Historical Notes: Networking in medieval Scotland

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IN MEDIEVAL times aristocratic women were regarded as possessions of their fathers, husbands or sons. "Medieval networking" as it has been called was just as effectively carried out by arranged marriages as on the battlefield, for what mattered most to the Scottish nobility was their territory, their castles and their children.

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the lives of five women all called Euphemia and all related to the great earls of Ross. Although on the face of it all five women were regarded as possessions, in fact their influence over the life and times of their country was probably just as great as that of their jousting, feuding and charter-signing husbands.

Euphemia I was a Gaelic-speaking Celt born in Applecross, a remote mountainous peninsular in the Western Highlands where her father Farquhar Mactaggart was hereditary lay abbot and lord of A-Chromraich (the Sanctuary), once an important monastic centre of Pictish evangelisation. A successful warrior, Farquhar was knighted by Alexander II for decapitating a rival claimant to the throne and created earl of Ross (a title now held by Prince Charles).

He took his family to Easter Ross and Euphemia was married to a descendant of Freskin the Fleming, one of a large number of Anglo-Norman families given land and castles by the Scottish kings who supported the new feudal system. Although the clash of Celtic and feudal cultures evident in language, marriage customs and law must have been tricky for Euphemia when she became chatelaine of Duffus castle in Morayshire, it is due to women like her that the old Celtic ways were maintained and the Gaelic language gradually superceded by Scots rather than French.

Euphemia I lived in the golden age of the Alexanders when art, architecture and chivalry thrived because Scotland and England were at peace. Euphemia II was not so fortunate. As wife of the third earl during the first War of Independence, she controlled his vast territory during his seven years imprisonment in the Tower of London.

By skilfully balancing her support between the Scottish freedom fighters and the English Edward I, Euphemia II managed to keep her clan lands intact. She emerges as a charming manipulator who in the end was caught up in the storm of nationalism that was to sweep through Scotland during the 14th century.

Euphemia III was the first Stewart queen of Scotland. As second wife of Robert II she had nine step-children to rear including four of her own, thus her influence over the future aristocracy of Scotland was important.

Euphemia IV was married off by David II without her father's permission to one of the king's cronies, a crusader called Walter Leslie who has been described with some justice as a thug. She brought him the earldom, Dingwall castle and vast territories in the north. After his death she married the notorious Wolf of Badenoch who took his mistress and their five sons to live near Dingwall. Euphemia was permitted by the Pope to divorce him, a rare event in those days.

Her grand-daughter and heiress to the earldom, Euphemia V was an only child, born with a congenital spine deformity. After her father's untimely death, she was persuaded to relinquish the earldom and enter a convent, the only career open to an unmarriageable girl.

Thus through the lives of these five women: chatelaine, adventuress, queen, divorcee and nun - it is possible to catch a glimpse of what life was like for women of substance in medieval Scotland. Shorter, certainly, undoubtedly more dangerous, but less happy? Impossible to generalise. At least today women have the freedom to make their own mistakes and control their own destinies.

Elizabeth Sutherland is the author of `Five Euphemias: women in medieval Scotland 1200-1420' (Constable pounds 20)