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.

‘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).