Lady Dervorguilla of Galloway, mother of King John I of Scotland, died on the Feast Day of St. Agnes, the 21st of January, 1290.
In the ‘Chronicon de Lanercost’ the death Lady Dervorguilla of Galloway is related in Latin in the following manner: “A.D. M.CC.XC. In festo sanctse Agnetis sero transiit e seculo illustris femina, domina Dervorgoil” and in translation that would read: “On the Feast of St. Agnes, in the evening, passed from this world the noble dame. Lady Dervorguilla”. The Feast of St. Agnes falls on the 21st of January. If you read elsewhere, the date of the death of Dervorguilla is given as the 28th of January, which isn’t even enough of a discrepancy to be accounted for by the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ calendars – the Julian and Gregorian – which was between ten and fourteen days. The Lanercost Chronicle can’t have got it wrong, particularly as the Feast Day of a Saint is concerned. There’s no doubt about the date of St. Agnes’ Day, that’s for sure. So, that’s good enough for this wee blogger.
The Lanercost goes on to state that Dervorguilla was the “widow of Lord John de Balliol” and that she “was a woman largely endowed with money and lands, both in England and in Scotland.” It also adds in her favour that “she had a much richer endowment in the nobility of her heart, being daughter and heiress of the magnificent Alan, the sometime Lord of Galloway.” Regarding her death, it states that “She passed from the world, full of years, at Castle Barnard, and was buried at Duquer, in Galloway, a Monastery of Cistercians, which she herself built and endowed.” Looks like ‘endowed’ was a well used term in those days; at least in the Lanercost.
John Balliol’s mum is another of those characters from history who goes by several variations of the same name, which can get kinda confusing. The Lady was known as Devorgilla or Dervorguilla, or Dearbhfhorghaill, or Derborgaill, or Dearbhorghil – take your pick, whichever one you can get your tongue around. Dervorguilla was one of the most powerful women of her age and hugely influential in her own right, as well as being the mother of one Scottish King, John Balliol, and the grandmother of another, his son, Edward Balliol. John got the Crown because of his mother’s heritage as assessed by Edward I of England, but it’s hard to say Ed got it wrong, even for the staunchest of Bruce supporters.
The lineage of ‘Devorgoille de Baillol’ goes back to David I, being a great-great-granddaughter of the great Prince. As the ‘Annales Londonienses’ confirms, she was the second of the three daughters and joint heiresses of the Gaelic prince Alan, Lord of Galloway (‘Aleyn de Gavei’) and his second wife, Margaret of Huntingdon (‘la primere fille Davi’), which woman provided the link to David I via her dad, David of Scotland, otherwise known as the 8th Earl of Huntingdon, whose eldest daughter she was from his marriage to Maud of Chester. David of Scotland was the son of Earl Henry and brother to two Kings of Scots, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, all three of whom were grandsons of David I. So now you know.
Dervorguilla was born in or around 1210; even then, it wasn’t the done thing to ask a Lady’s age. As her father died in 1234 without a legitimate son, albeit, like many another, he had an illegitimate son, in his case named Thomas, according to both Anglo-Norman feudal laws and to ancient Gaelic customs, she was one of Alan’s heiresses (‘filia et una heredes quondam Alani de Galwathya’), along with her two older sisters, Helen and Christina. If that was considered unusual in England, it was a common practice in Scottish and Western feudal tradition. The interesting and intangible thing about all of that is that, had my Lady Dervorguilla still been alive when the Maid of Norway died, then Dervorguilla, through her connection to David I, would have been the obvious candidate for the Crown of Scotland. How does Queen Dervorguilla I sound? That would have avoided the need for Edward I to poke his nose into Scottish affairs and perhaps resulted in a strong and legitimate Balliol line that would have rendered Robert the Bruce’s heroics unnecessary. Ah, the ‘what ifs’ of history!
Apart from being the husband of John, 5th Baron de Balliol (‘Bailiol’ or ‘Balliolo’), whom she married in 1233, when she would’ve been twenty-three or so, and mum of her son, King John I, Dervorguilla is famous for traipsing around with her dead husband’s heart under her arm and for putting Balliol College, Oxford, on a firm footing. She is also known for having founded a monastery in Dundee and, as is well known, Sweetheart Abbey. In 1263, Dervorguilla’s husband got into a dispute with Walter Kirkham, the Bishop of Durham, over some land. Balliol lost the court case and had to make penance for his sins. Part of that sentence meant that he was obliged to found a College for the poor at Oxford University, which he did. However, after he died, on the 24th of October in 1268 (or 1269), Balliol College suffered a tad from lack of funds. Later, in 1283, Devorgilla, whose wealth was much greater than her husband’s had been, contributed funds to put the College back on a more secure financial footing by making a permanent endowment and establishing a Code of Statutes, which remains in place to this day.
Lady Dervorgilla was also a tad ghoulish by modern standards, but lifting the heart from a corpse seems to have been common practice, for both good (Bruce’s heart taken to the Holy Land by the Good Sir James) and bad (Wallace’s heart ripped out in Smithfield) reasons. Not wishing to be parted from her dear departed husband, she took to carrying his embalmed heart around with her in an ivory box decorated with enamelled silver trimmings. Some years after his death, on the 10th of April, 1273, in fact, she signed a charter establishing a new Cistercian abbey in his memory, just six miles south of Dumfries. After her death, on the 21st of January, 1290, she was buried in the sanctuary of the Abbey Church she had founded, near to the High Alter and with the casket containing her husband’s heart buried beside her. In a rare moment of sentimentality, the Monks of the Abbey decided to rename it from the unimaginative New Abbey to ‘Abbacia Dulcis-cordis’ – Sweetheart Abbey. The place is now a ruin, with no trace of Lady Dervorguilla’s tomb.