Isabel MacDuff, Woman in a Cage

Isabel MacDuff did not much care for her lodgings at Berwick Castle.

Isabel MacDuff is a woman who deserves more attention than she has gotten, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Although a minor player in history, her courage, strength, and patriotism put her on a level with the greats. Her story officially begins with her birth in 1286, within months of the fateful death of Alexander III, which threw Scotland into such turmoil. Thus, she would have grown up in the days of upheaval, of Edward Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots' invasions of Scotland, through the days of the Guardianship-- her father, Duncan MacDuff, was one of the Guardians--and John Baliol's failed kingship, through the events of William Wallace's uprisings against England.

In an explanation of the events to follow, it is important to know that the MacDuff clan held a hereditary right to crown the Kings of Scotland. In a more direct explanation of Isabel's Scottish patriotism, her mother, widowed when Isabel was about three, re-married one Sir Gervase Avenel, who gave his fealty to Robert the Bruce early on.

What complicated matters for Isabel, and tested her determination and courage, was the fact that her brother was growing up as a ward fo the English court, perhaps even as a companion of the young Edward II. Moreover, in 1306, aged 19 or 20, Isabel married John Comyn, Earl of Buchan. John Comyn was a supporter of John Baliol and enemy of Robert Bruce. It was John's cousin, also John Comyn, but Earl of Badenoch, whom Robert Bruce stabbed to death before the altar of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries on February 10, 1306, cementing the Comyn family's hatred of Bruce.

This incident, perhaps, changed Isabel's life.

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 sensible thing in a time without e-mail: he dashed for Scone, the 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.

Isabel, however she heard the news of Bruce's flight to Scone for coronation, determined that, as her young brother was in England, unable to claim the MacDuff family's right, she would do so herself, against the obvious wishes of her new husband. One story says she stole her husband's horses. Other sources say that, as Lord John was in England at the time, there was no need for deception, and she merely rode off. The first story is more interesting, though perhaps less accurate.

Despite her best efforts, Isabel arrived in Scone the day after Bruce's coronation. However, her efforts meant a great deal to him. He'd already been deprived, by Edward I, of the traditional coronation stone, the Stone of Scone (which contrary to appearances does not rhyme: it's pronounced scoon). Without the traditional elements of coronation, the Stone and a MacDuff to crown him, he worried that his kingship would be viewed as less than completely legitimate. Therefore, the coronation ceremony was re-enacted on the 25th of March, 1306, when Isabel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, set the crown on the head of Robert the Bruce, making him (for the second time in two days) King of Scotland.

(Just to be as accurate as possible, other sources put the re-crowning on March 27, 1306.)

Having no future with her husband after this act, Isabel stayed on with the Bruce's. However, Scotland was a country under attack. Bruce was a man very badly wanted by Edward, and not well liked by the vast reaches of Clan Comyn and their allies, either. In July 1306, he sent his wife, sisters, daughter, and Isabel to Kildrummy Castle for safety, under the protection of his brother Nigel (or Neil as he was also known).

Unfortunately, Bruce had many enemies. Kildrummy was attacked in September of 1306. Though the women escaped the castle, they were captured by William, Earl of Ross, while fleeing north, and taken to Edward Longshanks in England. Bruce's wife, Elizabeth, was treated perhaps the most kindly, the fortunate result of her also being the daughter of Edward's ally, the Earl of Ulster. But Bruce's ten-year-old daughter, Marjory, was from his first marriage, and therefore no concern to Edward; she was incarcerated at Watton Priory. His sister, Christina, was locked in a nunnery for years. Nigel met the most unpleasant face, being publicly tortured and executed in most barbaric fashion by Edward I.

Remains of Berwick CastleBruce's other sister, Mary, received more of Edward's wrath. She and Isabel were both ordered by Edward I to live in cages hung on castle walls. Mary spent several years suspended on the outer walls of Roxburgh, and Isabel, for the crime of placing the crown on Bruce's head and defying her husband, was likewise suspended on the walls of Berwick castle.

This site on Edward II gives the clearest description I have yet found on the conditions Isabel suffered. It describes the cage as made of lattice wood and iron hinges. It was open for all to see, allowing her only the privacy of a privy. She was exposed to the elements and the ridicule of the English people, though allowed two women to bring her food and drink. This page gives the date of her release as June 1310-- nearly four years in a cage.

Having been quite cold while I was in Scotland in late May and early June, I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to live exposed to the elements, even through winter, for four years. She was reputedly held in continued captivity even after her release from the cage. Sources differ as to whether she died in captivity or survived it.

I am pleased to have found that there is a novel written about Isabel MacDuff. Barbara Erskine's Kingdom of Shadows focuses on the life of this fascinating woman. I had recently been told about Barbara Erskine's novels set in medieval Scotland, and planned to find some and start reading, anyway. Now, I have double reason to do so.

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