Dervorgilla’s Sweetheart

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:27 pm

These are the remains of Sweetheart Abbey, founded by Dervogilla Balliol.

Here’s devotion for you.  When her husband, John Balliol, died in 1268, Lady Dervorgilla had his heart removed, embalmed and placed in an ivory casket which she carried with her for the rest of her days.  Apparently, it sat there at mealtimes, her ‘sweet silent companion’ – quite an ice breaker at dinner parties, I should imagine.

Sweetheart Abbey, next to Abbey CafeLady Dervorgilla of Galloway was a powerful woman, a princess descended from King David of Scotland.  The Balliols, whose family was originally from Bailleul-en-Vimeu in Picardy, were big landowners in England and France, with a base at Barnard Castle in the north of England.  John was a prominent noble, holding several offices for the English King Henry III, and is credited with founding Balliol College in Oxford – albeit possibly unintentionally.  The story goes that John lost a land dispute with the Bishop of Durham and was ordered to fund 16 scholars in a house just outside Oxford’s town walls, approximately where the Master of Balliol’s lodgings are now.  After John’s death, Dervorgilla de Balliol provided the college with the means to continue.

Sweetheart abbey, Dumfries, DervogillaThey must have made a formidable couple, John and Dervorgilla.  Their surviving son, also called John, was King of Scotland from 1292-96.  Chosen by Edward I of England, and thought by many to be a weak king controlled by the English, he is sometimes known as a ‘toom tabard’ – Scots for ‘empty coat’.

Sweetheart Abbey, Dervogilla, Balliol, DumfriesBack to the abbey.  Lady Dervorgilla founded it as ‘New Abbey’ in 1273, in memory of her dead husband.  Its name evolved to ‘Dulce Cor’, or ‘Sweetheart’, in lasting honour of the two lovers.  Lady Dervorgilla followed her mate to the otherworld in 1289 and was buried, allegedly still clutching her ivory casket, somewhere near the altar.  One postscript to this remarkable lady’s life – in 1966, seven hundred years after it was established, the master and fellows of Balliol College placed a grave marker near the spot where it is thought their founder’s heart and his lady lie at rest.  No one knows where John was buried.

Sweetheart Abbey now, as you can see from the photos, is a ruin, with only the outline of the abbey church remaining as an obvious hint as to its former purpose.  But this is exposed to the harsh elements, its massive columns no longer supporting a roof, its windows, expertly shaped by medieval chisels, empty of the stained glass that must once have been there.  There is little echo of the Cistercian monks who devoted their lives to God in its confines, rising at 1.30 in the morning and ending their day at 8.15 in the evening.  It seems a sad place – not helped by the weather when we last visited.  It is also very red, as you can see – the colour of the local sandstone.

Sweetheart Abbey, Dervogilla Balliol, DumfriesSweetheart doesn’t appear to have made much impact on history.  Caught up in the Scottish Wars of Independence, during which Edward I apparently stayed there awhile, it subsequently fell on hard times.  In the late 14th century, Archibald the Grim, 3rd Earl of Black Douglas, and builder of Threave Castle, paid for substantial repairs.  After the Reformation in the mid 16th century, Sweetheart Abbey steadily declined and, despite the efforts of the nearby Catholic Maxwells to protect it (in fairness, the Maxwells had their own problems), by the early 17th century it was in a state of disrepair.  Gradually, its stones were put to use elsewhere in the adjoining village of New Abbey.  The total dismantling of the church was only prevented in the 18th century by an early example of local preservation, when the villagers agreed to put a stop to it.

Sweetheart Abbey, DumfriesSo, stand awhile in the nave and ponder on John and Dervorgilla who have an abbey named after them.  And while you’re about it, you might also like to know that Sir William Paterson, Scots founder of the Bank of England, was buried at Sweetheart Abbey in 1719.  Of even greater interest, you will be able to get a very reasonable cup of coffee and a bun at the Abbey Cottage Tearoom next door.

Abbey Cottage with Sweetheart Abbey next door. Nice coffee and bun!Find other abbeys by clicking ‘Places to Visit’ on the main menu.


24 thoughts on “Dervorgilla’s Sweetheart”

  1. my mothers family claims to descend from John and Dervoiguilla’s youngest daughter Margaret. She married into the de Multon (Moulton) family…never could prove it though as records lost during multiple wars on both sides of the pond have left us without.

    1. That’s really interesting. I’m no expert, but do know that record-keeping was at best uncertain for most of the population until relatively recently, so you have to be lucky to have a proven link with aristocracy of any sort. But, hey – we’re all related anyway, right?!

  2. One of my ancestors was an Abbott there. I’ve learnt something new about the building from your blog – thanks!

  3. What a place and what a story! Hurrah for ruins being preserved! Such magnificent stone work… I wonder where the ivory to create her heart-coffer came from? Thank you for your magnificent, informative blog posts. I also appreciate the way your blog posts often include links to other great blog posts you have written.

  4. Lovely blog post, Mike. It is a fascinating story – with romance and a touch gory! Sorry it was such a grey day when you visited. When the sun shines the red sandstone, the green grass and blue skies are an amazing combination, which we’ve been fortunate to have experienced many times in 2016.
    New Abbey is pretty little village and, as well as Sweetheart Abbey, there is an old restored and working water-powered grain mill in the village. Both sites open to visitors and managed by Historic Scotland.

    1. Thanks, Lesley. Yes, the weather was better when I visited Sweetheart previously, but having a grey sky and a touch of snow gave it a bit of atmosphere. The only drawback was not wanting to hang about outside too long. Instead, we spent longer in your tea room, lingering over coffee and a bun! We had to give the mill a miss that time, but I’m sure A Bit About Britain will visit again..! It is a lovely spot. Hope you explore the website to find other great stories.

  5. It is a lovely and atmospheric place. We visited it a couple of years ago when we were staying in that area, on a warm and sunny day. It’s history and the story behind it are fascinating:)

  6. What a story! A heart in a little ivory coffin really does stir the imagination. The skeleton of the church is wonderful – those magnificent stones! Also, a hot cup of coffee is most welcome on a chilly day as is pictured in your photos. (Buns are an added perk.)

  7. Beautiful photos Mike.
    The redness of the stone looks beautiful against the cold colors.
    Thank you for sharing this very unusual and romantic tale with us.

  8. Hi Mike – I didn’t know any of that – except Balliol College in Oxford. Fascinating person – as you say … she must have been some woman, while they were a power couple, and she was devoted to the last. Beautiful ruin … cold and unyielding, even though red sandstone built giving it that glow. I’d definitely like to visit sometime … thanks for the history and photos – cheers Hilary

  9. Such devotion. Can’t imagine it today, but it’s a good thing or we’d all be worried about little caskets appearing at the table.
    There’s nothing going quite like a windswept ruin with a good story.

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