When Robert the Bruce and his wife Elizabeth de Burgh were crowned King and Queen of the Scots on the 25th March 1306, she reportedly said “Alas, we are but king and queen of the May”. Robert had taken the crown against the might of the English, and their position was definitely an uncertain one.
Within a few months of their coronation Robert faced a crushing defeat at the Battle of Methven, with his adversary Edward I of England (known as Hammer of the Scots) the victor. Elizabeth as well as Christina and Mary (Robert’s sisters) and Marjorie (Robert’s daughter by his first marriage) fled to safety at Kildrummy Castle. The castle came under siege from the English, and the Bruce women fled further north before eventually being captured by Edward’s allies. Elizabeth, Christina, Mary and Marjorie were all taken to England, where they became royal hostages. They were separated from each other, and all faced isolation.
Elizabeth was the daughter of the Earl of Ulster, one of Edward I’s allies. The treatment she received was therefore less severe than her sisters-in-law and step-daughter but by no means easy. She was held under house arrest and at one point sent a letter complaining of her treatment, as she had limited resources including only three changes of clothing. Had she not been the daughter of an ally, her treatment as the Queen of Scots would likely have been much more severe. Marjorie, the daughter of Robert and his first wife Isabella of Mar, was only a child when she was captured. Taken to the Tower of London, she thankfully didn’t face the fate of other royal children who we know have been held there. Marjorie was sent to a nunnery in Yorkshire, and would spend the remainder of her childhood a royal hostage.
Christina was also sent to a nunnery, but in Lincolnshire rather than Yorkshire. Her sister Mary faced the most diabolical treatment among the Bruce women. She was hung in cage outside Roxburgh Castle, so the Scots would see the power of the English and what happened to those who opposed them. For four years, Mary faced these harsh conditions, it’s impossible for us to imagine how she was able to endure this humiliation and torture. She was eventually held elsewhere although details are uncertain. Elizabeth was protected by her father’s standing; Marjorie was protected by her age – so why Mary faced such horrendous treatment whilst her sister was sent to a nunnery is uncertain.
For eight years these royal women were hostages of the English, but their fortunes changed with Robert’s victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Edward I had been succeeded by his son Edward II in 1307, and with one of his chief allies captured by the Scots in this momentous battle, a prisoner exchange began. Elizabeth, Marjorie, Christina and Mary were finally able to return home. The wife, sisters and daughter of a king – their fortunes skyrocketed from where they had been. A common metaphor in the medieval period was the Wheel of Fortune, with Fortuna turning the wheel and the fate of all going up and down at random. The wheel certainly took some big turns for the Bruce women. They showed great strength and fortitude in coping with their long imprisonment in enemy hands before experiencing their well-deserved freedom in Scotland.
What are your thoughts on the Bruce women? I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section below.
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ODNB: Elizabeth [née Elizabeth de Burgh] by G. W. S. Barrow
Scottish Queens 1034-1714 by Rosalind K. Marshall
King & Queens: The story of Britain’s monarchs from pre-Roman times to today by Richard Cavendish and Pip Leahy
Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I by Kelcey Wilson-Lee