April 2012 – Scottish claims to land in Warwickshire

From Mar to the English midlands: the case of a Scottish couple pursuing claims to land in Warwickshire, 1224–1227

Dauvit Broun, Principal Investigator


One of the outcomes of The Breaking of Britain will be a completely new database about people in Northumberland, Westmorland and Cumberland—the three northernmost counties of England. We are creating this ‘Northern England’ database with information from those English royal records that can tell us most about the way individuals in the three counties interacted with royal authority. A very important series of such royal records is the Curia Regis Rolls.[1] These Rolls contain the official record of cases heard in the king’s court sitting in Westminster. In the record of each case we are told to which English county the case related, and so we can identify all the cases that came from Northumberland, Westmorland or Cumberland. The database of this material will, among other things, identify persons who are also found in Scotland (as revealed in www.poms.ac.uk/database). This will allow us to examine their individual experiences of English royal justice, and how this may have differed from the exercise of royal authority in Scotland. People from Scotland can also be found in cases from other English counties besides the three northern ones: the phenomenon of cross-border landholding may have been most intense near the border between the two kingdoms, but it was not, of course, limited to that region. This Feature of the Month is an example of how geographically extended this cross-border community could become. In this case the leading family in the western part of Aberdeenshire developed links with Warwickshire about 400 miles away as the crow flies. It shows how English royal justice could play a crucial role in maintaining these links despite pressure from powerful local interests; how the politics of Aberdeenshire could influence landholding in the English midlands; and how the records of English royal justice can shed new light on our understanding of a crucial phase in the history of North-East Scotland.


Eva, widow of William Comyn of Snitterfield, and her dower

One of the consequences of the routine involvement of the king’s court in England in cases of dispossession and disinheritance is that claims to land could be sustained by Scots who were not particularly powerful in parts of England far removed from their own locality. Their claim to land was typically through marriage, which was more likely to involve competing interests. There can be little doubt that, without the force of the king’s authority through the operation of the law, the Scots in this case, John of Mar and his wife Eva, would not have succeeded.


The land at issue was a third of the lands of William Comyn of Snitterfield (Warwickshire). These were mainly in Warwickshire, with some also in Wiltshire. Eva was William Comyn’s widow, and she was entitled to a third of his estate as her dower. William was still alive in 1223,[2] but died that year or in the next—a critical time in England as Hugh de Burgh the justiciar and Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, sought to restore order during the minority of King Henry III. On William’s death, Eva went to Scotland for safety with their only offspring, Marjorie, who was still a child: presumably she went to Scotland to be back with her family. (Unfortunately there is no other evidence about her parentage.) There Eva lost no time in remarrying. As a widow bereft of her main means of support, it would have made sense to stabilise her situation by finding a new husband. That man was John of Mar. As her husband, he would control her lands: he therefore had an interest in pursuing her claim for her dower in England.


John of Mar, Eva’s second husband

Who was John of Mar? You will look in vain for anyone with that name in the database of everyone appearing in Scotland in charters in this period (www.poms.ac.uk/database). Mar was one of two earldoms in Aberdeenshire. The other earldom, Buchan, was at that time held by another William Comyn, who was justiciar of Scotland north of the Forth before becoming earl through his wife, Marjorie, the daughter of Earl Fergus. The earldom of Mar was contested between the descendants of Earl Gille Críst, who died sometime around 1205, and Earl Morgan (Morgrund), who died in either 1182 or 1183.[3] It was finally settled on Donnchad (Duncan), son of Morgan, sometime between 15 May 1222 and 29 August 1228.[4] The case of Eva’s dower in Warwickshire falls within these critical years, beginning in late 1224 and finishing in June or July 1227.


The only clear mention of John in Scottish records is as a witness to a charter of Mael Coluim, earl of Fife, datable to no later than 19 April 1225.[5][D1]  There he is found in the company of Fife notables, including Merleswain, ‘son of the earl of Buchan’. There was a close family relationship between Marjorie, wife of William Comyn, earl of Buchan, and Merleswain son of Colbán, lord of Kennoway in Fife: for example, both she and her husband confirmed Merleswain’s gift of Kennoway church to St Andrews priory—something they would not have been called upon to do without having an immediate stake in the gift.[6] It has been assumed that John was a son of Earl Gille Críst,[7] but the sons of Gille Críst were allied by marriage to the Durwards. It would be natural, therefore, for the Comyns to have become associated not with Gille Críst’s sons, but with their rivals, the sons of Morgan. The sons of Morgan must have had powerful backer to triumph over the Durwards: the Comyns were certainly able to offer weighty support. As justiciar, William Comyn earl of Buchan was very close to the king of Scots. Alexander II’s decision to recognise Donnchad son of Morgan as earl of Mar would surely have been with Earl William’s active participation. (In due course Donnchad’s son and heir, William, married Earl William Comyn’s daughter, Elizabeth.)


The fact that John of Mar, in his sole confirmed appearance in a Scottish charter, is found in the company of a son of the earl of Buchan, would fit with this scenario—especially if the charter could be dated to after William Comyn became earl of Buchan (probably in 1212): unfortunately it could be as early as 1204. The discovery that John married the widow of William Comyn of Snitterfield, however, leaves no doubt that he was tied closely to William Comyn, earl of Buchan. Indeed, this would be the earliest clear evidence of a link between William Comyn, earl of Buchan, and John’s family. Although it is not clear exactly how the two William Comyns were related to each other, there is no doubt that they were and that they knew each other. William Comyn of Snitterfield witnessed two charters of William Comyn, earl of Buchan: one almost certainly in Aberdeenshire (H 3/12/13: http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/2611/), the other probably at the marriage of the earl of Buchan’s sister (H 3/12/14: http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/2615/). All in all, John of Mar is likely to have been a son of Morgan: either Donnchad’s younger brother, or an older brother with a different mother. This family was based in the western part of Mar, which remained predominantly Gaelic speaking until the eighteenth century. It is more than likely, therefore, that Gaelic would have been John of Mar’s first language. He must also have been conversant in Anglo-French to be able to follow the proceedings in the king of England’s court.[8] This would not be so surprising if it could be assumed that Agnes, Earl Morgan’s wife, was his mother: it has been suggested that Agnes was a relative of Ada de Warenne, mother of King Mael Coluim IV (1153-1165) and King William (1165–1214).[9]


Outline of the attempt to secure Eva’s dower in the king’s court

After William Comyn of Snittersfield’s death the lands that should have been Eva’s dower were occupied by Robert de Mandeville and William de Cantilupe. Robert de Mandeville queried whether the lands he had acquired should really be regarded as part of Eva’s dower, arguing that these were not part of her late husband’s lands at the time of their marriage. The case was settled in Eva and John’s favour in Trinity term (June–July) 1225.[10]


The part of Eva’s dower that was held by William de Cantilupe triggered much more protracted proceedings. It had been given to William de Cantilupe by John d’Abetot, a prominent Warwickshire knight.[11] William Comyn of Snitterfield had held two parts of the manor of Snitterfield for knight service to John d’Abetot. Eva and John of Mar’s eventual success in the summer of 1227 took a number of twists and turns over nearly three years: each of the six hearings is summarised in the Appendix. In the first hearing, in late 1224, William de Cantilupe objected that he would only answer the claim if the warrantor (guarantor) of Eva’s dower was present. This was an attempt to stall the proceedings: a dower was, in law, guaranteed by the late husband’s heir, and in this instance that was the child, Marjorie, who was in Scotland, where she was in the power of King Alexander II. As became clear later, she was not going to be allowed to go to England. Eva and John of Mar’s inability to make Marjorie appear was deemed by the court to be insufficient grounds to stop the proceedings. This decision represented a clarification of the law, and was duly noted in the standard lawbook of English law, The Laws and Customs of England (known to scholars as Bracton) written largely during the second quarter of the thirteenth century (although not ‘published’ until after 1268).[12]


When this decision went against him, William de Cantilupe—who had presumably received the lands from John d’Abetot in good faith—called on John d’Abetot to answer Eva and John of Mar’s case. This was standard procedure: if it was found that land had been given unlawfully, then the donor was obliged to give land of equivalent value somewhere else to the recipient. It was important for John d’Abetot, therefore, to resist Eva and John of Mar’s claim, because if he lost, he would be required to give land to William de Cantilupe in compensation. The best card he had up his sleeve was that, because William Comyn had held Snitterfield of him for knight service, he could claim that he should be in charge of William Comyn’s under-age heir, Marjorie. He would be entitled to make someone her guardian, who would control the estate until she came of age or was married. (As her lord, John d’Abetot would also have a say in who she married.) We may guess that his intention was to make William de Cantilupe her guardian. John of Mar and Eva claimed that Marjorie was in the guardianship of King Alexander II in Scotland (which would be natural if she was the underage successor to land held directly from the king of Scots): they, therefore, had no control of her. If true, this would suggest that William Comyn of Snitterfield held land in Scotland directly of the king of Scots, and that Alexander II had given her to someone else as her guardian—which would mean that Marjorie was never likely to be given up to John d’Abetot. John d’Abetot was quite right to feel that he had been disinherited, but there was nothing that Eva and John of Mar could do about it—and nothing that English royal justices could do about it, either. This did not alter the fact that Eva, as William Comyn’s widow, was due a third of his portion of Snitterfield. It was a stalemate. In the end, John d’Abetot’s case was defeated on a technicality: after losing the case over the dower, the action he himself brought to recover control of Marjorie as heir was thrown out because he had failed to mention key information in the original writ. He was given leave to try again with a writ that was worded properly, but nothing more is heard of the case.


The emergence of a cross-kingdoms society

The story of Eva and John of Mar’s struggle to gain possession of Eva’s dower lands shows how English royal justice could enable vulnerable members of landholding families to pursue their legal claim to property in the face of important local lords, and how this could allow very extended cross-border ties to develop to the advantage of Scots, like John of Mar, whose roots and main family connections were far away from England. This is not to say that such opportunities were always seized, or were never thwarted. What is certain is that, without English royal justice, claims by Scots to landed interests hundreds of miles south of the border would have been much less likely to have succeeded.


This would, of course, have created relationships that spanned both kingdoms—not just in the border area, but deep into each realm. Keith Stringer’s map of cross-border landholding by greater lords around 1290 shows that all areas of the Scottish lowlands had connections of this kind with parts of England.[13] Further examples of cross-border ties are likely to have arisen through the allies and followers of these lords. John of Mar and Eva would be an example. It should not seem so strange, therefore, that the records of proceedings in the king of England’s court at Westminster relating to estates in Warwickshire and Wiltshire should be the source of new evidence for a critical period in the history of North East Scotland, when the earldom of Mar was settled on Donnchad son of Morgan. The central figure in John of Mar and Eva’s story was almost certainly William Comyn, earl of Buchan. He is likely to have brought them together, using his wide family connections to increase his power in North East Scotland by establishing a closer link with the sons of Morgan in the earldom of Mar. If so, this would mean that ownership of land in the English midlands had, in this instance, been directly affected by the politics of Aberdeenshire.


At this level in society the two kingdoms formed a single world of shared and competing interests, operating within a common understanding of landholding articulated in a common language: Anglo-French.[14] The spread and intensification of this widely ramified elite social network in Scotland is difficult to trace precisely. As far as English royal records are concerned, identifying individuals with strong connections north of the border is rarely as straightforward as the case of John of Mar, whose name gives himself away immediately.[15] The project’s database for the three northern counties of England will, when combined electronically with www.poms.ac.uk/database, reveal many individuals with experience of landholding in both kingdoms, or with other significant cross-border connections. John of Mar and his brothers represent the first generation of their family to grow up as part of this society of French-speaking landholders across both kingdoms. Although John was far away from England—in an area described as ‘inner Scotland’ by a Melrose chronicler at this time[16]—he could hold his own in the king of England’s court. The appearance of James Lascelles as Eva’s attorney in the case also shows how local knights, and not just the higher nobility, could gain experience of English royal justice. It seems likely, on the face of it, that this James Lascelles is the same person who appears as a witness to a royal charter of 1242 relating to North East Scotland,[17] and two charters of a later Comyn earl of Buchan.[18] The Lascelles family is also found holding land in Fife.[19] And Lascelles is also found in Westmorland. The databases should, when combined, make it very much easier to trace the lesser members of these elite, and to consider their significance in making magnate power a reality in localities, and allowing this cross-kingdoms community to take root.



Summary of the proceedings arising from the attempt to secure Eva’s dower from land held of John d’Abetot by her late husband, William Comyn of Snitterfield, in Warwickshire.[20]


1. Michaelmas term (October–December) 1224 (CRR, xi. no. 2446): John of Mar and Eva his wife v. William de Cantilupe.

John of Mar and Eva his wife, widow of William Comyn of Snitterfield,[21] brought an action against William de Cantilupe for Eva’s dower. William refused to answer without the presence of the warrantor (i.e., guarantor) of Eva’s dower. (The guarantor was Marjorie, the underage daughter and heir of William Comyn, Eva’s first husband.) John of Mar and Eva explained that Marjorie is in the guardianship of the king of Scots, and is therefore not available. It was determined that William Comyn, Eva’s first husband, died in legal possession of his lands. It was decided that William de Cantilupe should answer the claim of John of Mar and Eva without Marjorie’s presence. William de Cantilupe then called on John d’Abetot (who had given the land to William de Cantilupe) to answer instead of him.


2. Trinity term (June–July) 1225 (CRR, xii. no. 470); also Bracton’s Note-Book, ii. 547

John of Mar and Eva his wife (through their attorney) sought a third part of the two parts of the manor of Snitterfield as the dower of Eva from her late husband, William Comyn, against John d’Abetot, who William de Cantilupe had called on as his guarantor. John came and acknowledged that she had been endowed in this way, and granted her dower if she gave back to him William Comyn’s heir (Marjorie), because he ought to be her guardian. John of Mar and Eva (through their attorney) said that the heir (Marjorie) was in Scotland, and that they did not have possession of her, nor ever had. And John (d’Abetot) was not able to dispute this. It was therefore determined that John and Eva should recover possession of the third part of the two parts of the manor of Snitterfield; and John (d’Abetot) was in the court’s mercy. (The case then moved on to consider William de Cantilupe’s claim that John d’Abetot should, as guarantor of the land which William had lost to John of Mar and Eva, give him alternative land of equal value).


3. Easter term (28 April–May) 1226 (CRR, xii. no. 2657): John d’Abetot v. John of Mar and Eva his wife

John d’Abetot (though his attorney) obtained a hearing of his plea against John of Mar and Eva his wife for the return of Marjorie, daughter and heir of William Comyn, claiming that he, John d’Abetot, ought to be her guardian because William Comyn held his land of him for military service. John and Eva did not come. Sureties for their appearance had been given by John Burley (Burgleg’) and Geoffrey Muriel. It was therefore settled by better pledges that they would be present when the justices arrived.


4. Easter term (20 April–May) 1227 (CRR, xiii. no. 46): John d’Abetot v. John of Mar and Eva his wife

John d’Abetot (though his attorney) sought the guardianship of Marjorie, daughter and heir of William Comyn, because William Comyn held his land of John for military service. Eva did not come to court. John of Mar, however, came and answered that they did not have Marjorie, and had never had her, and he denied that they had abducted her, and was prepared to demonstrate this to the court, if the court so desired. But John d’Abetot (though his attorney) said that John of Mar and Eva his wife had taken Marjorie to Scotland; indeed, Eva had abducted Marjorie before marrying John of Mar. Trial was set for Trinity. John of Mar gave bail to have his wife at court, and he found pledges (Charles of the Wardrobe, Henry son of ‘Aucher’ and William de Coyners) who also have bail that she would come to answer John d’Abetot; they conceded that, if she did not come, they along with John of Mar would be deprived of lands and goods.


5. Trinity term (June–July) 1227 (CRR, xiii. no. 241)

The Lord King sent word to the justices that John of Mar, appearing before him, had appointed James of Lascelles or Warin of ‘Gernemue’ to represent him in the case between John d’Abetot and John of Mar and Eva his wife concerning Marjorie, daughter and heir of William Comyn.


6. Trinity term (June–July) 1227 (CRR, xiii. no. 281): John d’Abetot v. John of Mar and Eva his wife

John d’Abetot (though his attorney) had his case heard against John of Mar and Eva his wife that they should acknowledge his right to the wardship of Marjorie, daughter and heir of William Comyn, because William Comyn held his land of him for military service. And Eva did not come to court; and John her husband gave bail that she would appear in front of the justices, and she had not. But four knights of the county of Northumberland had been sent to her [in Scotland] on the king’s instructions to hear etc. The knights did not come; but James Lascelles came and said in front of these knights that he was her attorney.


And John d’Abetot (though his attorney) sought the guardianship of Marjorie, as before, and complained that John of Mar and Eva had taken Marjorie away to Scotland to the disinheritance of John d’Abetot. And John of Mar and James Lascelles said that they ought not to answer John d’Abetot’s writ [which brought the case to court] because John d’Abetot had no right in the land except through his wife, the sister and heir of William son of Richard, and as she is not mentioned in the writ, and neither is she is attending with him, they do not wish to answer him, unless the court so wished. And John d’Abetot’s attorney accepted this. And therefore the action against John of Mar and Eva came to an end, and John d’Abetot was in the court’s mercy: he could ask for another writ, if he wished.


[1] The published series begins with Curia Regis Rolls of the Reigns of Richard I and John preserved in the Public Record Office, vol. i, Richard I–2 John, ed. H. C. Maxwell Lyte (London, 1922), and has been abandoned after Curia Regis Rolls of the Reign of Henry III preserved in the Public Record Office, vol. xx, 34 to 35 Henry III (1250), ed. David Crook (Woodbridge, 2006).

[2] CRR, xi. no. 733.

[3] Matthew H. Hammond, ‘Hostarii Regis Scotie: the Durward family in the thirteenth century’, in Steve Boardman and Alasdair Ross (eds), The Exercise of Power in Medieval Scotland, c. 1200–1500 (Dublin 2003), 118–38, at 124.

[4] Hammond, ‘Hostarii Regis Scotie’, 125.

[5] PoMS 3/16/18: http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/2565/. Note that the son of Earl Morgan who is given possession of Gille Muire, scolóc of Tarland, in an agreement with Simon, prior of St Andrews, in 1223/4, is referred to simply as ‘J’: PoMS 4/22/3 (http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/4208/). This has been taken to be James (who was still alive on 9 October 1232: http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/2050/, and who appears as Lord of Abernethy in Speyside on 5 May 1226: http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/4206/). James (Jacobus) was not yet a common name, however, unlike John, so it might be expected that ‘J’ here stands for Johannes. The agreement with Simon, prior of St Andrews, survives as an original single sheet (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland. Adv. MS 15.1.18, no. 27), so the decision to refer to this son of Earl Morgan simply as ‘J.’ must have been considered unambiguous by the scribe who drew up the document, which he is more likely to have done if John was intended.

[6] PoMS 3/12/23 (http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/2392/) and PoMS 3/12/8 (http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/2388/).

[7] Richard D. Oram, ‘Continuity, adaption and integration: the earls and earldom of Mar, c.1150–c.1300’, in Boardman and Ross (eds), The Exercise of Power, 46–66, at 55.

[8] For French as the language of the royal courts from the beginning, see Paul Brand, ‘The languages of the law’, in D. A. Trotter (ed.), Multilingualism in Later Medieval Britain (Woodbridge 2000), 63–76, at 64–6.

[9] Oram, ‘Continuity, adaption and integration’, 49.

[10] CRR, xii. no. 471 (p. 92).

[11] I am grateful to Prof. David Carpenter for information about John d’Abetot, and for also pointing out to me that William de Cantilupe was a major figure in John’s reign, as well as lord of Aston Cantlow next door to Snitterfield.

[12] G. E. Woodbine, Bracton de legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae, 4 vols. (New Haven, CT, 1915–42); repr. with facing transl. by S. E. Thorne (New Haven, CT, 1968–77), iii. 361. An example is given in summary form of a writ ordering that the heir be produced in court to guarantee the dower claimed by a widow. This is followed by an explanation that this procedure is not available to a lord resisting a claim to surrender the dower if the lord in question is not the chief lord, but has acquired wardship of the land from the chief lord. The case of John of Mar and Eva his wife v. William de Cantilupe from the rolls kept by the judge on the King’s Bench is then cited to illustrate this point. On the composition of Bracton, see Paul Brand, ‘‘The Age of Bracton’’, in John Hudson (ed.), The History of English Law. Centenary Essays on ‘Pollock and Maitland’, Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 89 (Oxford 1996), 65–89, esp. 66–78.

[13] Peter G. B. McNeill and Hector L. MacQueen (ed.), The Atlas of Scottish History to 1707 (Edinburgh 1996), 420–2.

[14] On the importanve of French, see esp. Richard Sharpe, ‘People and language in eleventh- and twelfth-century Britain and Ireland: reading the charter evidence’, in Dauvit Broun (ed.), The Reality Behind Charter Diplomatic in Anglo-Norman Britain (Glasgow 2011), 1-119.

[15] I spotted him when I was reading Bracton, iii. 361; the project has given me the opportunity to follow this up.

[16] profunda Scotia: for discussion, see Dauvit Broun & Julian Harrison, The Chronicle of Melrose Abbey: a Stratigraphic Edition, vol.i, Introduction and Facsimile Edition (Woodbridge 2007), 6.

[17] PoMS 1/7/287: http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/2043/.

[18] PoMS 3/12/27 and 3/12/28: http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/2394/ and http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/2621/.

[19] See, for example, PoMS 3/337/1: http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/source/5159/.

[20] Legal terminology has been avoided as far as possible in an attempt to make the summaries clear to the non-expert.

[21] William Comyn was alive the previous year, when a case was brought against him (CRR, xi. no. 733).



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One Response to April 2012 – Scottish claims to land in Warwickshire

  1. It will be interesting to see what emerges from this research regarding Galloway. Uhtred of Galloway had land in Cumberland and introduced several Cumbrian land owners into Galloway, as well as Holm Cultram abbey which had lands in Kirkgunzeon parish. Later, with the Balliols, there were strong cross-border links.

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