The strange disappearance of Euphemia Leslie

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

CW: violence against women, coercion, murder, rape

Euphemia Leslie was the female heir to the earldom of Ross in the early fifteenth century. She was the daughter of Alexander Leslie, earl of Ross, who died in 1402, and Isabella Stewart, daughter of Robert Stewart, duke of Albany. Her paternal grandparents were the countess of Ross, Euphemia, sometimes styled Leslie, and the crusading hero, Walter Leslie. The premature death of her father set into motion a dispute over her guardianship between her maternal grandfather, the duke of Albany, and her aunt and uncle, Mary Leslie and Donald, lord of the Isles. The escalation of this dispute culminated in the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, which resulted in a tactical draw. By 1415, Euphemia disappears from the historical record. Did her grandfather kill her to gain control of Ross? Did she take the veil, disappearing from public life to carry out a life of quiet contemplation in a nunnery? This blog will give an overview of Euphemia’s life, as far as we can reconstruct it in the historical record, highlighting the danger some young female heirs faced at the hands of their male guardians in late medieval Scotland. While this blog post takes the tone of a true crime story, I would like to emphasize that Euphemia Leslie, as historical subject, is treated with care here. Her life and experiences are often treated as marginalia to political histories of these events. I look to place her experiences and her disappearance at the forefront, and in so doing illuminate broader issues relating to the treatment of women in later medieval Scotland.

Euphemia Leslie, ward and female heir

Laws governing elite wardship were less precise than laws governing wardship amongst the non-elite in late medieval Scotland. The guidance for elite guardianship was based on hierarchy, which could be manipulated to suit relatives looking to assert control of a ward’s landed estates while amassing great political power. Sue Sheridan Walker’s research on guardianship in medieval England has shown that control over a ward was never finalized, rather a claim to the guardianship of a child might be challenged at any time.[1] This was precisely the case for Euphemia Leslie, whose guardianship was disputed by two family members, namely, her grandfather, the duke of Albany, and her uncle, the lord of the Isles. According to the author of the Sleat History, a seventeenth-century family history commissioned by the MacDonalds, Albany swiftly claimed the guardianship of Euphemia, because she was so young.[2] This arrangement was contested openly by her uncle, Donald, lord of the Isles.

The earldom of Ross offered the lord of the Isles further mainland expansion, while it offered the duke of Albany northward expansion. ©Wikimedia Commons

His dispute, however, was not about the maintenance of the child, however, but rather over control over her inheritance, the earldom of Ross. Steve Boardman has drawn attention to the language of Albany’s charters issued in Ross in 1405 where he designated himself ‘lord of the ward of Ross’.[3] Boardman has argued that the self-styling was Albany’s attempts to show his authority in the region, which had been contested by the lord of the Isles. The title also tells us something else, which relates to medieval laws of guardianship in Scotland. The self-styling articulates quite literally his authority, namely, his control of his granddaughter’s person (her body), within his own powerbase in the earldom of Menteith. It shows an awareness of the legal distinction between guardianship over a child and the child’s estates, which could fall to two different people.

Euphemia’s Resignations

By 1415, Euphemia Leslie was of a marriageable age. On 3 June, the bishop of St Andrews received a papal dispensation for the marriage of Euphemia to Thomas Dunbar, son of the earl of Moray.[4] However, this marriage never took place, and, as narrated by the Sleat historian, she was ‘persuaded by flattery and by threats to resign her rights to the earldom of Ross’ by her grandfather, the duke of Albany.[5] Of course, it is important to remember that this account was written centuries after the events took place, by a historian of the MacDonald family, so the characterization of Albany should be expected here. It is worthwhile, then, to turn to the charter evidence to assess whether we can glean coercion from the contemporary records.

On 15 June 1415, it was confirmed that she had resigned her earldom, and other properties, to her uncle (Albany’s son), John Stewart, earl of Buchan, with a reversionary clause further specifying the inheritance of these estates to another uncle, Robert Stewart, if John were to die without children.[6] The language of this charter was clear in its expression of the volition of Euphemia. It stated that she ‘neither by force or fear or by mistake but in her sheer and spontaneous consent and in her pure and uncorrupted virginity’ resigned these properties.

There are several things to unpack here. First, I have not been needlessly obtuse in explaining these documents. The consent of Euphemia indicated in the charters is mediated to us by her grandfather, the duke of Albany. The resignation survives in confirmation charters issued by the duke, which validated the ‘will’ of his granddaughter, Euphemia. What may be happening here instead is legitimacy, via consent, being written into the resignation at the behest of the duke, to avoid further legal dispute over the resignation of Ross and her accompanying estates. Second, we also see her virginity, ‘pure and uncorrupted’, mentioned in the document. While this would have had moralizing elements, it also serves a legal purpose. It emphasizes her marital status as an unwed heir, and it also highlights her sexual continence, which was important in the case of female wards, whose estates could be forfeit in instances where they had participated in irregular sexual relationships. It is difficult, however, to fully assess the extent to which the resignations of her estates was Euphemia’s ‘will’, as her actions are filtered through her grandfather’s charters.

Disappearance

There are no further indications of Euphemia’s whereabouts following the June resignations in the historical records. Again, the Sleat historian reported that some people believed that Euphemia did not resign her land willingly, and ‘thereafter was bereaved of her life, as most men thought by contrivance of the governor’.[7] In contrast, Ranald Nicholson has echoed the guesswork of Sir James Balfour Paul in the Scots Peerage and suggested that she became a nun after the resignations of June 1415.[8] However, we don’t have any clear indication in the historical record that this was the case, which we might expect for a woman of her status and family connections.

Did she become a nun at St Mary’s Priory of North Berwick, as some have suggested? ©Wikimedia Commons

Writing difficult histories

The high-profile case of Euphemia Leslie as female heir and ward, later disappeared after her holdings were successfully exploited, exemplifies instances of female vulnerability in late medieval Scotland. Her experiences underscore the potential threat of violence against women at the hands of men.

It also raises important questions about how to sensitively approach histories of violence, coercion, and threat against women in the Middle Ages. As W. Mark Ormrod recently noted, parliamentary proceedings regarding rape can come across as property disputes. Further to this, concern for women tended to often be over high status women.[9] Similarly, the coercive control experienced by Euphemia Leslie at the hands of her grandfather received more attention in the sources because of her high status as heir to Ross and the national unrest caused by the dispute over her and the earldom’s guardianship. While there is a sensitivity to the legal intricacies of laws of guardianship and wardship in the surviving evidence, it is difficult to glean Euphemia’s personal agency or concern for her, as a minor. We cannot say for certain whether the motivations of Albany or the lord and lady of the Isles were out of concern for the well-being of the young heir or merely an opportunity with which to gain control of Ross property.  These topics require careful handling in their interpretation, with an acknowledgment of the trauma potentially experienced by historical figures like Euphemia. Telling their stories, even though difficult, is important. Rather than reduce Euphemia to a ‘pawn’ between two men competing for her guardianship, we can glimpse her as an individual caught in a difficult set of circumstances.


[1] Sue Sheridan Walker, ‘Widow and Ward: The Feudal Law of Child Custody in Medieval England’ Feminist Studies 3:3/4(1976), 110.

[2] J.R.N. MacPhail (ed.), Highland Papers, vol. I (Edinburgh, 1914), 28.

[3] Stephen Boardman, The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371-1406 (East Linton, 1996), 259.

[4] Francis McGurk (ed.), Calendar of Papal Letters to Scotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon, 1394-1419 (Edinburgh, 1976), 317.

[5] MacPhail (ed.), Highland Papers, 28.

[6] NRS: Register House Charters, RH6/243; RMS, vol. II, 650 (app. 2, nos. 1976, 1977).

[7] MacPhail (ed.), Highland Papers, 28.

[8] Ranald Nicholson, Scotland: The Later Middle Ages (Edinburgh, 1978), 233-35; SP, vol. VIII, 242-3.

[9] W. Mark Ormrod, Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England (Cham, 2020), 95-114.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s