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Lady Dervorgilla and her Collection of Books

By Sophie Andrade

Yet another fascinating woman from the thirteenth century!

Heiress, patron, founder, potential bookworm. Lady Dervorgilla’s achievements as a woman in thirteenth-century Scotland and England are fascinating, and often overlooked. While it was rare for a woman to have as much influence and power as Dervorgilla, this lady stands as proof that medieval women, albeit very wealthy medieval women, could make their mark on the world. And own a collection of books!

Quite possibly one of the wealthiest women of her time, Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway was born c. 1209 in the Castle of Kenmure to Alan of Galloway and his second wife, Margaret. Her unique name is likely a Latinization of the Gaelic Derbhorghil and is also spelled as ‘Dervorguilla’ or ‘Devorgilla’.

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She appeared in royal court around the age of ten, but little is known of her life before her marriage to John de Balliol in 1223. After this, she became an extraordinarily wealthy woman. With no legitimate male heir, Dervorgilla’s father passed away in early 1234 and his estate was divided among his three daughters. This was not before his illegitimate son, Thomas, tried to claim the fortune for himself. Lucky for Dervorgilla and her sisters, Thomas was denied his claim after the royal court backed a petition to give the inheritance to the Galloway sisters. Later that year, Dervorgilla’s sister, Helen, as well as her uncle passed away, and her share of the inheritance grew.

Through her paternal side, Dervorgilla owned a third of the inheritance of Galloway and parts of the inheritance of Cunningham and Lauderdale. Her uncle’s death gave her and her older sister, Christiana, several properties in east England, and through their mother they gained the inheritance of the Huntingdon lands and great swathes of land in Scotland. Dervorgilla’s wealth grew even more after the death of Christiana, who had no heirs, and Dervorgilla inherited part of Christiana’s share of their mother and father’s inheritances. Soon after her marriage, she owned land from the Scottish Highlands all the way down to the south of England. She was known as Dervorgilla, Lady of Balliol, Fotheringhay and Galloway, and the Countess of Huntingdon.

17th century painting of Dervorguilla of Galloway by Wilhelm Sonmans.

In addition to owning and maintaining these vast areas of England and Scotland, Dervorgilla used some of her wealth to establish prominent buildings and structures throughout the land. Balliol College at Oxford University is named after her and her husband. John de Balliol, in 1255, established an almshouse in Oxford for 16 poor scholars who were to receive an allowance of 8 pence a day. It was not John, however, but Dervorgilla who actually turned this almshouse into the college that still stands today. Nearly thirty years after the almshouse was founded, Dervorgilla created the permanent endowment and statutes necessary to turn it into the official Balliol College at Oxford University.

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In Dumfries, there is a bridge over the River Nith known as ‘Devorgilla’s Bridge’. This seventeenth-century construction is named after a bridge that was said to be constructed by Dervorgilla in the 1230s, however, since it was likely made of wood, no trace of the original bridge remains. Also in Dumfries, Dervorgilla established the Friars Minor, a house for Franciscan friars, and further down the road in Wigtown she established a Dominican house of Friars. In Dundee, she founded the Franciscan Friary.

Dervorgilla’s marriage to her husband John must have been one of true love, for when he passed away in 1268, Dervorgilla was devasted. She commemorated her husband in two ways: one traditional, for a woman of her wealth and status, and one not so traditional. In John’s memory, Dervorgilla founded New Abbey, a Cistercian sister-house of Dundrennan Abbey, in her homeland of Galloway. Curiously, she also had John’s heart embalmed so she could carry it with her wherever she went. She had an expensive case made for the heart, decorated with silver, enamel and ivory. This unique way of mourning her husband made such an impression on the monks of New Abbey that they renamed their abbey Dulce Cor, or Sweetheart, in her honour.

Sweetheart Abbey is in remarkably good shape for a building that is nearly 800 years old. Although it was left to fall into ruin after the Reformation in the late sixteenth century, its red sandstone walls still stand, and you can visit the site in the quaint town of New Abbey, Dumfries.

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Thanks to the monks of Sweetheart and their careful maintenance of their library, we know that Dervorgilla not only founded the abbey but also bequeathed them her own collection of manuscripts. Some of the surviving Sweetheart manuscripts even have her name written in them, potentially in her own hand. These manuscripts give us an incredible look at what a noblewoman like Dervorgilla might be interested in reading in the thirteenth century. They also prove that not only were ladies like Dervorgilla educated and literate, but they were also capable of collecting and owning their own small library of manuscripts.

So, what was in Dervorgilla’s collection? Not just Books of Hours, which are known to have been popular with medieval women. Dervorgilla’s collection included a twelfth-century scriptural manuscript, written in England, containing five treatises of Jerome and one by Hugh of St Victor. This manuscript, known as MS Fairfax 5, is currently housed at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. It contains an inscription that reads, ‘Liber d[omi]n[a]e Dervorgoyl de Bayl[io]l’, meaning ‘Book of Lady Dervorgilla of Balliol’. This incredible signature was likely written by Dervorgilla herself, and the next inscription shows that it passed from her hands to Sweetheart Abbey. The inscription states, ‘Liber s[an]c[ta]e marie de dulce corde’, meaning ‘Book of St Mary of Sweetheart’.

Bodleian Library MS. Fairfax 5 – Given to Sweetheart Abbey, Kirkcudbrightshire by Devorguilla de Balliol. Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The next manuscript that could have been part of Dervorgilla’s collection is MS 101, housed in the Edinburgh University Library. It is a twelfth-century manuscript which contains the Dialogues of Gregory the Great and its origins are unknown. The only ownership inscription in this manuscript is written in a fourteenth-century hand on folio 106, which reads ‘Liber Sancte Marie de Dulce Corde qui alienaverit anathema sit’, meaning ‘Book of St Mary of Sweetheart, may he who would steal [this manuscript] be cursed’. While there is no ownership mark to confirm that it once belonged to Dervorgilla, it is entirely possible based on its date of creation and its location at Sweetheart Abbey that it was donated by Dervorgilla at the abbey’s foundation.

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The third manuscript that can be traced back to Sweetheart Abbey is the Sweetheart Bible, known as Garrett MS 27, housed in the Robert Garrett Collection at Princeton University. It was originally written in the second half of the thirteenth century and was completed in four volumes. Three of the volumes are extant in the Princeton University Library collection. In the first volume of the bible, there is an inscription proclaiming Sweetheart Abbey’s ownership. It also has the same curse against theft as MS 101 in Edinburgh. The monks at Sweetheart Abbey were clearly very concerned about someone stealing their books.

In the same volume, there is the Balliol coat of arms. This is a clear indication of ownership by Lady Dervorgilla and, since there are no other ownership inscriptions, implies it must have gone directly from her family to Sweetheart Abbey.

The Sweetheart Psalter is the final manuscript known to have been housed at Sweetheart Abbey with a possible connection to Dervorgilla. This manuscript is currently missing, but it is known to have belonged to a man named Withom of Kirkconnell in 1889. In 1950, it was sold at auction by Sotheby’s, but that is the last we hear of it. It likely also has an inscription from Sweetheart Abbey in it, with a possible mention of Dervorgilla as well.

There is one more manuscript known to be connected to Sweetheart Abbey, called the Sweetheart Breviary. This one has an inscription that specifically mentions that it was from Sweetheart Abbey, and that the abbey was founded by Lady Dervorgilla. The manuscript could not have been owned by her, however, as it was written in the fourteenth century, several years after her death.

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Sweetheart Breviary – photo courtesy National Library of Scotland

After a long life of devotion and a commitment to enhancing the religious infrastructure of Scotland, Dervorgilla died in 1290 at the age of 81. She did not live to see her son, John, become king of Scotland, but perhaps that is for the best, as he was the widely disliked king of ‘Toom Tabard’ infamy. He was crowned in 1292, constantly undermined by the English king Edward I, deposed in 1295, defeated in the Wars of Scottish Independence, abdicated in 1296 and spent the rest of his life exiled in France.

Dervorgilla, however, was buried in the sanctuary of Sweetheart Abbey, holding her husband’s embalmed heart. Her original stone effigy and grave were destroyed during the Reformation, so it is not known where her remains might be today, but her effigy was recreated in 1932 and still stands in the abbey. Wentworth Huyshe, in his 1913 biography of Dervorgilla, (an outdated yet very poetic volume) said it best when he wrote:

‘The desecrated choir where Dervorgilla was laid, where, let us hope, she yet lies, seems still to be sanctified by her devotion and her piety; and when the setting sun deepens to crimson their Scottish red sandstone, the ancient walls seem aglow with the memory of her burning love and faith.’

Seal of Dervorguilla of Galloway. It is appended to the foundation charter of Balliol College, Oxford – Wikimedia Commons

Sophie Andrade is a recent graduate of the University of St Andrews with an MLitt in Medieval Studies. Her research focuses on medieval women, music, manuscripts, and castles. She lives in Nottingham, England.

Click here to read more from Sophie Andrade

Further Reading:

Ewan, Elizabeth and Rose Pipes, editors, The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh Press, 2017).

Huyshe, Wentworth, Dervorgilla, Lady of Galloway and her Abbey of the Sweet Heart (London: Chiswick Press, 1913).

Murray, Kylie, ‘Lady Dervorguilla and medieval Scotland’s manuscript treasures’, Floreat Domus, (2015), 26-7.

Stell, Geoffrey, ‘The Balliol Family and the Great Cause of 1291-2’ in Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland ed. by K.J. Stringer (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1985), 150-165.

Click here to learn more about Devorgilla’s Bridge

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