Main Character Energy in the Face of Precarity

Channeling my inner Blair Waldorf and serving main character energy

Hello, dear Reader, and welcome back to my blog, a site that has sadly been neglected for too long. This partly owes to the nature of working on precarious contracts. Juggling adjunct teaching gigs, full time management of a restaurant (this pays the bills), and publications already in the pipeline doesn’t leave as much time as I would like for more informal writing. It also owes to the fact that I’ve gotten on with the business of living a life outside of my identity as an academic researcher. In this blog, I would like to provide a personal update of what my life has been like since last I posted (spoiler alert: I got married, again), while also reflecting on my approach to twenty-first-century academia, which I like to call ‘main character energy in the face of precarity’.

Life outside the ivory tower


My life in the past year has been a flurry activity beyond my academic pursuits. Many of you will know that I got married on my thirtieth birthday in 2021 to my long-term partner, but we finally got the chance to have the big party we had planned this past April, with our families and a hundred friends in attendance. I like to refer to our 2022 day as ‘My Big Fat Scottish Wedding’ because we really pushed the boat out with our plans. My Maid of Honour lovingly referred to our itinerary as ‘bold’. But things turned out perfectly. We were married on Portobello Beach. Fifteen minutes before we were meant to walk down from my in-law’s house, the sun came out. It hadn’t been forecast to be sunny on the day. The sunshine held for champagne reception in my in-law’s garden, with hail starting as the last person got into the last taxi on the way to the evening reception. Talk about timing! We managed to have an injury-free ceilidh and my American family and friends got the once in a lifetime experience of the ‘Loch Lomond’ finale of a Scottish wedding. It was a perfect day.

‘She’s not here’ should’ve been my out of office automated response.

After four years away, I also made it home to the United States. I had never planned to be away for that long, but between the pandemic and academic *stuff*, time flew by and suddenly I hadn’t been home since September 2018. In some ways, it felt as if no time had passed at all, visiting old haunts from my undergraduate years and catching up with family. In other ways, it felt as if a lifetime had passed. It was the first time home since my cousin died. My dog has gone from middle aged to nearly sixteen years old. I attended close friends’ wedding and saw people that I hadn’t seen for ten years. We joked that I’d catch them at their fortieth. I made memories with my husband and re-connected with parts of myself that I forgot were there.

The best of pals since 2006.

‘What’s meant for you won’t go by you’

When I speak to other early career researchers and people nearing the end of their humanities PhD, I often find myself uttering the phrase, ‘what’s meant for you won’t go by you’. It has taken a long time for me to take my own advice. In the past year, I have prioritised my relationship, my health, my hobbies, and re-connecting over the constant grind perhaps expected of an early career researcher. Before the pandemic started, I convinced my partner that is was ‘not a good time’ to go the New Zealand to see his family because of the stage I was at in finishing my PhD. Similarly, I didn’t go home for my cousin’s funeral because it was ‘not a good time’ because I had just submitted my NITS (Notification of Intention to Submit for the blessedly uninitiated). Two weeks later, the world shut down because of Covid-19. I regret both these instances of prioritising my PhD above everything else. It was selfish, but it was also misguided. The trick of academic precarity and the ‘hunger games’ of jobs and funding convinces you that if you don’t put your PhD above everything else, you won’t make it in academia. But it’s a lie. And this is what I mean by ‘main character energy in the face of precarity’. I have stopped letting my self-worth be defined by how much I ‘do’ for academia. Rather, I have prioritised who I am, and who I was, before I undertook my postgraduate study. By allowing myself to feel like the main character of my own life again, rather than someone on the the sidelines watching other people get the [insert: job, promotion, award, prize, etc., here], I am happier.

Happy power-posing.

I know that my approach, ‘main character energy in the face of precarity’ might sound selfish on the surface, but it’s not. Re-prioritising my relationships and interests outside of my work as a historian has transformed my mindset. I am much more present in my life and I feel like I have a life outside of academia. There is no longer this ‘lectureship or bust’ mentality that I had when I was finishing my PhD. I continue to succeed. I won an award for my first published article. I was recently invited to give a keynote lecture. I also continue to ‘fail’. Hours before giving this keynote lecture, I received an email that I hadn’t made it to the interview stage of a job I wanted.

It’s not that the circumstances have changed all that much, but I’ve changed. I’m finally embodying my own advice, remembering that what’s meant for me won’t go by me. In the meantime, I’m living.

What’s in a seal?

I’m currently working on scholarly commentaries of Scottish seal plates that were included in the third volume of Vetusta Monumenta, which is being digitised as part of a larger digital humanities project to provide an edition of the volumes for students and researchers. The project is led by Noah Heringman of the University of Missouri in collaboration with the Society of Antiquaries of London. In this blog, I will briefly reflect on one of the more interesting seals I’ve come across so far, the privy seal of Margaret Tudor, queen of Scotland. Her seal has raised questions for me about identity construction and the extent to which we can glean personal identities from this type of source material, something that motivates my current research.

The privy seal included amongst the Scottish seal plates, compiled by Thomas Astle in the 1790s, is one of the three seals used by the Scottish queen, and seems to have been the least well-known of the three. The illustration, shown here, depicts a seated and crowned female figure with a hound leaping in her lap. In the background, on either side of the figure, a rose branch.

The plate illustration of the privy seal of Margaret Tudor, queen of Scotland (c. 1513).

The image depicts the status and position of Margaret Tudor as royalty. The roses on either side of the figure likely allude to her Tudor lineage, and the crown reflects her position as queen consort. What I was more struck by, however, is other elements in the seal’s imagery. While a small hound in her lap denotes her elite status, it also conveys a sense of intimacy, affection, and emotional attachment between a woman and her dog, something that we, as a modern audience, can perhaps relate to and understand.

A modern woman (me!) and her small hound (c. 2016)

The personal elements present in this seal contrast with the other seals belonging to the queen, which were heraldic and bore the marshalled arms of Scotland, England, and France, to reflect her natal and marital lineages. Both the privy seal and the signet seal would have been used in a variety of contexts, but the privy seal would have been suited to personal correspondence.

The contrast between the two queenly images raises interesting questions about identity. Is the privy seal more representative of Margaret Tudor the person? Or is this seal still a constructed identity with the audience in mind, playing into a shared symbology that reflected her royal, elite status? These questions are perhaps not easily answered in a blog post, but they speak to overarching questions I ask in my current work on seals, including the commentary work on Astle’s plates.

Further reading:

Davis, R.M. (2021) ‘Material evidence? Re-approaching elite women’s seals and charters in late medieval Scotland’ PSAS 150, pp. 301-26.

Beer, M.L. (2018) Queenship at the Renaissance Courts of Britain: Catherine of Aragon and Margaret Tudor, 1503-1533. Woodbridge: Boydell &Brewer.

Blakeway, A. (2015) Regency in Sixteenth-Century Scotland. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.

Walker-Meikle, K. (2012) Medieval Pets. Woodbridge: Boydell &Brewer.

‘Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall’

CW: mental health; depression; anxiety

As September begins, and Twitter is aflutter with everyone talking about heading back to university teaching and all that that entails in 2021 – overcrowding, blended learning, et cetera, et cetera – I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness because this is the first Autumn in 12 years that I’m not heading back into a classroom as a student or as a teacher. It feels odd to feel the crispness in the air and know that it won’t be accompanied by a steaming hot latte, walking across George Square on Edinburgh’s central campus through the fallen leaves, taking in the brilliant autumnal hues of the trees.

Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me wanna buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.

Nora Ephron, You’ve Got Mail (1999)

Autumn is my favourite season. It always has been. And I’m finding it difficult to say goodbye (at least this year) to the teaching responsibilities of the first semester, which I had come to associate with what I love about Autumn. This blog post will take a somewhat different tone than my posts over the last year, more personal than academic. It offers me a chance to reflect on my first year post-PhD and what’s happened along the way.

A mental reset

If you’ve been following along with me the last year, you’ll know that I had two emergency medical procedures, one surgical and one endoscopic, to treat complications of gallstone disease. I’m now without a gallbladder, and hopefully now without gallstones. I lived most of the pandemic dealing with chronic pain, inflammation, and digestive issues that would have made it difficult for me to live a normal life if we weren’t all confined to working from home. This was thrown into sharp relief when I did return to work at the restaurant, the same week another gallstone blocked my common bile duct, requiring me to take time off work and a brief hospitalisation. The chronic pain and poor health I experienced took a toll on my mental health. My daily pain levels had completely extinguished my will to live and it triggered a major depressive episode. This depression did not resolve itself after my health improved following my procedure.

Instead, it got worse.

Ten days after my hospitalisation, I had a job interview. I didn’t get the job, but found out I was a very close second. This deepened my depression. The utter randomness of the universe and my perceived bad luck was hard to live with. I talked to my doctor. We upped my anti-depressants to see if they would spark joy (spoiler alert: they did). We upped my anxiety meds to see if they would help stop my panic attacks and general days of existential dread (spoiler alert: they did). I went back to therapy. Turns out it took a quasi-stranger telling me that I’ve had a really shit year for me to actually accept that I’ve had a really shit year.

So, I’m easing slowly back into the academic work and research. I’m doing things that make me happy, things that fill me with purpose as an historian of medieval Scotland. This is helping to remind me of my own worth and merit as a scholar when job rejections and a year of misses and near misses left me feeling not good enough. I’m working on my relationship with myself, which is the most important relationship I have. And I’m using this change in season as an opportunity to start anew.

Officially doctored

It’s important to note that my life hasn’t been entirely shit this last year. I got married to my long-term partner. I have a forthcoming article. I got a promotion in my hospitality job. Most importantly, I graduated virtually online in December and I recently graduated (in-person!) at Edinburgh Castle, in a truly memorable ceremony. My mamma was able to travel over for the ceremony, which was our first time together since November 2019. Being able to celebrate with family and to pause and reflect on what I’ve accomplished was an important moment for me, since I so often focus on future goal posts, rather than looking back to see how far I’ve come. So here’s to celebrating life’s victories, big and small, a little more, and to being hard on myself a lot less, as I head into the final months of 2021. Onward.


The quote in the title of this blog post comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).

Dispatches from the precariat

When I started this blog, I promised it would be academic cum personal. For the last few months, I’ve managed to write posts that reflect my range of historical interests and expertise. However, this past month, I’ve had to take a break from my academic self because of continued chronic illness, which will be discussed later. What follows here are some of my dispatches from the precariat, which gives you a taste of my challenges, personal and professional, as an early career researcher (ECR) in 2021.

Um, what’s the precariat?

First things first, for those unfamiliar with the term ‘precariat’, it is a portmanteau of two words: precarious and proletariat. It’s used in sociology and economics to refer to a social class or group of people experiencing precarity, meaning that their needs (financial, material, etc.) suffer unpredictability and instability. This instability often leads to decreased welfare.

The term has gained increased popularity amongst ECRs in academia because of scarcity and increased competition for jobs in the higher education sector. Because of this, many people experience mental health problems, burnout, and exploitation at the hands of universities that profit from precarious and short-term, hourly hiring, allowing them to contract the ‘best and brightest’ without paying fairly for it. I won’t even get started on the ‘opportunities’ that are ‘good for the CV’ but are expected to be done for free.

How it feels to find out you’ve gotten an interview in 2021. (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

This also means that ECRs are left to wear many different hats. I, for one, am an Associate Staff tutor. I am also a waitress. The hospitality job is the one that actually pays my bills right now as I cobble together ‘opportunities’ and hourly contracts to hopefully get me an interview for the next J-O-B. I’m not saying this to complain and I don’t want this to be taken as me being ungrateful. I am extremely grateful for everything that has happened for me academically in the last eleven months. I merely want to shed light on the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult for people like me to make a go of it in academia because of the fact that we have to continue working part-time or full-time minimum wage jobs to keep the academic dream alive. Working 20 to 40 hours a week on your feet is tiring enough without also juggling thinking critically and analytically about your research in your scarce free time.

That time I had another surgical procedure during a global pandemic (if you want to read about the first time I had surgery in a global pandemic, click here).

On top of managing conferences, post-PhD research and work, job applications, and waitressing, I got really sick. Again. About a month ago, I started feeling rundown. I assumed it was a bad night of sleep. Two days later, I had an episode of biliary colic which saw me back in my GP’s office, wincing as she performed a Murphy’s sign test. The verdict: it could be a duodenal ulcer; sludge in my bile duct; or a gallstone. Roughly 36 hours later, I was in A&E with worse pain and a distended abdomen. Two days after that, I had a MRI that confirmed it was a gallstone. The first surgeon consulting on my case seemed to think it was new, and that my body had, in true over-achieving fashion, managed to block my common bile duct again without having a gallbladder. I was put on the waiting list for an ERCP (a specialised endoscopic procedure) and told to come back in if the pain got worse.

The next two weeks would see me back in hospital two more times. After my third visit to A&E, I was admitted for observation and moved up the ERCP list for an emergency removal of my gallstone because I was at risk of developing life-threatening complications. Luckily, it was easy to remove and it looks like it was a stone left behind from my surgery last October (not a new one), so hopefully my days of chronic illness are numbered and I can get back to a normal(ish) life. 

Another pre-surgery lewk. You’re welcome, again, internet. Also, hospital gowns are the best thing for a UK heatwave, I expect to see them on all the SS22 runways.

I have spent the better part of the last 4 weeks on my couch or in my bed. I had to pre-record my IMC Leeds paper because my pain levels were too variable for me to deliver it on the day. I missed the intensive training week to certify as a yoga teacher, which would have been another way to supplement my income. Pandemic-related online teaching means I was able to continue to teach without disruption. I also wrote three job applications. But how insane is it though that I had to be in a hospital bed to have singular focus on teaching and writing job applications?

There’s also something to be said for the toxicity of academia and the pressure of being a member of the precariat that I wasn’t able to sign off for 4 weeks and focus on my physical health. Instead, my illness became yet another thing to juggle alongside my attempts to make it as an academic.

So here’s to being alive. Here’s to keeping the dream of an academic career going. And here’s a message of solidarity to all the other ECRs out there that are struggling in their own ways.

Onward and upward.

What’s in a Name?

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis. Any images used are done so with permission and the copyright is noted accordingly.

If a woman with a doctorate gets married, is she still a doctor?

While surname patterns amongst women in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries came up during my doctoral project, I have been reflecting recently on surnames and marriage for a personal reason. My partner and I eloped on 10 April 2021. Since we married, the amount of post and well-wishes I have received as ‘Mrs Macleod’ has been staggering, even though I haven’t changed my name on any of my social media platforms, and most of my family know I’m doctored. I know this is well-meaning and good intentioned. Addressing me as ‘Mrs Macleod’ is a celebratory nod to the commitment my partner and I have made to each other. But, it should also be said, there is no post coming through to ‘Mr Davis’, so the identity change is still one-sided and patriarchal. It certainly speaks to a continued difference between the male and female life courses, even in the twenty-first century. My marriage is somehow perceived as identity changing for me, where it isn’t for my partner. For a time, I thought I might change my surname when we married. As an American interloper, becoming a Macleod would be a strong re-branding as a Scottish historian. All this to say, I’m staying a Davis. Partly because I am lazy and the thought of changing my residence permit, my passport, my social security, and my driver’s license (etc., etc.) is very unappealing. I have no strong ties to my last name, it’s just a name; it’s very common. However, I have also built my academic career so far with my name, and I don’t want to have to add ‘(née Davis) to every future accomplishment for continuity.

Signing our marriage schedule behind Perspex (eloping in the time of Coronavirus)

Now, Reader, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with women in Scotland in the later Middle Ages. Didn’t women keep their natal surnames throughout their lives? The answer, for the most part, is, yes, they did. However, this pattern was just that, a pattern. Life is complicated now, and life was complicated then, so we might expect some deviation from this pattern. Today’s blog will look at historiographical interpretation of women’s surnames in late medieval Scotland and also look at women that changed their names and the motivations behind it.

Medieval women’s retention of the natal surname in historiography

The accepted pattern of surname use in late medieval Europe was that women most often continued to use their paternal family’s name, rather than change their name after marriage.[1] It is important to emphasise that medieval identity went beyond an individual’s name. An elite woman’s identity was explained through myriad ways, including further relational designations, titles, and the symbology of heraldry present in her seal, among other things, including her clothing. This is not to say that the surname was unimportant. It indicated membership of a kin group that afforded her authority through the collective power and importance of that group.[2] The same naming patterns that have been traced in northwest medieval Europe have also been found in scholarship on the Scottish nobility. However, the ‘exclusion’ of women from the marital families because of the retention of the paternal surname has perhaps been emphasised more. In 1983, Marshall argued that ‘a woman retained her maiden name throughout her life and never did sever connections with her own family’.[3] Similarly, Jenny Wormald argued in 1985 that

The use of the surname both for the particular family name and as the synonym for kindred demonstrates the nature of Scottish kinship in another way. When a woman married in Scotland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it is clear that she was regarded as providing a link with another kin group rather than becoming completely assimilated into her husband’s kin; for she did not take his name, which strongly suggests that she was considered as, for example, a Gordon who married a Hamilton, and not someone whose marriage made her a Hamilton.[4]

While a pattern of surname retention certainly holds up in the charter evidence, the implications as to why women retained their natal surnames, as posed by Wormald, perhaps does not. There is evidence of women who deviated from this pattern, taking their marital surnames, and the evidence suggests that they did so for a variety of reasons. Some created continuity between themselves and their children, others to reap the socio-political benefits of her husband’s name. The manipulation of identity via surname suggests a nuanced understanding of the ephemeral aspects of power and the ability of women to navigate the changing circumstances over the course of their lives to maintain their position, legally and politically, within Scottish elite society.


My last blog post on the life and career of Isabella, countess of Fife, discussed the use of the Stewart surname in a 1365 charter. I argued that her identification as ‘Isabella Stewart, lady of Fife’ was an act of personal agency and political defiance in the adverse circumstances she found herself in during the 1360s with the Scottish crown.[5] The use of a marital surname, like Countess Isabella, for political reasons, can be traced elsewhere in the historical record. Eleanor Bruce (née Douglas) continued to use the Bruce surname in transactions after the death of her husband, Alexander Bruce, earl of Carrick (d.1333). A continued affiliation with the Bruce family, brought a certain social capital that Eleanor found useful in her own political career. She continued to designate herself as ‘Eleanor Bruce’ in her two subsequent marriages to James Sandilands and later to Duncan Wallace.[6] The continued use of the surname, and the prestige it carried, shows that elite women understood the authority imbued by direct connections to names associated with important lineages. Her social status was raised to countess with her first marriage to the earl, and the continued use of the title of countess and surname ‘Bruce’ emphasised the social status gained from this marriage.

The seal cast of Euphemia Leslie, countess of Ross (1394) NRS: Seal casts, matrices, and detached seals, RH17/1, no. 499 (drawer no. 20). Copyright of the National Records of Scotland.

Her continued use of the surname ‘Bruce’ may have also created continuity between herself and her husband’s lineage to protect their only child, Eleanor Bruce. We can trace the use of a marital surname by widows in a number of examples. The seal of Euphemia Leslie, countess of Ross, bears the surname of her first husband, Walter Leslie (d. 1382), in which the legend reads ‘SIGILLU EUFAMIE LESLEY DE ROS’. Her connection to the Leslie family by marriage was further corroborated by the heraldry in her seal, which features the arms of Leslie, on a bend three buckles. The charter, from which the seal impression was attached, was dated 1394, thus, she was still using it over a decade after the death of Leslie (the above cast was taken from the 1394 charter’s seal). Although she outranked her husband as countess, Walter Leslie was a favourite of David II, a crusader hero, and her marriage to Leslie had helped her gain control of Ross from her father in the 1360s. We might interpret her use of the Leslie surname and continued affinity with the Leslie family as a benefit to her son, Alexander Leslie, who would inherit the earldom and would be the first Leslie earl of Ross. Therefore, the use of the Leslie surname and the continued use of the Leslie arms might have allowed Countess Euphemia to continue to reap the benefits of a Leslie affinity and also created continuity between herself and her Leslie children who were going to inherit the earldom.

We might return to the question at the start of the blog, ‘what’s in a name?’ This blog post has offered up several answers to this question. In the later Middle Ages, the surname had the ability to carry with it prestige, authority, kinship, political cache, and chivalric reputation. While the pattern of natal surname retention amongst medieval women was more or less adhered to, there were deviations from this pattern. These deviations, of which we have only discussed a few, provide the historian with fascinating insight into elite identity construction and the myriad considerations women made when co-opting their husband, or more likely, deceased husband’s family name, in their own political careers.

[1] Geneviéve Ribordy, ‘Women’s names, women’s lives: the designation of women in late Medieval France’ Medieval Prosopography: History and Collective Biography 27 (2012), 120-2. For a general discussion of medieval naming practice, see Constance Brittain Bouchard, Strong of Body, Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 70.

[2] The historiography around medieval identity is extensive. For a discussion of group v. individual identity see, Caroline Walker Bynum, ‘Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?’ The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 31:1 (1980), 1-17; David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Miri Rubin, ‘Identities’ in A Social History of England, 1200-1500, Rosemary Horrow, et al. (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 383-412.

[3] Rosalind K. Marshall, Virgins and Viragos: A History of Women in Scotland from 1080 to 1980 (London: Collins, 1983), 21. It’s worth noting that these earlier arguments have been carried through in more recent scholarship. See, Jennifer C. Ward, ‘Noblewomen, Family, and Identity in Later Medieval Europe’ in Nobility in Medieval Europe: Concepts, Origins, Transformations, Anne J. Duggan (ed.) (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2000), 251;  Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent ‘Where is the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland?’ in Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland, Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent (eds.) (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 7.

[4] Jenny Wormald, Lords and Men in Scotland: Bonds of Manrent, 1442-1603 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, Ltd), 79.

[5] RRS, VI, 374-5 (no. 345); For a discussion of the wider context of this, see, Michael Penman, David II, 1327-71 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2004), 353.

[6] NRS: Papers of Lord Torphichen, GD119/149; GD119/150; GD119/158; GD119/160.  

The Life and Times of Isabella, countess of Fife (d.1389)

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis. Any images used are done so with permission and the copyright is noted accordingly.

Isabella, countess of Fife, was female heir to the premier earldom of Scotland in the mid-fourteenth century. The daughter of Duncan, earl of Fife, and Mary de Monthermer, her life provides us with fascinating insight into the agency of an elite woman in late medieval Scotland. She had a tumultuous relationship with David II, which has often led to historical interpretations of her as a ‘pawn’ between the Scottish king and his powerful uncle, Robert Stewart, who was her father-in-law. I recently spoke about her political career with Kate Buchanan on Scotichronicast, but I would like to use this blog to explore her life in greater detail, offering a micro-history of the countess and the broader implications a re-appraisal of her life has on political histories of late medieval Scotland.

The early years, c.1320/9-1358

As the daughter of Duncan, earl of Fife, and Mary de Monthermer, and granddaughter of Ralph de Monterhmer, earl of Glouchester, and Joan of Acre [daughter of Edward I], the young Isabella had family ties on either side of the Anglo-Scottish border. What little evidence we have of her early life suggests she spent periods of time in both Scotland and England. Her exact date of birth is not known, but it was sometime after 1315, since her father and Robert Bruce agreed a male entail that year. The entail was to ensure that the earldom of Fife passed to the earls of Menteith if the earl of Fife failed to sire a child, as his wife, Mary, was detained in England at the time.[1] The entailing of the earldom was important, because the earl of Fife had the privilege and obligation of crowning the king of Scotland.[2] Thus, it was important to keep this duty and rights to Fife separate from the royal dynastic line. This entail would affect the countess’s later political career, as David II used the entail as a means to create a new earl of Fife after the death of her father in 1353.

There is evidence that her mother spent time between England and Scotland in the 1320s and 1330s, however, it is difficult to tell whether or not Isabella accompanied her in this travel.[3]  The family was captured in Perth in 1332 by supporters of Edward Balliol, and held in custody.[4] Isabella and Mary de Monthermer were separated. Her mother does not seem to have had a difficult captivity, as she continued to receive weekly payments, and later an annuity, from Edward III, as well as a residence and summer and winter clothing.[5] She later returned to Scotland in 1345, with safe conduct granted by Edward III.[6] While it is not entirely clear why Mary returned to Scotland, it may have been due to the shifting political situation, as David II’s return to Scotland in 1341 had seen a gradual improvement of the Scottish cause and she may not have been able to maintain her lifestyle in England as a Scottish countess. The earl of Fife was, in fact, captured at the Battle of Neville’s Cross a year later in 1346, and he was granted clemency from execution for treason due to his wife’s ‘blood-relationship’ with the English king, and we might assume that she intervened on his behalf.[7]

The Battle of Neville’s Cross from a 15th-century manuscript of Froissart’s Chroniques Image©Wikimedia Commons

It is more difficult to locate the young Isabella in the sources. She seems to have been put into custody (wardship) in Northumberland, with William de Felton, a knight, acting as her guardian. According to Sir Thomas Gray in his chronicle, Scalacronica, she had been

…destined to be sold into marriage to Robert the Steward of Scotland; but for love, she took for her husband William de Felton, a knight of Northumberland, who had her in his ward [en garde] at the time.[8]

It is difficult to assess in what capacity she was Felton’s ward because the language of wardship is the same as more hostile forms of custody, including imprisonment.[9] Given the fact that Felton assumed her custody in the 1330s, her presence in his household may have been that of hostage, after she was captured in Perth in 1332. While the exact date of her marriage to Felton is unknown, Michael Penman has posited that it occurred sometime in 1338, since she gave birth to a son, named Duncan, in 1339.[10]

It is also difficult here, to assess Isabella’s consent to her first marriage. The narration by Gray certainly strips her of any agency, as her only other option was to be ‘sold into marriage’ to the Steward of Scotland. As a chivalric history, Gray’s account emphasises the romantic love between Isabella and Felton, which may be grounded in historical truth, but we also need to consider the power dynamics at play in the relationship. As her legal guardian, we might ask whether she had the power to refuse the marriage. This is something that Ruth Mazo Karras has noted is ‘inherently coercive’ even if a relationship does eventually become consensual.[11] I am by no means refuting Gray’s characterisation of their relationship as a loving one, but I think it is important to consider the motivations behind his writing and whether he was interested in expressing the power dynamics at play in their relationship realistically.

She named her son Duncan, which perhaps indicates her eventual plans to return to Scotland and claim Fife as heir. She remained in northern England for another twenty years, and only returned to Scotland after the death of Felton. Her son Duncan never made the journey north with her. He seems to have been training for an ecclesiastical career and was never mentioned in the Scottish sources.[12]

Meanwhile, the earldom of Fife had been granted to William Ramsay, the husband of one of David II’s mistresses, in 1353 after the death of Isabella’s father, Duncan. Robert the Steward had also acquired a number of her father’s estates since 1353. I would propose that her new status as widow gave her the freedom of movement to return northward, but I think she may have also returned to Scotland at the behest of her mother, Mary de Monthermer. While there is no surviving evidence to corroborate this, it seems well-timed that Isabella returned to Scotland coincided with the external threats to the integrity of the Fife and its estates. Regardless of the motivations for her return, Isabella’s advent to Scotland certainly frustrated David II’s plans for the earldom and she quickly enlisted the help of a former suitor, Robert the Steward, to help her regain her birth right.

Countess of Fife, 1359-1371

In a number of documents, she asserted herself as heir and claimaint to Fife, with Robert the Steward supporting these documents issued in 1359 as witness. She also made use of his seal to authenticate at least one charter, as she did not yet have her own.[13] By 1360, her rights to the earldom were secured and she issued another charter that year, again styling herself as daughter and heir of Duncan, the former earl.[14] Sometime between 1360 and 1361, she married her second husband, Walter Stewart, son of Robert the Steward. She additionally commissioned a seal, which featured a tree with two branches, from which hung two shields. If we read the seal from the perspective of the sealer (and bearer of arms), not the viewer, we see the arms of her natal lineage, Fife, in the dexter [right] position, and the Stewart arms in the sinister [left] position. Trees are strongly associated with lineage and dynasty. We might read this seal as Isabella’s ambitions for her second marriage into the Stewart family, and the aligning of herself and Fife with a powerful family.

The seal of Isabella, countess of Fife ( from a charter dated 1369), NRS: Papers of the Earls of Morton, GD150/20. Copyright of the National Records of Scotland

The marriage, however, was short-lived. Walter died in 1362, as we have charter evidence of Isabella referring to herself again as a widow and commemorating Walter that year.[15] David II saw this as an opportunity to separate Isabella from her Stewart kin, and the next ten years would witness a third marriage for the countess alongside this separation. She was subsequently married, or forced to marry, Thomas Bisset, a favourite of David II. However, while her activities may have been closely monitored by the Scottish king, she made her displeasure known. She continued to use her seal depicting the Stewart arms even during her marriage to Bisset. She also used the Stewart surname in a 1365 charter, in which she styled herself as ‘Isabella Stewart, lady of Fife’.[16] We might read the use of the Stewart surname as her own defiance to David II’s attempts at controlling her. It certainly shows a deliberate assertion of her continued affiliation with the Stewart family, despite her physical separation from them. Her marriage to Bisset ended with his death in 1366. Shortly thereafter, she was forced to resign her rights to Fife to John Dunbar.[17]

Resignation and Retirement (1371-1389)

After David II died in 1371, Countess Isabella re-resigned her earldom to Robert Stewart, earl of Fife and Menteith, the brother of her second husband. She cited coercion in this indenture as a means of nullifying her previous resignation in favour of Dunbar.[18] She tasked Robert Stewart with the responsibility of regaining the earldom from John of Dunbar. She also used this indenture to protect herself and her mother, so that she might enjoy retirement in her advancing age. She arranged for tenements to support both herself and Mary de Monthermer in life rent, with each reverting to the new earl of Fife after their deaths. She also stipulated that she would maintain access to Falkland Palace (the comital seat) for her use as and when she needed it, while also asking the earl to maintain and treat her as he would his own mother. She did remain somewhat active following her ‘official’ retirement in 1371. She appears in a charter dated 1373 styled as ‘the former countess of Fife’ in which she grants an annuity from the barony of North Berwick to Margaret Hoge and her son John.[19] She likely died in 1389, as Robert II issued a charter that same year confirming her indenture agreement with his son, Robert Stewart, earl of Fife and Menteith.[20]

Falkland Palace Image©Wikimedia Commons

Pawn or player?

Many studies of female lordship have worked to problematise the portrayals of women as ‘pawns’ in mainstream medieval histories. The notion of women being ‘players’ imbues their lives with greater agency than has previously been considered for elite women. Looking at the micro-history of the life and times of Isabella, countess of Fife, has shown how we might re-assess the agency of elite women in late medieval Scotland and the role they played in Scottish politics. While any isolated event from the countess’s life might be interpreted as her being a ‘pawn’ to be used by the men in her families, if we look at evidence from across her life, and perform a close reading and analysis of the language of her charters, we see a woman well-equipped to handle the attempts at coercion and control from various men. We also see, between the lines, the relationship between Isabella and her mother, Mary de Monthermer, and the ways in which they both worked to secure a future for the title and estates associated with Fife that they wanted.

[1] RRS, V, 355 (no. 72).

[2] John Bannerman, ‘MacDuff of Fife’ in Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship, and Community. Essays Presented to G.W.S. Barrow, Alexander Grant, et al. (eds.) (Edinburgh, 1993), 22.

[3] CDS, vol. III, 138 (no. 736); 139 (no. 741).

[4] Chron. Bower (Watt), vol. 7, 83.

[5] CDS, vol. III, 239 (no.1312); 243 (no. 1333).

[6] CDS, vol. III (no. 1445).

[7] CDS, vol. III, 271 (nos. 1485, 1486).

[8] Sir Thomas Gray, Scalacronica, Andy King (ed. and trans.) (Woodbridge, 2005), 148-9.

[9] Gwen Seabourne, Imprisoning medieval women: the non-judicial confinement and abduction of women in England, c.1170-1509 (Farnham, 2011), 13.

[10] Michael Penman, David II, 1329-71 (East Linton, 2005), 103.

[11] She makes this argument when discussing the tutor/pupil relationship of Abelard and Eloise, see, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (London, 2012), 131.

[12] CPP, vol. I, 210; CPL, vol. III, 428. My thanks to Steve Boardman for these references.

[13] NRS, GD122/1/141.

[14] RRS, VI, 269 (no. 239).

[15] NLS: Adv. MSS, Ch. A. 10.

[16] RRS, VI, 374-5 (no. 345).

[17] RMS, II, App. II, 624 (no. 1624).

[18] NLS, Charter No. 698.

[19] RMS, vol. I, 161 (no. 443).

[20] Robertson (ed.), Topography and Antiquities in the Shires of Aberdeen and Banff, vol. II, 31.

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.


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.

‘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).

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).

Women, Authority, and ‘Male’ Spaces

NB: The historical research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis. Any images used are done so with permission and the copyright is noted accordingly.

Glamis Castle Archives

As we settle in to Lockdown 3.0 here in the UK, I can’t help but look back at my archive trips of 2019, misty-eyed for times when archives were open and we could travel to get our history fixes (and conduct research) unimpeded.

Situated outside the village Glamis, in Angus, Scotland, Glamis Castle has been the seat of the Lyon family since the fourteenth century, and has connections to the current royal family. It may also sound familiar, dear Reader, even if you are not a Scottish medievalist because of its association with Shakespeare’s MacBeth. The dramatic character resides at Glamis in the play, which differs from the historical MacBeth, as the castle was not built until 1372. However, it has strong associations with the Shakespearean drama, and it was even the setting for the recording of Almost Tangible‘s 2018 podcast recording of the play. (See my review of the podcast here).

Glamis Castle, what a beaut. Definitely lived up to my romantic expectations of what doing historical research would be like.

‘Under my battlements’

I have always thought of Glamis as Lady MacBeth’s castle. As a character, she drives the plot of the drama forward, and she is depicted in having a direct role in the rise (and subsequent fall) of MacBeth. The phrase she utters at the end of Act I, ‘under my battlements’, referring to her surrounding environs at Glamis struck me as an undergraduate and stuck in my brain about women and their occupation of ‘male’ space, like the fortress of a castle, which simultaneously functioned as a domestic environment of the elite household. And I have thought about Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth’s understanding of her social and political positions and whether we can trace these in historical figures from late medieval Scotland.

The seal of Euphemia Stewart, countess of Moray and Strathearn (1369)
NRS: Papers of the Earls of Morton, GD150/22
Copyright of the National Records of Scotland

My trip to Glamis was to seek out the seal of Euphemia, Queen of Scotland, wife of Robert II, which was dated to a charter from 1375 and held at Glamis. While she did not operate out of Glamis Castle, the archive holds an impression of her seal from 1375, detached from its accompanying charter. And the seal gives us an opportunity to think about identity construction of historical women in late medieval Scotland.  I was particularly excited to view this seal in person, as there are few examples of queen’s seals from the fourteenth century in Scotland. I was also excited to compare her seal design to the earlier design of her seal that she used as countess in the 1360s. This round seal featured the front of a castle (battlements) with two side turrets, with a female figure standing at the centre, holding a shield over the front of the castle. The heraldry featured within the seal design featured arms associated with Moray, Strathearn, and Ross, nods to her natal and marital kin from her first marriage. What was most striking to me, however, was the depiction of the female figure, unique amongst the other seals of Scottish countesses. When I first encountered the seal in 2014, I whispered to myself, ‘under my battlements’ (belated apologies to all those near me in the NRS). I was struck by the visual representation of female power that was reminiscent of Lady MacBeth’s assertions about her castle.

The seal of Euphemia, Queen of Scotland (1375)
Copyright Glamis Castle Archives
Illustrated depiction of the Queen’s seal from John Pinkerton, Iconographia Scotica Portraits of Illustrious Persons of Scotland (London, 1797).
Copyright Britton-Images

The later seal of Euphemia, after becoming Queen of Scotland, is also round, and depicts a female figure in a mantle standing within a canopied niche, holding a sceptre in her right hand and touching a chain around her neck with her left hand. In side niches on either side of the body, lions support shields bearing the arms of Scotland and the arms of Ross (the lions are missing from the eighteenth-century interpretation). A visual representation of her queenly authority, again situated within a representation of the built environment and showing her claims to elite status by birth and royal authority through marriage.

Women in ‘Male’ Spaces

In the last blog, I highlighted new work that is being done on women in assumed ‘male’ spaces. The sigillographic representations of Queen Euphemia provides us with an opportunity to explore this further. The career of Euphemia as queen is difficult to trace in the contemporary records. Amy Hayes has drawn attention to available evidence of her career as queen. Importantly, she has emphasised the delayed coronation of Euphemia as Scotland’s queen. Her husband, Robert II, was inaugurated king of Scotland in 1371, but she was crowned queen in 1373. She has pointed to this later ceremony as being rooted in issues of succession, as her status as queen would have elevated the status of her sons rather than her stepsons. The identity construction in her seal, then, provides us with important evidence of how she conceived of her authority as queen. Her seal prioritises her royal status, showing the shield bearing the arms of Scotland (a lion within a double tressure) in the right side of the seal’s visual field. The left shield bears the arms of her natal family, Ross (three lions rampant). The two seals of Euphemia, first as countess and later as queen, convey the identity of a Scottish aristocrat that understood her place within the noble and later royal household. Both seals emphasise Euphemia’s relationship to noble and later, royal, lineages in her identity expression, using the built environment to frame her authority. We might think about how these representations of identity in women’s seals using the built environment speaks to their place within the ‘male’ spaces of the castle and elite household and how women operated as female lords and queens from these spaces within the male-coded structures of power and authority.

Further reading on Queen Euphemia:

Amy Hayes, ‘Euphemia of Ross: The Surprise Queen’ History Scotland

Steve Boardman, The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371-1406 (East Linton, 1996).

The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (Edinburgh, 2018).