Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The phantoms of Jedburgh Abbey

Jedburgh Abbey is a ruined Augustinian monastery near the town of the same name in Roxburghshire, Scotland, only ten miles from the border with England.  It has quite a storied history.  It was founded in 1118 by King David I (whose father, King Malcolm III Canmore, defeated the notorious Macbeth; whether Birnam Wood ever actually came to Dunsinane is another matter entirely).  It became one of the wealthiest abbeys in the Scottish border counties, and its abbot also made the mistake of supporting William Wallace.  This was a bad combination back then.  After Wallace's tragic defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, the victorious English ransacked and pillaged the abbey.  It recovered, only to be sacked several more times, and finally burned (along with nearly the entire town of Jedburgh) in 1523.

Even so -- and despite the Scottish Reformation pretty well doing away with all the Catholic monasteries in Scotland -- part of the building was still used as the parish kirk.  Finally, in 1871, it was deemed unsafe, and a new church was built; the remains of the abbey became a historical landmark, where it attracts tourists lo unto this very day.

It also is the home of a particularly terrifying pair of specters -- which, if you believe the ghost hunters, still sometimes can be seen stalking around the abbey grounds.

Jedburgh Abbey from the River by Thomas Girtin (1799) [Image is in the Public Domain]

King Alexander III of Scotland (1249-1286), whose great-great grandfather David I founded Jedburgh Abbey, had a terrible time of it even judging by medieval Scottish standards, where life was (in Thomas Hobbes's immortal words) "solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short."  He became king at age seven -- never a good way to start -- and his first years were dominated by a fight for power between two factions both determined to gain control over the young monarch.  He married Margaret Plantagenet, daughter of King Henry III of England, but this only served to give Henry incentive to demand fealty from Alexander, entangling Scotland in another of the long conflicts it had with its neighbor to the south.

Along the way, Alexander had what would turn out to be his only real victory; in 1263 the Scots defeated the invading force of King Haakon IV of Norway at the Battle of Largs, and in the treaty that ended the conflict, Scotland gained ownership of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. 

But after that, things started to fall apart.  Alexander's wife Margaret died in 1275, and all three of his children by her had followed their mother into the grave by 1284.  As was typical of the time, Alexander started casting around for a second wife.  His only heir was his grandchild, the daughter of his deceased eldest child Margaret who had married King Eric II of Norway, grandson of the defeated Haakon IV -- but the girl (also named Margaret) was an infant... and still lived in Norway.

Here's where it takes an even darker turn.  Alexander fell for a woman named Yolande de Dreux, the daughter of a French nobleman.  Yolande reciprocated his attention, but there was a snag -- she was already betrothed, to a French knight named Eranton de Blois.  There's no historical certainty about what happened next, but according to the legend, Yolande conspired with one of her father's henchmen, the Comte de Montbar, to get de Blois out of the way, and he did -- via a dagger in the back.

The Abbot of Jedburgh demanded an investigation, but (predictably) nothing came of it.  Yolande was engaged to marry King Alexander, and the ceremony took place in the abbey church on November 1, 1285.

Everything was going forward with the typical medieval pomp and solemnity until the door of the church flew open with a bang, and an uninvited guest strode up the aisle, wearing armor and a tattered and bloodstained cloak.  When he reached the front of the church, the king said in a furious voice, "Who are you?"

At this point the figured lifted its visor, to reveal the decaying visage of a corpse.

De Montbar collapsed to the floor, writhing, and Yolande recoiled -- because, of course, they both recognized the dead man's face.  The specter pointed at Yolande and said, "Ask her.  My curse be on you and on her, the curse of the assassin's victim, treacherously ambushed and foully slain.  Hear me well, unhappy king.  Before three months have passed, they will sing masses for your soul in Jedburgh Abbey and she will be left a widow.  She will suffer the hatred of her people and will forever be reminded of her crimes."

Three months turned out to be an underestimate, but not by much.  On March 19, 1286, the king rode out after dark to join his wife at Kinghorn in Fifeshire, and the next morning was found at the bottom of a steep, rocky embankment with his neck broken.  Pragmatic folks said his horse lost its footing in the dark and threw its rider to his death; the more imaginative said it was the curse being fulfilled.  However it was, the whole thing propelled Scotland into chaos.  Alexander's granddaughter, Margaret, "Maid of Norway," died on board ship during the crossing to Scotland in 1290, leaving no heir to the throne.  The following years of civil war and repeated invasions from England (including the one that ultimately led to the brutal execution of William Wallace) only ended in 1306 with the coronation of Robert the Bruce.

As far as the rest of the "curse," it kind of... didn't happen.  There's no indication that Yolande was hated; she returned to France, where she remarried to Arthur II, Duke of Brittany, had six children of whom five reached adulthood, and lived to age 67 (neither of those a bad accomplishment back then).  She had received land in Scotland as a dowry for her first marriage and continued to manage it from over the Channel, apparently untroubled by the sordid story that was attached to her name.

But as for Alexander, death didn't bring him any peace.  Both his ghost and de Blois's have been seen on the abbey grounds, despite the fact that even the harshest versions of the legend didn't attach anything blameworthy to either one, and the spirits of the two people who were the real bad guys (Yolande and her murderous co-conspirator de Montbar) are nowhere to be found.  I guess there's no justice to be had, even in the afterlife.

Anyhow, that's today's creepy story, to continue in the same Halloween-y vein we've been in all week.  It makes a good tale even though the great likelihood is that large parts of it were made up after the fact.  But if you ever get a chance to visit Jedburgh, keep an eye out for phantoms.  A medieval king with a broken neck and a bloodied corpse in armor.  Shouldn't be hard to spot.


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