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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

How Homesteaders Shaped the West

    With a stroke of his pen, on May 20, 1862 Abraham Lincoln opened millions of federally owned lands in the American west for settlement. On that day, he signed the Homestead Act into law. Carl Sandburg referred to this statute as offering "a farm free to any man who wanted to put a plow into unbroken sod."  Consistent with the prevailing philosophy of eminent domain, the Homestead Act had two main goals: to give the government a way to sell off its land to ordinary citizens, and to assure that the land would be used in an economically efficient manner.

Homestead Act - National Archives

 Citizens and immigrants who had applied for citizenship were eligible to file a claim to 160 acres of surveyed federal land as long as they had never borne arms against the United States government. Additionally, applicants had to be a “head of family” or, if single, at least 21 years of age. Thus, the Act was egalitarian in that it allowed Blacks, former slaves, immigrants, and some women a chance to find success in the western lands. Women who were single, widowed, divorced, or deserted were eligible, but those who were married were discriminated against for claiming land in their own name unless they could prove that they were the heads of their households.

Homestead Application - National Archives

     Once the government designated territory as available, homesteaders found a plot of land and filed their claims at the regional land office. They paid a filing fee of $18, which consisted of $10 to make a temporary claim on the land, $2 for commission to the land agent, and a $6 payment to receive an official title. To earn this final title, settlers had to live for five continuous years on the land. Union soldiers could reduce this residency requirement by an amount of time equal to their time of service in the Civil War. Settlers also had to build a house, at least twelve by fourteen feet, on the land and cultivate at least ten acres. Two neighbors or friends had to attest to the government that these requirements had been fulfilled. Land titles could also be purchased from the government for $1.25 per acre following six months of proven residency.

     Thousands of women claimed free land in the Great Plains. The majority of female homesteaders were young and single, looking for adventure and/or independence, and seeking personal financial gain.  

Woman's Claim in Broken Bow, NE - Library of Congress

     Several years ago, I researched women in nontraditional roles in the late nineteenth century for a novel I was writing. Since then, this topic has intrigued me and I have included it in two of my stories. The main character in my current work-in-progress is a woman who homesteads in South Dakota. In a previous novel, one of my secondary female characters claimed title to a homestead in Wyoming.

     Between 1862 and 1916, a series of laws were passed to provide incentives for people to move west. Collectively, these laws are referred to as the Homestead Acts.

      In the 1870s, racism in the Reconstruction South spurred many former slaves to move north and west, taking advantage of the Homestead Act. Before the Civil War, Kansas had a reputation of supporting abolition, making it an attractive destination for many southern blacks who expected to find freedom and justice there.  Former slaves who settled in Kansas were called “exodusters,” and the migration was referred to as the “Great Exodus.” Blacks considered their movement to be similar to the Hebrews’ journey across the desert from slavery to freedom in the Book of Exodus.

"Exodusters" - Library of Congress
     Both black and white leaders in the South encouraged this migration. In the decade from 1869 to 1879, 27,000 blacks moved to Kansas and several exclusively black settlements emerged. An article in an 1879 issue of the Topeka Colored Citizen declared, “Our advice…to the people of the South, Come West, Come to Kansas…in order that you may be free from the persecution of the rebels. If blacks come here and starve, all well. It is better to starve to death in Kansas than to be shot and killed in the South.”

      In 1887, the Dawes Severalty Act was passed. The aim of this law was to break up Indian reservation holdings as well as the tribes themselves by inducing them to integrate into the general society.  Under the provisions of this statute, tribal lands were broken up into 160-acre allotments, and any individual who agreed to claim a plot and leave reservation lands would become an American citizen. Congressman Henry Dawes believed this act had a “civilizing effect on Indians because it forced them to cultivate land, live in European-inspired houses, ride in Studebaker wagons…(and) own property.” 

Native Americans were Pressured to Assimilate - National Park Service

       This law was stacked against the Native Americans. As a result, they lost land holdings and the bargaining power of tribes was diminished. Additionally, many individuals who had taken homestead plots lacked funds to buy the tools and supplies they needed for farming start-up so they went into debt and eventually lost their claims to speculators.

     Life on a homestead was difficult, no matter the claimant’s race, gender or background. Many settlers had little previous farming experience, and homesteaders had to supply their own farming tools, which could involve considerable expense. Prairie fires, strong winds, harsh weather extremes, plagues of grasshoppers and prolonged droughts could destroy an entire year’s worth of crops. On the open grasslands, first homes often had to be built out of sod due to a lack of trees and the cost of shipping in lumber. Failures were common, with many homesteaders declaring bankruptcy or simply abandoning the land claim.

       Homesteading declined significantly in 1934 with the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, which regulated grazing on federal public lands. By then, approximately 270 million acres were claimed and farmed under the Homestead Act. 

     In his 1962 message to Congress on conservation, President John F. Kennedy stated, "One hundred years ago the Congress passed the Homestead Act, probably the single greatest stimulus to national development ever enacted."

     The Homestead Act and its impact on the United States is celebrated at the Homestead National Historical Park in Beatrice, Nebraska. More information can be found on their website:

Ann Markim




Monday, May 24, 2021

Medieval Justice - Trial by Ordeal

Ordeal by fire, from a German manuscript of the late 12th. century AD
Murders and other crimes happened in the Middle Ages but there was no formal police force and no forensics, no great interest in clues. So how did medieval people decide whether someone was guilty or innocent?

What mattered was what the community in which the crime took place thought. If you could produce witnesses you could vouch for your good character, and from Anglo-Saxon times status counted, so a thegn's evidence - like his life - was legally worth more than a churl's. Those accused of a crime who were unwilling to pay the standard fine could also hope to clear their names by swearing oaths to God - this was popular in the early Middle Ages and called ‘compurgation‘: a person accused of a crime swore on oath that he or she was innocent and often had a number of associates swear the oath with him to 'prove' guilt or innocence. This system was understandably open to abuse, so by the ninth century the church actively backed another way to reveal God's judgment in any crime - by means of the ordeal.

An ordeal was precisely that - a trial the accused could undergo to submit to the divine and so prove they were not guilty. The term ordeal has the meaning of "judgment, verdict" in old English and in the Middle Ages many believed they were genuinely submitting to the judgment of God.

In the ordeal of boiling water, a man would plunge his hand or arm into a cauldron of boiling water, after which the hand would be bound up, sealed with the seals of the church and then left. After three days the bandages would be removed and if the man showed signs of scalding he would be pronounced guilty.

There was also an ordeal by fire, where a person had to carry a red hot iron (weighing one pound in the late tenth century, or three pounds for the ‘threefold ordeal’) for a certain distance. Again the suspect’s hand was bound up and later examined to pronounce innocence or guilt. There were ordeals of cold water, similar to the later practice of ducking a witch. In the Assize of Clarendon in 1166, the law of England stated: "anyone, who shall be found, on the oath of the aforesaid [a jury], to be accused or notoriously suspect of having been a robber or murderer or thief, or a receiver of them ... be taken and put to the ordeal of water."

There was also ordeal by combat, also known as 'trial by battle', a way of ‘proving’ guilt or innocence that was much favoured throughout the Middle Ages. Introduced into England by the Normans, the earliest case in which trail by battle is recorded was Wulfstan v. Walter (1077), eleven years after the Conquest, possibly between a Saxon and a Norman. By the 12th century it was the way nobles would often settle disputes. The parties fought on a duelling ground and swore before they began that they had not used witchcraft to help them.

Women were usually banned from taking part in such trials but not always, a detail I exploit in one of my novels. In parts of Germany a woman might fight a man in a trial of battle if the man had one hand tied behind his back. Lepers were banned from fighting in ordeals but hired champions could sometimes be used - these were usually desperate men, since they could be killed in the ordeal of battle, or afterwards hanged or lose a hand or foot if they were judged to have lost. In medieval France the professional champion was seen in the same way as a prostitute.

Of all the ordeals, trial by battle remained in force the longest - it was not abolished in England until as late as 1819.

I touch on trials and ordeals in my novel Dark Maiden, during a tense exchange between my heroine Yolande, hero Geraint and false prophet Peter.


She did not believe a word but marveled at how artfully it was done. Yolande pretended to pay close attention as Jehan, the leader of the new arrivals, swore that Geraint had set upon a man at the spring fair on the Great North Road. A man with drab hair and countenance, Jehan nonetheless gave a thrilling account of a savage attack that had left Geraint’s victim with two broken legs. Joan moaned when, gesticulating furiously for emphasis, Jehan went on to explain that Geraint had stolen his victim’s gold crucifix.

“Search my husband’s things,” Yolande rapped out. “You will find nothing of that kind in his pack.”

Peter touched her shoulder. “He will already have sold it.”

“Then let him stand trial.” She tore herself free of Peter’s slimy hold.

The folk gathered to meet the newcomers sucked in their breath. Yolande took advantage of the silence. “You have iron here, yes? Let him swear upon the iron.”

She spoke loudly enough for Geraint to hear then inhaled a deep, steadying breath.

My honeyman guessed this man would make mischief and so did I, though I never expected Peter to accuse him of such a crime . Let me see what Peter does now. Iron is Christ’s metal, so will he use it? Will he allow Geraint to swear upon it?

But what if Peter insists upon a trial by ordeal, maybe even ordeal by fire?

“You are deluded, my poor creature.” Peter pursed his lips and those gathered close echoed his gesture.

“Not an ordeal by iron.” Jehan flicked a spider from his sparse brown mop. “The knave is an entertainer, a juggler. Those people have all kinds of tricks to fool honest folk.”

Joan sighed. “You never told me Geraint was a juggler.”

Theodore stepped forward. “Commander, I juggled for my lady before I was freed by coming here.”

“And no one doubts you, Theodore,” said Peter. If he had noticed the glance of admiration Joan sent Theodore, Yolande surmised he would be too wise to show it. Peter was after Geraint, the mocking threat to his vision, the man unmoved by fleshly raptures. Minnows like Theodore could be dealt with later.

“He stuck a knife in that merchant,” said Jehan, twisting an imaginary knife. His sour face grew greedy. “We should swim him in the river. Swim them both.”

“And what is the man’s name?” Yolande stepped away from Peter and stalked around, scanning faces as she spoke. “Why can you not tell me at once, Jehan? Is it because you need time to invent one?” She whipped a fist into her gown and brought out her dagger, holding it aloft. “Here is Geraint’s knife. He loaned it to me to cut kindling. There is no blood on it.”

“Because he cleaned it first,” said Peter, a trace of white spittle appearing at the corner of his mouth.

His certainty might have worried Yolande but she knew Geraint. And I lied. This is my knife and I have not stabbed anyone. “You accuse him to my face, Commander?”

“Your loyalty does you credit,” said  Peter and a cloud of yellow steam snaked from his lips. Yolande scented sulfur and glanced at Theodore. He was watching Peter, but he was puzzled, not alarmed. Theo’s doubts grow but still he is not afraid. He and the others do not see what I can.

She wondered if Geraint, hiding on the hill above, could see the winding sulfur.

Pride and certainty, bedmates of the devil. How has Peter hidden this from me?

A breeze sprang up, wafting the stench at her. She choked, clamped her teeth together and pulled away, not wanting the yellow to touch her.

It may harm my baby.

“You are wrong,” said Peter and beside him Jehan smirked. Sulfur rolled from Peter over the taller man, embraced him like a lover. Jehan wallowed in the stink, a man bathing in foulness.

Still grinning, Jehan pointed. “Wrong, black girl, wrong as sin.” His broken teeth showed as he made a grab for her. About him the snaking yellow fog billowed, cradling Peter and himself, linking them in shrouds of dismal gold.

At the edge of her sight, Yolande saw Joan frowning at Jehan and looking questioningly at Peter, but the young serf woman was too habituated in obedience to protest. Theodore’s angry “Not so!” was ignored.

Jehan jeered at her, plumes of sulfur spurting from his lips and gilding his molting fur cloak. “Did you think we would not find out about you and your thief of a husband?”

“He has abandoned you,” said Peter. Spots of sulfur condensed in his hair, making it appear for an instant as if he had sprouted horns.

“Never.” Yolande wanted to turn her back on the baleful pair but dare not. These two are the pits of malice in this place. Two evil bringers, not one. It is summoned when they are together. Trembling, she forced her arms to make a protective cross over her belly but her mind was a blank parchment and she could not pray. What if they hurt my unborn child?

Others were taking up Jehan’s wicked call. “Wrong, black , wrong, black,” they chanted, stamping and clapping.

“Swim them, swim them both,” called Jehan. Another gout of sulfur spewed from him.  When he clapped, his palms glowed red, hellfire red.

“It is finished,” Peter agreed, his words a mockery of Christ’s suffering upon the cross, his face sheathed in yellow fog.

The pair glanced at each other. She knew that in a moment they would set the company on her.

“Where is he?” Jehan shouted above the rising tumult. “Where is your filthy Welshman?”

The insult braced her and she thumbed at Peter. “He says my man has gone, but look!”

People always follow an outstretched arm. She understood that from her time as exorcist and from Geraint’s as a performer. She flung her hope at the forest, a last diversion.

A pine tree crackled into flame. “The dragon comes!” To the sound of Joan’s screaming, Yolande ran straight through the middle of the stricken group.


Lindsay Townsend

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Women of Bruce - Part 2 - Isabel Macduff, countess of Buchan, a woman who crowned a king

Isabella Macduff Comyn's life was not a happy one. 

It didn't start happy. And in spite of one bright shining moment in time, it didn't end happy. 

Isabella Macduff, heir to the earldom of Fife and countess of Buchan by marriage, was born at Methil, Fifeshire, Scotland sometime around 1275-80 to the 3rd earl of Fife, Donnchadh Macduff, and his English wife, Johanna de Clare, daughter of Gilbert de Clare, 7th earl of Gloucester and 6th earl of Hertford (He later divorced his first wife and married Edward Plantagenet’s sister).  By hapchance, Isabella was also a cousin to two very powerful men, both Scottish earls—one she married by a king's decree, and one she made a king.  A pretty Scots lass with bright red hair, the poor lass was but a pawn in the center of games of power and building kingdoms.  I seriously doubt anyone ever asked Isabella what she wanted out of life—not in childhood, not in her teen years, and certainly not in her final years as a woman.

Macduff Castle

Isabella's father was a vicious man; hence few were hardly surprised when in 1289 while on his way to Dunfermline, the earl was murdered at Pittillock by his own clansmen.  In fear, the English Johanna de Clare took her son (Isabella’s younger brother, Duncan) and fled to England where the two were welcomed warmly by Edward I.  Oddly, Isabella, not even eight-years-old, was left behind to be raised in Scotland—possibly because she was the eldest child, and in old Pictish tradition, was the heir of her father, and with that in mind, clan Macduff was not about to let her leave clan control.  Little is recorded of her upbringing.  My heart breaks thinking of young Isabella living alone, men governing her life, her destiny, while her mother and brother thrived lavishly at the English Court.

By decree of Edward I, king of England, and papal dispensation since they were cousins, Isabella was married in her teens to John Black Comyn, 3rd earl of Buchan, a man over twenty years her senior.  John was the head of one of the most powerful families in Scotland.  The son of Alexander Comyn, 2nd earl of Buchan, he was also nephew to John Balliol, king of Scotland. His sister was the valiant Marjorie Comyn, countess of Dunbar and March, about whom I have previously written.  In Comyn marrying the heiress of another influential clan—this time the ancient one of Macduff—you see a pattern repeated for centuries by Comyn males.  They married heiresses, in their own right, drawing these powerful holdings into the Comyn honours, ever increasing and widening their power base and control of the northern half of Scotland.  It’s hard to judge, outside the prestige and lands that Isabella brought to the union, if John cared for his young bride.  They were wed in 1290, the same year as John’s father died, making him the 3rd earl of Buchan, but it was seven years later before Isabella produced their first child—a daughter she named Isabel.  I am reasonably sure John resented Isabella hadn’t produced a son and heir.  History almost ignores the existence of this daughter, and it’s clear John certainly tried.  However, documents in Edward II’s daily papers dated 3rd  December 1308 make references of the female child’s presence, controlling her future and lands, and later, a marriage to the son of Reginald le Chayne, Justiciar of Scotia, so there is little denying her place in history.

Inverlocky Castle, a Comyn stronghold

During the Scottish War for Independence, the Comyns—backers of John Balliol (their cousin and uncle)—led the Scottish host at Dunbar, fighting against King Edward.  In spite, they were smart enough: they had half of the clan support Balliol, while the other half stayed home or rode with the English.  John, on the side fighting against Longshanks, was captured and sent to the Tower of London as prisoner in April 1296. Regardless, Edward was always quick to make peace where it benefitted him.  He was planning an invasion of France, and thus needed the most influential clan in Scotland on his side and to supply him men and coin.  After the Scottish defeat, and time as prisoner in the Tower of London, you see the earl of Buchan pledging allegiance to Longshanks and reclaiming his lands.  John’s name was on the Ragman Roll in August 1296 at Berwick, swearing his fealty to Edward:


Comyn comes de Bouchan, Dominus Johannes
(Johan Comyn comte de Bouchan)


There’s no mention of Isabella being with him.  Likely, she was pregnant, and since it was one of the hottest and driest summers ever, and conditions of Berwick on Edward's command saw bodies from the 3-day sack back in April still lying, rotting on the ground, John might not have wanted to risk Isabella losing the baby.  In my first Challon novel, A Restless Knight, I make reference to these vile conditions, when Julian and Tamlyn were summoned to Berwick, and how this situation was deliberately created by Edward’s orders to force the nobility of Scotland to witness what happened to a town when they defied him.

Outside the date of birth of her daughter, Isabella was largely ignored by history at this point.  Just another woman given in marriage as a reward to a powerful lord.  Only, the battle of cousins would soon shape her destiny, and forevermore forge her name into the legend and lore of Scotland. 

Her husband’s cousin (and yes, her cousin, too) was also named John Comyn— John Comyn III of Badenoch, called John the Red or Red Comyn.  In the vacuum of Longshanks removing John Balliol from the throne of Scotland, the Comyns assumed control of the northern two-thirds of the country—ruling in Balliol’s name—of course.  Red Comyn, after all, was the grandson of Balliol.  However, as time passed, the mighty Comyn men began to see there would be no hope for returning Toom Taber—the nickname Longshanks hung on Balliol after stripping him of ceremonial regalia of Scotland—ever be king again.   The empty throne saw the eyes of both John Comyns on that prize.   

John "Red" Comyn, Lord Badenoch

Still, they weren’t the only ones with the same desire—another cousin—Robert de Brus (Bruce), the young earl of Carrick, possessed that very dream in his heart and was resolute to undo the crowning of Balliol in 1292.  The Bruces had firmly believed Edward I would rule in favor of Robert’s grandfather, the 5th lord of Annandale instead of Balliol.  After all, the man had been designated as heir by decree by King Alexander II at one point.  Since Alexander had produced no sons, he placed the eldest Bruce in the line of succession as heir presumptive in 1238, and he was to follow the king should anything happen to him.  A heartbeat away from the dazzling prospect of being sovereign of the Scots created a fire in Annandale, which carried over to his son the 6th lord, and now the same hunger grew inside Robert Bruce, the grandson.  Robert was raised tri-lingual, considered one of three men as the first knights of Christendom, had been polished in courtly ways, educated in diplomacy, handsome, arrogant, yet smart enough to play a waiting game—and filled with the belief God intended him to be Scotland’s king.

Some consider the triumph at the Battle of Stirling Bridge was more a victory under the guidance of Sir Andrew de Moray of Bothwell than William Wallace.  Moray died of wounds sustained in the battle, so the credit went and still goes to Wallace.  That assumption of Moray's military brilliance is upheld for at the Battle of Falkirk, when Wallace led the Scottish army alone, the battle had been lost.  After the defeat, Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland and left the country.  In an effort to balance the power, both Red Comyn and Robert Bruce were named Co-Guardians of Scotland. 

Since both men were single-minded to wear the crown of the Scots, the idea of them working together was doomed from the outset.  One incident clearly demonstrates how impossible the situation was between the two men.  At a meeting after Wallace resigned, a knight—Sir David Graham—a Comyn supporter, demanded the lands of Wallace be forfeit and given to him since Wallace had left the country without the permission of the Guardians.  Wallace's brother—Sir Malcolm Wallace—refuted this claim.  He knew his brother was actually on a mission for Bishop Wishart in France, and then on to Italy, trying to bring the King of France and the Pope to side with the Scots against the king of England.  Bruce ruled in favor of Malcolm Wallace.  This in turn set David Graham and Malcolm Wallace to fighting with more than words.  Out of the blue, Red Comyn leapt for the throat of Bruce and began strangling him!  James Stuart, 5th High Steward of Scotland, and others had to drag Red Comyn away from Bruce.  Soon after, Comyn refused to be a Guardian if Bruce remained one; then Bruce said there was no working with Comyn, and quit in 1300.

There is an old Scottish saying: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  That was never so proven as in this time in Scotland’s history.  The Bruces had been firmly in Edward's camp, while the Comyns were on the Scottish side backing John Balliol, their kinsman.  Edward felt he held control over young Robert.  Not surprising since the king had even gifted Robert with a new bride—Elizabeth de Burgh, Edward’s goddaughter.  Only, like many ruthless monarchs through the ages, Edward was growing suspicious of his councilors.  And though he showed great favoritism toward Robert–even paying his debts when Bruce lands had been seized for refusing to pay fealty to John Balliol—he was increasingly mistrustful about the loyalties of both Bruces. After Edward removed Balliol, Robert's father, Lord Annandale prodded Longshanks to rectify his mistake by placing him on the throne.  Edward was said to sneer and reply that he had better things to do than win a kingdom for Annandale.  Ever since, Edward held the Bruces close, yet never fully trusted them.  And in the case of being paranoid doesn't mean that someone isn't out to get you—Robert was working behind the scenes against Edward's interest.


(yeah, it's Patrick McGoohan playing Longshanks, but I think he did him so well)

Around 1305, Robbie had entered into secret negotiations with Red Comyn—a deal, that they help each other.  Not one of Bruce’s brighter plans!  One would resign their claim to the kingship, leaving the path clear for the other to seize the crown.  In return, the one giving up the claim would receive all the lands and titles of the other.  Comyn had another idea.  Through the backdoor came Red Comyn, plotting to make another deal for the crown.  He turned over these letters from Robert, outlining the details of their pact, in which Comyn basically agreed to step aside so Robert could be crowned king.  Instead, Comyn saw this as the perfect opportunity to eliminate his competition.

Unable to contain his fury, the king confronted Robert with the letters and asked if he had written them—after all it had the Carrick seal upon the documents.  I am sure Robert was furious by the betrayal, but he kept his head.  He replied yes it was one of his seals.  Deftly, he pulled on a chain about his neck and produced his official sigil.  He went on to explain the seal affixed to the paper was one, but an older seal that he’d left at his castle in Scotland, and protested someone surely had stolen it and was using the wax sigil to frame him.  Bruce vowed to get to the bottom of who was the real traitor.  Storming out, the Bruce and his entourage headed to his manor house in Tottenham.  Barely an hour passed, when someone knocked on the door to Bruce’s room.  The man held up his finger to his lips to signal silence, then handed Robert a spur and a gold coin with the face of Edward Longshanks upon it.  The message was clear.  Arrest warrants had been issued by the English king to seize Robert and his brothers.

Riding hard, the men of Bruce headed to Scotland, escaping arrest by barely an hour. He and his party happened upon a messenger wearing the colors of Red Comyn. The men pursued the fleeing rider and dispatched him. On his body were more letters written by Robert to Red Comyn, and now were being sent to Edward Longshanks.  

Once in Scotland, Robert arranged one last meeting with Red Comyn, determined to have it out with the man who was his enemy.  With Bruce were Roger de Kirkpatrick of Fleming and Sir Christopher Seton, another powerful noble, who just weeks before had married Bruce's younger sister, Christian.  At Dumfries church, Bruce confronted Comyn with the captured letters that were being dispatched to Longshanks.  Just as he had at their meeting over William Wallace's lands, when Comyn tried to strangle Robert, Comyn struck out.  Someone—either Comyn or his uncle, Sir Roger Comyn, landed a blow with a sword across Robert's chest—his chain mail saving his life.  Robert desperately reached for his long dirk, hidden in the side of his cross-laced boot.

When the fight was over, Red Comyn and his uncle, Sir Robert, lay wounded.  Robert staggered outside, and told Seton that he had stabbed Comyn, but it was only a flesh wound.  As his brother-in-law helped Bruce up and onto the saddle of his horse, Kirkpatrick rushed into the church and killed Comyn.  When Kirkpatrick came out and confessed Comyn was now dead, Robert knew there would be no turning back.  It was all or nothing.  Robert proceeded with haste through Scotland to Scone Palace where he would be crowned King of the Scots.

Miles away, Robert's cousin, Isabella, was unaware of these men’s matters.  Her husband John was away in England.  One can infer John Comyn, earl of Buchan was in England with purpose—he was the one who carried the first letters and gave them to Longshanks.  The messenger that the Bruces had intercepted, bearing more letters, was intended for Buchan.  Isabella knew nothing of the Comyn’s plots and plans, or how it would soon propel her young life toward a moment of defiance and victory, and then into the nightmare that would follow.

There was all speed to crown Robert as king before word of what happened would cause all of clan Comyn to hunt him down.  In 1296, Edward had removed or destroyed all Scottish regalia—or so he thought—his intent to prevent the pomp and circumstance for placing a crown on a new Scottish king.   

Six weeks after Comyn had been killed in Dumfries, Bruce was crowned king of the Scots by Bishop William de Lamberton at Scone on Palm Sunday 25th of March 1306, with all formality and solemnity. Royal robes and vestments that Robert Wishart had hidden from the English a decade before were brought out by the bishop and set upon King Robert. The bishops of Moray and Glasgow were in attendance, as were the earls of Atholl, Menteith, Lennox and Mar. The great banner of the kings of Scotland was planted behind Bruce's throne.  Only, they lacked the one thing that every monarch of Scotland had had in their coronation—the earl of Fife putting the crown on the head of the new king.

As expected, tides of Bruce’s killing Comyn spread through the countryside, told, retold and embellished until reaching Isabella.  Her younger brother was still in England, and declared by Edward to be the current earl of Fife.  Isabella ignored that she had been robbed of her birthright.  If her brother wasn’t going to do his hereditary duty, and put the crown on Robert the Bruce’s head, then she was determined to fulfill the role. 

Since her lord husband was still in England, she took his valuable destriers, and nearly rode them into the ground, trying to get to Robert in time.  When she reached Scone, it was to her disappointment that she arrived one day too late.  However, wanting to cement the Bruce’s rights as king, Lamberton suggested they redo the crowning, a second one, two days after the first. So, Isabella, as the true countess of Fife and Buchan placed the crown on Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick, sealing his destiny as the new king of the Scots.  
And sealing her own fate as well. 

Isabella had just crowned the man responsible for the death of her cousin, Red Comyn, a man who was also cousin to her husband. Worse, her husband was with the English king at the time she was crowning the Bruce, the embarrassment of the deed must have burned inside of John.  To add to the insult—she had taken his five destriers and driven them hard to reach Scone.  Not just any old horse, mind, these were a knight’s shod chargers, animals valued at $15,000-$25,000 at that period.  When jousting, the winning knight claimed a ransom from the loser.  Generally, it was their armor or their destrier.  Knights often paid these prices to get their mounts back.  You didn’t ride a destrier from place-to-place like a regular horse.  Knights rode palfreys for conveyance, and had trained horsemen to lead the valuable destriers to destinations.  Think of them as the Lamborghinis of horses!  She had driven these valuable animals hard to get to Scone, hardly stopping for food and water.  Such treatment could cause the animals to founder—a condition where the horses could never bear a rider again.

By coming to Scone, Isabella forevermore cut ties to her husband and Clan Comyn.  Bruce recognized this, too.  He knew Clan Comyn was coming for him, and soon it would be summer and Edward I would, once again, bring forth his army—nearly a summer event—the invasion of Scotland by Edward Longshanks.  Isabella had to go with the Bruce entourage to safeguard her life.

And come for Bruce, they did.  Edward had received word, and vowed to ride north to avenge Comyn’s death.  Only age and infirmities were beginning to take a toll upon the king, too long a warrior.  The whole country wanted Bruce’s head.  However, the Scottish church, long backers of the rebellion, remained steadfastly at Robert’s back.  He sent for his brother Nigel to fetch his queen, his small daughter, two sisters, Mary and Christian, and the countess of Buchan, and placed them in the care of Kildrummy Castle after he learnt the earl of Pembroke’s army approached. Christian’s first husband was Gartnait, earl of Mar, and she had raised their twin daughters at Kildrummy.  Also, Bruce was originally married to Gartnait’s sister, Isabel, and thus his daughter, Marjorie was half Mar blood.  The people there would remain loyal to them.  In the end, they were forced to flee the castle.  Poor Christian’s second husband, Sir Christopher Seton, was captured aiding her brother to escape after the Battle of Dalrigh.  For his valiant defense of the Bruce women and for saving Bruce’s life, Sir Christopher was hanged, drawn and quartered by the English along with Nigel Bruce.

Ruins of Kildrummy Castle 

In a final desperate move, the Bruce women were given safe passage by John of Strathbogie, 9th earl of Atholl, with the intent to get the women to the Orkneys. Bruce’s sister, Isabel, had married King Eric of Norway, and she was now queen there. They made it as far as the sanctuary of St. Duthac at Tain in Easter Ross. There, they were captured by a Balliol supporter, William earl of Ross, who handed them over to Edward’s men.  (Odd side note—Bruce would wed another of his sisters, Maud, to Aodh 0'Beoland scarcely two years later.  Aodh was the son of the earl of Ross!).  For his role in protecting the Bruce women, Atholl was killed, burnt and his head later set on a pike on London Bridge.

Edward was ever a ruthless king, but in his dealing with the women of Bruce he showed just how merciless he was.  Elizabeth de Burgh’s fate was most lenient—after all Edward was her godfather and he had arranged the marriage with Robert Bruce.  Her father was Edward’s closest friend, Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster, a powerful man.  Edward needed his support.  So, she was placed in a string of different castles under guard, prisoner for nearly eight years.  However, she lacked for nothing, including her favorite Irish wolfhounds at her side.

The other women of Bruce didn’t fare so well.  Christian was sent to a Gilbertine nunnery at Sixhills in Lincolnshire, England.  She was held in a large cage in a room, and not allowed to see anyone, save a single attendant and mother superior to attend to her spiritual needs.  It was puzzling Christian’s fate was milder than that of her niece and sister.  I can only assume since she was the widow of the earls of Mar and Seton, Edward didn’t wish to anger those clans against him.

It was with Mary Bruce, Marjorie Bruce and the countess Buchan where he displayed a most ‘peculiar ferocity’.  He instructed the three women would be held in cages.  He drew up specific designs for them.  From Francis Palgrave, Letters of Privy Seal were sent to the Chamberlain of Scotland that he should make cages in the turrets of various royal castles, so they could be hung over the side, and with especially harsh words for Isabella:

  "Let her be closely confined in an abode of stone
 and iron made in the shape of a cross, and let her
 be hung up out of doors in the open air at Berwick,
both in life and after her death, she may be a spectacle
and eternal reproach to travellers."

Orders originally had been for little Marjorie Bruce to be held in one of these horrid prison.  The cage was constructed.  But evidently, someone finally swayed Edward's anger long enough to reason that putting a child of barely 10 years old in a cage would be too much for Scots to stomach.  She was sent to a convent in Watton instead.

Mary was unmarried, not blessed with a well-connected husband, so I assume Edward felt leave to come down so harshly on her.  She was caged in his iron and wood prison on the wall of Roxbury Castle.

Poor Isabella had crowned Robert king of the Scots.  And she was married to one of the most powerful men in Scotland—who now held favor with the English king.  You might expect her husband to intercede on her behalf, beg for a less harsh treatment.  John did nothing.  In fact, some historians attributed him saying she needed executing.  Attempts to secure her release were made by Sir Robert Keith and Sir John Mowbray, by appealing to Duncan, earl of Fife—her younger brother—but the appeals came to naught.  Duncan was too happy being the absentee earl, living high at English Court with his mother, grandfather and new step-grandmother—the king’s own sister.

Her cage was built as a front to a turret, and within was a privy so she could dress and relieve herself without exposing her body to the hecklers gathering and often tossing things at her.  However, she was forced to be out in all weather and on display for all to see, but not allowed to speak to anyone.  There is some debate as to whether the women were kept in the open.  Edward’s own commands tell a story otherwise. 

Why did Edward Longshanks treat these women in such a vile manner?  Perhaps it was a challenge to the Bruce to come try to snatch them from their captivity.  Or he might have been doing an in your face to Robert:  These are the women under your protection and you are helpless to save them.  The Bruce women were prisoners of the English for nearly eight years, and long after Edward I had died.  Some writings of the period, speak that Mary and Isabella were removed from their cages after four years and in 1310 were relocated to nunneries.  Mary eventually went on to be returned to her brother in a prisoner exchange under Edward II.

 Sadly, fate wasn’t through with being unkind to Isabella MacDuff Comyn.  Oddly, her husband died suddenly in 1308 barely forty-eight years of age (two years after his wife was put in a cage).  His title was inherited by his younger brother, Alexander, who strangely died at age forty-four, just a couple months after his brother.  It was another five years before Isabella was released.  Eventually, Edward II had her handed over to Alice Comyn, niece of Isabella and John, and to Alice’s husband, Henry de Beaumont, 1st Lord Beaumont.  Immediately after taking control of Isabella, Alice and Henry began calling themselves the countess and earl of Buchan, and Isabella is heard of no more.  A peculiar situation overlooked in assessing what happened to her. 

Henry Beaumont had an unsavory reputation, and was closely aligned to Piers Gaveston the ‘favorite’ of Edward II–a man Edward Longshanks exiled because of the closeness of his son and Gaveston.  Henry and his sister had also been banished from English Court by the Ordainers at the same time as Gaveston for debauched and depraved behavior.  His personal battle to hang onto the title of earl of Buchan grew to legend.  The title was only valid in England—because in Scotland King Robert refused to confirm Alice and Henry.  Beaumont’s battle to regain possession of the earldom was such an obsession that he helped overturn the peace between England and Scotland established by the Treaty of Northampton, and brought about the Second War of Scottish Independence, simply to satisfy his single-minded desire to be earl of Buchan, in his own right.  There is little doubt in my mind that Isabella was murdered sometime after her release to Beaumont.  If he was willing to destroy the peace between two countries merely to hold onto a title that never really was his, disposing of a weakened woman, who had no champion, would’ve hardly caused Henry Beaumont to blink.  At one point, he pushed the powerful Edmund of Woodstock, 1st earl of Kent (half-brother to Edward II) to start a rebellion to put his sibling back on the throne of England—one problem Edward II was already dead!.  Henry knew this, but it shows the lengths he would go to merely to claim the title to Buchan.

 Of all of the Bruce women captured, Isabella is the only one not to return home.  Isabella’s life was little more than a pawn for kings, and an unloved wife of one of the most mighty men in Scotland.  But for one bright shining shard of time, she seized fate and chose her destiny.  And cruelly paid the price.  With Beaumont’s vanishing of Isabella, she was even denied a proper burial, mourning, and a place to pay tribute to the gutsy lass.  They robbed her of that last dignityBut they could never rob her of the legacy of a woman who defied all to crown a king.

New Release -- Miss Kathryn’s Gamble by Lynna Banning


Hired sight unseen as a housekeeper for widower Matt Sellers, prim Boston spinster Kathryn Bathhurst discovers they are both in for a surprise. Not only is Kathryn unexpected, she is unwanted by the handsome rancher who is still shattered by his wife’s death. On top of that, Matt is angry that his best friend has arranged for Kathryn’s surprise entrance into his life.

But Matt’s six children are so welcoming and needy that they steal Kathryn’s heart immediately. No matter how rude and distant Matt is to them all, Kathryn cannot abandon them to the hand-to-mouth drab existence they suffered through before she arrived. Kathryn understands them—she came from a life of drudgery and mistreatment herself, and she plans to make the most of this new life she’s come to—with or without Matt Sellers’s help!

It’s going to take some charm and wit to convince Matt that Kathryn belongs with his family. When he threatens to send his pretty new housekeeper back to Boston, Kathryn cleverly maneuvers him into a bargain:  If she can beat him in a challenge of his choice, he must allow her to stay.  He chooses an archery contest—and he’s positive he will win.

Now, everything depends on MISS KATHRYN’S GAMBLE!


One rain-splattered hour later, when Mr. Brownell slowed the horse and drove the buggy through a wide wooden gate, they were both soaked and shivering. He guided the horse as close to the front porch as he could, helped her step onto the ground, and plunked her suitcase down beside her. Then, he steered her up the steps onto the front porch, where he suddenly hesitated.

“You like children, Miss Bathhurst?”

“Well, yes, I suppose so. Does Mr. Sellers have children?”

“Um…yes, miss, he does.” He pushed open the front door, stepped in, and plunked down her valise. “There you go, Miss Bathhurst. Good luck.”

He turned and disappeared down the porch steps.

Someone behind her cleared his throat. She whirled around and stopped short to stare at a young boy.

“Howdy, ma’am. I’m Joshua Sellers.”

He had straggly brown hair that brushed the tips of his earlobes and eyes the color of her mother’s sapphire necklace.

“Hello, Joshua. I am Kathryn Bathhurst.”

“Yeah, I know. You kin call me Josh, ma’am.”

She eyed the scrawny boy in front of her. “How old are you, Josh?”

“I’ll be eleven next Sunday. Almost growed up.”

“Is your father at home?”

“Well, sorta. Not in the house, though. He’s out in the barn somewhere. You like children, Miz Bathhurst?”

“Well, yes. Do you have a brother or sister?”


“Which, a sister or a brother?”


“Older or younger?”


“You are not the oldest?”

“Uh, no, ma’am. I’m in the middle.”

Kathryn frowned. “The middle of what? How many of you children are there?”

Josh looked down shame-facedly at the rain-shiny suitcase in his hand. “There’s six of us.”

“Six!” she yelped.