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The Wolfe Humbled

In 1390, King Robert II of Scotland, while holding court at Scone, wrote a letter to his son: To the High and Noble, our trusty and well-beloved son, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, Earl of Ross, Lord of Badenoch, and our faithful lieutenant over the northern part of our kingdom from the bounds of the County of Moray to the Pentland Firth.

“Son Alexander, we do hope these may find you well. It hath reached our ears that thou dost still Continue with thy leman, Mariota Athyn. “Though she, the said Mariota, be the mother of thy five boys, yet is the noble Lady Euphame, Countess of Ross, thy true and faithful wife. With her, therefore, it behoveth thee to consort, and her it behove thee to cherish. Bethink thee that thou yet liest under the ban of holy Mother Church, and under the penalty laid upon thee by the godly bishops of Moray and Ross, and art bound by their sentence to live with her in virtuous and seemly manner. “Return therefore from thy wicked ways and cleave unto thy lawful wife, the Lady Euphame, as thou wouldst value our good favour. God keep thee and thine in health and soften thy heart to mercy and godliness. So prayeth thy loving father and King. Robert Rex”

While addressing his son, the old king, understandably, left out one title which would have given the reader a clue to Alexander’s character, namely, “Wolfe of Badenoch,” a title which Alexander had acquired because of his violent temper and many deeds of cruelty.
The five illegitimate sons of the Wolfe were: Alexander, the eldest (later Earl of Mar), who inherited his father’s choleric disposition; the second eldest, Andrew, who was cool and crafty; and the three youngest, Walter, James and Duncan, ill mannered,
we are told, because of their rough upbringing. Duncan, the youngest, was the friendliest.

King Robert’s letter makes it clear that the chief cause of dissention between his son and himself was the latter’s continued association with Mariota Athyn.Unfortunately, the King in his letter stressed the attitude of the Bishops in this matter, and so led to the burning of much Church property in Forres and Elgin by the Wolfe and his followers.

Greedily the Wolfe seized lands belonging to Alexander Barr, the Bishop of Moray. Then in May, 1390, he set fire to the town of Forres, including many ecclesiastical buildings. Then, shortly afterwards, in Elgin, he burned the Church of St. Giles, the cathedral, and 18 of the houses of the canons and chaplains. In face of this horrific destruction there was little wonder that the Wolfe was placed under the ban of Mother Church. But the attack on Elgin led to casualties in his own family. His eldest son, Alexander, was left lying with a shattered arm and a bruised body, resulting from a heap of heavy stones which had been thrown down upon him during an attack on Spynie Castle. The boys Walter and James were “laid in beds from which there was small hope of their ever rising.”

At this juncture a good counsellor appeared beside the Wolfe, namely a Franciscan friar who courageously upbraided him for his many deeds of wickedness, and urged him to make his peace with the Church he had affronted.

Under the Franciscan’s influence, and shaken by the injuries to his sons which his expeditions had caused, Alexander made a vow to seek peace with the Church and his father. The Church, doubtless much relieved when it heard of the vow, proceeded to ordain that the Wolfe should make a penitential procession to the church of the Dominicans in Perth, to be there absolved by Walter Traill, Bishop of St. Andrews, in the presence of the high church dignitaries of Scotland.

The humbling of the “fierce and proud” Lord of Badenoch was a great victory for the Church, and it was determined that the ceremony should be as spectacular as possible. Eventually the day appointed for the procession dawned. Among early arrivals at Blackfriars were the Bishops of St. Andrew, Dunblane and Dunkeld, and soon many other high officials joined them. And the citizens of Perth, excited by the prospect of seeing th Wolfe humbled, were clearly astir in the streets. On the previous night all lodging houses in the city had been filled, and many visitor had to take to camping on the Inches.

The Wolfe and his followers had spent the night in Perth Castle close by the Blackfriars Monastery and from which the penitentia procession would begin. By the time the castle door opened, a great crowd had assembled between the castle and the Blackfriars Church. There appeared first the Wolfe and his confessor, the Franciscan friar, followed by two of the Wolfe’s sons, Andrew and Duncan all clad in the same rough penitential garb and barefooted.

“The Wolfe was mortified at the multitude of people who had assembled to witness his abasement so he advanced with head held high . . . and his usual lightness of stride.”

The church door opened to reveal the Bishop of St. Andrews in all the splendour of his pastoral robes. By the soft light of taper behind him could be seen long trains of Abbots, priors and monks with King Robert in the midst, he having been carried there by litter from Scone. The door closed, and inside the Wolfe knelt stiffly before th Bishop of St. Andrews to confess his wickedness and avow his repentance. After he had promised to take back his lawful wife the ban of excommunication was removed.
A miserere was sung by the choir, and a mass chanted to conclud the ceremony.

As the last notes of the service died away, the Wolfe impatiently burst open the church door unceremoniously and strode back to Perth Castle, his head held higher and more proudly than ever. Some three years later he died in Garth Castle in 1394, and wa laid to rest in Dunkeld Cathedral, where his stone sarcophagus can still be seen.

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