‘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).

Women and Power, Part Two

NB: The research presented here is the intellectual copyright of Dr Rachel Meredith Davis.

This is the second blog on the theme of women and power in the Middle Ages. Click here for Women and Power, Part One.

What follows is a brief historiographical overview of themes I engage with in my research on elite women in Scotland in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Now that you know more about me, I thought I would offer you a primer on the topic, as I will be engaging with the ideas presented here through a focussed discussion of primary sources from my doctoral work in the next few blog posts. I’ve included a reading list at the end with links to historians and works that have influenced by own thinking.

The ‘decline’ of women in the later Middle Ages

Since the 1970s, cycles of debate about women’s power and position within medieval society have grappled with issues of periodisation and the question of ‘decline’. The 1973 McNamara/Wemple thesis posited a decline in women’s access to participation in power structures in the eleventh century, echoing the arguments advanced a decade earlier in George Duby’s work on family structure, which was known as the ‘Duby thesis’. Both conceptualisations relied on a change in the organising of families around male lineage with a shift from horizontal to vertical family structures. This shift supposedly prioritised primogeniture inheritance to preserve the family’s wealth and position within elite society. One of the results of this theoretical shift was that the importance of women in family and in politics was downgraded.

The ‘decline’ of women was also linked to a supposed difference between public and private power. Women could exercise power through their position within the family, but they were not afforded access to ‘public’ spheres of power – namely government institutions and public offices. It was generally accepted that women could exercise power from within the elite household, as extensions of their gendered roles. However, women’s influence beyond the private sphere has been thought of as diminished as a result of increased importance of male lineages and bureaucratisation of medieval government.

Work of feminist scholars on elite women in the last thirty years has problematised the notions of ‘decline’ in status for women in positions of power after the year 1100. Most recently, the edited volume of Heather J. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400. Moving beyond the Exceptionalist Debate (2019) issued a call-to-arms to researchers of women’s and gender history to prove, once and for all, women who exercised power after the year 1100 were not ‘exceptional’, rather they were commonplace. The movement advocates for the inclusion of women into political narratives of medieval Europe.

While current scholarly thinking has advanced the political histories of female ‘lords’ and expanded definitions of female power to include the aspects of ‘soft’ power, such as influence, popularity, and attractive leadership, the notion of ‘decline’ has been harder to shake from medieval chronologies. Katherine J. Lewis has commented on a continued historiographical perspective that assumes women were placed outside the political structures of medieval governance by the later Middle Ages. Indeed, even the most recent cycle of the debate of women and power has merely shifted the ‘decline’ in female status to the fourteenth century.

 We need to question the ‘decline’ proposed by existing chronologies of the Middle Ages. These chronologies assume change, even if it occurred later than previously proposed by the Duby and McNamara/Wemple theses. Could the narrative of women’s history in the Middle Ages not be one of continuity? Judith Bennett’s notion of ‘patriarchal equilibrium’ becomes useful here. While the structures of power may have transformed during the Middle Ages, the status of women’s position within these structures might not have. While these spaces might have been ‘male’ in theory, were these spaces ‘male’ in practice?

There is exciting new work being done on women in the later Middle Ages and Early Modern period that problematises the assumptions made about women and their public selves. There is an ongoing reappraisal of the law of guardianship that rendered women ‘invisible’ during marriage. There are new gendered analyses of the law, which provide us with a more nuanced understanding of medieval legal systems as well as the gulf between law and practice. Additionally, there have been recent studies that have challenged the notion of ‘male’ space in castles and parliament. The Theresa Earenfight edited volume Royal and Elite Households in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: More than Just a Castle (2018) shows the myriad ways in which these spaces can be culturally understood. The late W. Mark Ormrod’s book Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England (2020) interrogated the ‘male’ space of medieval parliament and exposed the ways in which women appeared and made use of parliament in England.

When investigated, the notion of ‘decline’ and ‘exclusion’ of women in the later Middle Ages does not hold up. The evidence reveals a more nuanced historical reality than simple binaries. It suggests that the periodisation of women’s power in the Middle Ages ought to be eschewed completely, embracing the complexity and messiness of late medieval source material to further our understanding of women, power, and agency.

Reading List

Selected works on women, power, and patriarchy (this list is by no means exhaustive, but rather reflects works that have been key to my own research in addition to the works specifically named above).

Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia, PA, 2006).

Georges Duby, The Chivalrous Society, Cynthia Postan (trans.) (London, 1977).

Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, Arthur Goldhammer (trans.) (Chicago, IL, 1980).

Georges Duby, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, Jame Dunnett (trans.) (Chicago, IL, 1994).

Georges Duby, ‘Women and Power’ in Cultures of Power: Lordship, Status, and Process in Twelfth-Century Europe, Thomas N. Bisson (ed.) (Philadelphia, PA, 1995, 73-80.

Theodore Evergates (ed.), Aristocratic Women in Medieval France (Philadelphia, PA, 1999).

Barbara J. Harris, English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers (Oxford, 2002).

Susan M. Johns, Noblewomen, Aristocracy and Power in the Twelfth-Century Anglo-Norman Realm (Manchester, 2003).

Erin Jordan, Women, Power and Religious Patronage in the Middle Ages (Basingstoke, 2006).

Bronach Kane and Fiona Williamson (eds.), Women, Agency and the Law, 1300-1700 (London, 2013).

Katherine J. Lewis, ‘Women and Power’ in Historians on Gower, S. Rigby (ed.) (Woodbridge, 2019), 323-50.

Amy Livingstone, Out of Love for My Kin: Family Life in the Lands of the Loire, 1000-1200 (Ithaca, NY, 2010).

Kimberly LoPrete, Adela of Blois: Countess and Lord (c.1167-1137) (Dublin, 2007).

Jo Ann McNamara and Suzanne Wemple, ‘The Power of Women through the Family in Europe’ Feminist Studies 1:3/4 (1973), 126-41. (republished in Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.), Women and Power in the Middle Ages (Athens, GA, 1988), 83-101.

Jo Ann McNamara, ‘Women and Power through the Family Revisited’ in Gendering the Master Narrative, Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.) (London, 2003), 17-30.

Linda E. Mitchell, Portraits of Medieval Women: Family, Marriage, and Politics in England, 1225-1350 (London, 2003).

Linda E. Mitchell, Joan de Valence: The Life and Influence of a Thirteenth-Century Noblewoman (London, 2016).

Joel T. Rosenthal, The Patriarchy and Families of Privilege in Fifteenth Century England (Philadelphia, PA, 1991).

Dr Rebecca Mason (University of Glasgow) is doing really exciting work on married women in early modern Scotland.

Other work on marriage and laws of guardianship:

Katie Barclay, Love, Intimacy and Power: Marriage and Patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850 (Manchester, 2011).

Cordelia Beattie and Matthew Frank Stevens (eds.), Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe, 1200-1800 (Manchester, 2003).

Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent (eds.), Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland (Aldershot, 2008).

Charlotte Vainio, ‘Empowered Spouses: Matrimonial Legal Authority in Sweden, 1350-1442’ in Authorities in the Middle Ages: Influence, Legitimacy, and Power in Medieval Society, Sini Kangas, et al. (eds.) (Berlin, 2013), 285-306.

Heather J. Tanner, ‘Women’s Legal Capacity: Was the Thirteenth Century a Turning Point’ in Paradigm Shifts during the Global Middle Ages, Albrecht Classen (ed.) (Turnhout, 2019), 81-98.