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SAINT MALACHI’S CURSE., G. Neilson (Mar., 1895), pp.124-130.

“UNDER the Roman empire the early fathers claimed a privilege of intercession for condemned criminals which almost amounted to a right to demand their pardon from the secular judge.1 In Britain a corresponding prerogative of even higher potency was certainly conceded to the heads of more than one religious body. The Chronicle of Battle Abbey states that, when William the Conqueror founded that monastery as his thank-offering for the victory over Harold, he not only conferred upon it the ordinary right of sanctuary to shelter criminals, but also gave the Abbot2 the power – si forte supervenerit [if he is captured], if he happened to be passing that way – to save from capital punishment any criminal in all England who had the good fortune to cross his path.3 It is on record4 that in 1364 the Abbot for the time exercised this right and rescued a man on his way to the gallows of the Marshalsea in London. A similar privilege was claimed by the Abbot and monks of Glastonbury.5 The Magna Vita of St. Hugh of Lincoln contains the very questionable allegation that this had once been a right of all bishops as set forth in the ancient laws of England,6 but that through the apathy of the church or the tyranny of kings it had fallen into abeyance. Bishop Hugh on a memorable occasion7 not only claimed but fearlessly vindicated the privilege by taking a thief out of the hands of the officers of justice conveying him to the gallows. The argument with which the bishop enforced his claim was based on the undoubted law of sanctuary, the universal prerogative of the church to shelter any criminal fugitive from capital punishment. If, said he, the material stone of the church has this privilege, how can it be refused to a bishop, who is a living stone of the true church of God? 

The Chronicle of Lanercost, written by a greyfriar of Carlisle, has8 a singular story turning upon the episcopal claim to procure the release of a prisoner from the infliction of the death penalty. The family of Bruce had received from King David I. a charter of the lands of Annandale. They took up their residence in the district. Some years subsequently, most probably9 in the year 1148, a remarkable visitor passed through the valley of the Annan. This was Malachi O’Morgair, formerly Archbishop of Armagh, but at that time Bishop of Down – a truly great and earnest man whose worth was known throughout the Catholic world. Bishop Malachi, in the hope of obtaining from the Pope the promised pall for Ireland, was journeying towards Rome. He had been courteously met after his arrival in Scotland by King David; then turning his face southward he proceeded through Annandale. 

The Bishop reached Annan, the capital of that dale – Anandia capitanea illius patriae villulawhere he sought refreshment from the lord of the place. This must have been Robert de Bruce, lord of Annandale, the son of the original grantee, Made warmly welcome, and seated at an “ornate” table on the north side of the Bruce’s hall he was partaking of food along with two fellow-clerics, his companions, when he heard the servants discussing the fate of a robber who was about to undergo sentence. Shortly after, the Bruce himself entered with hearty greetings to his guests. The Bishop’s heart, however, was filled with the thought of the poor wretch without, whose doom was so near. He at once appealed to the Bruce who, as baron with jurisdiction of pit and gallows, held the thief’s fate in the hollow of his hand. “I demand,” said the humane and warm-hearted Irishman, “as a pilgrim that since the judgment of blood has never yet violated the place of my presence, if the man has committed any crime, you will grant me his life.” The Bishop’s “noble host nodded,” says the greyfriar chronicler, “not in courtesy but in deceit; and, acting according to the prudence of this world which is folly with God, he secretly gave orders to hang the thief.” Meanwhile the Bishop in happy ignorance, rejoicing that he had saved a human life, finished his repast and prepared to go on his way. Before starting he bestowed his solemn blessing on the Bruce’s house and table and household. As he was departing, imagine his surprise to behold, hanging on the gallows near the roadside, the body of the robber! The life for which he had interceded, as he supposed successfully, was after all not his. The Bruce with his nod had betrayed the Bishop. What wonder that he promptly revoked his blessing and turned it into a curse: first on the Bruce and his offspring, and second on the town (civitatem) itself. 

Of course the chronicler assures us that the curse had the dire effect upon the Bruce and his line, which was to be expected from the imprecation of a Bishop so renowned  – a point on which the facts of genealogical history do not seem to tally with the chronicler’s version of them. The family never prospered more, he tells us in effect, until the accession to the lordship of Robert Bruce, afterwards the unsuccessful competitor for the Scottish throne. “On his coming to manhood,” says the chronicler, “he personally went to the Saint, craved his pardon, commended himself to him, and thereafter visited the Saint every three years.” The Saint it is perhaps necessary at this stage to say had been dead for a century! “Moreover,” continues the authority so often quoted already, “returning in his later days from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he had been with Sir Edward,10 he turned aside to Clairvaux, and there for ever made his peace with the Saint and provided a perpetual rent from which three silver lamps with their lights are maintained on the Saint’s tomb.” 

This long seemed to me an excellent story, a superstitious legend – nothing more. But lately I stumbled upon an important charter, the date of which being approximately fixed goes far to determine the dates of certain other documents of the early Bruces. This charter, printed for the first time last century,11 was none other than the identical grant to which the greyfriar referred. For the good of his own soul and those of his predecessors and successors Bruce granted the lands of Osticroft in Annandale, with all their pertinents, free of all secular customs and services, to God, St. Mary and the monks of Clairvaux in pure almoigne* forever “to maintain the light before the blessed Malachi.” 

The good Bishop had never reached Rome but died at Clairvaux, the monastery of his friend Saint Bernard, who soon followed him to the grave. They were both canonised, and their bones reposed side by side12 in the Monastery – St. Malachi on St. Bernard’s right hand – until the year 1793 came, bringing so many changes in France; and then, despite the veneration of six centuries, the relics of St. Malachi and St. Bernard alike were ousted from their place by the imperious necessities of a glass manufactory.13

The charter, however, serves another purpose than that merely of proving that there must have been some sort of foundation for the strange story of St. Malachi’s curse. It is undated but it bears a well-known seal representing14 a helmed and crested knight riding to sinister, sword in hand, with the legend – (when some lacunae are filled) – Esto ferox ut leo [be fierce as a lion]. This was the seal15 of Robert Bruce the competitor. He went to the Crusade16 with Edward I. in 1270. There seems to be no reason to doubt the accuracy of the chronicler in representing him to have visited Clairvaux on his return about 1273, a date which on entirely independent grounds the French editor long ago assigned17 to the document under discussion. 

In that treasury of Scottish history Mr. Bain’s invaluable Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland there are notices of several Annandale charters found amongst the papers of the Duchy of Lancaster. A few weeks after the murder of Comyn, Edward I. granted the lands of Annandale – forfeited for what the English king branded as seditious and treacherous felony – to Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford. Possibly the fact lent vigour to the “hevvy dusche” which King Robert bestowed on De Bohun’s “cusyne” (as Barbour calls him) on the eve of Bannockburn. Through the De Bohuns these Annandale charters came to form part of the muniments of the Duchy of Lancaster. Amongst them are seven writs18 all containing grants by or otherwise relating to “Robert de Brus.” But there were so many of that name that it has often been found no small mystery to determine the particular lord whom the documents concern. These seven documents are all undated, but from internal evidence they have been all assigned to Robert Bruce, lord of Annandale from 1215 to 1245. 

When, however, these charters are compared with the Malachi charter of 1273, it transpires that out of the nine witnesses named in the latter document granted by the competitor, no fewer than five appear in one19 of the deeds tentatively assigned to his father. Master Adam of Kirkcudbright, another of the witnesses, not only attested20 sundry other grants by the competitor, but was still active and litigating21 in 1278. A seventh witness, Sir William de Duncorry, is named in another22 of the tentatively-supposed-earlier group. The facts taken in conjunction demonstrate that the seven Annandale charters in question have been assigned to the wrong Robert Bruce, that they refer not to the competitor’s father but to the competitor, and that instead of being dated between 1215 and 1245 their place more probably lies between 1260 and 1280, while in the case of one23 of them we can scarcely go far wrong in attributing it to a date very near 1273. As we owe the proofs mainly to the Clairvaux charter we have perhaps some small reason to be glad that the competitor was successful in obtaining a revocation of Saint Malachi’s curse.



1 Bingham’s Antiquities of the Christian Church, book ii. chapter 8. 
2 Chronicon Monasterii de Bello, 1846, p.24. 
3 Abbati quoque per totum regnum Angliae latronem vel furem aut alio crimine damnatum a supplicio liberare liceat si forte supervenerit.  
4 Adam de Murimuth (continuation), p. 199, ed. English Hist. Soc. 
5 Si autem Abbas vel quilibet monachus loci illius latronem qui suspendium vel ad quodlibet mortis periculum ducitur in itinere obvium habuerit potestatem habeat eripiendi eum ab imminenti periculo in toto regno meo. William of Malmesbury, De Antiq. Glastoniensis Ecclesiæ, Gale’s Scriptores XX. p. 320. 
6 Magna Vita S. Hugonis (Rolls Series), 278. 
7 Ibid. 277-279; see also preface, lxii-lxiij. 
8 Chronicon de Lanercost (Maitland Club), 160-161.  
9 The facts appear to suit Malachi’s journey of that year better than his journey in 1138.  
10 Prince Edward took the cross in 1270 and landed in Palestine, where he remained until 1272. On his return journey he spent a considerable time during the years 1273-74 in France, landing in England again in July 1274. 
11 The Life of St. Malachi, by Rev. John O’Hanlon (1859), p. 194, quotes the charter as follows:-
Sciant presentes et futuri quod ego Robertus de Brus Dominus Vallis Anandi dedi et concessi et hac presenti carta mea confrmavi Deo et Beate Marie ac domui Clarevallis et monachis ibidem Deo servientibus et in perpetuum servituris ad sustinendum luminare coram beato Malachia pro salute anime mee et salute omnium antecessorum et successorum meorum in puram et perpetuam elemosinam totam terram meam de Osticroft cum rectis et antiquis suis divisis et pertinenciis ac communibus aysiamentis et libertatibus dicte terre pertinencibus prout Rogerius de William Wode et Galfridus Collan ipsam terram de me quondam tenuerunt tenendam et habendam totam terram predictam monachis predictis de me et heredibus meis libere quiete plenarie integre et honorifice sicut aliqua elemosina in toto regno Scotie liberius et quiecius tenetur aut possidetur in boscis et planis pratis et pascuis moris et mariscis turbariis paunagiis et omnibus aliis aysiamentis que in dicta terra inveniri potuerunt vel exerceri absque omni consuetudine seculari exactione et demanda Volo eciam et concedo pro me et heredibus meis quod terra prefata libera sit a multura et quod tenentes eandem libere et sine contradictione molent in molendinis meis. Ego vero et heredes mei predictam terram cum suis omnibus pertinenciis ut predictum est prefatis monachis contra omnes homines et feminas warantizabimus acquietabimus et defendemus in perpetuum Ut autem hec mea donacio et concessio perpetue firmitatis robur obtineant presens scriptum sigilli mei munimine roboravi His testibus Dominis David de Thorthorald tunc Senescallo Vallis Anandi, Roberto de Herice, Willelmo de Sancto Michaele, militibus, Magistro Adam de Kircudbricht, Domino Willelmo de Duncorry, Willelmo de Corri, Adam Hendeman, Ricardo Crispin, Willelmo de Are, clerico, et aliis. 
[Know all men present and future that I, Robert the Bruce, Lord of the Annandale valley, I have given and granted and by this my present charter have confirmed to God and the Blessed Mary, and to the house of Clairvaux, and to the monks there serving God, and they shall serve in the endurance of the lesser light in the presence of the blessed of Malachi, for the salvation of my soul and the salvation of all predecessors and successors, in pure and perpetual whole land from Osticroft the ancient lines, its divisions and its appurtenances and common easements and liberties of said land pertinent as Roger of William Wood and Geoffrey Collan, the land of the monks of the land to the aforesaid that once I have taken hold of, to hold and to have the whole of me and my heirs, freely and quietly, and possessed in the marshes, moors, bogs, woods, meadows, and pastures, and the planes of the ground could not be found and all other easements or being carried out in the said land which is without, and the grant for the whole range of me, and I also want a secular exaction and demand, and admit that I, too, and I grant the land shall be free for me and my heirs, freely and without contradiction from the mill grind in the mills and without strife of the tenants of the same. And the other of the aforesaid, I and my heirs will be against all men, with all their appurtenances to the aforesaid monks, as aforesaid, will warrant, acquit, and defend the men and women for all ages as the established force and that this is my gift and grant, in perpetuity for the protection of my seal was doubled to obtain the strength of Thorthorald then Steward of these being witnesses Sir David brought up from the Annandale valley, Robert of Herice, William of St Michael, the soldiers, Master Adam of Kircudbricht, Sir William de Duncorry, William of Correr, Adam Hendeman, Richard Crispin, William of Ayr, clerk, and others.] 
12 Bower had learnt this. Malachi, he says (Scotichronicon i. 295), tumulatur cum Sancto Bernardo. 
13 O’Hanlon’s St. Malachi, 203, 204. 
14 O’Hanlon’s St. Malachi, 195, says – The seal affixed to the foregoing document was composed of white wax hanging from jesses of vellum, and was of a round shape. It presents the appearance of a spherical cap set against an engraved surface. On the field is a cavalier fully armed, with a closed helmet adorned with a crest in the form of a fan. He holds a sword in his right hand and a shield in his left, being mounted on a horse fully caparisoned and galloping from right to left. The legend is ESTO … DEO? In Gothic capital letters. 
15 See plate i. figure 7 in Bain’s Cal. ii. 
16 Bain’s Cal. i. 2575. The protection given by this writ to “Robert de Brus Crusader” is certainly indefinite as to whether the competitor or his son is meant. That the competitor himself was a crusader is vouched by the Lanercost Chronicle ut supra; also by the Salacronica, p. 105. Compare the list of crusading noblemen given at the last reference with the witnesses to Bruce documents calendared in Bain’s Cal. i. 2489-2491. 
17 See O’Hanlon’s St. Malachi, 193-194. In that year (1273) the Abbot of Clairvaux obtained permission ut possit habere luminare coram tomba S. Malachiae [to be able to have a lesser presence tomb St. Malachi]
18 Bain’s Cal. i. 705, 706, 1680, 1681, 1683-5. I have not been able to satisfy myself about the real date of No. 1682, though I inclined to believe it should be classed with these seven. 
19 Bain’s Cal. i. 1680. 
20 Cartularium de Gyseburne (Surtees Soc.) ii. pp. 335, 343. 
21 Bain’s Cal. ii. 110.
22  Bain’s Cal. i. 1681. It is curious to notice that this charter incidentally names the gallows of the vill of Annan, doubtless a successor to that which hanged St. Malachi’s thief. 
23 Bain’s Cal. i. 1680. 
* almoigne = A tenure by which a religious corporation holds lands given to them and their successors forever. 
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