The strange disappearance of Euphemia Leslie

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

CW: violence against women, coercion, murder, rape

Euphemia Leslie was the female heir to the earldom of Ross in the early fifteenth century. She was the daughter of Alexander Leslie, earl of Ross, who died in 1402, and Isabella Stewart, daughter of Robert Stewart, duke of Albany. Her paternal grandparents were the countess of Ross, Euphemia, sometimes styled Leslie, and the crusading hero, Walter Leslie. The premature death of her father set into motion a dispute over her guardianship between her maternal grandfather, the duke of Albany, and her aunt and uncle, Mary Leslie and Donald, lord of the Isles. The escalation of this dispute culminated in the Battle of Harlaw in 1411, which resulted in a tactical draw. By 1415, Euphemia disappears from the historical record. Did her grandfather kill her to gain control of Ross? Did she take the veil, disappearing from public life to carry out a life of quiet contemplation in a nunnery? This blog will give an overview of Euphemia’s life, as far as we can reconstruct it in the historical record, highlighting the danger some young female heirs faced at the hands of their male guardians in late medieval Scotland. While this blog post takes the tone of a true crime story, I would like to emphasize that Euphemia Leslie, as historical subject, is treated with care here. Her life and experiences are often treated as marginalia to political histories of these events. I look to place her experiences and her disappearance at the forefront, and in so doing illuminate broader issues relating to the treatment of women in later medieval Scotland.

Euphemia Leslie, ward and female heir

Laws governing elite wardship were less precise than laws governing wardship amongst the non-elite in late medieval Scotland. The guidance for elite guardianship was based on hierarchy, which could be manipulated to suit relatives looking to assert control of a ward’s landed estates while amassing great political power. Sue Sheridan Walker’s research on guardianship in medieval England has shown that control over a ward was never finalized, rather a claim to the guardianship of a child might be challenged at any time.[1] This was precisely the case for Euphemia Leslie, whose guardianship was disputed by two family members, namely, her grandfather, the duke of Albany, and her uncle, the lord of the Isles. According to the author of the Sleat History, a seventeenth-century family history commissioned by the MacDonalds, Albany swiftly claimed the guardianship of Euphemia, because she was so young.[2] This arrangement was contested openly by her uncle, Donald, lord of the Isles.

The earldom of Ross offered the lord of the Isles further mainland expansion, while it offered the duke of Albany northward expansion. ©Wikimedia Commons

His dispute, however, was not about the maintenance of the child, however, but rather over control over her inheritance, the earldom of Ross. Steve Boardman has drawn attention to the language of Albany’s charters issued in Ross in 1405 where he designated himself ‘lord of the ward of Ross’.[3] Boardman has argued that the self-styling was Albany’s attempts to show his authority in the region, which had been contested by the lord of the Isles. The title also tells us something else, which relates to medieval laws of guardianship in Scotland. The self-styling articulates quite literally his authority, namely, his control of his granddaughter’s person (her body), within his own powerbase in the earldom of Menteith. It shows an awareness of the legal distinction between guardianship over a child and the child’s estates, which could fall to two different people.

Euphemia’s Resignations

By 1415, Euphemia Leslie was of a marriageable age. On 3 June, the bishop of St Andrews received a papal dispensation for the marriage of Euphemia to Thomas Dunbar, son of the earl of Moray.[4] However, this marriage never took place, and, as narrated by the Sleat historian, she was ‘persuaded by flattery and by threats to resign her rights to the earldom of Ross’ by her grandfather, the duke of Albany.[5] Of course, it is important to remember that this account was written centuries after the events took place, by a historian of the MacDonald family, so the characterization of Albany should be expected here. It is worthwhile, then, to turn to the charter evidence to assess whether we can glean coercion from the contemporary records.

On 15 June 1415, it was confirmed that she had resigned her earldom, and other properties, to her uncle (Albany’s son), John Stewart, earl of Buchan, with a reversionary clause further specifying the inheritance of these estates to another uncle, Robert Stewart, if John were to die without children.[6] The language of this charter was clear in its expression of the volition of Euphemia. It stated that she ‘neither by force or fear or by mistake but in her sheer and spontaneous consent and in her pure and uncorrupted virginity’ resigned these properties.

There are several things to unpack here. First, I have not been needlessly obtuse in explaining these documents. The consent of Euphemia indicated in the charters is mediated to us by her grandfather, the duke of Albany. The resignation survives in confirmation charters issued by the duke, which validated the ‘will’ of his granddaughter, Euphemia. What may be happening here instead is legitimacy, via consent, being written into the resignation at the behest of the duke, to avoid further legal dispute over the resignation of Ross and her accompanying estates. Second, we also see her virginity, ‘pure and uncorrupted’, mentioned in the document. While this would have had moralizing elements, it also serves a legal purpose. It emphasizes her marital status as an unwed heir, and it also highlights her sexual continence, which was important in the case of female wards, whose estates could be forfeit in instances where they had participated in irregular sexual relationships. It is difficult, however, to fully assess the extent to which the resignations of her estates was Euphemia’s ‘will’, as her actions are filtered through her grandfather’s charters.

Disappearance

There are no further indications of Euphemia’s whereabouts following the June resignations in the historical records. Again, the Sleat historian reported that some people believed that Euphemia did not resign her land willingly, and ‘thereafter was bereaved of her life, as most men thought by contrivance of the governor’.[7] In contrast, Ranald Nicholson has echoed the guesswork of Sir James Balfour Paul in the Scots Peerage and suggested that she became a nun after the resignations of June 1415.[8] However, we don’t have any clear indication in the historical record that this was the case, which we might expect for a woman of her status and family connections.

Did she become a nun at St Mary’s Priory of North Berwick, as some have suggested? ©Wikimedia Commons

Writing difficult histories

The high-profile case of Euphemia Leslie as female heir and ward, later disappeared after her holdings were successfully exploited, exemplifies instances of female vulnerability in late medieval Scotland. Her experiences underscore the potential threat of violence against women at the hands of men.

It also raises important questions about how to sensitively approach histories of violence, coercion, and threat against women in the Middle Ages. As W. Mark Ormrod recently noted, parliamentary proceedings regarding rape can come across as property disputes. Further to this, concern for women tended to often be over high status women.[9] Similarly, the coercive control experienced by Euphemia Leslie at the hands of her grandfather received more attention in the sources because of her high status as heir to Ross and the national unrest caused by the dispute over her and the earldom’s guardianship. While there is a sensitivity to the legal intricacies of laws of guardianship and wardship in the surviving evidence, it is difficult to glean Euphemia’s personal agency or concern for her, as a minor. We cannot say for certain whether the motivations of Albany or the lord and lady of the Isles were out of concern for the well-being of the young heir or merely an opportunity with which to gain control of Ross property.  These topics require careful handling in their interpretation, with an acknowledgment of the trauma potentially experienced by historical figures like Euphemia. Telling their stories, even though difficult, is important. Rather than reduce Euphemia to a ‘pawn’ between two men competing for her guardianship, we can glimpse her as an individual caught in a difficult set of circumstances.


[1] Sue Sheridan Walker, ‘Widow and Ward: The Feudal Law of Child Custody in Medieval England’ Feminist Studies 3:3/4(1976), 110.

[2] J.R.N. MacPhail (ed.), Highland Papers, vol. I (Edinburgh, 1914), 28.

[3] Stephen Boardman, The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371-1406 (East Linton, 1996), 259.

[4] Francis McGurk (ed.), Calendar of Papal Letters to Scotland of Benedict XIII of Avignon, 1394-1419 (Edinburgh, 1976), 317.

[5] MacPhail (ed.), Highland Papers, 28.

[6] NRS: Register House Charters, RH6/243; RMS, vol. II, 650 (app. 2, nos. 1976, 1977).

[7] MacPhail (ed.), Highland Papers, 28.

[8] Ranald Nicholson, Scotland: The Later Middle Ages (Edinburgh, 1978), 233-35; SP, vol. VIII, 242-3.

[9] W. Mark Ormrod, Women and Parliament in Later Medieval England (Cham, 2020), 95-114.

‘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, 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).