Today we explore the extraordinary potential of human endurance.
In 1306, Mary Bruce – Robert’s sister – was imprisoned in a cage on the external walls of Roxburgh Castle on the war-torn Scottish border. When King Edward handed down his sentence, it was not for some finite period but for the rest of the prisoner’s life. Mary was a noblewoman: now, she faced the cruel rendering of her existence – lower even than an animal; a spectacle for the villagers and soldiers to revile. Had she been a precious sow, a farmer might have treated her better.
Come with me into Mary’s world! Take eight steps; turn, take another eight, and you will feel the dimensions of your life narrow in a heartbeat. On the floor, a wooden bowl holds the remnants of your meager supper, oozing with its grey slick of grease. Behind you, there is a curtained privy – a hole in the wooden floor to take your waste. Fear makes you press your face against the icy metal bars. Though rage sours your soul and words, it will make not a jot of difference!
Here is a special treat- an excerpt from Sisters of The Bruce:
“Mary was bone-weary. Caged now for almost a year, the extraordinary effort of will required to stay alive was taking its toll. All the previous night, a vicious north wind had blown, shaking the rickety structure. Fear and pain kept her awake. The thin blankets did little to keep out the bleak cold. Her limbs ached interminably. Her fingers and toes had begun to twist just as the branches of trees always exposed to strong wind. Strange lumps formed on the joints and no amount of rubbing eased their throbbing. Lest bleak despair overtake her once more; Mary forced the thought from her mind. Blankness was the only way to deal with this evil.
For a long time, she cursed everything and everyone. King Edward and his armies took pride of place in her litany of hate, closely followed by the Earl of Ross. Her family did not miss out either upon her vitriol – Grandfather for his false dreams of kinghood and Robert for taking the Scots crown as his own, placing them all in such jeopardy. Spoken in anger so long ago, it seemed St Malachy’s curse might have rent the curtain of time once more. Now, fate had brought the Bruce family to its knees; they would all wither and die.
Within her accursed cage, Mary focused her angst upon those enemies closest to hand. Lice crawled in her lank hair and over her body, finding homes in damp, dark places. Rough splinters in the wooden planking dug into her bones and sharp burrs in the thin woollen covers scratched at her skin. At night, the nipping, teasing fleas, which infested her bedding, made her scratch and rip at her skin and by morning her sores would fester and weep. Frigid air whistled up through the hole of her privy, piercing her most private regions with its icy, probing fingers.
In these, the middle years of her womanhood, Mary longed for the warmth of human touch and words, softly spoken, but her only friends now were the sparrows and other tiny birds which could fit between her bars. They came to eat the crumbs of dry crust from her dinner. On the floor of her cage, Mary lay quite still with her face as close to the tiny creatures as possible to absorb the lightness of the warm, feathered bodies and fragile legs. In their bright, beaded eyes, she saw the wild freedom of the skies. They were so dear to her, more familiar even than the faces of her own family. She named them all. Chittering and chirping, they spoke of trips made far and wide and gratefully drank the hot tears which dripped from the end of Mary’s nose, pooling onto the rough furs.
Sometimes, sleet beat its fine, staccato rhythm on the iron bars and entered her small haven, sending icy darts to chill and pierce. When the sun shone, the stark beauty of the snow hurt her eyes and soul. Winter gales rocked the little house until it seemed it would be caught and taken into the belly of the howling tempest. She wished it would fling her far from this accursed fortress. To escape the scant physical comfort, pain and misery, Mary’s thoughts soared with the wind and rode the spirals and dips with her fellow travellers, the birds. Such freedom rendered her speechless with joy, but then she had little need for words.
Out of necessity, Mary’s longing to see home and family was banished to some remote corner of the soul where the sharp spikes of grief could be laid to rest, to mourn in peace. She would be here in her cage until death, her most likely rescuer, claimed her. Only then might her spirit find its way home.”
Mary Bruce endured four years in her cage, followed by a further four years of imprisonment – a testament to her courage and resilience in such perilous circumstances. Empowered by Scotland’s miraculous victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, her brother negotiated her release in exchange for captured English knights.
Mary returned home, a damaged woman no doubt. She later married, twice, and bore a son.
Could you have endured Mary’s heart-breaking circumstances? Adapt or perish – it’s a simple choice!