Robert II and Medieval Fatherhood

Written by Gwen Sinclair

Unlike Mother’s Day, which is a traditional Christian holiday, known as Mothering Sunday – the origins of which we looked into in our Mother’s Day vlog back in March –  the premise behind Father’s Day could be a bit more modern with some saying it was first established in the USA where it has been celebrated since 1910 as a way to recognise the contribution that fathers and father-figures make to the lives of children – Father’s Day then made its way over here,  possibly during WW2 when many fathers were away from home. However, some would argue that it originated many moons ago from branches of Paganism where the sun is regarded as the Father of the Universe – owing to the significance of the date of Father’s Day, which always occurs on the 3rd Sunday of June – taking it close to the Summer Solstice or Midsummer’s Day – which has been traditionally celebrated on 21st June since the sun was seen as being at its height of strength. 

To mark this year’s Father’s Day,  we’re looking into the subject of Medieval fatherhood, and in particular how fatherhood applied to King Robert II (1316-1390)— who built Royal Dundonald Castle around the start of his reign in 1371 – making this year our 650th Anniversary.  As father’s go, Robert has left a fairly impressive legacy in that he is most often noted for being theFather of the Stewart Dynasty– since he was the very first Stewart or Stuart monarch, and the progenitor of this royal dynasty which lasted for 343 years. Of course Robert was never to know that his son John – who became King Robert III in 1390, or his grandson James I (1406-1437), great grandson James II (1437-1460) and so on, would continue on his legacy with another 9 Stewart monarchs until the last of which was Queen Anne who died in 1714.  He would also not know that Queen Anne’s brother James would be discounted as being allowed to be King due to his following of the Catholic faith, and that this would be cause of several uprisings in Scotland led by supporters of the Stewarts in the 17th and 18th century – that is another story we will look at another day. In fact, Robert II could not have known that his personal legacy would last that long at all!  

Robert II, by James Robert – Possibly late 18th century;
Scottish National Portrait Gallery Print Room line engraving on paper. 9.53 x 7.32 cm

However he may have had some idea of the near future of his personal legacy when he became father to at least 21 children – with some reports bringing that up to 23 or 24 — with 2 wives – Elizabeth Mure of Rowallan (c1320-1355) and Euphemia de Ross (c1320-1386) and several mistresses including Mariota de Cardeny, Isabella Boucellier or Butler, and Marion Leitch that we know of, and so we can see that he was no shrinking violet when it came to fathering!  Its fair to say that Robert produced enough sons and daughters to amply supply his Stewart bloodline with peers, nobles and senior ecclesiastical figures in Scotland’s 14th and 15th century society.  Indeed whether it was simply due to his large number of offspring, or that he was a tactical man who wanted to strengthen the Royal House of Stewart’s continued claim to the throne for future generations – as you can see from this map of Scotland below showing something of the titles and spread of his clan – somewhat furthering the numbers of Baronies and Lordships Robert II already had, mainly bestowed on him by his grandfather King Robert the Bruce (1305-1329), and by inheritance from his High Stewart Dynasty.  It seems that Scotland pretty much became a Stewart nation, with titles and lands most often bestowed on his sons by Robert II himself,  or connected to the crown due to the favourable marriages he arranged for his daughters.  The most significant title given by Robert II to one of his sons was the role of heir apparent which was given to his oldest son John on 27th March 1371 and who became King Robert III from 1390 until 1406.

The position of King was regarded as Father to the Nation in medieval times. 

It’s worth noting too that Robert II seemed to have been a Dad who wanted the best for all his offspring, whether fathered through his 2 marriages or his mistresses, since it seems that his illegitimate children were given favoured positions in society.  However, we won’t hold it against him that he seemed to have run out of names for them all when we find there are 3 Walters – likely named after his father Walter 6th High Steward of Scotland (c1292-1327), his great, great grandfather Walter 3rd High Steward of Scotland (c1167-1246) and his 4 times great grandfather and first of the High Stewards of Scotland, Walter Fitz Alan ( c1106-1178).  We also find 2 Elizabeths – one most probably named after her mother, Robert’s first wife – Elizabeth Mure and  2 Alexanders – likely to be named after Robert’s great grandfather – Alexander 4th High Steward of Scotland (1246-1281) as well as 3 Johns!  

Lands held by Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, Badenoch and Ross

Find out more about the lives of the High Stewards of Scotland in our previous blogs.

As for fatherhood, we can’t know of course know exactly what kind of Dad Robert II was, but this generosity in the provision of lands and titles to his sons may well have been considered good fatherly care-giving at the time, as would arranging favourable marriage matches for his daughters.  However, these betrothals were something quite different to what we might consider favourable today, given that medieval marriages were usually arranged to make political alliances, and not necessarily love-matches, and were often agreed when the children were barely out of the cradle! However, studies suggest1 that the role of men within medieval families shows that there was a good deal of emotional investment from fathers to their children,  and as we can imagine, parenting at this time was not the easiest of roles since wives often died in childbirth, and children succumbed to illnesses for which there were no cures like we have today. Furthermore, 2In Fatherhood and its Representations in Middle English Texts, author Rachel Moss has found evidence that medieval fathers, who we might imagine to have been distant disciplinarians, felt profound affection for their sons and daughters, and have been shown to have acted upon it.

O ye whose cheek the tear of pity stains,

Draw near with pious rev’rence and attend!

Here lie the loving Husband’s dear remains,

The tender Father, and the gen’rous Friend.

Epitaph for the Author’s Father by Robert Burns (1759-1796)

14th Century children playing : By James le Palmer / anonymous illustrator – British Library 

It seems too that medieval Fathers were responsible for a fair bit of their child’s upbringing – and especially in noble families where the education of their sons, once they reached the age of seven or so, was decided upon by the father – with boys often going to be educated in another noble family household – usually that of a family member.  This was a customary exchange whereby the sons would be sent to be trained in knightly behaviours, where this procedure also acted as an assurance that the families would remain allies – acting for political advantage rather than as merely a hospitable fostering.  This custom also served to make good connections between the next generations in order to strengthen future political bonds, and to help establish suitably beneficial marriage alliances. Royal households were particularly popular to have your child fostered into, and it seems that in some royal households there could’ve been quite a brood of fosterlings – both boys and girls – to be trained in all aspects of the expectations of their future station. Peasant fathers were those most likely to rear and instruct their children within their own households.

Furthermore, it was customary in noble families that children would spend their early years in the care of their mothers, who were generally seen as the primary caregivers – although it was the wealthy medieval father’s job to hire a wet nurse, as well as to decide when the child should be weaned!  The primary care role for the child’s early years being given to the mother was probably a fairly practical one since men were often away at war, making negotiations or arranging affairs of state – like Robert’s father Walter who was 6th High Steward of Scotland, Warden of the Western Marches and one of the right hand men to King Robert the Bruce- as well as his son -in-law. However, Robert’s mother, Marjorie Bruce (1296-1316) – only daughter to Robert the Bruce and his first wife Isabella of Mar (c1277-1296) –  had sadly died at the time Robert was born in 1316, or shortly afterwards.  It’s likely then that young Robert II would’ve been brought up with aunts, or perhaps by King Robert I’s second wife Elizabeth de Burgh (c1284-1327) – at least for his first few years. Exact details of Robert’s childhood are not easy to find but it seems that he spent much of his early years at court.  After the death of his father on 9th April 1327, when Robert was around the age of 10, and certainly after the death of his grandfather, the Bruce, on 7th June 1329, he was placed under the guardianship of Thomas Randolph 1st Earl of Moray, nephew of King Robert I the Bruce and one of his leading military commanders, until Thomas died in July 1332, when Robert Stewart was around 15 or 16 years old. Robert’s uncle, Sir James Stewart Knight of Durisdeer (1297-1345),  who was his father Walter’s younger brother, as well as William Lindsay the Archdeacon of St Andrews were also thought to have taken young Robert under their wing.

A medieval classroom

So, It appears that in the medieval times, many of the parts which we regard as modern day fatherhood roles such as care-taking, breadwinning and education were present in Scottish society. 

Fathering the Nation as King, Robert II seems to have done a more than average job and is thought to have left Scotland in far better shape financially than he found it, in part due to the flourishing wool trade, but also that he used his connections in the north to establish bonds with Gaelic Lords which strengthened the power of the future Scottish crown. If there had been a Father’s Day in medieval times, then we can imagine that Dundonald Castle would have been a alive with the sound of many voices, and the patter of tiny feet!

However, The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy3Robert II’s children were to hugely colour the next few chapters in the history of Scotland – some to almost Shakespearian proportions!  We’ll be looking further into what happened to Robert’s sons and daughters in other blogs coming soon!

Find out more about the life of Robert II in our earlier blog post:

https://dundonaldcastle.org.uk/risetopower650/

Sources:

1 http://www.faqs.org/childhood/Fa-Gr/Fathering-and-Fatherhood.html?

2 Moss, Rachel, E, 2013. Fatherhood and its Representations in Middle English Texts. DS Brewer, Cambridge – read part of it here https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=LMMinwEACAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

3 To a Mouse – On Turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785 by Robert Burns https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43816/to-a-mouse-56d222ab36e33

https://www.nypl.org/blog/2014/09/22/fatherhood-middle-ages

http://ultimatehistoryproject.com/medieval-childhood-the-life-of-william-marshal.html

https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/common/father-day

http://drcallumwatson.blogspot.com/2021/04/an-old-man-in-his-deeds-life-of-king.html

Boardman, Stephen.2007, The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371–1406, The Stewart Dynasty in Scotland Series; Edinburgh

Images:

Cover Image by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC image of father and child by https://pixabay.com/images/id-1476167/

Map of Scotland showing the titles and lands held by the children of Robert II by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Lands held by Alexander Stewart, earl of Buchan: by Bill Reid  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BuchanLands.jpg

Robert, James;  Possibly late 18th century; Robert II, Accession number: SP I 96.1
Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Print Room) line engraving on paper. 9.53 x 7.32 cm. Purchased 1932

Medieval School room Image by loulou Nash from Pixabay

14th Century children playing By James le Palmer / anonymous illustrator – British Library Royal MS 6 E VII, fol. 67v, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25524277