The Marischals


"The rise of the Keiths, Marischals of Scotland, was completed in 1458 when King James II created them Earls Marischal, but the origins of their office were much humbler. Marshals were part of the domestic establishments of kings and great noblemen, having the responsibility of overseeing the supply and care of their masters' horses. At first they were relatively unimportant, but from the 12th century there is a specific office of 'king's marischal' and a rise in its status, with subsequent holders usually being of knightly rank.

The king's marischal was subordinate to the king's constable, who was responsible for military organization and for the security and peace of the royal court. The marischal probably held military responsibilities, as would be expected of a knight, but one of his principal duties was as holder of a court for settling disputes between the king's servants. One 14th-century account of the king's household describes the constable and marischal as having a sphere of jurisdiction, extending to 12 leagues (about 36 miles) around the court.

By this time, along with the constable and the steward, the marischal had become one of the three great officers of the king's household, and was usually a man of baronial (as opposed to knightly) rank. During the Wars of Independence the military role predominated and the marischalcy was entrusted by Robert the Bruce to Sir Robert de Keith who commanded the cavalry at the Battle of Bannockburn. Later the king confirmed the position of Great marischal as the heritable possession of Sir Robert and his male heirs.

The Keith Marischals featured prominently as military captains in the service of both Robert I and his son, but later their wartime role diminished and the title had become largely honorific. The marischal and his kin rose to be one of the leading families of baronial rank in the north east of Scotland, and it was this landed power rather than possession of the marischalcy which gave them their dominant political role. When Sir William Keith was elevated to earldom, the transition from a functional to a ceremonial role was complete."

Source: A Guide to Dunnottar Castle (23)

SIR ROBERT de KEITH (d. 1332)

Sir Robert Keith was initially held in some esteem by King Edward I of England - known to history as the Hammer of the Scots. Sensing the right moment, however, he switched sides and joined King Robert the Bruce in the battles for Scottish independence.

He was a man of high social rank hailing from Lothian, and considerably older than Bruce's other commanders. He was principal in winning the Battle of Inverury, but it was his contributions in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn for which he is most noted (see illustration above). In what was to become one of the most celebrated moments in Keith history, Robert led a light cavalry of about 500 in a well-timed charge that scattered the deadly English archers, thus helping to secure a Scottish victory.

For his valuable service, Sir Robert received the title Great Marischal. He was awarded a large part of the lands forfeited by his cousin, The Earl of Buchan, who had supported the English, and received a grant of the Royal Forest of Kintore. At a stroke, King Robert the Bruce had secured a hostile part of the country for himself and bound the Keiths to the Scottish crown.

Robert Keith, Great Marischal of Scotland, was killed at the battle of Duplin in 1332.

When King Robert the Bruce died, he gave instructions for his heart to be cut from his body and taken on a crusade against 'the enemies of Christ'. Sir James Douglas - better known as the Black Douglas - led this crusade. Fighting helpless odds in a pitched battle against the Moors in Spain, Douglas threw the casket containing the King's heart before charging the enemy, and to his own death. Ancient stories credit Robert Keith's nephew, Sir William of Galston, with the recovery of the heart, returning it back to Scotland and Melrose Abbey.

Sources: Nothing But My Sword; Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia; Bannockburn 1314: Robert Bruce's Great Victory

NOTE: Sir Robert Keith's involvement at Bannockburn has been captured in many of the artistic depictions of the battle. He can be identified by the Keith shield bearing 3 or 4 red pales. Below are a few examples of interest:

The Battle of Bannockburn by William Hole, mural in three sections, The Scottish National Portrait Museum, Edinburgh

King Robert is in the foreground, and Robert Keith is behind-left

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Depicts the Scottish light cavalry with Robert Keith bearing his shield and banner.

The Battle of Bannockburn 1314 by James Proudfoot

Keith's cavalry are in the upper left

Sir Robert Keith (d. 1346)
grandson of Robert Keith, accompanied King David II to France

Sir William Keith (d. 1410)
At the close of the 14th century Sir William Keith, by exchange of lands with Lord Lindsay, obtained a crag in Kincardineshire where he built Dunnottar Castle.

Sir Robert Keith (d. 1430)
Acted as hostage in England for James I

Next: The Earls Marischal of Scotland


Bannockburn 1314: Robert Bruce's Great Victory by Pete Armstrong, Osprey, 2002

Clan Keith by Alan McNie, 1986

Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia