September 2012 – Dervorguilla of Galloway

Dervorguilla, daughter of Alan of Galloway and Lady of Balliol

Amanda Beam, Research Associate[1]


There are many reasons to choose Dervorguilla de Balliol as our featured person of the month. She was the daughter of a leading noble in early 13th century Scotland; her mother was a member of the Scottish royal family, making Dervorguilla of royal blood herself; her name – from the Gaelic Derb Forgaill or Dearbhaill – offers an interesting link between Galloway and Ireland; she subsequently became the mother and grandmother of two kings of Scots. Her family aside, Dervorguilla was also a wealthy heiress and held extensive lands in both England and Scotland. Though her husband, John (I) Balliol (d.1268), began the foundation of the Oxford College bearing their name, it was Dervorguilla who completed the foundation in 1282. Moreover, she was well-respected by Kings Henry III and Edward I of England as well as by later chroniclers. But the focus of her in this feature will be her wealth and how that contributed to her role as an important monastic foundress in Scotland.


Dervorguilla’s wealth


Her family connections and wealth provided her with the means to offer increasing patronage to religious houses. Alan, lord of Galloway, her father, died in 1234, and his lordship of Galloway as well as vast de Moreville lands which his mother, Helen de Moreville (d.1217), had inherited would be split between Alan’s three daughters – Helen from his first marriage, and Christiana and Dervorguilla from his second marriage to Margaret, daughter of David, earl of Huntingdon. From 1234 until the 1250s, Dervorguilla’s share of lands in England and Scotland would increase with the deaths of her maternal uncle, John, earl of Huntingdon and Chester, her sister Christiana, her eldest sister, Helen, wife of Roger de Quincy, and Helen, widow of Earl John.

At an estimated £3,000 yearly worth, the Balliol family was one of the richest noble landholders in the British Islesat the time. John (I) Balliol’s lands in England at his death in 1268 brought roughly £1,000 yearly. After her own death in 1290, her son and heir, John (II) Balliol, inherited an estimated £1,097 from her lands in Scotland.[2] This means that Dervorguilla’s combined personal wealth during her widowhood – including her terce and her own inheritance in Galloway and in parts of England and Scotland – would have been around £1,500. This was a considerable sum, especially when compared to the Scottish landed value of Robert Bruce (d.1295) which was scarcely £150-200 per annum.[3] What makes this more striking is that Dervorguilla was a widow, and would remain so for the rest of her life.


Dervorguilla’s piety


Her family showed immense piety in Scotland, with seven major abbatial foundations, including her own. Her paternal great-great-grandfather, Fergus of Galloway (d.1161) reputedly founded the Cistercian abbey at Dundrennan in Galloway, where her father, Alan, is buried, as well as Soulseat Abbey in Wigtownshire. Fergus’s son, Uhtred (d.1174) founded Lincluden nunnery, while his grandson, Roland, lord of Galloway (d.1200), founded Glenluce Abbey in Wigtown in 1192 as a Cistercian abbey and daughter-house of Dundrennan. Dervorguilla’s maternal grandfather, Earl David of Huntingdon, founded Lindores Abbey in Fife around 1190, while another ancestor on her mother’s side, Hugh de Moreville, founded Dryburgh Abbey in the Borders.[4]

Members of the Balliol family were no less pious, though they did not endow houses on the same scale. John (I) Balliol himself, whom Dervorguilla married in 1233, reputedly founded a hospital at Barnard Castle in honour of St John the Baptist in 1229 and in February 1249, he also left for a pilgrimage to Pontigny. During any number of visits to his French lands, he probably made donations to the church at Bellifontaine, near Bailleul.[5] The Balliols of Vimeu also retained connections to local religious houses in Picardy well after they were settled in England, some of which were allegedly founded by the family, including the parish church of Bailleul-en-Vimeu, the collegiate church at Longpré-les-Corps-Saints (perhaps founded by John (I)’s mother, Cecilia de Fontaines, daughter of Aleaure, seigneur de Fontaines and lord of Longpré), and the parish church at Dompierre, founded by John’s ancestor Bernard de Balliol (d.c.1154×62).[6] Bernard de Balliol also granted to the abbey of Cluny the church of Dompierre and the altars of Bailleul, Tours, Ercourt, Ramburelles and Allenai (dép. Somme). Lands near Hornoy were given to St Peter’s Church in Selincourt.[7]

Dervorguilla was, in the words of a recent biographer, a considerable patroness.[8] Despite inheriting lands throughout Scotland as part of the Honour of Huntingdon, her religious devotion was centred in Dumfries and Galloway, her father’s ancestral home. Dervorguilla had connections with Whithorn Priory, was a patron of the church of Dornock and may have, with her husband John, commissioned the building of the nave of the parish church at Buittle.[9] The Bridge of Dumfries, also known as Dervorguilla’s Bridge, can be attributed to her – the tolls of which endowed the Franciscans of the town.

The fifteenth-century chronicler, Andrew of Wyntoun, celebrated Dervorguilla’s Scottish piety in his eulogy to her entitled ‘How Devorguil that Lady Spendyt hyr Tresoure Devotly’.[10] Among her ‘virtuous deeds’, according to Wyntoun, were the foundations of religious houses in Wigtown (Black Friars/Dominican), Dumfries and Dundee (both Grey Friars/Franciscan), as well as two chantries in Glasgow.[11]

The house of the newer order of Dominicans, founded in Wigtown around 1267, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. As one historian has said, Dervorguilla may have founded this house out of ‘gratitude for the safe deliverance’ of John Balliol and her sons following the uncertainty of the Barons’ War and its aftermath.[12] The house of Grey Friars in Dumfries is better known as the place where Dervorguilla’s grandson, John Comyn, was murdered by Robert Bruce in February 1306. The date of its foundation is debated as occurring between 1234 and 1266, having been founded by either Alan of Galloway or Dervorguilla.[13] The foundation of the house in Dundee is perhaps untrue as the charter used by the friars to support the claim was deemed to be a forgery.[14]

Outwith Galloway, she was also patroness of the church of Lauder in Berwickshire and in the late 1260s she and her husband granted the advowson of the church of Lauder to the canons of Dryburgh Abbey, founded by her ancestor Hugh de Moreville.[15] In Ayrshire, she made an impact, while also highlighting her de Moreville roots. A donation ‘in her lawful widowhood’ of Tourgill in Cunningham, ‘Ryesdale’ and 80 acres from her demesne of Largs called ‘Balliol’s lands’, and of one oxgang in Largs was made to ‘God, Blessed Kentigern and the Church of Glasgow’ and to Robert Wishart, bishop of Glasgow.[16]

That Dervorguilla’s patronage seems heavily biased towards Scotland rather than England speaks volumes for the legacy she wanted to leave. It also underlines a homecoming of sorts, as many of the foundations seem to have occurred near or after she was widowed. Despite spending most of her married life based in England, there is little evidence of her patronage there. She may have built a small chantry outside the church at Fotheringhay, one of the many manors she owned, and she supplied it with a priest to celebrate mass for her dearly departed husband and his ancestors.[17] There is no surviving evidence that shows Dervorguilla giving land or properties to the Hospital of St Peter’s, York, which Uhtred of Galloway and his grandson, Alan (Dervorguilla’s father), had done. But, her religious patronage aside, Dervorguilla was also a patron of scholars at Oxford, and in 1283 completed the foundation of Balliol College, which her husband had begun some twenty years before.[18]


Sweetheart Abbey


Of course, Dervorguilla is most known for her greatest religious foundation: Sweetheart Abbey (Dulce Cor) in Kirkcudbrightshire, the last Cistercian house founded in Scotland. The abbey was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and traditionally in memory of her husband, John, whose body had been reinterred there – probably from Barnard Castle in County Durham. When Dervorguilla herself died in late January 1290, she was buried in the abbey with an ivory casket containing her late husband’s heart.[19]

Marjorie Drexler offers an interesting thought when she ponders why Dervorguilla chose to support monks rather than nuns. She was already patroness of the Benedictine nuns of Hinchingbrooke (Cambs.) and one of her maternal ancestors, Judith, wife of Earl Waltheof of Huntingdon, had founded another Benedictine nunnery at Elstow, near Dervorguilla’s manor of Kempston.[20] Establishing a Cistercian nunnery in Galloway would have been a welcome complement to the monks of Dundrennan and Glenluce. Of course, there was already Lincluden convent, founded around 1165 by Dervorguilla’s great-grandfather Uhtred, but this was a Benedictine house.

By founding the abbey as daughter house of Dundrennan, she followed her grandfather, Roland, who had already founded Glenluce as a daughter house. This perhaps highlights a stronger bond between Dervorguilla and her father’s family. The land on which the abbey was to be built was inspected in 1270 by the abbots of Furness and Rievaulx, who were sent north by Cistercian General Chapter.[21] Three years later, in April 1273, Dervorguilla issued the endowment charter which specified that her gift of ‘all her land of Loch Kindar (Kirkcudbrightshire) and of Kirkpatrick-Durham (Dumfriesshire)’ was given for the welfare of the souls on both sides of her family:  Earl Henry, Earl David and Earl John on her mother’s side, and ‘Fergus of Galloway, Uhtred his son, and Roland, her grandfather, and Helen, his wife, and Alan, their son, her father, and Margaret her mother’. She also gave for the soul of John (I) Balliol, ‘her lord and late spouse’, and for the souls of her two deceased children, Hugh (d.1271) and Cecilia. Her charter ends by mentioning that Dundrennan and Glenluce Abbeys were founded by her ancestors, and the abbots of these houses witnessed the document together with Henry, bishop of Whithorn, the abbots of Tongland and Soulseat, the priors of Whithorn and St Mary’s Isle, and several knights and men of southwest Scotland.[22]

Notably, by listing her mother’s side first, she was giving priority to her important links to the Scottish royal family, links which were followed by her father’s family and their more native connection to Galloway. Last to be mentioned was her Balliol marriage and heirs, who were obvious foreigners in the area. Dervorguilla also did not use her title ‘lady of Balliol’ for this endowment charter; she was, rather, called ‘daughter of Alan of Galloway’, which was likely used to underline her own native heritage.[23] But, at the same time, Sweetheart Abbey is traditionally held to be a celebration of her marriage to Balliol, and the name itself to refer to Balliol’s embalmed heart with which she was buried.[24] Interestingly, in the charter Dervorguilla was showcasing her many identities (Galwegian and royalty by birth, English by marriage), but as with many cross-kingdom elites of the time, she committed herself to one – preferring her Galloway roots over her husband’s and her children’s English and Picard roots.

The exact value of Sweetheart Abbey at the time of its foundation is not known but according to accounts taken at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the abbey’s annual income was £690. Around 1308, twelve years after Dervorguilla’s son, John (II) Balliol, abdicated the throne of Scotland, the abbot and convent of Sweetheart claimed over £5,000 in damages and destruction caused by the Wars of Independence.[25] By comparison, the sixteenth-century accounts show that Paisley Abbey, founded in 1163 as a priory by Walter, son of Alan Stewart, had an income of £6,100, while Lindores Abbey in Fife, founded by Dervorguilla’s grandfather, Earl David of Huntington, had an income of £4,790.[26]

The foundation of an abbey on this scale indicates the status which Dervorguilla had in her own right. Sweetheart Abbey can be included as one of the great monastic foundations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries but even more significant, perhaps, was the fact that a wealthy widow achieved such a foundation. Her abilities, wealth and influences should be noted as should her involvement with other religious houses in southwest Scotland.


[1] I would like to thank Professor Dauvit Broun and Dr Matthew Hammond for their helpful comments and suggestions to this article.

[2] A. Beam, The Balliol Dynasty (Edinburgh, 2008), 14-15, 30; Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1292-1301, 12-13; Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, ii, no. 670; G. Stell, ‘The Balliol Family and the Great Cause of 1291-1292’, Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland, ed. K. J. Stringer (Edinburgh, 1985), 150-65, at 157.

[3] R. Blakely, ‘The Brus Family in England and Scotland, 1100-1290’ (Ph.D. thesis, Durham, 2001), 149-50.

[4] I. B. Cowan and D. E. Easson, Medieval Religious Houses: Scotland (2nd edn, London, 1976), 63-4, 66, 69-70, 74; R. Oram, The Lordship of Galloway (Edinburgh, 2000), 104. Dundrennan was also said to have been founded by David I, king of Scots, in 1142, though Fergus remains the accepted founder.

[5] R. Surtees, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatinate of Durham (London, 1816-40), iv, 80; J. C. Hodgson, A History of Northumberland, vi (Newcastle, 1902), 49; J. H. Burn, A Defence of John Balliol (privately printed, c. 1970), 32; CDS, i, no. 1755; CPR, 1247-58, 37; Stell, ‘The Balliol Family’, 158. Pontigny was the shrine of the English saint, Edmund, a former archbishop of Canterbury. Englishwomen were given privileged access to the abbey at Pontigny (D. Webb, Pilgrimage in Medieval England (London, 2000), 67), so we may assume that Dervorguilla accompanied him on the pilgrimage.

[6] Beam, The Balliol Dynasty, 21; BNF Collections Baluze MS 38, f.216; G. Stell, ‘In Search of the Balliols: 2. France’, Balliol College Record (1999), 11-5, at 12-3.

[7] Le cartulaire de l’abbaye de Selincourt, ed. M.G. Beaurain (Sociéte des Antiquaires de Picardie, 1925), nos. 3, 19, 112, 113; Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Cluny, ed. A. Bernard and A. Bruel (6 vols, Paris, 1886-1903), v (1894), nos. 4060-1; Calendar of Documents preserved in France, i, no. 1392; G.A. Moriarty, ‘The Baliols in Picardy, England and Scotland’, New England Historical and Genealogical Register, cvi (1952), 273-290, at 277.

[8] G. P. Stell, ‘Dervorguilla de Balliol, lady of Galloway’, ODNB (Oxford, 2004), iii, 601-02.

[9] Drexler, ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway’, 133. In 1336, her grandson Edward Balliol, while king of Scots, gave the church of Dornock to the monks of Holm Cultram (Glas. Reg., i, no. 286).

[10] The Original Chronicle of Andrew of Wyntoun, ed. F. J. Amours (Edinburgh, 1914), v, 259-63.

[11] Original Chronicle of Wyntoun, v, 263; Cowan and Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, 121, 125; H. Maxwell, A History of Dumfries and Galloway (Edinburgh, 1896), 67; R. Oram, ‘Dervorgilla, the Balliols and Buittle’, TDGNHAS, lxxiii (1999), 165-81, at 174.

[12] Drexler, ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway’, 125.

[13] Cowan and Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, 125.

[14] M. Drexler, ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway’, TDGNHAS, lxxix (2005), 125.

[15] Liber de Dryburgh (Edinburgh, 1847), nos. 9, 12.

[16] Glas. Reg., i, no. 230; see the charter in the PoMS database here. Her paternal grandmother, Helen de Moreville, was the daughter of Richard de Moreville, lord of Lauderdale and Cunningham.

[17] Drexler, ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway’, 133, citing M.F. Moore, The lands of the Scottish kings in England (London, 1915), 95.

[18] Oxford Balliol Deeds, nos. 567-9, 592-5, 597-9; F. de Paravicini, Early History of Balliol College (London, 1891), 83; Stell, ‘The Balliol Family’, 157

[19] Original Chronicle of Wyntoun, v, 263; Cowan and Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, 78.

[20] Drexler, ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway’, 133.

[21] Cowan and Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, 78; Drexler, ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway’, 132.

[22] RRS, vi, ed. B. Webster. (Edinburgh, 1982), no. 235

[23] Drexler, ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway’, 134.

[24] See also Drexler, ‘Dervorguilla of Galloway’, 133-4, where she mentions that the 1360 confirmation charter by David II refers to the abbey as ‘Dulce Cor’ though the name actually used in the original grant is no longer visible.

[25] CDS, iii, no. 69; Cowan and Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, 72, 78; Huyshe, Dervorguilla, 75-6, not dated but placed in 1308.

[26] Cowan and Easson, Medieval Religious Houses, 63-4, 66, 69-70.

This entry was posted in Feature of the Month. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • © 2013 The Breaking of Britain
  • Design by DDH
Facebook logo