“The Lord of Lorn and the False Steward”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: apparently 1580 (stationer's register)
Keywords: nobility trick abuse begging help punishment execution


The Lord of Lorn, having done well in school, is sent to France to study. His steward abuses him, takes his possessions, and sets him to begging. Eventually the truth is revealed; the Lord regains his property and the Steward is executed


The broadside printing of a song with this title entered into the Stationer's Register in 1580 lists the tune as "Greensleeves." Since the ballad has not been found in tradition, this remains unverified. In any case, given the apparent wild popularity of "Greensleeves" at the time this was published, it is quite possible the printer tried to take advantage of a tune not normal to the ballad ("Lorn" can be sung to "Greensleeves," but only with effort; it is not a good fit).

The first verifiable text is from the Percy folio, though Bronson thinks that comes from a lost broadside.

Child makes a great deal of the romances analogous to this ballad, but does not seem to have noted the significance of the names of the characters; I wonder if there might not be an allegory floating around somewhere in the background. (For the references in what follows, see the Bibliography at the end of this note.)

The story starts with Robert the Bruce (died 1329), the King of Scotland who won the Battle of Bannockburn and re-established Scottish independence. Bruce claimed the throne in 1306 after twenty years of confusion in Scotland (for background on this, see the notes to "Sir Patrick Spens" [Child 58] and "Gude Wallace" [Child 157]). The Scots at the time Bruce claimed the throne were divided into at least four parties: Those who favored the English, those who favored the deposed king John Balliol, those who favored the Bruce -- and those who, while opposed to the English and not enthusiastic about Balliol, were absolutely opposed to the Bruce claims. This included the powerful family of the Comyns, whose leader the Red Comyn Bruce had just slain (Magnusson, p. 166).

Of these four factions, the pro-English party was weak simply because any party associated with the English King Edward I would naturally have had the the independence beaten out of it (Edward was an absolute autocrat), and the Balliol faction was weakened by the fact that their monarch was a rather weak man long gone from Scotland. The anti-Bruce faction, though, was strong, including the MacDougalls. Dougall MacDougall, a supported of the Comyns, had actually defeated and killed two of Robert Bruce's brothers (Magnusson, p. 171). John MacDougall, Lord of Lorn, twice fought against Robert Bruce (Magnusson, pp. 175-177).

After the great Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, of course, Robert Bruce was too firmly established to be pushed aside. But then there was the matter of the succession after he died.

By his first wife, Isabella of Mar, Robert Bruce had only one child, a daughter Marjory/Marjorie. Given her importance for the succession, she needed a husband who had power and respect, so she was married to Walter, the hereditary Steward of Scotland. They had a single child, Robert; the pregnant Marjorie fell from a horse in 1316 (Cook, pp. 107-109) and died giving birth (Magnusson, p. 192, says she died and the child was saved by Caesarian surgery). The boy Robert (died 1390) would eventually become Robert II and ancestor of the Stewarts.

By the time of Marjorie's death Robert the Bruce had remarried, to Elizabeth de Burgh. But she was in English custody from 1306 to 1314; by the time she and Bruce reunited, there was some concern about whether she was even still capable of having children (Magnusson, p. 192). It turned out she was; she bore two daughters, then at last twin sons, David and John (Magnusson, p. 193). John died young, but the living boy would be, the future King David (Cook, p. 112). Unfortunately, it was nearly certain that he would be a minor when he came to the throne; although Robert Bruce was in his fifties, he was also ill with a disease which was called (although almost certainly was not) leprosy.

Still, there was no question that David was Robert Bruce's heir, and he duly succeeded at the age of five -- though he would spend little of his life actively ruling Scotland. He began his reign as a minor, was sent to France for seven years (Mackie, p. 86); upon returning home, he went to war with England but was heavily defeated in 1346 at Neville's cross (Mackie, pp. 86-87). He was wounded and captured in the battle, and remained in English hands for eleven years (Magnusson, p. 204) apart from a little time on parole as he sought to raise a ransom (Magnusson, p. 205).

David was married even before he came to the throne, to Joanna "Make-Peace," the sister of Edward III of England (they had been wed the year before Robert Bruce died, when David was four and Joanna seven; Magnusson, p. 192).

This marriage, however, was childless and "apparently... loveless" (Ashley, p. 551); she apparently left Scotland, never to return, in 1357 (Boardman, p. 15). David would remarry after Joanna died in 1362, but his second wife (his former mistress, Margaret Drummond, who "was regarded by his nobles as in every way unworthy," according to Mackie, p. 88) could no more produce a child than did Joanna (odds are that the fault was David's, since she had had a son by her first husband; Magnusson, p. 106); they divorced in 1370 (Ashley, p. 551; Boardman speculates that the divorce was perhaps an attack by David on the Stewarts, since Robert's son and heir John, the future Robert III, was married to a Drummond -- at David's insistence; Magnusson, p. 207). David seemed to be preparing to marry for the third time (Magnusson, p. 308) -- but David died unexpectedly in 1371 while still in his forties.

And suddenly there was a succession question. Robert Steward was the obvious heir, since he was the son of the oldest of Robert Bruce's three daughters, but there were objections. He was eight years older than his nephew David (Boardman, p. 1), and by this time was starting to fail in health; he was known as "Auld Blearie" or "Old Blearie" for his reddened eyes (Fry/Fry, p. 90; Magnusson, pp. 213-214, blames this description on Froissart). Plus he was regarded by some as a traitor (Ashley, p. 553), or at least someone who was willing to allow the English to control David (Magnusson, p. 204); certainly he had been one of Davis's chief political enemies (Boardman, p. 1). David had seemed, toward the end, to be doing all he could to block the Stewart succession: Seeking a third wife, plus supporting anti-Stewart nobles (Boardman, pp. 24-25). He had previously tried to bring in the English prince John of Gaunt as an heir in preference to the Stewart (Magnusson, p. 207).

Eventually Robert II suffered a sort of palace coup which pushed him aside in favor of his son (Magnusson, p. 215). Yet that just made the problem worse, because his sons were of questionable legitimacy. Robert II eventually had to seek a papal legitimation of his children by Elizabeth Mure (Boardman, p. 8). It seems the two were cousins, and they had gotten together in ignorance of this (Mitchison, p. 59; Mackie, p. 94 says that the marriage was made "in good faith"); Mure may also have been previously contracted to another (Cook, p. 135). It may be, in addition, that they had not been formally married (Boardman, p. 8) -- all in all, a lot of barriers to the legitimacy of the children. Robert had later taken a second wife, and had additional sons (Mitchison, p. 59), but were the first brood his legitimate heirs, or were the second bunch, or were they both illegitimate?

If Robert II's claim to the kingship were set aside, or that of his children, then the Stewarts were not the heirs of David; rather, the true heirs of Robert Bruce would be the offspring of his daughters by Elizabeth de Burgh. (Indeed,it appears that some regarded the sisters as David's heirs all along -- Boardman, p. 9. Was this perhaps because they were "born in the purple," after Robert Bruce became king?)

On this line of argument, David's heir was his full sister Margaret rather than the son of his half sister Marjorie; Margaret had a son John who, from the time of his birth in 1346, seems to have been regarded as David's heir (since the children of Robert Stewart were not legitimized by the Pope until later, and Margaret apparently died in bearing the boy). But he died in 1361 (Boardman, pp. 8-9).

Next in line would be the children of Margaret's younger sister Matilda, should she have any. And she did: A daughter Joanna, who married John, Lord of Lorn (Boardman, p. 2). As it turned out, they had no children, and the Lord of Lorn (John MacDougal, the head of Clan Dougal) died in 1388 (Boardman, p. 182) -- but no one could have known that at the time David died.

What's more, the Lords of Lorn (Lorne) had been rivals of the ruling dynasty for many years; Robert the Bruce had attacked the Lorn holding of Dunstaffnage in 1309 (MacLean, p. 41)

There was most definitely rivalry between the branches of the Scottish royal family at this time; while Robert Stewart did manage to ascend as Robert II, Boardman (pp. 42-45) describes what sounds like an abortive coup attempt on behalf of a Douglas. And it apparently took some time before Robert II managed to gain the full support of the nobility. In this period, a claim on behalf of the Lorn faction might have caused a great deal of trouble.

The conclusion is clear: A partisan of the Lords of Lorn might well have called Robert II (or his son Robert III) a "false Steward"; what's more, the Stewarts would set aside the MacDougalls when they had the chance. John MacDougall of Lorn was succeeded as Lord of Lorn by John Steward of Innermeath (died 1421).


Ashley: Mike Ashley, _British Kings and Queens_, Barnes & Noble, 2002 (originally published as _The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens_, 1988)

Boardman: Stephen Boardman, _The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371-1406_, Tuckwell Press, 1996

Cook: E. Thornton Cook, _Their Majesties of Scotland_, John Murray, 1928

Fry/Fry: Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, _The History of Scotland_, 1982 (I use the 1995 Barnes & Noble edition)

MacLean: Fitzroy Maclean, _A Concise History of Scotland_, Beekman House, 1970

Mackie: J. D. Mackie, _A History of Scotland_, Pelican, 1964

Magnusson: Magnus Magnusson, _Scotland: The Story of a Nation_, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000

Mitchison: Rosalind Mitchison, _A History of Scotland_, second edition, Methuen, 1982 - RBW

Cross references


  1. Child 271, "The Lord of Lorn and the False Steward" (2 texts)
  2. Bronson 271, comments only
  3. OBB 76, "The Lord of Lorn" (1 text)
  4. BBI, ZN1523, "It was a worthy Lord of Lorn"
  5. Roud #113
  6. BI, C271