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.

I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman

In Britney Spears’ 2009 concert tour, ‘Circus’, the pop star opened her act within a gilded cage, dressed as a ringmaster, performing several songs from this cage while acrobats and dancers performed around her. Her 2009 tour was the first tour she had undertaken in five years and it was part of a concerted effort to rehabilitate her image and celebrity following her public breakdown of 2007. The events leading up to her breakdown in 2007 and her subsequent hospitalisation, including a 51/50 involuntary hold, would lead to her psychiatrists diagnosing her as ‘gravely disabled’, meaning that she was considered a danger to herself and others. Significantly, having a ‘grave disability’ is also a legal status. Her father, Jamie Spears exploited this diagnosis, and pursued a conservatorship of Britney’s estate. While this arrangement was considered temporary at the time, the status of ‘grave disability’ stripped Britney of her personal agency, as she was not even entitled to her own legal representation whilst under the care of her father. She has been, in effect, under the control of her father and her managers since 2008, with the court upholding the terms of her conservatorship as recently as this year. Given the wider context of Britney’s personal life and legal status, as well as the creative influence she had had throughout her career, we might read her performance and the spectacle of the cage as a visual commentary on her lack of agency in 2009.

Britney performs ‘You Want a Piece of Me?’ (© Wikimedia Commons)

As a child of the ‘90s, I grew up with Britney Spears. Her first album, …Baby One More Time was the first cassette I bought with my allowance (I know, I’m really aging myself here). Britney Spears was a pop star that resonated with so many young women because of her perceived confidence, agency, and autonomy in her early work. This was especially fascinating as a young person growing up in the southern United States, just like Britney (a Louisiana native) where the sexual mores and expectations were decidedly chaste. The fallout of her mental health crisis of 2007 did not immediately strike me as troubling. I took in the salacious gossip around Britney’s public divorce, and then public breakdown without questioning the narrative that was being put forward or what any of that might have to do with feminism (I was a teenager). However, the ongoing legal struggle she has had with overturning her conservatorship and the #FreeBritney movement, present an interesting intersection with my research into medieval women’s agency and legal capacity.

Modern law regarding conservatorship, at least in the United States, is not all that dissimilar to laws of wardship that we see in the Middle Ages. The law of wardship in Scotland, as prescribed in Regiam Majestatem, aligned more or less with English Common Law in how guardianship and wardship was to be handled. A minor’s estates and property were placed into the custody of their guardian until they reached a legal age of majority. This differed based on sex. For elite men, this was linked to their ability to perform military service, and they were able to inherit their property at twenty-one. For elite women, their age of majority was lower (fourteen) and tied to an age deemed legally acceptable to marry. The legal expectation was that their guardians would keep their inheritance safe and were expected to restore the inheritance to their ward. For elite women, the laws of wardship had further coercive possibilities, as their guardian controlled who they could marry, and if they were sexually incontinent, they risked losing their inheritance. Thus, wardship was twofold. There was guardianship of the person and guardianship of their estates. This could be controlled by one person, or multiple people, and I emphasise it here to underscore the limitations that wardship imposed on an individual’s personal agency and access to resources. It is perhaps not surprising that these relationships were exploited.

The conservatorship of Britney Spears functions basically along the same lines, although some of the moralising aspects of medieval wardship have been dropped from discussions of her father’s control over her estates. Jamie Spears makes the decisions regarding his daughter’s recording schedule, album release, and performances. He pays himself a salary out of her financial estate to cover the ‘cost’ of his administration of it. What was intended to be a temporary fix, while Britney received professional help, is now a twelve-year-long engagement with no end in sight. This is particularly troubling given the fact that Britney and her father have always had a strained relationship. And we might look to her early career for examples of her attempts to gain autonomy from her father. For instance, she bought her mother a new house in her hometown following the success of her first album with the expectation that this would give her mother the freedom she needed to leave Jamie.

The conservatorship of Britney Spears presents us with an important contemporary example of the ways in which patriarchal legal systems work against women. Because a judge ruled in her father’s favour after she was deemed ‘gravely disabled’, Britney Spears has not had an independent legal status for twelve years. It has affected her ability to use legal representation independently from her father. The celebrity of Britney and the high profile of her case is likely to set legal precedent and influence rulings in cases like this in the future. The title of this post, ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman’ comes from her first studio album, and the first cassette I bought, …Baby One More Time. It implies a liminality, an existence in between two categories, and may have commented on Britney’s sexualisation while still a teenager. It also hints at her current liminality within her current conservatorship, in which her free will and autonomy is seriously curtailed. We might also think about the liminality of women more generally in legal systems, both historical and contemporary and the ways in which these systems, written by and for men, benefit men at the expense of female agency and autonomy. The Equality Act (originally conceived of in 1974 and currently a bill in the US Congress) continues to be debated and remains contested even though passage of it would provide more concrete prohibitions on discrimination that would benefit a number of marginalised groups that are not currently protected by law. Britney’s case shows us the importance of feminist interpretations of the law and the worrying continuities between women’s historical legal capacity and the way in which current legal systems can be exploited to continue to disempower women. It lays bare the insufficiencies of patriarchal legal structures that continue to leave women, and others, in the margins.

Sources:

All discussion of Scots law and the Regiam Majestatem reference Thomas M. Cooper (ed.), Regiam Majestatem and Quoniam Attachiamenta (Edinburgh: 1947).

‘Britney Spears loses court bid to remove father’s control over estate’

Bianca Betancourt, ‘Why Longtime Britney Spears Fans are Demanding to #FreeBritney’

Barbara Ellen, ‘Whips with Everything’

Constance Grady, ‘Why Britney Spears’s fans are convinced she’s being held captive’

Scottish Feminist Judgments Project

Wondery’s Even the Rich Podcast, #FreeBritney four-part series