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. The entailing of the earldom was important, because the earl of Fife had the privilege and obligation of crowning the king of Scotland. 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. The family was captured in Perth in 1332 by supporters of Edward Balliol, and held in custody. 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. She later returned to Scotland in 1345, with safe conduct granted by Edward III. 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.
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
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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 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. 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’. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
 RRS, V, 355 (no. 72).
 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.
 CDS, vol. III, 138 (no. 736); 139 (no. 741).
 Chron. Bower (Watt), vol. 7, 83.
 CDS, vol. III, 239 (no.1312); 243 (no. 1333).
 CDS, vol. III (no. 1445).
 CDS, vol. III, 271 (nos. 1485, 1486).
 Sir Thomas Gray, Scalacronica, Andy King (ed. and trans.) (Woodbridge, 2005), 148-9.
 Gwen Seabourne, Imprisoning medieval women: the non-judicial confinement and abduction of women in England, c.1170-1509 (Farnham, 2011), 13.
 Michael Penman, David II, 1329-71 (East Linton, 2005), 103.
 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.
 CPP, vol. I, 210; CPL, vol. III, 428. My thanks to Steve Boardman for these references.
 NRS, GD122/1/141.
 RRS, VI, 269 (no. 239).
 NLS: Adv. MSS, Ch. A. 10.
 RRS, VI, 374-5 (no. 345).
 RMS, II, App. II, 624 (no. 1624).
 NLS, Charter No. 698.
 RMS, vol. I, 161 (no. 443).
 Robertson (ed.), Topography and Antiquities in the Shires of Aberdeen and Banff, vol. II, 31.