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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Book review: A British Governess in America by Becky Lower



Eleanor Chastain has never left her hometown in Sussex, England. For ten years, she’s been a governess to the local earl’s young children, and now that the last of them has gone to boarding school, she finds herself unemployed. But the earl has other plans for her—a nephew of his in the fledgling country of America desperately needs a guiding hand for his five youngsters. Though Eleanor wants no part of America or the earl’s nephew, she has no choice but to accept the “offer” and set sail for the war-torn country.

Patterson Lovejoy’s wife died two years ago in childbirth, and chaos has ruled his household since that dark day. Though he’s glad to have Eleanor’s help, he begins to wonder if the peace of mind he has enjoyed since her arrival is worth the torment he is feeling as time goes by—and he finds himself falling in love with her. He can’t allow that to happen, since he feels responsible for his wife’s death. Marriage--ever again—is out of the question.

But with the deciding battles of the Revolutionary War approaching, can they take a chance on their love, after all? Will the war end their secret longing for what might be between them before they can admit their need for one another? When the battle hits their home and they are separated, Eleanor discovers an inner strength she didn’t know existed, and Patterson must make a decision he never thought he’d face.

My review:

Terrific historical story set in the time of the Revolutionary War, which gave a good history visit along with a sweet happily-ever-after.  Filled with drama/intrigue and adventure, we get a good dose of reality at that time, some adorable and challenging kids, and a gentle love story between two deserving people.

Purchase links:


Thursday, February 25, 2021

New Release —WINTER SILENCE byVella Munn

If she could, Carrie Walsh would live anywhere except Eagle Canyon, an isolated gold mining camp deep in the mountains of California. Forced into marriage by her father to a brute of a man, she has no choice but to do as her husband, George, has commanded. Two things keep Carrie from feeling despondent in this desperate situation—the rough, quiet loner known only as Nevada, who is George’s business partner, and the tiny life inside her.

Under sudden, questionable circumstances, Carrie becomes a widow. But what can she do to survive? The harsh winter has them snowed in, and she’s trapped. Though Nevada is suspected of murdering George, Carrie is still drawn to him, and he has vowed to make sure she and the child to come have a roof over their heads.

But Nevada has secrets and a past that haunts him. Can he dare to love Carrie—or hope she might love him? The truth about George could destroy Carrie—and eventually, her child. Nevada should run while he can—if he’s locked up, he’ll die. But this new feeling of wanting to belong somewhere, to be accepted, is something he can’t put aside. Is that dream worth risking his freedom and heart for in this deadly WINTER SILENCE?


  Carrie fell asleep curled in the rocker. A little after ten, she undressed, ran her fingers over the cover on the feather bed she shared with George, and tried to convince herself to get into it where smells and memories waited. Instead, she returned to the rocker and made herself as comfortable as possible. Despite the kink in her neck, she couldn't rouse herself enough to try to do anything about it. Neither could she talk herself into extinguishing the lantern and letting darkness surround her.

When she first heard the sound, she thought a strong gust had struck the door. Then, it was repeated, hard thuds that chased all sleep from her mind. She jumped to her feet, her hand going to her throat. "Who is it?" she called out, hating the fear in her voice.

"Carrie, it's me."

Nevada. She was halfway across the room before it dawned on her that George and he couldn't have walked all the way to and from Grass Valley in this amount of time, and she couldn’t imagine Nevada turning back once he'd started something. She opened the door and let him in along with a swirl of icy wind and snow. His face in the lantern light had a slightly bruised look. His eyes, nearly buried in their deep sockets, burned with something. She should look behind him for her husband but couldn't think how to free herself from Nevada's gaze. Not for the first time his expression held her; held, and refused to let go.

"What is it?" she asked.


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Crusader for Justice: Ida B. Wells

     Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s name came up over and over as I researched the history of the women’s suffrage movement and the history of late 19th and early 20th century America. Although I haven’t included her as an actual character in a novel, I have referred to her in many of my writings. In these waning days of 2021’s Black History Month, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to one of the African American women I most admire.

     Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, as the Civil War was raging. She was one of eight children. After the war, her parents became active in Reconstruction Era politics. They recognized the importance of education and enrolled young Ida in Shaw College (later Rust College) in Holly Springs, but she was expelled after starting a dispute with the college president.

     When Ida was sixteen, both of her parents and her infant brother died in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic. She convinced a nearby school administrator that she was 18 in order to win a job as a teacher in a Black elementary school. With the help of friends and other family members, she and her paternal grandmother were able to keep the rest of her siblings together.

     In 1882, after her grandmother had a stroke and one of her sisters died, Ida’s brothers found work as carpentry apprentices. She and her remaining sisters moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with their aunt. There, Ida worked as a teacher and attended Fisk University, Lemoyne-Owen College and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1884

     After college, she continued to teach school in Memphis and began writing articles attacking Jim Crow policies under the pen name, “Iola.” A local newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight, invited her to write articles for them in 1889. She refused unless she was made an equal partner with the two male owners. They agreed and she bought a one-third interest in the enterprise. There she wrote about racial and political issues while continuing to teach at the elementary school. She was fired from her teaching job in1891 for being an outspoken critic of the conditions in the segregated schools.

     The 1892 lynching of a friend and his two business associates prompted Ida to investigate and collect information on similar cases. She traveled around the United States and in Britain, giving lectures on the horrific practice, especially in the South, of lynching Black men.  During this time, she also published articles and pamphlets condemning lynchings.  One of her editorials about the circumstances of her friend’s case enraged local whites, who mobbed her office and burned down her press. Luckily, she was in New York at the time or she might not have survived. Subsequently, she stayed in the north due to unrelenting death threats, and a few months later she moved to Chicago.

     There she met Ferdinand Barnett, an attorney and journalist who had founded Chicago’s first Black newspaper, The Conservator. He was also an established activist in their shared passion for civil rights. They married in 1895. Ida was one of the first American women to keep her maiden name. 

     In addition to Ferdinand’s two children from a previous marriage, the couple had four together. Throughout her life, Ida balanced her career in social activism with her family. She established the first kindergarten in Chicago in her local church, prioritizing Black children for admission.

     In addition to her crusade for racial equality, she worked tirelessly for the women’s rights movement. She organized the first civic club for African American women in Chicago and participated in the meeting that founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.


      Ida was strongly committed to the campaign for women’s suffrage. She believed that women should be enfranchised, but she also saw the vote as a way for Black women to elect African Americans, regardless of gender, to influential political offices. A long-time member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Ida attended the 1913 woman’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. Fearing that many white Southern women would refuse to march with Black women, the organizers decided that the African American women should march in the back.

      Refusing to follow this directive, Ida stood on the sidelines of the parade route. When the unit from Illinois approached, she stepped into the street and marched with the women of her state’s suffrage delegation.

     The U.S. government labeled her a dangerous “race agitator” and placed her under surveillance during World War I. Despite the risk, she continued traveling the country and writing articles in pursuit of civil rights. Throughout the 1920s, she pursued Urban reform in Chicago and participated in Republican party politics. However, she was disappointed by the Hoover administration’s support of segregation. In 1930, she ran as an independent for the Illinois Senate but was defeated.

     Ida began writing her autobiography in 1928 but was unable to finish it before she passed away on March 25, 1931. Her autobiography was edited by her daughter and published posthumously in 1970 as Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.

 Ann Markim







Monday, February 22, 2021

"The Earth glows again with flowers". A Medieval Spring

The seasons in turn, from a manuscript of Hildegarde of Bingen/
Spring was a longed-for season in the middle ages. After the dark and cold of winter, the lengthening days, the increasing warmth of the sun, the first showing of fresh green growth and flowers, were all savoured. Spring was the time when Easter took place, one of the most important religious festivals in medieval times and also a celebration of new life and feasting after the long fasting of Lent.

Spring was when many plants were gathered to make dyes for clothes, to transform gowns and robes. New leaves, lichens, flowers and mosses were all gathered.

People would go walking in the woodland and meadows, relishing the time outdoors. Primroses, used to decorate church altars in May to honour the Virgin Mary, were seen as the first flowers of spring. Later in spring, cowslips were gathered an made into balls by young women, keen to forecast the name of their future husbands by tossing the cowslip ball among each other while calling out men's names. When the ball fell at the feet of a girl, that could be a sign that Martha could be marrying a Tom later - and so on.

Spring flowers were also used to flavour ale or wine or food - wild garlic could be used to make garlic sauce to add variety to the very bland diet of pottages. Herbs such as rosemary were made into posies, believed to help combat the plague. Daisies, prized for their whiteness, were also used in posies.

To rid themselves of worms and other internal parasites, medieval people gathered spurge, and to supplement their sometimes meager diets men and women would gather young salad leaves from the hedgerows, such as salad burnet, sorrel, hawthorn shoots, wild radish, mint and more.

Spring was seen as a joyous season, much celebrated in poetry (my title comes from the same manuscript as the Carmina Burana), but I’ll leave that for another time.

See here.
Lindsay Townsend

Dem Bone, Dem Bones, Dem MY Bones: Finding My Great Great Grandfather

 by Patti Sherry-Crews

Battle Flag of the Irish Legion

My great, great grandfather immigrated from Co. Tyrone, Ireland, fought in the Civil War, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery in my hometown, Evanston, Illinois.

Nothing in the above statement was known to me until a few months ago. Calvary Cemetery is a long walk or a short march from my front door, by the way.

Now, why I, who grew up with generations of Evanstonians on both sides of my family, living cheek by jowl within a few blocks radius, all fond of whom were fond of telling family tales, did not know such an important fact, is somewhat of a mystery. But, we’ll talk about that later. 

I would first like to give a shout out to Find A Grave for making this post possible. If you don’t know the site, it’s a good free resource to find the graves of people, whether they are famous or not. Find A Grave is a virtual graveyard created and maintained by community volunteers. I often use this site when doing research on historical figures (e.g., dead gunslingers). Usually, there are just a few basic facts about the deceased such as dates and places of birth and death and links to their family members and a photograph of their grave. I’ve never used it to find my own dead relations, because I thought I knew everything there was to know.

Then one cold day in October I got a notification from that I had a possible hint. The hint was to a link from Find A Grave. It was the grave of my great, great grandmother, Catherine McCabe, also an Irish immigrant, who I was also clueless about. There were few scant facts about her children and where and when she was born. 

But, then I clicked on the link for her husband, Patrick H. Sherry, and wow, doing so opened a world of information. The passage about him is pretty chatty for Find A Grave—right down to his nickname, Patsie. 

 Patrick was recruited into the army in December 1862 and was assigned to Company E of the 90th Illinois Infantry. He was later transferred to Company B of the 48th Illinois Infantry still as a private. At the end of the war Patrick had attained the rank of corporal in Company F of the 65th Illinois Infantry. (Note: though his pension slip includes his service in Company of the 65th Illinois Infantry, the roster for the company notes that Corporal Patrick Sherry was a deserter in 1863. This is inconsistent with the National Park Service database as well as the fact he received a pension and was discharged in 1865.)

Patrick and his wife Catherine McCabe had four children: Patrick H. Jr, Mary Ellen Churchill, James, Francis Henry, and Margaret Catherine. Catherine and all but one of their children are interred in the lot in Section S; Patrick Jr is interred with his father in Section J. Their daughter Margaret died in 1891 at the age of seven and has a small marker to the left of the one for her father.

Regarding the location of the grave and the headstone:

When Patrick died in 1888 his family did not yet own a lot at Calvary, so he was interred in a single grave in Section J. Several years later in June 1891 Patrick's widow, Catherine, purchased a lot for the family in Section S (Block 35, Lot S12). At that time the family did not disinter Patrick and move him to the new lot, but instead ordered the veteran headstone on 5 September 1891 and placed it with the family as opposed to on his actual grave. A conjecture is that this was done to keep the family together in some form without having to disturb Patrick's final rest.

Additional note regarding locating Patrick in the Illinois Secretary of State Deaths Database: Patrick is listed as "Patsie" who died in Cook County on 24 December 1888 at age 60.

Corp P.H. Sherry Headstone, Sans Body, in the Family Plot 

That’s a lot to say about someone buried in an unmarked grave at church expense. And in my experience, much more information than the usual Find A Grave entry. Some volunteer dug deep on this one, and I am very grateful for their efforts.

I asked my husband, Bob, who is generally game for anything, if he felt like taking a ride to the cemetery. He said—and this will be significant— “Why don’t we wait a few days when it will be warmer?”  I suggested we not put it off and leave right at that moment. 

If you’re not from the Chicago area, let me describe Calvary Cemetery. It's a Catholic cemetery and relatively small for an urban cemetery, situated across Sheridan Road on the shore of Lake Michigan and sitting on the border of Evanston and Chicago. It’s a beautiful spot to go walking or biking, or to be buried, depending on what stage of life you’re in. If you’re from Chicago, you will know this cemetery as the place where the ghost of Seaweed Charlie, an aviator whose plane went down within sight of observers on the shore, but out of reach of help. Seaweed Charlie, drenched and dripping lake crud, crawls over the boulders lining the lakefront at that point, scaring drivers on Sheridan Road, before entering the iron gates of Calvary Cemetery.

Calvary Cemetery Entrance

So anyway back to my story. After a short drive, we arrived at the office of Calvary Cemetery and printed out the maps to both the family plot and the unmarked grave. Then, printouts in hand, we stepped outside. A man approached us and said he was the groundskeeper and this day was his last as he was retiring after 43 years. He offered to help us find the graves as his final act on the job. He was just getting in his truck to go home for the day when he spotted us. Had we been even a few minutes later we would’ve missed him. 

I don’t remember his name, but I’m going to call him Angel. Here was the man who literally knew where all the bodies were buried (and hopefully I will never have to use that phrase in a literal sense again). He quickly led us to the family plot, where at least there I saw some familiar names from family stories. I remembered hearing talk of the “Churchill cousins” who were right there in the family plot.

Then we followed “Angel” across the cemetery to the plot containing unmarked church burials. He called the office, and using known graves, was able to pace out and show us the very spot where my great, great grandfather and his son are buried. We never would’ve found that on our own even with a map.

Armed with the information from Find A Grave, I went on to go down many rabbit holes once I got home. I found that the National Park Service keeps a database of all the Civil War soldiers from both sides of the conflict. From here I was able to track Patrick through the Civil War, which read like a march through Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War, with many recognizable battle names. I even found a description of Patrick Sherry in the enlistment records. He is described as being 5’5” and having fair hair, grey eyes, and a “sandy complexion". Patrick first enlisted with the 90th, Illinois Infantry, known as the Irish Legion. He was 34 years old at the time.

"Irish Legion," was a special Civil War outfit, distinguished from other Illinois regiments by its formation, composition, and behavior. As Chicago's second Irish regiment, it existed directly as a result of the efforts of the Reverend Denis Dunne, pastor of Chicago's St. Patrick's Church. Father Dunne promoted the regiment's formation not only out of patriotism but also out of the desire to refute criticism that Irish Catholics were not supportive of the Union's war effort. Enlisted primarily in August and September of 1862, the regiment's members were mainly foreign-born and somewhat older than most Illinois soldiers. They marched more than 2,600 miles, mostly as members of Major General William T. Sherman's XV Army Corps, and in the process traversed seven Southern states, participating in major battles at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Resaca and Dallas, Georgia, and in three major battles around Atlanta. They were instrumental in the capture of Fort McAllister at Savannah, Georgia, following the march to the sea. After the grueling march through the Carolinas, they took part in the Grand Review in Washington, D.C. Although 356 soldiers reportedly deserted, mostly before the regiment left Chicago, the 626 remaining troops suffered in excess of 400 casualties and disabilities on behalf of the Union.

From: Swan, J.B.. (2009). Chicago's Irish legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the civil war. 1-306. 

Later, fighting with the 48th and 65th (known as the Scotch Regiment) he saw action at battles including Vicksburg and Shiloh, where half the unit was lost.

I disagree with Find A Grave on the question of whether Patrick deserted or not. I did find in the records that he deserted, but then joined his company again, forfeiting his pay, and then going on to fight to the conclusion of the war. But going through the various rosters of the companies he fought with, desertion was not uncommon. Desertion was a problem on both sides. The tedium of camp life with its poor rations and rampant disease, combined with the horrors of war and worrying about loved back home caused many to desert. How to punish deserters amid waning manpower and growing anti-war sentiment was debated. Finally, amnesty was granted to those who found their way back to the battlefield.

Reading detailed accounts of his companies action, sometimes marching for miles without shoes and little food, once wading chest deep across a cold marsh, on top of seeing some of the heaviest actions in that conflict, it’s amazing to me that he survived—that anyone survived.

Patrick Sherry on Company Roster, "Deserted"

Incidentally, my maternal great great grandfather who was also from Evanston, fought in a cavalry division of an Illinois company. Using the National Park Civil War Database, I was able to learn which conflicts he was likely involved in, including Gettysburg. He is featured in Burn’s Civil War where a letter home to Evanston from him is read.

Placing my hand on that unmarked grave that day with cold winds whipping off of Lake Michigan, I felt a profound sense of connection. I’ve been back there since, once with my sister, because I think we should never again forget where he and his first born son rest. I'll do my best to pass this knowledge on to my cousins and my children.

Finding the unmarked grave of my great great grandfather Patrick H. Sherry and his son Patrick H. Sherry Jr.

About a month later I called my 95 year old aunt to wish her a happy Thanksgiving, and I asked her if she knew her great grandfather was buried in an unmarked grave in Calvary and that he fought throughout most of the Civil War. She was as surprised to learn this as I was. We speculated on why this information was not passed down, and she said “Those Sherrys were always a fractious bunch.” Indeed, they were. In what is otherwise tightly knit branches of our family fabric, the Sherrys were the unraveled thread. Someone was always not talking to someone else, or depositing their mother in an apartment and driving off to California as fast as they could to start a new life. People hard to pin down. And now maybe we have an idea of why they were the way they were.

We now know much about PTSD in war veterans, so I wonder how his war years shaped Patsie Sherry. He died at the relatively young age of 60 years old, and his family couldn’t even afford to bury him, so one can only imagine how the family of six were scraping by. He left behind a 43 year old widow with three young children to care for. Not only did Catherine lose her husband and son, she went on to suffer the loss of her 7 year old daughter a few years after burying her husband. Clearly the family suffered more than its share of tragedy, and that was just their history after landing on American soil. Patrick and Catherine did not leave 19th century Ireland because life was kind to them there either.

It's interesting that within a few years, Catherine's fortune changed enough that she was able to afford a family plot. I'd love to know what changed. Maybe it had something to do with the Churchill cousins.

In 2016 I published my first historical western with Prairie Rose Publications, Margarita and the Hired Gun. This was a story that had been rolling around in my head decades before I sat down to write it down, and at the time it was the only historical western in my head. Sometimes as a writer, there are stories I feel there is an outside presence directing me. Margarita and the Hired Gun is one such story. While I was working on it, it was if the character of Michael AKA “Rafferty” spoke his own dialogue lines directly into my ear. 

As my great great grandfather’s life unfolded before me, I began to realize how much his life paralleled fictional Michael’s. Both men left behind a potential grim future in Ireland at the same time and found themselves in the urban jungle (New York city in one case, Chicago in the other), and both men enlisted in the Union army, and then both of them deserted! Though Patrick reenlisted to see the conclusion of the war, Michael went on to join an outlaw gang and later, became a hired gun. Both men married much younger women, and both lost a child in their lifetime.

This may have been a common path for a man immigrating from Ireland at that time in the 19th century. Joining the army during a time of anti-Irish sentiment was one viable option. But, I’d also like to think Patrick H. Sherry, a man I share DNA with, was guiding my storytelling. 

In Margarita and the Hired Gun, Michael/Rafferty is a man who has experienced all the worst that could happen to a man in both 19th century Ireland and America. He is jaded and weary of the life he's leading. But one last job promises to pay him enough that he can hang up his guns. The job is to escort a spoiled, naïve young woman, Margarita, from her home in Arizona to the safety of relatives in Colorado when her father gets caught up in shady dealings and has to flee for his life. As they travel on horseback they have many adventures, and Margarita discovers her own inner strength, while Michael remembers the man he used to be. It's a journey story. Of course, they find true love on the trail.

Free sites to find your own roots:

Find A Grave:

National Park Service Civil War Database:

Excerpt from Margarita and the Hired Gun, where Michael tells Margarita about enlisting and then deserting from the army (with mention of his desire to not end up in an unmarked grave!!!):

“You got out though. What finally happened?” asked Margarita.

“Remember I told you about the guy who coughed all night long? Jimmy was his name. One night he stopped coughing. In the morning we found him dead.” 

“That’s so sad.” 

“It was. Nobody knew his last name or anything about him. In the end he was carted off to Potter’s Field to be put in the ground in an unmarked grave. That was the day I decided I’d had enough. My mother didn’t give birth to me so I could die amid squalor and end up in an unmarked grave. I joined up with the army that day to get away.”  

“So joining the army was a good choice after all?” 

“It was a choice. I don’t know if I’d say it was a good choice. I had to leave that city. That’s all I knew. Plus, I was always looking over my shoulder in New York because I was afraid I’d run into someone who knew me.” 

“Because of what you did in Ireland?” 

“Yes, which I’m still not going to talk about. So, I signed up to fight in your war. It wasn’t long before it was discovered that I’m a crack shot.” 

“Why are you such a crack shot?” 

“That’s a story for another night. I’m discussing my war stories now. Anyway, I became a sharpshooter. There was a test you had to pass in order to become one. You had to be able to hit a ten inch circle ten times from 200 yards. Hitting the target was easy for me. Dead easy.”

“You wanted to be a sharpshooter?” 

“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I wouldn’t be involved in hand-to-hand combat like a regular solider. I got to shoot specific men from a long distance. Men who didn’t stand a chance to defend themselves. Men who had a reason to be fighting in that war, unlike me.”

 “You didn’t feel good about that, then?” 

“No. Also the sharpshooters wore different uniforms. We wore green, so we’d blend into the scenery was the reasoning. But what happened was the guys on the other side knew by our green uniform who we were. What our job was. So we were targets. That was the first time people started shooting at me. Been going on ever since.” 

“Did you ever get shot?” 

“No,” he said, sounding surprised. “Probably would’ve if I didn’t get out when I did. It wasn’t my war. I had my own war back home. I didn’t need a new war. Sleeping in the mud, killing people with no end in sight to the carnage. I deserted and made my way out west. My father didn’t raise me to die on a foreign battlefield.” 

“Is that when you became Rafferty?” 

“Not right away. There were a couple of stops in between Flynn and  Rafferty.” 

“You’ve lived a very interesting life. I can’t wait to hear more.”

 “I have lived an unfortunate life, and I’m done talking tonight. We need to sleep.” 

Margarita and the Hired Gun is available as a single title

available on Amazon

And in the collection Under a Western Sky

available on Amazon

Monday, February 15, 2021

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming . . . .

 I've missed my scheduled blog spot for the past few months -- a semester ended, with all that entails, and another one began.  So, here I am, ready or not!

It's been a rough year, folks.  I'm pleased and delighted for those among us who've been able to double down during these strange times, to read and write and create more than usual.  I'm not one of them.  Concentration's been tough, research is limited by the closure or limitations of the libraries and museums I'd be visiting, and my day job's got all sorts of new complications.  When I teach my classes, I stand in front of a room, wearing a mask, and some students are there in person, and others are beaming into class online, and there's been lots of new technology enabling this to happen.The tutoring program I run has moved from fully in person to fully online for the duration, and is likely to settle into a mixed format when we reach the other side of this. Writing is getting done, and reading, and etc., but not at the pace I'd like.

So have this fabulous poster that one of our department administrators made for a talk I'm giving to my department this Wednesday.  I'll be back next month to post about it.   (And yes, my pen name's pretty much an easier-to-spell version of my real name.  Now you know.  😉 )


Friday, February 12, 2021

A Tale of Two Women and One Castle


A Tale of Two Women and One Castle – The Ladies of Dunbar - Part One

(Ruins of Castle Dunbar)

 I had intended this blog to be about one castle and two valiant women.  Only, these are ladies I have long admired, thus I cannot keep their roles in history brief.  With an eye to showcasing each, I will present them in two parts.  I think they have earned that.

In In my second blog on women, famous or infamous ancestors, and how history can shift the view on their roles in the past or ignore them, I will be talking about two special women and one castle.  These women, both my direct ancestors, both valiantly defended their castle, the same one—Dunbar Castle.  While a ruins today, Dunbar was one of the strongest fortresses in all of Scotland.  Situated on a prominent position overlooking the harbor town of Dunbar in East Lothian, this castle played a pivotal part in Scottish history throughout the medieval era.  The first woman held this castle in a siege against the king of England—and her own husband.  Then, nearly forty years later, another woman—countess of the same castle and daughter-in-law of the first—held out against another siege by the English for six months and won.  These acts of defiance earn one a near legend, while the other is all but forgotten by historians.

When I got my first computer, I was amazed at the access to research online.  Instead of hands on investigations of days, weeks, months of going to specific places to research documents (IF you were permitted access), suddenly, you could do the same amount of work in a matter of a few minutes.  It was a researcher’s dream come true!  No more “limited access” to vital records because of their age, no expensive traveling, and no more time drain.

One of the first projects I posted online was my research into Marjorie Comyn, Countess of Dunbar and March (my 25th great-grandmother).  Marjorie came from Scottish nobility on both sides of her family. Daughter of Alexander Comyn, 2nd earl of Buchan and Elizabeth de Quincy (daughter of Sir Roger de Quincy, earl of Winchester), Marjorie married Cospatrick Dunbar, 8th earl of Dunbar, 7th earl of March (an ancient lineage going back to the original warrior kings of the Scots).  Cospatrick carried the nickname "Blackbeard the Competitor" for he was one of thirteen men vying for the crown of the Scots in 1290, after the deaths of Alexander III and his only heir the Maid of Norway.

(Crest of Clan Comyn)

Cospatrick's strongest opposition was from Robert the Bruce (King Robert I’s grandfather), John Balliol (who eventually won by Edward Longshanks' decree) and John "the Black" Comyn, Lord of Badenoch.  All had direct lines going back to David, earl of Huntingdon, who had been prince and heir to the crown, making this basically a family dispute!  These challengers, having rather similar lineages, each claimed they held the right to rule Scotland.  In the vacuum of no clear path to crowning a monarch, King Edward declared himself “overlord” to Scotland.  The contenders yielded to him on this point, each hoping he would then back their bid to be Scotland’s new king.  Without realizing the enormity and future repercussions of the move, they made the error of going to Edward and laying their claims before his consideration, asking him to be the judge.

(Crest of Dunbar)

Edward was considered a great legal mind.  Many of the legal reforms that are still used today originated with him.  While he might have loved the legal system, he had one single focus above all: uniting the kingdoms of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland—and France—under one crown—his.  When the Scots nobles deferred to Edward to rule who should be king of the Scots, Edward seized the opportunity to flex that power.  In the end, Edward chose John Balliol.  John Black Comyn and John Balliol were both trying to snatch the crown, but they were also close kinsmen.  Being of an incisive mind, Edward knew Black Comyn was no man to be controlled.  To further his own aims, Edward thought by choosing Balliol he could unite the majority of Scotland behind King John, after all Clan Comyn was one of the most powerful clans in the Highlands.  Balliol proved as malleable as Edward assumed, and he ended up bending knee to Edward as his overlord.  If the nobles thought this would be the end to the question of who ruled Scotland, they soon learned the English monarch had other ideas.  He used every excuse to yank on the puppet strings attached to Balliol.  Edward's excessive demands for men and money to support the upcoming war with France placed the new Scottish king in an impossible position. Balliol was left with little choice but to rebel, and to seek an agreement to a mutual defense pact with France.  Edward Longshanks' machinations and deliberate humiliations of King John would push the barons to finally say enough!  Balliol—prodded by the Comyns—found spine enough to defy Edward (likely what the king of England wanted to happen all along, thus giving him the excuse to invade Scotland).  Both Robert Bruce “the Competitor” and Cospatrick sought to curry favor with the English King, each thinking to offer themselves as a replacement for Balliol.

In this swirling toxic mix of political strife, Marjorie’s marriage only complicated matters.  Her father was Alexander Comyn, 6th earl of Buchan, both he and her brother wanted the crown for themselves.  Since the men were close kin to Balliol, they eventually backed his claim.  However, the man she married, Cospatrick earl of Dunbar and March, was also a contender, and he was not letting go of his ambition to be king so easily.  He rode at Edward’s side when the king of England came northward with his army of 10,000 infantry and 1000 heavy-horse.

Marjorie stood on the curtain wall, waving bye bye to her lord husband.  There in the spring of 1296, she was now commander of a fortress smack in the middle of the English army and the Scottish army.  Her husband was in charge of part of the English forces under Balliol’s father-in-law John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey.  Her brother and uncle, and a slew of cousins, were commanders in Balliol’s army.

I suppose Cospatrick chauvinistically assumed his lady wife would abide by his decision to side with Edward Longshanks, and carry out his wishes.  He failed to consider his wife was a true Scots lass, bred to think and act on her own.  She was Marjorie Comyn, after all, not Marjorie Dunbar, in the tradition of Scottish females keeping their maiden name, instead of assuming their husband’s surname.  After the horrible sacking of Castle Berwick, where three days of killing left the town filled with thousands of dead Scots—men, women and children—word spread like wildfire throughout the Highlands. Marjorie was determined her people would not suffer a similar fate.

In Medieval times, women often were in charge of fortresses and castles while their husbands went off to war or the Crusades.  They had to deal with getting crops out, and harvesting them so their people had food enough for the winter.  They were responsible for commanding the fortress troops to keep their people safe.  They had to deal law locally, maintain the peace, and manage with taxes and more.  The portrait of the damsel in distress, waving her kerchief from the castle bastion and waiting for a valiant knight to save her, was as much a myth back then as it is now.  Women had to be capable, self-reliant, politically savvy, able to command soldiers and have a just mind to deal with day-to-day grievances of her vassals and villeins.  With that in mind, I’m not certain why Cospatrick failed to heed what his wife’s reaction would be to his presence at Edward’s side when Berwick was slaughtered—especially when she knew those same troops would soon fight her family, her clan.  Cospatrick intended she hold the castle against the Scots—her brothers, uncle and cousins—until Edward came with his army.  There they would rest and refit before the battle brewing nearby.

 April 1296 found Cospatrick in Berwick, a town littered with thousands of rotting corpses.  Edward had commanded the defeated citizens rot in place as a warning to the Scots of what happened to a town when they defied the mighty king of England.  Cospatrick was attending the council of war convened by Edward when tides came that Marjorie had handed over his castle to her brother, John Comyn of Buchan. One can imagine how Cospatrick felt.  He lived in a strange mix of fear and awe of Edward Plantagenet.  Edward’s view on women was well known. Here, Cospatrick was hoping to curry favor with the king, on the chance Edward would put the crown of Scotland on his head, to that goal, he had pledged Dunbar Castle for Edward’s forward base of operations.  The castle was vital to Edward’s plans since it lay on the road that went straight to Edinburgh.  Suddenly, the rug was yanked from beneath his feet!  His lady wife had defied him and was supporting the Scottish forces.  I am sure Cospatrick knew his chance of ever being king of the Scots died with the news of Marjorie’s defiance.  Edward was forced to change his plans and send John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey, and William de Beauchamp, 9th Earl of Warwick (the latter a veteran of Edward’s campaigns in Wales) northward with the express purpose of retaking the castle. On the 25th of April, one-third of Edward’s force marched out of Berwick with a brigade of 400 heavy cavalry and 4500 infantry.

Can you imagine the embarrassment of the mighty earl of Dunbar and March?  A man who dreamt of being king of Scotland, and seeing that objective within grasp only to learn his lady wife was destroying his ambition—not only defying him, but defying his king?  Edward demanded the castle taken before the coming battle.  It didn’t happen.  Marjorie refused to yield. The troops had arrived late in the day on April 26th.  Edward Longshanks and her husband were forced to deal with being locked out.  Already undermanned due to her husband stripping the fortress of men to fight for Edward, Marjorie used her disobedience to buy time to get her people out by the sea. Edward ordered Cospatrick to retake his own castle.  He was impatient to see the deed done before they engaged the Scottish army. 

(Dunbar Castle 1296)

I suppose her brother and uncle hoped to catch the English in the midst of trying to take the castle.  On the sunny, but cold spring morn of the 27th, the Scottish host was camped near Doon Hill.  Comyn, Lord Badenoch could easily see Warenne’s army, marching on the road to Spott Village.  Dust raised by the men and horses would have signaled where the English forces were a mile away.  The Comyns were confident in their numbers, but failed to take into account they lacked heavy horse, archers, and their infantry was hardly more than farmers with pitchforks and axes.  Compared to well-seasoned warriors and shock troops in the English army, doom rode on the horizon.  The Scots didn’t stand a chance.  Comyn’s single plan of battle was a full frontal attack.  The whole battle was over in less than an hour.  Hundreds —thousands, if you believe some English historians—of Scots lay dead on the battlefield, and nearly all of Scottish nobility was taken prisoner to be sent south for trial.

(Battle of Dunbar 1296)

That left Edward to turn his attention back to Dunbar castle.  Some sources say the castle just surrendered when Edward rode up to the gates after the battle had been won.  However, his exchequer receipts hint at a different story. Edward paid for “repairs, restocking and refitting” and for the English troops to remain behind and secure the castle.  Since Edward was a pinchpenny, it is doubtful he would have paid such large sums had the fortress not been severely damage during the retaking.

There are only a few references to the storming of the castle, and even less about Marjorie’s fate.  The great Scottish author Nigel Tranter featured the Dunbars heavily in several of his novels, and even made mention of Marjorie’s defiance in his Scottish Castles: Tales and Traditions.  Still, he made no mention of her fate.  I was honored to develop a bit of email correspondence with him on the topic, just before his death.  He was just learning the internet, still puzzled by it, and said it might take time to answer my questions about Marjorie’s fate.  Sadly, he died before he could reply with his thoughts.

Through the years, I met Scottish historians who traveled in my grandfather’s circle. The “lit test” I used to weed out people, who truly knew their history from the ones that just repeated the works of others, was by posing this: “What happened to Marjorie Comyn, Countess of Dunbar and March in 1296?”. Sadly, most never tried to follow up with an answer.  One came to me at a party and said Marjorie went back north to Clan Comyn and died in 1308.  I busted that bubble.  That was Marjorie’s daughter—Margaret, also called Marjorie—who was a teen at the time.  Historians keep getting all the Cospatricks/Patricks and Marjorie/Marjorys mixed up.  Her daughter did escape and go back to Clan Comyn and lived a long life, marrying William Douglas, earl of Douglas.  Another man, a professor of Scottish History—emailed me with a photocopy of a record, retelling of her death, recorded 1286.  No.  That is incorrect.  Since Marjorie was holding the castle against her husband and his king in 1296, she could hardly have been dead 10 years earlier.  I pointed out how similar an 8 and 9 could look when done by a hand using pen and ink.  I even had one tell me she was alive and signed the Ragman Roll in August 1296.  There is only one name for Dunbar and March.  Patricio de Dunbar et Marchia.  I was never certain if he was outright lying, trying to trip me up for not knowing who was on the document, or he was just running a bluff, hoping I would defer and not call him on it.  Cospatrick did die in 1308, so I think some just ascribe the date to Marjorie, too.  I even had one tell me she died in 1358 and he had her bearing children in her late 60s.  Humm…no….lol.

(List of Names in Ragman Roll showing only Cospatrick of Dunbar and March)

It was always my contention she died either in the siege of the castle or sometime shortly thereafter.   I make reference to Marjorie’s defiance and the question of her fate in my first novel, A Restless Knight.

“What shame for Cospatrick.  He curries favor at the English’s side, thinking Edward might consider him as the next king of the Scots, whilst the Lady Marjorie commands Castle Dunbar.  She be a Comyn born and bred, daughter to Buchan.”

“Aye, she sided with her brother and father, turning the castle over to the Scots.  Battle took place.  Though outnumbered three times over, Warenne’s troops are battle-hardened horsemen, veterans from campaigns in Wales and Flanders.  They held and repulsed the Scots.  After that, the Scots crumbled.  Edward ordered Cospatrick to invest Castle Dunbar.  The castle fell...”

“And the Lady Marjorie?”

He hoped Tamlyn would not empathize too strongly with Marjorie Comyn, Lady Dunbar.  “No one knows for sure.  Some of Dunbar’s people escaped, using tunnels to the sea.  Possibly, she slipped out with them, and has returned north to the Comyn stronghold in the Highlands.”

Tamlyn shivered.  “Or she was in the castle when it was stormed?  Many mislike the Earl Dunbar.  His persecution of True Thomas be nigh well legend.  Pride wouldst not stand the disgrace of his countess handing his castle over to her kin.”


Great strides are being made since the internet to reexamine and correct bad history.  For centuries, and in the movie Braveheart, William Wallace’s father was named as Malcolm Wallace.  Just recently, they turned over Wallace’s great seal from when he was Guardian of Scotland, and lo!—was “William Wallace son of Alan Wallace”.  All these years they had it wrong!  To my excitement, in the past few years, I am finally seeing sources listing Marjorie’s death as 29th April, 1296 and at Dunbar Castle, Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland.  The battle of Dunbar was on the 27th, two days before.  This new information fits with my long held belief that Marjorie died either defending her castle and people, or was killed afterward, and her death hushed up because it would have been a rallying cry for Clan Comyn.

She was a valiant lady who defended and saved many of her people, who did make it northward to Clan Comyn because of her.  She defied a husband and a king—and likely died for it.  Now history largely has erased her heroic effort.  She was a true brave heart!  She was forty-years-old when she died.

In Part two of The Ladies of Dunbar, I will tell you of another countess of Dunbar—daughter-in-law of Marjorie, who was just as stubborn and savvy, who once again held the castle against the English.  So until next month, I will leave you with the Dunbar motto “In Promptu”, which means “In Readiness”.  I do believe Marjorie did those words honor.

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