ER,  Scotland,  Western Europe

Isabel MacDuff Comyn-  The Lady in the Cage

As I have said before, do not mess with a Scottish woman.  This is the story of a woman who did her duty to her country and her king and paid the price.  A price that seems like it’s out of a fairy tale or a horror movie, but paid it she did.  This is the story of Isabel MacDuff Comyn, a patriot of Scotland.

Isabel crowning Robert the Bruce
Courtesy of: Martin York

Isabel was born to Duncan Macduff, the Earl of Fife, and Johanna de Clare.  The date of her birth isn’t recorded and estimates range from 1270 to 1285.  Her father was murdered by his classman in 1299, and Johanna and Isabel’s younger brother also named Duncan fled south to England.  Joan’s father had recently married Edward I’s sister, so they received a warm welcome there.  It is not clear whether Isabel remained in Scotland or not.  Her later views on the English indicate that she stayed.  The new Earl of Fife was raised in England with a decidedly English bias to events in Scotland.  Isabel was married in the late 1290s to John Comyn, Earl of Buchan.  Isabel would have been quite young, and Comyn was at least 30 or 40 years her senior.  However, this was a not uncommon and was a good match, which made Isabel the Countess of Buchan.  However, family ties did not make this an easy marriage.

The Comyns were in a struggle against another family for the throne of Scotland.  This was someone you may have heard of, dear reader.  Just a guy called Robert the Bruce.  (For more on Robert the Bruce, please see this post:  Matters between the Bruces and the Comyns came to a head when Robert stabbed to death John “Red” Comyn in the Kirk of Greyfriars in Dumfries in February 1306.  John Comyn was Isabel’s husband’s cousin, but Robert was Isabel’s cousin.  John obviously sided with the Comyns, but Isabel did not go with her husband.  She supported her cousin in his bid for the crown.

After the murder, Robert road hell for leather to Scone in Perth to be crowned King of Scotland at Moot hill.  There were some problems though.  Traditionally, all Scottish kings were crowned on the Stone of Destiny, but it had been removed to London by Edward I in 1296.  (For more on the Stone of Destiny, please see this post: )  Because of this, it was important that all the other traditions of coronation be followed to the letter.  However, there a couple other problems.  Because Robert murdered a member of the Comyn family in a church, the Scottish Kirk wasn’t about to anoint him.  There was that pesky thing about sanctuary and the Comyn family was very tight with the Pope.  Another important tradition was the king was crowned by a member of the clan of MacDuff.  Slight problem.  Duncan MacDuff was raised in England as a ward of the English court.  Even if he wanted to, Edward I wasn’t going to let him come north to crown a rival king.  Enter his sister, Isabel.  

Isabel was not going to let her family’s part of the coronation be forgotten.  Her husband definitely wouldn’t approve as his family had sided with England after the murder of John “Red” Comyn.  However, he was conveniently in England.  She liberated several of his horses and rode to Scone to join her cousin, Robert.  He had already been crowned on March 26, 1306, but after Isabel arrived he was crowned again with Isabel placing the crown on his head.  Isabel had declared her colors, and she could no longer go home.

Robert sent her to Kildrummy Castle with his wife, daughter, sisters and the other royal ladies.  Rumors went round that Isabel did what she did because she and Robert were lovers.  However, it would have been extremely awkward if they were since she was roommates with his wife.  Stranger things have happened though.  The women tried to escape north, possibly to Orkney to escape to Norway, but were caught at St. Duthac’s Church in Tain.  They sought sanctuary, but were captured by Earl William de Ross.  He turned them over to the English to await their fate.

Robert’s wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of a friend and supporter of Edward I, so she was treated with honor and sent to house arrest in England.  Robert’s sister, Christina, was the wife of a member of the powerful Seaton family, and sent to Sixhills nunnery.  Edward threatened to hang Robert’s 9 year old daughter, Marjorie, in a cage outside the Tower of London, but relented because of her age.  She was sent to  Watton Priory.  He saved the cage for Robert’s sister, Mary, and Isabel.  Because Isabel was a rebellious wife and legitimized Robert’s coronation, she was forced to live in a cage hung outside Berwick Castle.  It was a cage made of lattice wood and iron hinges, and she was completely exposed to the elements.  There was a privy for privacy so she could dress and relieve herself without exposing herself.  However, she was forced to be out in all weathers and on display for all to see, but not allowed to speak to anyone.  Mary was hung in a similar cage outside Roxburgh Castle.  There is some debate as to whether the women were kept in the open, but they were definitely kept in a cage for several years.

No one is sure what happens to Isabel at this point.  Her name is not on the list of prisoners returned after the victory at Bannockburn in 1314.  It is doubtful Robert would have forgotten her and all she suffered, even if from a public relations perspective.  Many believe she died by this time.  There are rumors that she was removed from her cage in 1310 and sent to and placed in the Carmelite friary in Berwick, then released to her niece by marriage, Alice Comyn.  No one knows.  However, Isabel MacDuff Comyn suffered as much in her way for the cause of Scottish Independence as any man.