‘Coming out of my cage’: The political agency of Isabella, countess of Buchan

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

© Wikimedia Commons

The processional frieze located in the Great Hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh is a vibrant synthesis of Scotland’s national history. William Brassey Hole’s frieze tells Scotland’s story through 155 portraits from the nineteenth century, proceeding back in time to Scotland’s Stone Age. One of the figures that features alongside the heroes of the Scottish Wars of Independence is Isabella, countess of Buchan, who stands behind Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. Her identity is communicated by her dark blue robes with golden garbs (wheat sheafs), the heritable insignia of the earldom of Buchan, of which she was countess by right of marriage. However, the depiction of the countess here perhaps misrepresents the lineage with which she claimed a place amongst the figures of the first Scottish War of Independence, as her relationship to Bruce and her political activities in 1306 were afforded by the privileges of her natal lineage. Within this post, I will give a brief history of the countess’s political agency in 1306 and how her public support of the Scottish cause resulted in her imprisonment in Berwick. This highlights some of the methods and questions I asked of later source material in my essay on female imprisonment in fifteenth-century Scotland, which was Runner Up for the Women’s History Scotland Leah Leneman Essay Prize 2020 (article hopefully forthcoming).

Isabella, countess of Buchan, inaugurator of the king

 Robert had himself crowned as King of Scotland at Scone, on the feast of the annunciation of Our Lady [25 March 1306], by the Countess of Buchan, in the absence of the earl her son, who was staying in England at his manor of Whitwick, near Leicester, and to whom the office of the coronation of the kings of Scotland belonged in hereditary.[1]

The inauguration of Bruce, as depicted in an installation at Edinburgh Castle ©Wikimedia Commons

So recorded the northern English chronicler, Sir Thomas Gray, in the mid-fourteenth-century Scalacronica. It is worth noting that he got some of the finer points wrong. The countess inaugurated Bruce on behalf of her natal family, in the absence of her brother, not her son, as indicated by Gray. The privilege of kingly inauguration belonged to the earls of Fife and Isabella acted as representative of her lineage in this public ceremony. While Gray noted that Isabella participated in the inauguration in his text, she is not mentioned by name in contemporary Scottish chronicles. Walter Bower’s fifteenth-century Scotichronicon, for example,  merely stated that Bruce was ‘crowned in the fashion in which the kings of Scotland were customarily distinguished’ with no mention of the countess.[2] However, we cannot be sure whether the exclusion of the countess from Scottish chronicle accounts arose from unease around her role in the inauguration, the sense that she had assumed a function unsuited to her sex, or a determination to present Robert’s creation as king as entirely legitimate and conventional at a time with Scottish sovereignty was in crisis. We can see the role the countess played in Scottish sources is similar to her later depiction in the frieze, a political figure behind the scenes of Scotland’s history.

‘Lock her up!’, Michael Flynn in 2016 and Edward I in 1306 (probably)

It is with Isabella, countess of Buchan’s political agency and direct involvement in the public performance of Bruce’s inauguration that I would like to consider alongside the events that came to pass in 1306. The countess was arrested in November of that year at the command of Edward I of England alongside members of Bruce’s family. It was further stipulated in Edward’s order that the countess of Buchan and Bruce’s sister Mary and his daughter Marjorie were to be put in ‘kages’ at the locations of their imprisonment.[3] Isabella was held in the newly captured Berwick castle in the Scottish Borders.[4] Gray noted that ‘she was put in a wooden hut, in one of the towers of Berwick Castle, with criss-crossed walls, so that all could watch her for spectacle’.[5] The caged imprisonment and ‘spectacle’ of the countess of Buchan was an attempt on the part of the English king to publicly assert his authority in the region, and to openly humiliate the countess after her inauguration of Bruce earlier that year. For Edward I, her behaviour might have been construed as treasonous, as she also possessed estates in England and had been resident there before the events of 1306, thus a subject of the English crown.

Ruins of Berwick Castle today ©Wikimedia Commons

The women arrested in association with Bruce and the Scottish cause have come to collectively be known as the ‘Bruce women’. These women are a particularly useful example because they highlight the ambiguity that accompanies attempts at assessing women’s political agency and culpability for treason in medieval law. Current research on women and imprisonment often asks the question of whether women are ‘guilty by association’ rather than guilty in their own right. We might ask this question of Bruce’s family members, who were likely captured in order to exert coercive control over the Scottish king. The countess of Buchan allows us an opportunity to tentatively answer the question of female culpability, however, as her imprisonment directly correlated to her public activities in 1306. Importantly, her imprisonment conditions were further controlled by the English king. Visitors were to be monitored closely and she was not allowed to speak to anyone that was Scottish, male or female.[6] The analysis of the evidence of the countess of Buchan’s imprisonment requires a degree of ‘reading between the lines’ here to assess why her access was restricted. Limiting her daily interactions and prohibiting Scottish visitors might indicate the countess’s political agency as a Scottish noble. Her active participation in Bruce’s inauguration may have deemed her a real threat to English rule in Scotland, marking her a public figure of the Scottish cause. We might understand her imprisonment, then, as evidence of her potential power as a resistor to Edward I, which may explain the harsh treatment of the countess and public spectacle of her incarceration at Berwick.

A LNER travel poster depicting the caged imprisonment of the countess of Buchan.

Narratives of female political agency remain ambiguous and require a degree of reading primary sources ‘against the grain’ to assess the extent to which women might have been feared opposition to hegemonic (male) authority. Studies of women’s imprisonment are a significant, if still lightly-developed sub-topic of the field of women’s and gender history. The study of it is not without its difficulties. Annette P. Parker has noted the virtual invisibility of imprisoned women in historical narratives.[7] We might never be able to clearly assess female culpability for crimes of treason, as the surviving historical record is too patchy for definitive conclusions. However, it does not mean we should stop asking these challenging questions of the source material and why historically (and even now) we seek to cage politically powerful women in positions of opposition.


[1] Sir Thomas Gray, Scalacronica, Andy King (ed. and trans.) (Woodbridge, 2005), 52.

[2] Chron. Bower (Watt), vol. 6, 317.

[3] CDS, vol. ii, 496 (no. 1851).

[4] Sir Francis Palgrave (ed.), Documents and Records Illustrating the History of Scotland the the Transactions between the Crowns of Scotland and England, vol. I (London, 1837), 558.

[5] Gray, Scalacronica, 53.

[6] Palgrave (ed.), Docs., vol. I, 358.

[7] Annette P. Parks, ‘Rescuing the Maidens from the Tower: Recovering the Stories of Two Female Political Hostages’ in Feud Violence and Practice: Essays in Medieval Studies in Honor of Stephen D. White, Tracey L. Billado and Belle S. Tuten (eds.) (London, 2010), 279.

I’ve talked and written about female imprisonment and political power before:

What’s her %$@#! name? Women, Representation, and Outlaw King

“Lock her up!”: Women, power, and (medieval) history

Further Reading (by no means exhaustive)!

Matthew Bennett and Katherine Weikert (eds.), Medieval Hostageship, c.700-c.1500: Hostage, Captive, Prisoner of War, Guarantee, Peacemaker (London, 2017).

Tracey L. Billado and Belle S. Tuten (eds.), Feud Violence and Practice: Essays in Medieval Studies in Honor of Stephen D. White (London, 2010).

Jean Dunbabin, Captivity and Imprisonment in Medieval Europe, 1100-1300 (Basingstoke, 2002).

Theresa Earenfight (ed.), Royal and Elite Households in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: More than Just a Castle (Leiden, 2018).

Guy Geltner, Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to Present (Amsterdam, 2014).

Paul Friedland, Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France (Oxford, 2012).

Kate Mann, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford, 2017).

E. Amanda McVitty, Treason and Masculinity in Medieval England: Gender, Law and Political Culture (Woodbridge, 2020).

W. Mark Ormrod, Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England (Cham, 2020).

Katie Stevenson, Power and Propaganda: Scotland, 1306-1488 (Edinburgh, 2014).

Gwen Seabourne, Imprisoning medieval women: the non-judicial confinement and abduction of women in England, c.1170-1509 (Farnham, 2011).

Heather J. Tanner (ed.), Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400. Moving beyond the Exceptionalist Debate (Cham, 2019).

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