This Week in History: Isabel MacDuff and Robert the Bruce

Bruce is crowned for the second time in two days by Isabel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan. (Colour litho) by Williams, Morris Meredith (1881-1973);

Bruce is crowned for the second time in two days by Isabel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan. Colour litho by Williams, Morris Meredith (1881-1973).

With attention focused on the approaching 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, it’s worth taking a look at the events and figures instrumental in the lead-up to the momentous battle. Strangely absent from the legends surrounding Bannockburn is the role played by women, even though one largely looked-over heroine enabled Robert the Bruce’s claim to the Scottish throne on this day 708 years ago.

Like a lot of periods in Scottish history, the early 14th century was a rather tumultuous time. Fresh of the back of the the 13th century’s succession disputes, and William Wallace’s failed uprising, Scotland was then ruled as a province of England by Edward I. Bruce had become a guardian of Scotland, alongside his biggest rival for the Scottish throne, John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch. In 1306, Bruce quarreled with Comyn and stabbed him to death at Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries, cementing a deep hatred between the Bruce and Comyn families.

The killing of John Comyn in the Greyfriars church in Dumfries, as seen by Felix Philippoteaux, a 19th-century illustrator.

The killing of John Comyn in the Greyfriars church in Dumfries, as seen by Felix Philippoteaux, a 19th-century illustrator.

Isabel MacDuff, second cousin to Robert the Bruce, had the great misfortune of being married a few years earlier to Comyn’s cousin, John Comyn, Earl of Buchan. Some historians and authors believe she may also have been one of Bruce’s lovers. Following the murder at Greyfriars, it’s safe to say times were tough for Isabel. She took the contrary view to her husband, instead supporting the Bruce by taking the Scottish side in the Scottish Wars of Independence.

Bruce, knowing he would be excommunicated for killing a man on holy ground, and knowing an excommunicated man could not be crowned king, did the only thing he could in order to claim the Scottish throne as his own: he dashed for Scone, traditional crowning place of the Scottish kings, in a race against the messengers flying to the Pope with news of the Greyfriarsmurder and the messengers speeding back equally hastily with news of his excommunication.

Robert’s coronation took place on either March 25 or 26 1306 in Scone, however tradition at the time stated all Kings must be crowned near the stone of destiny and/or anointed by the Kirk. Unfortunately the stone had been removed by Edward I a few years earlier, and the Kirk would have been hardly willing to crown Bruce following his actions at Greyfriars. Another tradition was sought to cement the claim, and it just so happened that the MacDuff clan held a hereditary right to crown Kings of Scotland.

Robert the Bruce and Isabel MacDuff immortalised in stone at Edinburgh Castle

Robert the Bruce and Isabel MacDuff immortalised in stone at Edinburgh Castle

Meanwhile, Isabel’s husband John was in England at this time so, on hearing the news of the impending coronation of the new king, she took her husbands horses and rode to Scone, unfortunately 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 on either the 26th or 27th of March solidified Bruce’s right to the kingship of Scotland, thus effectively cutting off Isabel’s ties to her Comyn family.

Isabel stayed on with Bruce, but was betrayed and captured shortly after Bruce’s defeat at the Battle of Methven in June 1306. Edward I of England ordered her sent to Berwick-upon-Tweed with these instructions:

“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.”

She was imprisoned in this cage for four years, then moved to the Carmelite friary at Berwick. This was not necessarily a humanitarian move; it is suggested that by this stage Bruce was gaining support, his female relatives were potentially valuable hostages, and the English did not want them to die of ill-treatment. The last clear mention of her is being transferred again in 1313, one year before the Battle of Bannockburn, with her eventual fate uncertain.

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2 thoughts on “This Week in History: Isabel MacDuff and Robert the Bruce

  1. Shirley Linder

    Your subscription keeps me closely in touch with the Scotland I’ve learned to love (in four visits) – thank you so much.

    Last summer I attended a Highland Games in Washington State – GREAT bunch of people.

    Reply

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