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Issue 82 - Descent from Scottish Kings and Queens

Scotland Magazine Issue 82
August 2015


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Descent from Scottish Kings and Queens

Bruce Durie climbs the ancestral tree and discovers some interesting anomalies

It is not unusual for a genealogist to be told “We’re descended from…,” and here you could insert almost any famous name, but among the most frequent are Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots.

At times the claims are absurd – such as people called Smith who claim to be descendants of Pocahontas, failing to realise that the Tsenacommacah princess was twelve years old when she met Captain John Smith, that there was no relationship between them, and that Pocahontas only had one child, to her husband Thomas Rolfe. Disney is not the same as genealogy.

Other claims are more reasonable, but usually not in the way that the claimants imagine. For example, Jamie, Lord Sempill, who operates Clan Chief Tours (, told me, "I have often been told by Americans of Scottish ancestry that they are descended from Robert the Bruce and other sovereigns. In fact, I have just completed a tour for two descendants, in which we visited various sites with Bruce connections. Their ancestry had been confirmed by a distant relative, who was the family genealogist. These ancestral connections create an immense pride in the family name and a deep desire to visit Scotland.” Pride indeed, and a desire to visit Scotland – which are valid in themselves. But what is the ancestral reality?

Bruce Descent

First of all, there is no Bruce ancestry that leads back in the male line to Robert Bruce (1274 –1329, and King of Scots from 1306). Historically, that’s very easy to demonstrate.

Robert Bruce married twice.

1. Isobel Mar (m. 1296) died giving birth to Margery Bruce in 1296. They had no sons, but Margery married Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland. Their son was Robert II, the first Stewart king and progenitor of the monarchs of the House of Stewart and the later royal families of the United Kingdom.

2. Elizabeth de Burgh (m. 1302), daughter of one of the greatest nobles in Ireland, the 2nd Earl of Ulster, who was a supporter of Edward I. Robert and Elizabeth had three children who survived infancy – daughters Matilda and Margaret (both born between 1315 and 1323) and David (1324) – plus David’s twin, John, who died in 1327 aged three. In 1328, David Bruce married Joan of the Tower, daughter of Edward II of England and Isabella of France, but she died in 1362 without issue. David and Joan had married when he was four years old and she was seven, and although their marriage lasted 34 years, it was apparently loveless and certainly childless. David was succeeded by his nephew, Robert Stewart, as Robert II. Thus, David II was the last Bruce king, and his male line of Robert I died with him in 1371. Had David lived long enough to marry his long-time mistress, ‘Black Agnes’ Dunbar, the royal history of Scotland might have been very different.

The present day House of Bruce in Scotland descends in all likelihood from Thomas Bruce, 1st Baron of Clackmannan, who died before 1348. His precise relationship to the royal Bruces is not clear, although David II does seem to have regarded Thomas as the next most senior Bruce family member. His father may have been an illegitimate son of Robert Bruce or his brother Edward Bruce, or he may have been from another branch of the family. Sir Thomas was granted land in Clackmannan by Robert II for organising a revolt against the English in 1334. From his marriage to Marjorie Charteris of Stenhouse stems the line in which most Bruces descend, including the current Chief, Andrew Bruce, 11th Earl of Elgin and 15th Earl of Kincardine...

King Robert I also had a number of illegitimate children, including Sir Robert Bruce (killed at the Battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332 with no known children); Walter of Odistoun (who predeceased his father); Margaret Bruce (who married Robert Glen); Elizabeth Bruce (married Sir Walter Oliphant of Aberdalgie and Dupplin); Christina of Carrick; and Sir Neil of Carrick (killed at the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346).

The line of Robert II is complicated by his ten adult children with his first wife Elizabeth Mure (died 1355); four children by Euphemia, daughter of Hugh, Earl of Ross (died 1387); four illegitimate sons by his favourite Mariota Cardeny, widow of Alexander MacNaugthon; and a number of other sons by one or more unknown women, including John Stewart, Sheriff of Bute, Thomas Stewart, Archdeacon of St Andrews and Alexander Stewart, Canon of Glasgow. At least they all got jobs.

So, given the large number of offspring of various males in this line, the chances of anyone of Scottish descent NOT being descended from Robert Bruce are quite remote. In fact, a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that, in the 28 likely generations from 1314 to the present, if each of Robert I’s 11 offspring had only two children (some had more than that, some fewer), there could be a possible 11 x 228 or 3 billion descendants of Robert Bruce alive today. That’s four times the current population of Europe!

This number may be smaller because of marriages without issue, distant cousin marriages in later generations and so forth, but it makes the point that ‘We’re descended from Robert the Bruce’ is likely to be correct, but is an unremarkable claim and not demonstrable in the male line from Robert Bruce.­ Of course, there may be an individual surnamed Bruce who descends from Robert I in the female line, because a later descendant of Robert married a Bruce from a different lineage. But that’s not the same thing.

Stewart Descent

Likewise, there are no Stewart or Stuart descendants of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 –1587, reigned until 24 July 1567). Mary was the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise, and had only one child – James VI and I – by Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, her half cousin through their grandmother Margaret Tudor, elder surviving daughter of Henry VII of England. Also, Mary’s great grandfather was James III, and his sister, Mary Stewart, Countess of Arran was Darnley’s great great grandmother, so they were also third cousins once removed.

James VI married Anne of Denmark, and they had seven living children, but only three survived to adulthood. Henry, Prince of Wales, died, probably of typhoid, in 1612 aged 18. The next year, Elizabeth married Frederick V, Elector Palatine, which led to the eventual accession of the Hanoverian kings with George I. But Charles I succeeded his father.

Charles had nine children, two of whom died at or just after birth, one (Henry, Duke of Gloucester) had no children, but two who succeeded as monarchs. Charles II married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, and from them there were no legitimate live children, but Charles had any number of illegitimate offspring by at least seven ladies of his acquaintance, none of whom was named Stewart or Stuart, but were mainly created Dukes, Duchesses and Earls.

One son (by Lucy Walter) was James Crofts (1649 – 1685), who later took the surname Scott by marriage, and was created Duke of Monmouth in England and Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland. Another (by Catherine Pegge) was Charles FitzCharles, created Earl of Plymouth (1675). Barbara Villiers, wife of Roger Palmer, 1st Earl of Castlemaine, was created Duchess of Cleveland in her own right, and bore him six children including Charles Fitzroy, created Duke of Southampton and later 2nd Duke of Cleveland; Henry Fitzroy, Earl of Euston and later Duke of Grafton; and George Fitzroy, Duke of Northumberland. Nell Gwyn bore the king Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St Albans. Louise de Kérouaille, created Duchess of Portsmouth in her own right, had Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond and Duke of Lennox. There were a number of daughters too.

Charles’s surviving brother succeeded as James II and VII until he was deposed in 1688. From James’s 21 children, only one son was surviving and legitimate – James, Prince of Wales, ‘The Old Pretender.’

The Bottom Line

A royal lineage cannot be assumed from a shared surname alone, or the many unreliable and unsourced family trees available online to the credulous. Any such claim has to be supported by a documented ancestry back to a documented royal descendant in the female line.

Still, there’s no harm in nurturing a dream, is there? Reality is for the cold light of morning, isn’t it?

Further Information

Dr. Bruce Durie BSc (Hons) PhD OMLJ FSAScot FCollT FIGRS FHEA is Shennachie to the Chief of Durie; Shennachie to COSCA, and recipient of the Fulbright Scottish Studies Award.