What’s in a Name?

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.

If a woman with a doctorate gets married, is she still a doctor?

While surname patterns amongst women in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries came up during my doctoral project, I have been reflecting recently on surnames and marriage for a personal reason. My partner and I eloped on 10 April 2021. Since we married, the amount of post and well-wishes I have received as ‘Mrs Macleod’ has been staggering, even though I haven’t changed my name on any of my social media platforms, and most of my family know I’m doctored. I know this is well-meaning and good intentioned. Addressing me as ‘Mrs Macleod’ is a celebratory nod to the commitment my partner and I have made to each other. But, it should also be said, there is no post coming through to ‘Mr Davis’, so the identity change is still one-sided and patriarchal. It certainly speaks to a continued difference between the male and female life courses, even in the twenty-first century. My marriage is somehow perceived as identity changing for me, where it isn’t for my partner. For a time, I thought I might change my surname when we married. As an American interloper, becoming a Macleod would be a strong re-branding as a Scottish historian. All this to say, I’m staying a Davis. Partly because I am lazy and the thought of changing my residence permit, my passport, my social security, and my driver’s license (etc., etc.) is very unappealing. I have no strong ties to my last name, it’s just a name; it’s very common. However, I have also built my academic career so far with my name, and I don’t want to have to add ‘(née Davis) to every future accomplishment for continuity.

Signing our marriage schedule behind Perspex (eloping in the time of Coronavirus)

Now, Reader, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with women in Scotland in the later Middle Ages. Didn’t women keep their natal surnames throughout their lives? The answer, for the most part, is, yes, they did. However, this pattern was just that, a pattern. Life is complicated now, and life was complicated then, so we might expect some deviation from this pattern. Today’s blog will look at historiographical interpretation of women’s surnames in late medieval Scotland and also look at women that changed their names and the motivations behind it.

Medieval women’s retention of the natal surname in historiography

The accepted pattern of surname use in late medieval Europe was that women most often continued to use their paternal family’s name, rather than change their name after marriage.[1] It is important to emphasise that medieval identity went beyond an individual’s name. An elite woman’s identity was explained through myriad ways, including further relational designations, titles, and the symbology of heraldry present in her seal, among other things, including her clothing. This is not to say that the surname was unimportant. It indicated membership of a kin group that afforded her authority through the collective power and importance of that group.[2] The same naming patterns that have been traced in northwest medieval Europe have also been found in scholarship on the Scottish nobility. However, the ‘exclusion’ of women from the marital families because of the retention of the paternal surname has perhaps been emphasised more. In 1983, Marshall argued that ‘a woman retained her maiden name throughout her life and never did sever connections with her own family’.[3] Similarly, Jenny Wormald argued in 1985 that

The use of the surname both for the particular family name and as the synonym for kindred demonstrates the nature of Scottish kinship in another way. When a woman married in Scotland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it is clear that she was regarded as providing a link with another kin group rather than becoming completely assimilated into her husband’s kin; for she did not take his name, which strongly suggests that she was considered as, for example, a Gordon who married a Hamilton, and not someone whose marriage made her a Hamilton.[4]

While a pattern of surname retention certainly holds up in the charter evidence, the implications as to why women retained their natal surnames, as posed by Wormald, perhaps does not. There is evidence of women who deviated from this pattern, taking their marital surnames, and the evidence suggests that they did so for a variety of reasons. Some created continuity between themselves and their children, others to reap the socio-political benefits of her husband’s name. The manipulation of identity via surname suggests a nuanced understanding of the ephemeral aspects of power and the ability of women to navigate the changing circumstances over the course of their lives to maintain their position, legally and politically, within Scottish elite society.

Exemplars

My last blog post on the life and career of Isabella, countess of Fife, discussed the use of the Stewart surname in a 1365 charter. I argued that her identification as ‘Isabella Stewart, lady of Fife’ was an act of personal agency and political defiance in the adverse circumstances she found herself in during the 1360s with the Scottish crown.[5] The use of a marital surname, like Countess Isabella, for political reasons, can be traced elsewhere in the historical record. Eleanor Bruce (née Douglas) continued to use the Bruce surname in transactions after the death of her husband, Alexander Bruce, earl of Carrick (d.1333). A continued affiliation with the Bruce family, brought a certain social capital that Eleanor found useful in her own political career. She continued to designate herself as ‘Eleanor Bruce’ in her two subsequent marriages to James Sandilands and later to Duncan Wallace.[6] The continued use of the surname, and the prestige it carried, shows that elite women understood the authority imbued by direct connections to names associated with important lineages. Her social status was raised to countess with her first marriage to the earl, and the continued use of the title of countess and surname ‘Bruce’ emphasised the social status gained from this marriage.

The seal cast of Euphemia Leslie, countess of Ross (1394) NRS: Seal casts, matrices, and detached seals, RH17/1, no. 499 (drawer no. 20). Copyright of the National Records of Scotland.

Her continued use of the surname ‘Bruce’ may have also created continuity between herself and her husband’s lineage to protect their only child, Eleanor Bruce. We can trace the use of a marital surname by widows in a number of examples. The seal of Euphemia Leslie, countess of Ross, bears the surname of her first husband, Walter Leslie (d. 1382), in which the legend reads ‘SIGILLU EUFAMIE LESLEY DE ROS’. Her connection to the Leslie family by marriage was further corroborated by the heraldry in her seal, which features the arms of Leslie, on a bend three buckles. The charter, from which the seal impression was attached, was dated 1394, thus, she was still using it over a decade after the death of Leslie (the above cast was taken from the 1394 charter’s seal). Although she outranked her husband as countess, Walter Leslie was a favourite of David II, a crusader hero, and her marriage to Leslie had helped her gain control of Ross from her father in the 1360s. We might interpret her use of the Leslie surname and continued affinity with the Leslie family as a benefit to her son, Alexander Leslie, who would inherit the earldom and would be the first Leslie earl of Ross. Therefore, the use of the Leslie surname and the continued use of the Leslie arms might have allowed Countess Euphemia to continue to reap the benefits of a Leslie affinity and also created continuity between herself and her Leslie children who were going to inherit the earldom.

We might return to the question at the start of the blog, ‘what’s in a name?’ This blog post has offered up several answers to this question. In the later Middle Ages, the surname had the ability to carry with it prestige, authority, kinship, political cache, and chivalric reputation. While the pattern of natal surname retention amongst medieval women was more or less adhered to, there were deviations from this pattern. These deviations, of which we have only discussed a few, provide the historian with fascinating insight into elite identity construction and the myriad considerations women made when co-opting their husband, or more likely, deceased husband’s family name, in their own political careers.


[1] Geneviéve Ribordy, ‘Women’s names, women’s lives: the designation of women in late Medieval France’ Medieval Prosopography: History and Collective Biography 27 (2012), 120-2. For a general discussion of medieval naming practice, see Constance Brittain Bouchard, Strong of Body, Brave and Noble: Chivalry and Society in Medieval France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 70.

[2] The historiography around medieval identity is extensive. For a discussion of group v. individual identity see, Caroline Walker Bynum, ‘Did the Twelfth Century Discover the Individual?’ The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 31:1 (1980), 1-17; David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Miri Rubin, ‘Identities’ in A Social History of England, 1200-1500, Rosemary Horrow, et al. (eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 383-412.

[3] Rosalind K. Marshall, Virgins and Viragos: A History of Women in Scotland from 1080 to 1980 (London: Collins, 1983), 21. It’s worth noting that these earlier arguments have been carried through in more recent scholarship. See, Jennifer C. Ward, ‘Noblewomen, Family, and Identity in Later Medieval Europe’ in Nobility in Medieval Europe: Concepts, Origins, Transformations, Anne J. Duggan (ed.) (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2000), 251;  Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent ‘Where is the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland?’ in Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland, Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent (eds.) (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 7.

[4] Jenny Wormald, Lords and Men in Scotland: Bonds of Manrent, 1442-1603 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, Ltd), 79.

[5] RRS, VI, 374-5 (no. 345); For a discussion of the wider context of this, see, Michael Penman, David II, 1327-71 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2004), 353.

[6] NRS: Papers of Lord Torphichen, GD119/149; GD119/150; GD119/158; GD119/160.  

‘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).