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The Recruit by Monica McCarty (1)


As with the other books in this series, many of the characters in The Recruit are loosely based on historical figures, including the hero and heroine. Some time after 1307, Kenneth de Moravia, the younger brother of William, Earl of Sutherland, married Mary of Mar, the widow of John Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl (who made a brief appearance in The Viper).

Most historians believe it is the same Mary who married both Atholl and Sutherland, but there seems to be a possibility that they were two different women. She is alternatively referred to as Mary, Marjory, and Margaret. Moreover, the genealogical charts are all over the place on her date of birth. Some are highly implausible, i.e. having her well over forty when she married Kenneth, who was probably in his early twenties at the time—which, given that they had at least three children together, seems a stretch for medieval procreation. Most sources have Mary as the daughter of Donald, Earl of Mar, but others have her as the daughter of Gartnait (his son). I decided to go with the conventional wisdom of her being the same person, but adjusted her age to fit my story. The possibility of more than one Mary did, however, give me the idea for a fictional twin sister, “Janet.”

If there is one thing I’ve learned in researching this series, it’s that intermarriage between noble families seems to have made everyone related. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. The connections are numerous and at times extremely convoluted.

Case in point: Mary of Mar. Mary’s sister Isabel was Robert the Bruce’s first wife and the mother of his daughter Marjory, who at the time of this story is his heir and imprisoned in England with his second queen, Elizabeth, and Mary’s nephew Donald, the current Earl of Mar. But Mary’s brother Gartnait was also married to Bruce’s sister, Christina (who later would marry Christopher Seton, Alex “Dragon” Seton’s brother). Another of Mary’s brothers (Duncan?) seems to have been the first husband of Christina of the Isles, the half-sister of Lachlan “Viper” MacRuairi.

Got all that straight? Those are just the connections I mentioned. I didn’t mention that Mary’s mother was Helen, daughter of Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Wales, and Joan, King John of England’s natural daughter. In other words, Mary’s maternal great-grandfather was King John of England, which makes her second cousins with Edward I of England and gives her more connections than I could possibly name. But that isn’t all. Mary’s paternal grandmother was Elizabeth Comyn of Buchan (the Comyns, of course, being Bruce’s archenemies); thus her father’s first cousin was John Buchan, Earl of Buchan (Bella MacDuff’s first husband from The Viper). I can’t imagine trying to put together a family tree of all this!

Kenneth became the fourth Earl of Sutherland on his brother’s death in 1330. Kenneth and Mary’s son William, who is born at the end of this book, later became the fifth Earl. Their second son, Nicholas, married a le Cheyne heiress, and was the progenitor of the Sutherland lairds of Duffus. They also had a daughter Eustachia and possibly another daughter.

Significantly, their son William married Margaret, the daughter of Robert the Bruce and his second wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, making Mary and Bruce in-laws three times over! For a brief time William and Margaret’s son John (Kenneth and Mary’s grandson) was named the royal heir, but unfortunately he died of the black plague in his teens.

As Bruce had only four children to reach adulthood (only three of whom were alive at the time of this marriage), the royal alliance certainly shows that the Sutherlands—who had fought with the Comyns and the English until 1308–09—had firmly established themselves in the Bruce fold. To my authorial mind, it also could show Kenneth’s importance to Bruce and/or his fondness for Mary.

As is unfortunately common for most women of the era, information on Mary’s whereabouts and what happened to her in the days after Atholl’s execution did not seem to make it onto the historical record. The timing and circumstances of her marriage to Kenneth, therefore, were left up to my fictional imagination.

Much more, however, is known about her son. David Strathbogie, like his young cousin, Donald, Earl of Mar, was an English prisoner in his youth and spent time in the royal household of the Prince of Wales (later Edward II). David and Donald would be loyal to Edward of England for most of their lives.

So how do two Scottish earls end up loyal to an English king? The opponents in the Scottish Wars of Independence seem simple: the Scots versus the English. But of course, the reality is much more complex. One of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around was just how much the Bruce kingship divided the nation—this is the feuding that is glossed over in Braveheart and better explains Robert the Bruce’s unheroic actions in that movie. The war was between the Scots and the English, yes, but it was also between the Scots loyal to Bruce and those loyal to the deposed King John Balliol (Comyn faction).

Men who had fought together against the English in the early part of the war (like Atholl and Sir Adam Gordon) would take opposite sides when Bruce claimed the throne. Thus, you will see some of the early “patriots,” who fought alongside Wallace, later fighting with the English. The old proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” really holds here. There was a significant core of Scottish nobles who chose to fight with the English rather than join Bruce, even after it was clear he was making inroads (1307–08).

To my mind, as I allude to in the book, part of Bruce’s greatness as a king was that he did not immediately disinherit many of these men, instead making a concerted effort to win over his detractors and unify his kingdom (with the notable exception of the Comyns and MacDougalls, his blood enemies who could never be forgiven). The Sutherlands and the Earl of Ross are good examples of this. The Earl of Ross was responsible for the imprisonment of Bruce’s queen, his sister, and his daughter, but Bruce forgave him two years later and married one of his sisters to Ross’s heir. Interestingly, one of the conditions for Ross to come over to Bruce was that he had to pay for mass to be said at St. Duthacs in memory of Atholl.

Some would take longer to be persuaded (such as Sir Adam Gordon), but others would never come over to Bruce’s side. After Bannockburn, Bruce lost patience. The holdouts had their land and titles dispossessed and would become known as the “Disinherited.”

David Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl (like his cousin Donald, Earl of Mar), was one of these Disinherited. Conveniently for my story, however, David does “switch” sides and come over to Bruce about this time (around 1311–12). He was part of the English truce party with Lamberton in 1311–12, which gave me the inspiration for Mary’s role.

Alas, David’s allegiance to Bruce was brief. He was back with the English by Bannockburn in 1314, and this time it was for good. The supposed reason for his defection? Allegedly his sister Isabel (Mary and Atholl actually had two, possibly three, children) was seduced by Edward Bruce (Robert’s only remaining brother) and he refused to marry her.

At the time of the novel, David was probably about twenty. Interestingly, he was also married to Joan Comyn, the daughter of The Red Comyn, whom Bruce killed in 1306. Their son David was born in early 1309 and baptized at St. Nicholas Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Thus, I chose to put Mary in the area at the time, although Ponteland Castle doesn’t come to the Earl of Atholl until slightly later.

So how does David Strathbogie, the son of a great Bruce patriot, end up married to a Comyn? I suppose it could have been arranged by King Edward to ally David with Bruce’s enemy, but there is another explanation that goes back to my earlier point about former friends. Atholl (David’s father) and The Red Comyn fought together at Dunbar for the patriot cause and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Perhaps the betrothal was arranged when they were on the same side? Interestingly, when David temporarily switched sides, he left his Comyn wife behind in England. One can only imagine what that reunion was like.

As you can imagine, figuring out the possible motivations for why someone would have allied with Bruce or Comyn (and the English), given all these interrelations, can be a puzzle of its own. But there is another consequence of all these intermarriages that I really didn’t “get” at first, which also complicated the decision for many of Scottish nobles. We think of Scotsmen or Englishmen as either/or. But the practical effect of all these marriages was a class of nobles who had significant land interests on both sides of the border.

Mary’s first husband, John Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, is an example of this, but it was also true for many others (including Robert the Bruce himself). John’s mother was English, and in addition to his Scottish lands, he had holdings in Kent, England. Thus, choosing to fight for Bruce wasn’t a simple patriotic decision. He was a Scottish earl, but he was also an English landholder (possibly a baron), and by rebelling he put his English holdings in jeopardy.

As I mention in the book, Atholl was captured with the ladies’ party in Tain (1306), imprisoned, and executed—the first earl executed in more than two hundred years. He did attempt to sway Edward by reminding him of their familial relationship, but Edward’s response was to simply hang him on a higher gallows as befitting his exalted status. Ah, that witty Plantagenet sense of humor. Atholl’s head was placed on a stake beside that of Wallace and Simon Fraser. He was certainly a hero, but his profligacy is my invention.

Sir Adam Gordon is another example of the Scottish nobles who were put in a difficult position by the Bruce kingship. In the early years of the war, Sir Adam was considered a great patriot, fighting alongside Comyn and Atholl at Dunbar in 1296 (where his father fell). He seems to have escaped the capture and imprisonment that befell most of the other nobles, but was forced to surrender to Edward not long after the battle. Later, he fought alongside Wallace at Stirling Bridge (1297) and at Falkirk (1298).

His reasons for allying himself with the English until the relatively late date of 1313–14 are almost a checklist of the above tensions: his mother was English, he was loyal to the deposed King John Balliol (enemy of Bruce), and his lands were in the troublesome borders close to England. It wasn’t until after King John died (1313) that Gordon came over to Bruce.

Ironically, King Robert granted Gordon the lands in Strathbogie and titles of the now dispossessed Earl of Atholl (David, Mary’s son). Readers of Highland Scoundrel from my Campbell trilogy might recall these castles in the north. But the original Strathbogie and Huntly(wood) castles were located in the Borders.

Sir Adam also served as surety for the release of William Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews. Lamberton was part of the peace envoy sent to Scotland in 1309–10 and was given leave to stay there for a few months. Why Edward would allow Lamberton, who was thought to be one of the instigators behind Bruce’s bid for the crown, to roam about Scotland is a mystery to me. One theory is that Edward trusted him because of the bishop’s close relationship with Pembroke (Aymer de Valence).

This isn’t the first time I’ve used the Highland Games in the series. Although there is a (apocryphal?) story on the origin of the Games from the time of Malcolm III (eleventh century), I would assume they weren’t called that or organized to the extent I portrayed them. I decided to make them closer to tournaments—Highland style, of course—with the focus on sport and military prowess. Similarly, Highland “backhold” wrestling is thought to be very old, dating possibly from the sixth century. But for my Highland Games, I made the event more hand-to-hand combat than wrestling.

The Pits of Hell, the clandestine tourney in which Kenneth participates, is my invention (inspired by the TV show Spartacus). However, the 1292 Statute of Arms for Tournaments, promulgated by Edward I to regulate tourneys, suggests that it might not be that farfetched. There was a revived popularity of tournaments under Edward I, but they died out under Edward III. The last one was held in England in 1342.

I anticipated Henry Lord Percy’s purchase of Alnwick Castle (better known today as the Harry Potter castle) by a few months. It was actually purchased on November 19, 1309 from the Bishop of Durham for what is said to be a comparatively small sum. Today, Alnwick is the second largest inhabited castle in England and has been home to the Percys for over seven hundred years. Those of you who follow Princess Kate’s sister, Pippa, might recall her “friendship” with George Percy, one of Baron Percy’s descendants. It was also home to the Harry “Hotspur” (reference to his hot temper) Percy made famous by Shakespeare.

Marriage in medieval Scotland and England is a very complex subject, which I’ve had to address many times in my novels. Clandestine marriages (those without banns and/or official ceremony) seem to have been common, but the church clearly didn’t like them and sought to prohibit them. There were the inevitable problems of proof (he said/she said), but they also wanted to prevent secret marriages because they were concerned with consanguinity. Ironically, I did a paper in law school on the subject (I wish I could find it!). Basically, persons within a third degree were prohibited from marrying. If you’ve followed the family connections above, you can see how easily that could happen.

But note that even if the clandestine marriage was found to be “illegal,” it was not necessarily invalid. Special licenses appear sometime in the fourteenth century, but I decided to use a dispensation. In the course of my research, I was surprised to discover that a widow was not permitted to have the mass inside the church after the vows were exchanged at the church door.

And finally, I adjusted the time of Edward’s invasion by a couple of months. The English actually marched from Berwick in August/September 1310, and were back at Berwick by November. Bruce apparently had advance warning of the invasion, and the path taken by the English troops was the one that Kenneth “discovered.”



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