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.

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).