King Edward I – ‘Hammer of the Scots’

Many of you will know of the devastation wrought by Edward I during Scotland’s War of Independence at the end of the thirteenth century. Not so well known is how he ‘hammered’ the women of Scotland ─ the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and, of course, the widows of those he considered traitorous rebels.

How did Edward come to take this position? Widely regarded as a great king by English chroniclers, he was renowned for his profound understanding of the legal system and its processes.  This commitment to the laws of the land gave Edward a pivotal role consolidating the structure and foundation of English society which allowed him to use the law, legitimately, to perpetuate his own power and wealth. Regaining English lands lost in France and pacifying his own Duchy of Gascony in the southwest proved too compelling for Edward to ignore. And wars cost money!

Through his Plantagenet line, Edward inherited the energy and foul temper of his great grandfather, Henry 11, who imprisoned his estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, sixteen years for treason. Nor did Edward shrink from taking a stand based upon his beliefs and values. His actions show his overwhelming and obsessive desire to unify England, Scotland and Wales under his sovereignty. This valorous, uncompromising figure saw it as his right and destiny. In time, Wales and Scotland felt the keen weight of the oppressor’s boot upon their backs.

Edward believed the Scottish kings had paid homage to himself as their overlord but the canny Scots, ever mindful of their larger and more powerful neighbor, chose to offer homage only for those lands they held in England. At other times, when left with no other option, they chose their words with even greater care. But Edward’s belief was paramount – the Scottish lords had bent their knee both to him and to prior English kings, and therefore any rebellion against his rule was treason.

As a monarch, he held a keen awareness of what constituted treason. Edward meted out tortuous punishments to William Wallace, Simon Fraser and many other patriots. His capacity for cruelty came to the fore in the face of such a tenuous, unrelenting foe. Under normal convention, lords captured in battle might be ransomed but Edward’s view that they were traitors precluded them from this sanctuary.

Scotland was an ancient country in its own right with a pedigree far older than Edward’s England. Thus the Scots knew that keeping their independence was a well and just cause. To this end, Scotland’s community of the realm allied itself to Edward’s enemy, the King of France, and sought the support of the Pope. Their attempts only aggravated Edward’s temper, honing his vicious streak to a knife edge!

The wives of Scotland’s slain patriots found themselves in the unenviable position of having to petition Edward for leniency rather than suffer the forfeiture of their lands and livelihoods. Reflecting Scotland and England’s ambiguous social and political relationship, many of the Scots’ cross border lords had English wives. For those women whose husbands were imprisoned, Edward chose in the first instance to insist that the women and their families move back to England. If they complied and showed their loyalty to the English crown, then their economic position was viewed with greater sympathy. However, Edward, who always had his eye on the economic and strategic value of these female petitioners, purloined the greater proportion of their wealth. Because many of these women were related to either his friends or associates, Edward stood a greater chance of being able to manipulate and influence his prisoners as well as his own lords, once the wives were back on English soil.

For the families of the Scots’ lords whose loyalty remained with Scotland, the English monarch refused their petitions and gifted their lands to his own lords. Thus for many a wife whose husband had been slaughtered or imprisoned, the future was bleak indeed. Some died of starvation or spent the remainder of their lives in dire misery.

What must it have been like for these women, with their great broods of children as well as dependent relatives and extensive households, brought to ruination by war? What pragmatic wife would not have buckled under this pressure as England grew in power and strength over Scotland? Some remained openly loyal, for others their loyalty was subverted by hunger and the will to survive. For a time!

How Edward must have crowed when fate delivered him Bruce’s wife, his daughter and two of his sisters, as well as Lady Isobel of Buchan, who took part in the second crowning that elevated Robert, Earl of Carrick, to King of Scots. Now, we see Edward perpetuate a horror of unimaginable proportion upon the kinfolk of Robert the Bruce.

To place noblewomen in cages bordered on the unacceptable even within those harsh times. Isobel of Buchan and Mary Bruce spent many years of pain and suffering caged, whilst Robert’s daughter and sister, Christina, were both sentenced to indefinite solitary confinement in English convents. What depravity of mind would lead a king to imprison women in cages, hung on the exterior wall of castles, exposed to the bitter elements and the abuse of passers-by? The burden of hate that soured Edward’s heart and soul must have been bitter indeed towards those who crossed him ─ but Edward was an old hand at this; history tells he had already imprisoned Owen, son of Daffyd ap Gryyffyd, in a cage at Bristol Castle a year before!

In a time when ‘oubliettes’ ─ dark pits into which prisoners were dropped and left to die without food or water ─ were commonplace for folk who committed misdemeanors, such deprivation is not outstanding.  And decades earlier, Edward’s grandfather, King John, imprisoned the outspoken wife and son of an Anglo-Irish lord in a pit where they were left to rot. Perhaps then, in Edward’s case, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

What is significant is the English king’s unshakable view that the Scots and Welsh were traitorous rebels ─ vermin to be exterminated ─ which denied them the normal rights of the time. But unable to overcome him any other way, the great and glorious King Edward stooped to punish Robert, King of Scots, by ‘hammering’ his female kinfolk. In 1307, he died, his abiding angst unresolved, knowing that he had severely underestimated Robert the Bruce, King of Scots . . .

Sex and the Medieval Woman

My last post meandered around medieval motherhood, particularly in relation to Robert the Bruce’s sisters. During the course of writing about these amazing women, I wondered about the role sex and procreation played in their lives?  Was it so very different to today?

According to the beliefs of church and state, these issues were integral to a woman’s overall value. From a functional point of view, women were chattels of their father or husband. And even if the man who ‘possessed’ them died, they were still not free to make their own choice, for heiresses became the property of the king to be disposed of at his will.

We have the example of Robert’s mother, a widow and wealthy heiress to the ancient Pictish earldom of Carrick in SW Scotland. History suggests she seduced her second husband and married him without the approval of the king, thus incurring the royal wrath and a hefty fine. Lady Marjory grasped her own destiny with both hands. And the course of Scottish history would have followed a very different path, had she not challenged the king and his accepted feudal rights!

What alternatives were there for such women? Given in marriage to one of the king’s men, she was a physical and economic gift, a payment for his past and continued loyalty. Some women were made vulnerable by this ruling and eligible men raced to be there first. If she were not a willing participant, she could be kidnapped and the arrangement sealed by rape. Alternatively, women could petition the king for a betrothal of their choice, perhaps claiming some past, half-forgotten royal favour. Some might even opt out of public life altogether and enter a convent. The king might consider this outcome if the woman was aged and therefore held limited value in his eyes or if she required punishment.

A king could do whatever he wanted if his wife displeased him. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s imprisonment of 16 years  for treason springs to mind. During her subsequent widowhood, she relinquished public life and lived the remainder of her years at beautiful Fontevraud Abbey in France. In death, Henry lies beside Eleanor in the huge, white stone chamber. One wonders at such forgiveness!

High status women were often married off three or four times as husband after husband fell in battle. What impact might these social liaisons have upon subsequent children and the potential for complications through multi-layered relationships, property division and dwindling wealth.

The medieval church viewed women as evil seducers of innocent men. Rules were made to control the physical appetites of believers with sexual intercourse limited to approved days only. Thus the church ensured a steady income from penitents ─ those honest enough to fess up! Of course, sex was only one aspect of this lucrative trade in penance.

Much is made in history of the chastity belt whereby a husband might shackle his wife’s private parts until he returned from war. Procreation was about the extension of the family line and this action ensured her singular role as his sexual partner and prevented any surprises on his return. Given that a Crusading lord could be away for years, squandering his wife’s wealth most like, then one would hope the wife was canny enough to know a reliable locksmith! However, the potential for physical and emotional violence cannot be understated and women might have been set aside or punished if an unwanted birth resulted.

What must life have been like for wealthy women, living in castles with shared living quarters, an overabundance of men from all walks of life, and a strong emphasis on breeding animals – horses and hounds for hunting and war? I cannot imagine these lasses wilting about basic human impulses, but the pressure to remain virgins was critical to the value of the female in a marriage arrangement. Historically, across many cultures, wedding rituals involving the bedding of brides and grooms and the formal checking of the sheets for virginal blood give substance to this. Such husbands paid a dowry and expected an authentic family line. It was a contract after all!

One last comment relates to the frequent medieval practice of using a wet nurse. I am reminded by nursing friends that breast feeding, apart from the health benefits and joy such attachment brings, is a natural form of contraception. By not breast feeding their infants, high status women probably became pregnant sooner that they would have wished, which, over time, would have affected their health and lifespan.

Women have come a long way and I, for one, prefer the 21st century, when it comes to the freedom that many individuals are able to experience in their lives today.

Meanderings on Medieval Motherhood

‘Sisters of The Bruce’ explores the resilience of family relationships when catapulted into the horror of war. Perhaps fear and insecurity, bred by the threat of such devastation, forge these relationships like the finest Damascene steel blade put to the flame.

How did the Bruce sisters survive such relentless trauma? The desire to cherish and protect our families and children is a constant feature of human existence and I believe the ‘sisters’ were no different.

Such musings led me to consider the role of motherhood in medieval times. There is no doubt it was fraught with danger and a common cause of female death was childbirth. For those who had a dynastic role to play, and Robert’s sisters were amongst these, the stakes were high. Childbirth in royal or high status marriages was a critical issue, particularly as marriages usually held political and economic contractual obligations, one of which included the provision of sound male heirs.

How do you form a relationship of value with someone you’ve only just met and may even find repulsive. In short, dynastic brides and grooms were often unknown to each other. Robert’s grandfather married a very young heiress of twelve or so. In the case of a young bride, there were restrictions on when a  marriage could be consummated. One can only hope!

Many women experienced an acute sense of failure giving birth to a daughter rather than the much vaunted male heir. Robert’s elder sister, Queen Isabel of Norway, must have found herself in just such a dire situation. Records show she gave birth to only one living child, a daughter named Ingebjorg.

Frail or sick infants died with alarming frequency, not to mention toddlers and older children. We know a lot about the critical value of attachment but I wonder how parents in medieval times formed bonds with their children when they could lose them so easily. Perhaps the bonds were even greater because of the overt danger and insecurity. And what role did the child’s network within a large household play in the child’s emotional and physical survival? I suspect a great deal!

So often families became separated in war and the children, if they managed to survive, were brought up by others. This was a very real factor for one of our ‘sisters’.

For  many, giving birth on a yearly basis must have been physically and emotionally exhausting. Robert’s mother is recorded as having born five sons and five daughters, unremarkable in those times, except for the fact that they survived and grew to adulthood. Obviously, good health and strong genes play a part in building a dynasty!

Wealth, too, is critical to survival, offering access to up to date medical help and good nutrition. Hygiene plays a role as well and the concept that people did not bathe in medieval times is grossly overstated.

The use of a wet nurse is another intriguing aspect and raises questions. How did women stop the natural flow of milk – being bound with cabbage leaves as today? Was there an economic, political or sexual reason for the practice?

The ancient use of midwives/ herbalists and female family members to aid the child’s arrival into the world proved a valuable part of the childbirth team in some situations. And then there were the royal watchers to witness the veracity of the infant’s birth. How unpleasant and intrusive!

As a mother of two beautiful sons, I found the medieval concept of fostering sons to other wealthy or powerful families confronting, but from a political point of view, it makes sense:  the son then had two families to look out and provide for him and the links between those families would presumably be forged for life. It speaks of trust that a child will grow and learn the basic requirements but also so much more, offering the child as he grows into manhood a strong social background and a political and economic network: a variable experience no doubt depending on the child’s inherent resilience and personality. I suspect sending a child off to boarding school today is not too dissimilar.

Tomorrow children and adults celebrate Mothers Day across Australia. Congratulations to all mothers, present and past – both recent and ancestral. In this country, we are very fortunate to have access to a high quality, free health system and the rates of death amongst mothers and babies are thankfully low. Not so in medieval times nor in many countries today!

Sneak preview of Sisters of The Bruce’ – final instalment.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed sharing the world of ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ with you. And here is the final instalment – in bold.

Scotland 1306

A rider thundered along the track as if the very hounds of hell growled and slavered at his heels. Fiery rivulets of light streaked across the midnight sky. The air fizzled and spat and the heavens howled in despair. Now the rain came as horizontal shards biting into his skin. On he rode, driven by the horror of what lay behind him.

The rutted track came to an abrupt halt. The walls of the castle loomed large. Through smoky arrow slits, faint lights glowed. He clattered across the drawbridge, the beat of his horse’s hooves ringing in his ears. Manoeuvring his way through the small gap between the creaking oak gates, he fell from his mount. Though his skin was lathered with sweat, the man’s belly churned with an icy terror.

“A great host approaches!” he croaked, his voice, barely audible.

From the guards nearby, a frantic shout rent the air: “The English are coming!”

The ashen-faced household stumbled from their beds. Standing in tight-lipped silence, they looked to the chatelaine of the massive fortress of Kildrummy.

“We will deal with this! To your posts!” Kirsty Bruce cried and swept out of the bailey, her cloak dragging in the mud as she turned sharply on her heel. She masked her fear well – a few short weeks past, the Bruce kinfolk had only just managed to evade capture after the rout at Methven. Their desperate return brought tears of relief and sorrow to the Kildrummy household.

Now, the anticipated news had come. An enormous English host was pillaging Scotland. None would be spared. All knew the command to ‘Raise the Dragon’ had been given. It was imperative: the kinfolk of Robert the Bruce, crowned King of Scotland and foresworn enemy of the brutal Edward I of England, must reach safety.

The adults gathered now in Kirsty’s solar. At the window, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Bruce and Isobel of Buchan peered into the gloom. A streak of light caught Niall Bruce’s strained features. He must play for time and hold the castle steadfast. Some of the household would dress as Robert’s sisters so the Earl of Pembroke would not be alerted to their escape. Once again, Kirsty blessed these loyal souls who were as family to her.

“We leave at first light.” The others nodded as Kirsty gave the sombre order. Like vanguards of doom, the heavens rumbled a low, menacing response.

A few hours later, the women and young Marjorie, the king’s daughter, led their horses, hooves slipping on the wet cobblestones, down through the dark, vaulted tunnel.

  Farewells were quick and muted. Fears lay unspoken, but none could hide their raw devastation. Niall’s sisters hugged him, aware only of the unstinting strength he offered in return. Marjorie clung to him in desperation. Wiping her tears away, he pulled her close. “Courage, lass,” was all he said. In the eerie half-light, they escaped through a fine veil of mist and fled north.

  Niall remained, grim-faced and silent, until a deep sigh escaped his lips. With a heavy heart, he made his way up once more to the battlements.

  Who knew what lay ahead for any of them?


‘Sisters of The Bruce’ – a sneak preview continued!

Scotland 1306

A rider thundered along the track as if the very hounds of hell growled and slavered at his heels. Fiery rivulets of light streaked across the midnight sky. The air fizzled and spat and the heavens howled in despair. Now the rain came as horizontal shards biting into his skin. On he rode, driven by the horror of what lay behind him.

The rutted track came to an abrupt halt. The walls of the castle loomed large. Through smoky arrow slits, faint lights glowed. He clattered across the drawbridge, the beat of his horse’s hooves ringing in his ears. Manoeuvring his way through the small gap between the creaking oak gates, he fell from his mount. Though his skin was lathered with sweat, the man’s belly churned with an icy terror.

“A great host approaches!” he croaked, his voice, barely audible.

From the guards nearby, a frantic shout rent the air: “The English are coming!”

The ashen-faced household stumbled from their beds. Standing in tight-lipped silence, they looked to the chatelaine of the massive fortress of Kildrummy.

“We will deal with this! To your posts!” Kirsty Bruce cried and swept out of the bailey, her cloak dragging in the mud as she turned sharply on her heel. She masked her fear well – a few short weeks past, the Bruce kinfolk had only just managed to evade capture after the rout at Methven. Their desperate return brought tears of relief and sorrow to the Kildrummy household.

Now, the anticipated news had come. An enormous English host was pillaging Scotland. None would be spared. All knew the command to ‘Raise the Dragon’ had been given. It was imperative: the kinfolk of Robert the Bruce, crowned King of Scotland and foresworn enemy of the brutal Edward I of England, must reach safety.

The adults gathered now in Kirsty’s solar. At the window, Queen Elizabeth, Mary Bruce and Isobel of Buchan peered into the gloom. A streak of light caught Niall Bruce’s strained features. He must play for time and hold the castle steadfast. Some of the household would dress as Robert’s sisters so the Earl of Pembroke would not be alerted to their escape. Once again, Kirsty blessed these loyal souls who were as family to her.

“We leave at first light.” The others nodded as Kirsty gave the sombre order. Like vanguards of doom, the heavens rumbled a low, menacing response.

To be continued …