Monday, September 20, 2010

The Bruce Sisters

It is a shame that only the broadest strokes of Bruce's family portrait have come down through history, because with an abundance of brothers, sisters, and, later, children, there must have been many wonderful stories to tell of their younger years. What remains, however, is a list of names and fates, and a few sketchy ideas of a few of the individuals.


Bruce was Scoto-Norman and Franco-Gaelic, and a direct descendant of David I of Scotland on his father's side. It is believed that, as a result, he spoke the several languages of his heritage, in addition to Latin. He was the third child, but oldest boy, of 10, 11 or 12 siblings, depending on the source. The confusion seems to lie in the fact that multiple names are often attributed to the same person, much like our Roberts and Bobs, Williams and Bills. For instance, one source lists seven sisters for Robert Bruce: Isabella, Christina, Maud, Mary, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Marjory, while another source lists Isabella, Christina, Elizabeth, Mary, and Margaret, but calls the sixth and last daughter Matilda/Marjory. Yet another source lists only five sisters, leaving out Elizabeth, and listing Isabella, Christina, Margaret, Matilda, and Mary. Undiscovered Scotland says there were ten Bruce siblings. There is no confusion about his brothers, Niel/Nigel, Edward, Thomas, and Alexander, perhaps because, being deeply involved in politics and warfare, there are clearer records of them.

The older Bruce siblings may have remembered the time of peace before Alexander III's death, but for the most part, they would have grown up in a world of turmoil, as Scotland fought Edward Longshanks' continued efforts to subdue and control Scotland. This was almost certainly the motivating force on all their lives. Only Isabella could be said to have had anything like a peaceful life, as queen of Norway. (And I say that in comparison to the harsh fates of so many of her siblings.)

Bruce himself, spent years living in conditions most of us will never suffer, in caves and hunted both by the English and various Scottish clans who for various reasons sided with the English (or against Bruce, which of course had the same effect, if different motives) and fighting battles. His sisters did not routinely fight battles, but they did suffer for his stand against the English.

Christina, or Christian, the second child and daughter, was betrayed and captured, along with Bruce's wife and daughter, at Kildrummy, shortly after Bruce's crowning at Scone in defiance of Longshanks. She was 'lucky' enough to only be held in a convent from 1306 until after the Scots' victory at Bannockburn in 1314.

But life was hard, and she lost three husbands. Her first, Gartnait Earl of Mar, died of natural causes in 1305. Her second, Christopher Seton, was brutally executed by the English in 1306. Not the long marriage she had perhaps hoped for. Her third, Andrew Murray, spent his life in battle against the English and serving Scotland.

Deborah Richmond Foulkes, in her novelized and very detailed account of James Douglas and his family, does an excellent job of portraying life for the wives and children left behind throughout countless battles and years of warfare, highlighting the fear and waiting which must have colored so much of Christina's life.

She had three children, at least as recorded by history: Donald Earl of Mar and Helen with Gartnait and Lord John and Sir Thomas with Andrew Murray.

Even apart from her sufferings on behalf of her brother's and husbands' politics, Christina must have been yet another remarkable woman in her own right. Of course, this would undoubtedly come from her mother's forceful personality, which deserves an article of its own. But one of the few things that is remembered about Christina is that she successfully commanded the defending forces of Kildrummy Castle in Aberdeenshire, against David de Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, leader of the English forces, in 1335. She was in her 60's. It is unusual enough for a woman in medieval times to command an army; it is unusual in any time for a woman in her 60's to do so. It is a brief story that speaks volumes about who Christina must have been. She lived to be 84.

Little enough is said of Mary Bruce, but we do know she was one of the younger sisters. Along with Christina, Isabella MacDuff, Robert's wife Elizabeth and daughter Marjory, Mary was betrayed and captured by the Earl of Ross. Not treated so well as Christina, she and Isabella MacDuff were both held prisoner in wooden or iron cages, suspended from castle walls, for the amusement of crowds who mocked and threw things. Mary lived like this, exposed to all seasons, from 1306 until 1310 on the walls of Roxburgh Castle.

She was kept in captivity even afterward, only being set free in exchange for English prisoners after Bannockburn in 1314. Shortly after, she married one of Bruce's closest companions and most loyal supporters, Neil Campbell. He died very soon afterward, in 1316, and she later married Alexander Fraser of Touchfraser and Cowie (how would you like to fill that name out on your children's school and medical forms!)

Like so many, very few details of Mary have survived, but Nigel Tranter, the historian and novelist, paints her as a forceful and colorful personality. Given her family background, it seems likely.

Virtually nothing has come to us of Bruce's other sisters. It is not even clear how many of them there were. Is it because they were the younger siblings and so less involved in the immediate events of the time? Perhaps more sheltered? Given how long the wars of independence lasted, it seems unlikely they were that fortunate. Is it because their names, Elizabeth, Marjory, Maud, and Matilda, are so easily confused with Bruce's wife and daughters? Were they less forceful or colorful personalities such that they left no records? At this point in my research, it is impossible to say, but if anyone knows more of Bruce's youngest sisters, I would very much welcome the information.

Tomorrow, Bruce's brothers. Next week, his wives and children.

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