Elizabeth de Burgh was the daughter of one of the most powerful Irish nobles and friends of King Edward I of England. Robert the Bruce probably met Elizabeth at the English court and married her in hopes of making a strategic alliance. When Robert the Bruce carried on his fight for the Scottish throne, Elizabeth and the rest of Bruce’s family were to suffer the consequences.
After the young Maid of Norway died on her way to Scotland to accept the crown as Queen, there were many claimants to the throne. Fearing the country would dissolve into civil war, one of the Guardians of Scotland, William Fraser, Bishop of St. Andrews, wrote to King Edward I of England asking his advice. Edward offered to act as arbiter and chose John Balliol as King. Balliol was crowned at Scone on November 30, 1280 and the new king gave his homage to King Edward I.
King Edward regarded Scotland as his own vassal state and treated them that way. To fight the English intrusion, the Scots made a defensive alliance with Philip IV of France which came to be known as the “Auld Alliance” and it was to last until the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed in 1560 during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. In 1296, Balliol renounced his allegiance to the English King and was forced to surrender after a military campaign. He was taken prisoner at first but then allowed to go live in Burgundy and later in Picardy.
The Scots continued the fight against Edward under the leadership of Sir William Wallace and Sir Andrew Moray. Moray died in 1297 and Wallace was executed for treason in 1305. Robert the Bruce was the next leader chosen to carry on the fight.
The Earl of Mar was one of the seven Guardians of Scotland and he believed Robert the Bruce was the lawful King of Scots. Mar could see great advantage in aligning his family with Bruce and having his heirs inherit the throne so he arranged a marriage with his eighteen year old daughter Isabella. Isabella and Bruce were married in 1295 and the Earl signed over his family estates to the Bruce. Legend says Isabella and Bruce were much in love. Isabella quickly became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter Marjorie in 1296. Isabella died shortly after the birth.
Elizabeth de Burgh was born c. 1289. Her father was Richard, 2nd Earl of Ulster and one of King Edward I’s most prominent Anglo-Irish supporters. Her mother was Margarite de Burgh. As with most medieval women we know little of her upbringing. It is more than likely Elizabeth received the education due to a lady of her birth and status. We do know that six years after the death of Bruce’s first wife Isabella, Bruce held the title of Earl of Carrick and he was supporting King Edward I. He probably met Elizabeth de Burgh at the English court. Either Edward chose Elizabeth as Bruce’s bride or Bruce transferred his allegiance to Edward, hoping to ally himself to the Earl of Ulster. Elizabeth and Bruce were married in 1302 at Writtle in Essex, England. She was thirteen years old and he was twenty-eight.
After much fighting and switching of allegiances, Robert the Bruce gained the Scottish throne and Elizabeth and Robert were crowned King and Queen of Scots at Scone on March 25, 1306. The crowning was in direct violation of English claims of suzerainty over Scotland. There was more fighting and within a few weeks of the coronation, Bruce was defeated by John of Lorne on the borders of Argyll and Perthshire.
Bruce’s situation was bad enough that he wanted his family to be taken where they would be safe. Bruce enlisted his brother Niall and the Earl of Atholl to escort his family to Kildrummy Castle, the seat of the Earl of Mar on the northwest coast. Bruce’s whole family went including Elizabeth, her step-daughter Marjorie, and Bruce’s two sisters Christian and Mary. They took refuge in the castle but without any delay, the castle was besieged. A traitor from the inside set fire to some grain in the great hall and the stronghold was forced to surrender. Niall Bruce was captured but Elizabeth and the rest of the family were able to escape. Just as the English army was approaching, they desperately rode further north while being pursued by William, Earl of Ross. They were possibly trying to sail to Orkney. They had to stop for shelter in the sanctuary of St. Duthac in Tain. Ross violated the sanctuary and forced his way in, seizing the women.
Queen Elizabeth was held prisoner in the manor house of Burstwick in Holderness and was only allowed to have two elderly women in attendance. Christian was sent to a Lincolnshire nunnery. Mary was held in a cage made of timber and iron in Roxburgh Castle. At first Marjorie was held in the Tower of London but she was then sent to a Yorkshire nunnery. They all were held captive for eight years.
During the eight years, Elizabeth was moved periodically to other dwellings including the Tower of London and Shaftesbury in Dorset. There is an undated letter written by her from Holderness to the English king in which she complains she only has three changes of clothing, no headgear and nothing for her bed. When she reached the Tower in 1312, her conditions were to improve. She had six attendants and received an allowance to pay them.
Finally, on June 24, 1314, Bruce was to defeat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. By that time King Edward I was dead and his son Edward II was king. Edward II’s commander at Bannockburn, Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford was captured by the Scots after the battle and negotiations for an exchange of prisoners began. Queen Elizabeth, Christian, Mary and Marjorie, along with the aging Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, were all released on the condition that Hereford was set free. Queen Elizabeth was now free to take her legal and lawful place at the center of her commanding and victorious husband’s court.
Elizabeth had two daughters Matilda and Margaret who survived into adulthood. She then had a son David on March 5, 1324 who would live to become King David II of Scotland. Elizabeth had another son John who died young. Elizabeth herself died at Cullen Castle in Banffshire on October 27, 1327. Her entrails were buried in the Church of St. Mary of the Virgin at Cullen and her body was interred at Dunfermline.
Further reading: “Scottish Queens 1034-1714” by Rosalind K. Marshall