasons why King Robert so desperately worked to bring about a final peace, both with the English and among the various Scottish factions.

ELIZABETH – QUEEN CONSORT:  Many who today are enamored with the life and legend of King Robert, fail to recognize that the love of his life was English/Irish.  This seems to be particularly true of those who try to use King Robert as a model and example of what it means to promote Scottish political independence.  Elizabeth de Burgh was the daughter of a noble English house, her father the Earl of Ulster in Ireland and one of the most trusted and influential lieutenants of Edward 1, he who was known as the “Hammer of the Scots”.  Richard de Burgh helped carry out Edward’s political and military agendas, pitting himself directly against Robert and eventually his own daughter as well.  Elizabeth was likely about eighteen years of age when she first encountered Robert.  I do not know of any likeness of her produced during her lifetime, but we can make certain assumptions about her probable physical appearance from what descriptions we do have.  We believe that she would have been considered fairly tall and slender, comely in visage with yellow blonde hair.  Robert would certainly have found her attractive.  A young noblewoman of her day would have been well schooled in the social graces of the time and would have expected to be an object of male admiration, subject to the rules of chivalry.   Virtually all scholars concede that it was due to the intervention of Richard de Burgh, that Elizabeth, in large measure, escaped the harsh treatment Robert’s daughter, sisters, and other female advocates received at the order of Edward during what has become known as the wars of independence.  Elizabeth, after her capture by English troops, was confined to a private house and later to a convent and was not physically harmed, being permitted to come under the protection of the church.  Robert, during that period, had to live with the knowledge that this protection could disappear at any time, and the fate suffered by his daughter and sisters could be visited upon his wife.  That, without doubt, weighed heavily on him during his military campaigns.  She was released after eight years in English custody, not long after the battle at Bannockburn, and returned to Scotland and Robert’s side.  Her freedom was obtained in exchange for English nobility taken captive at Bannockburn.  From 1314 and on, she was rarely parted from Robert except for his punitive expeditions into England to try to force a peace, and during the ill fated expedition to Ireland in support of his brother Edward.  They made their home at Dunfermline Castle, immediately adjacent to the Abbey where Robert was finally laid to rest.  Elizabeth gave birth to four children.  The two eldest were the girls Matilda and Margaret.  The third was a stillborn boy.  The fourth was the boy who eventually became King David II.  Elizabeth also played the role of mother to Robert Stewart whose own mother, the Princess Marjory, died shortly after his birth.  This grandson of King Robert would succeed his younger cousin as King Robert II.


ISOBEL – QUEEN OF NORWAY:  Considerably older than Robert, she left Scotland long before the wars of independence and was, therefore, not directly touched or endangered by them.  She was the second wife of King Eric II of Norway (m. 1293), whose first wife had been Margaret, the daughter of Alexander III of Scotland and his wife, Margaret Plantagenet, sister of Edward I. This young woman (Margaret) died very young, possibly in the process of giving birth to the “Maid of Norway” (also a Margaret) who eventually was designated as the successor to Alexander’s throne. She died, a young and sickly child, on her way to Scotland to assume the throne after Alexander’s death, thus setting off the competitions for the throne that resulted in John Baliol becoming king, proclaimed as such by Edward I.  Isobel’s role in the life of her brother is primarily speculative.  She always represented a possible threat to the English from the north, and also the possibility of a safe haven for Robert and others of the Bruce faction should it ever be necessary for any of them to flee from Edward for a period of time.  However, Eric II died in 1299, leaving Isobel as Queen dowager.  She never remarried.

CHRISTIAN – COUNTESS OF MAR:  Christian was married to Gartnait, Earl of Mar, brother to Robert’s first wife, Isobel.  It was she who raised Robert’s daughter Margery.  Accounts give us reason to believe that she was a very strong, able, decisive and headstrong woman who was not at all reluctant to give advice to her brother, particularly in terms of personal relationships.  She was taken captive by the English at the same time as the Princess Margory and suffered greatly for being who she was.  She was confined to a nunnery and was sentenced to remain so confined forever.  After being released from custody (exchanged for English captured at Bannockburn), it appears she did better in recovery than the others, and resumed as near normal a life as was possible.  She was always a strong advocate for her brother, and it seems likely that she played the role of family advisor and confidant.

THE LADY MARY BRUCE:  Next to youngest of the four sisters, Mary suffered the same fate as the other Bruce women during the wars of independence.  Captured by the English, she too was caged in the open and in winter on the walls of Roxburgh Castle, and later “imprisoned” in a nunnery.  After 1314, she was returned to Scotland and was married to Sir Neal Campbell, another of Robert’s lieutenants.  She passed away in 1323, not much older than thirty years of age.

THE LADY MATILDA BRUCE:   She was the youngest sister of Robert, probably of little difference in age with the Princess Marjory.  As a young child, she largely escaped notice of those seeking vengeance on Robert, and thus escaped the cruelties inflicted upon Christian and Mary.  After Bannockburn, she became a member of Robert’s court for a period of time, and later married Sir Hugh Ross, son of the Earl of Ross.

(Author’s Note:  As grim and awful as was the treatment of his sisters at the order of Edward I, the treatment of three of his brothers was even worse.  Nigel, Alexander and Thomas were all disemboweled and beheaded.  At least they were dispatched relatively quickly, albeit horribly.  It would be eight years before Christian and Mary were returned to Scotland, carrying with them the physical and mental scars of their humiliating imprisonment.  I believe that their treatment at the hands of Edward I {along with Marjory and Isobel of Buchan} was the major personal motivation for Robert’s perseverance in the struggle against what I believe was a deranged Edward I.)

ELEANOR DE LOVAIN, LADY DOUGLAS:  She was the wife of Sir William Douglas and step mother of Sir James Douglas, known as both “the good Sir James” and also as the “Black Douglas”.  He was one of the most effective and feared of the lieutenants of King Robert.  Nigel Tranter tells an interesting story (which may well be fictional) about the Lady Douglas, which, if true, could be very instructive regarding Robert’s initiation into the way in which the English invaders treated the Scottish populace despite their claims of chivalric behavior.  Briefly, Robert had been ordered to take the Lady Douglas and her children captive as punishment for her husband’s adherence to the “rebel” cause.  When Robert’s English “handler” caused three Scottish children to be placed for hanging in full view of those resisting inside Douglas Castle to gain their capitulation, Robert could no longer stomach the situation, released the children and drove his “handler’s” away.  The Lady Douglas is said to have verbally challenged Robert’s code of honor, causing him to rethink his loyalty to Edward. Although skeptical of Robert’s behavior, she was grateful to him for saving her and her children.  He later turned them over to Sir William Douglas, the husband and father.  The result for Robert was a shift to the Scottish cause.  Much later, James, one of the sons rescued by Robert on that fateful day, became one of Robert’s most effective and trusted commanders.

ISOBEL OF FIFE – COUNTESS OF BUCHAN:  This young woman was of the family who by hereditary right were given the task of crowning the Kings of Scots.  That family was, of course, MacDuff.  Although her considerably older husband was a Comyn and clearly outside of the Bruce camp, she made her way to Scone (1306) to carry out her perceived duty of placing the crown on Robert’s head.  This she did, for her father, another Comyn supporter, would not.  For her trouble she was considered outlaw by the English, captured and placed in a cage on the wall of the city of Berwick and later “imprisoned” in a nunnery (which must have been better than the cage).  Even after 1314, she was considered to be too dangerous to be totally freed, and spent the remaining years of her captivity (more than eight total) under house arrest at the home of some English relatives.  Robert must have been very grateful for her courage, as it added significantly to the legitimacy of his coronation and reign.  After her release, having been exchanged for prisoners taken at Bannockburn, she returned to Scotland and Robert’s court.  According to one source she was physically scarred and gaunt, very bitter, very angry, and with a heart full of vengeance against the English.

CHRISTINA MACROURIE OF GARMORAN:  We know that not long after his coronation in 1306, Robert went into hiding with just a few of his closest compatriots.  The western isles became his hiding place where he could renew his strength from military, physical and psychological points of view.  In this he was aided by the MacDonald’s and others, including (according to one tradition, but with less than clear proof) the Lady Christina of Garmorran, who it is said cared well for him and assisted him in preparing for his return to the mainland.  Her house was of the confederation led by Angus Og MacDonald, known as “Lord Of The Isles”.  She was the great great grand daughter of the heroic Somerled who had first organized that confederation.  In any case, she may well have been instrumental in helping him renew his spirit and his determination to champion the Scottish nation, in addition to providing him with protection and respite from his travels and pursuers.  Some also believe that she may have been one of the first to provide him with a contribution of manpower which he needed to “reinvade” his lands and begin to establish himself there once again.

THE PRINCESS MATILDA BRUCE:  The eldest child of Robert and Elizabeth.  Born at Turnberry.

THE PRINCESS MARGARET BRUCE:  The second child of Robert and Elizabeth.  Born at Dunfermline.

Were there yet other women in the life of King Robert?  Undoubtedly.  Were some few of those women mothers of illegitimate children sired by Robert?  Possibly.  None of these, however, carried any where close to the stature and influence of those described above.  Imagine if you will, what the story of King Robert might have been should any of these be excised from his experience.  In considering that, you must come to the conclusion that the women in the life of King Robert were far more than mere footnotes in the story of the hero king.  They were, in fact, part and parcel of both his personal development and his reign.  Although it is clear that women did not have much direct political power in this era of history, they could be, and often were, much more than just marginally influential.

(Composed: May, 2009) (Copyright – William Bruce, May, 2009)

copyright William Bruce – may not be reproduced in any fashion without the permission of the author. Permission granted to FOBII to post on its web site.