Dervorguilla, Mother of a King of Scots

Ruins of Sweetheart Abbey, built by Dervorguilla.  Image in the public domain.
Ruins of Sweetheart Abbey, built by Dervorguilla. Image in the public domain.

Dervorguilla is a familiar figure in Scottish history, a lady of wealth, substance and impeccable pedigree. She is mentioned because she is the great grand-daughter of King David I, the mother of King John Balliol and she confirmed the foundation of a college at the University of Oxford, creating an endowment to ensure its future. Some of the monuments she had constructed are still standing as she built them in stone in Dumfries and Galloway.

The best guess for Dervorguilla’s birth date is the year 1210. She was the daughter of Alan, the Lord of Galloway. At the time she was born, Galloway was a part of Celtic Scotland and the people spoke Gaelic. The name Galloway derives from Gall-Gael meaning “foreigner Gaels” which the Gaels from the western seaboard and the isles of Scotland considered the people from Galloway. Her mother was Alan’s second wife, Margaret, daughter of David, 8th Earl of Huntingdon. Margaret was the grand-daughter of King David I of Scotland. Her father, the 8th Earl of Huntington, was the younger brother of King William I the Lion and King Malcolm IV. So through her mother, Dervorguilla was a descendant of kings.

Dervorguilla’s name is apparently a Latinized version of the name derived from the Gaelic “Dearbhfhorghaill”, also spelled “Derborgaill” or “Dearbhorghil”. This translates as “Daughter of the Oath”. She was one of three daughters of her father and most likely received an education worthy of her rank. When she was thirteen she was married to John, 5th Baron of Balliol, an English nobleman whose domains were ruled from the formidable Barnard Castle in County Durham. John’s family had come to England during the Norman Conquest and still had ancestral lands in France in Bailleul near the Somme. John was most likely fifteen years old at the time of the marriage. Dervorguilla seems to have fallen deeply in love with John.

Dervorguilla and John had many children. There were three sons named Hugh, Alan and Alexander, all who died without issue. Another son named John survived and would become a successful competitor for the crown of Scotland. There were also five daughters. Cecily married John de Burgh from Hertfordshire and Ada married William de Lindsay of Lamberton. Eleanor married John II Comyn, Lord of Badenoch and there was a daughter named Margaret who may or may not have married. Their daughter Maud married Sir Bryan FitzAlan of Bedale who would become a Guardian and Keeper of Scotland for King Edward I of England.

Dervorguilla’s father died in 1234 without a legitimate son. (He had an illegitimate son named Thomas). She and her elder sisters Helen and Christina inherited their father’s estates according to Anglo-Norman feudal laws and Gaelic customs. Between this inheritance and John’s lands, the Balliol’s were a very wealthy couple.

John got into a serious land dispute with Walter Kirkham, Bishop of Durham. John lost the dispute. When it was finally settled in 1263, John was required to do penance by providing funds for poor scholars to attend the University of Oxford. The college was made up of twenty students studying philosophy and mathematics. Well after John’s death, Dervorguilla confirmed the foundation of a permanent college, now called Balliol College and set up an endowment to fund it in 1282. With the blessing of Bishop Kirkham and the university hierarchy, she set up the college’s seal, a house to study in and the first formal Statutes which in some part are still in effect. The main historical society of Balliol College is called the “Dervorguilla Society” to this day.

John Balliol died in October of 1268. Dervorguilla had his heart embalmed and kept it in an ivory casket bound with silver. She kept this casket with her at all times; travelling with it and sometimes even having it served food at the dining table.

Dervorguilla was responsible for founding a few religious institutions. On April 10, 1273, she signed a charter founding a Cistercian abbey seven miles south of Dumfries which would become her most famous building legacy. Because there was an older abbey named Dundrennan about thirty miles away, this one was called New Abbey. Her husband was reburied here and when Dervorguilla died at Kempston in Bedfordshire on January 28, 1290, her body made the long journey north to New Abbey and she was buried next to her husband. The casket with her husband’s heart was buried with her clasped to her chest.

Over the years, due to the manner of her burial with her husband’s heart, people began to call the New Abbey “Dulce Cor”, Latin for Sweet Heart. During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the abbey suffered much destruction and degradation and the graves of Dervorguilla and John were lost. The standing ruins today are called Sweetheart Abbey and include a reconstruction of Dervorguilla’s grave.

Dervorguilla’s son John was born c. 1249. As the youngest son he was destined for the church but his elder brothers died changing his status. When his mother died on January 28, 1290, he inherited the ancient lordship of Galloway in southwest Scotland and over thirty knight’s fiefdoms in England. He was wealthy and had powerful connections when King Alexander III died unexpectedly in 1286 leaving as his heir his young grand-daughter known as Margaret, Maid of Norway. A deal was agreed upon where Margaret would marry King Edward I of England’s son Prince Edward and come to Scotland to rule as Queen. But during her journey from Norway to Scotland, she died.

There were thirteen men claiming the throne of Scotland. To avoid civil war, the Guardians of Scotland asked King Edward I of England to help arbitrate in choosing a king from these claimants. As the descendant of the eldest grand-daughter of King David I, John Balliol had the best claim to the throne of Scotland. He became King, ruling from 1292 to 1296.

Further reading: “The Kings and Queens of Scotland” edited by Richard Oram, “Women of Scotland” by David R. Ross, entry on Dervorguilla in the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”

12 thoughts on “Dervorguilla, Mother of a King of Scots

  1. My heart thrills to claim her as a 22nd great-grandmother (according to computerized genealogical engines, assuming accuracy). My guardian angel grandmothers are a force to be reckoned with.


  2. Hi, I’m doing research on Sweetheart Abbey. In your article here, you say: “During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the abbey suffered much destruction and degradation and the graves of Dervorguilla and John were lost. The standing ruins today are called Sweetheart Abbey and include a reconstruction of Dervorguilla’s grave.”

    I’ve seen similar information elsewhere. But I’m wondering, do you happen to know if the reconstructed grave is really where Dervorguilla was buried? By saying the graves of Dervorguilla and John were “lost”, I assume that means no one knows where they were buried, that their actual graves were somewhere in the cemetery behind the abbey and impossible to locate.

    However, other sources say she was buried near the High Altar, which pretty much pinpoints the location. But they fail to mention the reconstructed grave, so I assume they’re not very accurate.


    • Hi Rob, You are exactly right. I’ve found sources saying she was buried by the High Altar too. As far as the location of the reconstructed grave, I’m not sure of it’s exact location. One of the entries I found online for Dervorguilla mentions the guidebook for Sweetheart Abbey. I’m wondering if this book could tell you where the reconstructed grave is located? Sorry I can’t be of much help. Good luck with your research. Regards, Susan


      • I think the reconstructed grave is the one near the High Altar, and pictures of it seem to confirm that. I’m just trying to find out if she was really buried near the High Altar. Her grave was lost, and I take that to mean no one knows where it really was.


  3. Thank you for this interesting item.

    Barnard Castle, named for Bernard de Balliol, is located not in this earthly Paradise which is the North Riding of Yorkshire but across the River Tees in the County Palatine of Durham


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