Christiana Bisset: A Micro-History of a Scottish Widow

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

Christiana Bisset, lady of Clerkington, was active during the 1330s and 1350s. She was the daughter of David Uvyeth and the widow of John Bisset, a knight. A series of donations made to Newbattle Abbey, in Midlothian, allow us to construct a micro-history of Christiana’s experiences as a fourteenth-century widow, while also thinking about broader themes relating to life (and afterlife) in medieval society.

Newbattle Abbey: Christiana’s favourite local monastery

Newbattle Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded by David I in 1140. It was the daughter house of Melrose Abbey and later famed as the site where the Declaration of Arbroath was drafted. Christiana made a series of donations to the monks at Newbattle in 1338, including 2 shillings that was the annual rent she received from William Ramsay, lord of Dalhousie, for the water that ran through her Clerkington land to his mill.[1] In these donations, she made clear her personal favouritism of Newbattle and her close relationship with the monastic community.

Newbattle Abbey today. After its life as a medieval monastery, it was a stately home and is now an education institution. ©Wikimedia Commons

The personal circumstances of Christiana Bisset seemed to have changed by the 1350s, as she re-negotiated her gifts to the chapter in 1356 and 1357. In June 1356, she arranged with the monks that she would keep her pension of five merks annually during her lifetime, which would revert back to the monastery after her death. The specific rationale for this agreement was that she had already made gifts to them and thus would be a reliable source for future income. Why did she need to renegotiate these terms in the late 1350s? Her change in financial security may reflect economic hardship after the Black Death, which first arrived Scotland in 1349/1350 (and later, again, in 1362). She entered a final agreement with the chapter in September 1357, in which a notarial instrument was issued, ratifying her previous gifts to the monks and stipulated that she was to be buried ‘at the entry to the chapter, so that the monks tread over her tomb as they come and go’.[2] Her final resting place would be within the walls of Newbattle.

The Community of the Living and the Dead

Her donations to the Cistercian chapter included pro anima clauses that mentioned her pre-deceased kin, namely her father and her husband, as well accounting for her spiritual well-being.  Pro anima clauses were a section of the charter that indicated who the document commemorated and, importantly, whose souls were to be prayed for in connection to the gifts made to the religious community. Christiana, as the surviving member of her family, was tasked with the responsibility of taking care of her pre-deceased kin’s souls, as well as arranging for the care of her own soul. The final 1357 agreement arranged for her body to be buried in a conspicuous part of Newbattle. Not only would her soul be prayed for, but the monks would literally be treading over her remains, serving as a daily physical reminder of their deceased patron. As Kathleen Nolan has pointed out, the place of burial bridged ‘the gap between the living and the dead’.[3] Recent work on pro anima clauses has suggested that this feature of the medieval charter also showed the community between the living and the dead. In both the text of the charters and in her requests for her burial, Christiana Bisset was caring for her spiritual well-being and the well-being of her deceased family.

The micro-history of Christiana Bisset’s widowhood offers us insight into the individual circumstances of a woman of the lower nobility living in fourteenth-century Scotland. Her life also touches on broader themes of life in medieval society. We can see the relationship between the living and dead at work in the text of her gifts to Newbattle, offering donations to the monks in exchange for prayers for the sake of the souls of her father, her husband, and herself. We see this too with her specifications regarding her burial at Newbattle, making sure that the monks were tripping over her remembering her after she was gone. We also see the vulnerability of widowhood when faced with economic hardship and how she had to re-negotiate the terms of her gifts to maintain herself in the aftermath of a pandemic, something perhaps more relatable to us in the midst of the current global crisis.

Not much of Christiana Bisset’s life can be traced outside of the series of donations she gave to Newbattle Abbey in the mid-fourteenth-century. It is through these donations that we know her family relationships and her relationships with her wider secular and religious communities. However, these series of donations provide us with valuable insight into the role of women of the lesser nobility in religious patronage on a local level.


[1] NRS: GD40/1/48.

[2] NRS: GD40/1/57.

[3] Kathleen Nolan, ‘The Queen’s body and institutional memory: the tomb of Adelaide of Maurienne’ in Memory and the Medieval Tomb, Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo with Carol Stamatis Pendergast (eds.) (Ashgate, 2000), 84.

Primary Sources

NRS: Papers of the Kerr Family, Marquises of Lothian (Lothian Muniments), GD40

Further Reading

Jessica Barker, ‘Legal Crisis and Artistic Innovation in Thirteenth-Century Scotland’ British Art Studies 6 (2017).

Victoria Anne Hodgson, ‘The Cistercian Abbey of Coupar Angus, c.1164-c.1560′, unpublished PhD dissertation (University of Stirling, 2016).

Katy Jack, ‘Decline and Fall: The earls and earldom of Mar c. 1280-1513′, unpublished PhD dissertation (University of Stirling, 2017).

Emilia Jamroziak, Rievaulx Abbey and its Social Context: Memory, Locality, and Networks (Turnhout, 2005).

Emilia Jamroziak, ‘Spaces of lay-religious interactions in Cistercian houses of Northern Europe’ Parergon 27:2 (2010), 37-58.

Kathleen Nolan, Queens in Stone and Silver: The Creation of a Visual Imagery of Queenship in Capetian France (New York, 2009).

Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo with Carol Stamatis Pendergrast (eds.), Memory and the Medieval Tomb (Ashgate, 2000).

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