Scotland has a history of women who cast long shadows with their deeds. From the Edinburgh Seven, who fought for the right to education, to Isabella MacDuff, who defied her husband and crowned Robert the Bruce. Elsie Inglis, who defied the war office to serve as a nurse during WW1 and Frances Right, who crossed to America for abolitionism. These ladies’ example has passed down a legacy of defiance and self-determination. They were defying men who allegedly knew better and striking out on their own path.
Scottish women have had an outsized influence on all manner of fields. Social activism, academics, poetry, politics, science, medicine, music; the list goes on. Influencing their households (every Scottish child has a fierce mother it seems) and changing the world.
Black Agnes stands amongst a broad pantheon of Scottish female heroes. She is just one story of standing against the odds and prevailing. With a wry sense of humour, a courageous heart and a keen tactical mind, she gainsaid a whole army at Dunbar Castle. Let me tell you the story that solidified her name in Scottish history.
Agnes Randolph was the daughter of Thomas Randolph, trusted companion-in-arms to Robert the Bruce who had freed Scotland from English rule. Agnes, known as Black Agnes for her darker complexion and hair, had played witness to the conflict her whole life. She married Patrick de Dunbar, Earl of March, who was one of the realm’s great lords. As his name may suggest, Patrick owned and kept Dunbar Castle as his own.
However, the hard-fought-for peace Robert the Bruce strived for only lasted four years before Scotland was once more in turmoil. Backing a puppet claimant, the English crossed the border in 1332. The Earl of March was drawn away to oppose this fresh invasion with his soldiers, leaving Agnes at Dunbar Castle.
This set the stage for the famed William Montagu, Earl of Salisbury and a favourite of the English King Edward, to try and seize Dunbar. This strategically important castle overlooked Berwick and the border. Perhaps more importantly, it was under-garrisoned and held by a mere lady. He arrived with an army and expected an easy victory in 1338.
There is a great deal of history in the story of Dunbar Castle.
With just a few household guards and servants, the situation looked hopeless. The Earl of Salisbury demanded that the castle surrender. It was typical that if a besieged lady surrendered, she would be given safe conduct to leave the area.
However, Black Agnes was not for giving up the castle. Instead, she declared:
“Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me.”
This may sound a little bit odd to our modern language norms, but it was an emphatic no. Simultaneously Agnes reaffirmed her commitment to the Scottish King, particularly not the one William Montagu was invading on behalf of, and said she trusted the castle to hold them out. It was the medieval equivalent of saying that Salisbury could come and try to take the castle from her. One could argue that it’s even more badass for rhyming.
Montagu drew up siege engines designed to hurl great boulders at the defenders. The occupants of Dunbar Castle could do nothing except watch as these projectiles fell upon the battlements. After much ruckus and the parapets being swept, no life seemed to remain upon the walls. Surely now Agnes and her defenders must surrender?
While the besiegers watched, a door opened on the wall. Agnes’ sent out her maidservants and ladies in waiting, holding white handkerchiefs. Surely this must be a gesture of surrender! Instead of waving them and begging for mercy, the girls are said to have begun to polish the battlements instead. As though to say for all the weight of stone hurled, their bigger concern was the dust churned up.
The attackers fumed and began their bombardment again in earnest. However, every time they stopped to reload, the girls and their handkerchiefs came once more. Soon enough, the artillerists were disheartened, and the English had something to prove.
Later, the English were ready to implement their next plan of attack. In the woods nearby, they had constructed a sow. Accounts differ as to whether this was a ram or a covered construct draped with hides to keep arrows from hitting attackers. These hides were deliberately made wet to avoid them catching fire. Once more, it seemed that the defenders would be rousted from their castle as the English beset the gate.
Why, then, was it that Black Agnes seemed so calm and controlled? She called out that Montagu ought to mind his sow lest his litter of pigs be taken within the castle. It all seemed to be bluff and bravado, though, as the English continued their attack. Sources say that only lasted until the stones earlier catapulted into the castle were drawn to the wall and tipped onto the sow from above. With a tremendous crash the wooden structure buckled inwards, and once more, the English were left with no route into the castle.
With insults mounting and no easy route to enter Dunbar, The Earl of Salisbury sought another way. He approached the castle to parley again, but this time not with Agnes. Perhaps her verbal barbs had been too much. Instead, he sought to talk to the gatekeepers of Dunbar Castle.
Scotland was in the grip of winter, and food within the castle must be running short, he said. It would be better if they took his money and left the gate open, so they could take their leave and avoid starvation. The gatekeepers conferred before agreeing and taking the gold offered.
Montagu returned in the dead of night. The portcullis was open, the way clear. His troops and he surged forward. Finally, they’d be clear of this upstart castle and its occupants. The Earl was in the lead of his troops as they passed beneath the gatehouse. He was only passed by an overly enthusiastic knight who accidentally bumped into him. The knight turned to apologise for his enthusiasm.
Just as the portcullis slammed shut between them. The pair gawped at one another before suddenly, the walls and surroundings were occupied. With arrows flying fast, the English were once more beaten backwards – leaving behind one of their own. But for a bit of good (or bad, depending on your perspective) luck the defenders would have captured the Earl of Salisbury himself. This was surely Agnes’s intention, and her gatekeepers had kept the money to boot!
As they retreated, Agnes was disappointed but it is said she found time to taunt her foes:
“Farewell, Montagu, I had hoped you’d join us for supper!”
With duplicity having failed him, Montagu was running out of options to enter Dunbar Castle. Luckily for him, Black Agnes’s brother, John Randolph, the 3rd Earl of Moray, had been captured in the fighting elsewhere in Scotland. Upon arrival at the besieged castle, the Earl was paraded before the walls and had a noose slung about his neck. Montagu threatened that if Agnes did not surrender, he would kill her brother.
Seemingly undaunted by such underhanded strategy, The Countess of Dunbar took to the ramparts to inform her foe that his tactics weren’t as good as he thought. As her brother had no children, were he to die, then she would become the new Countess of Moray. His death would only benefit her, so Montagu ought to do his worst. The English’s plans undone, they removed the noose and retreated to their camp to lick their wounds.
Once more, the Earl of Salisbury was thwarted. There was no easy route into Dunbar Castle, nor a difficult one. The only way in would be to starve out the defenders. It had been five months, and Dunbar was only a small castle. Surely their supplies would be depleted soon. The English surrounded the castle more fully on land and settled to wait… but they had not considered the water.
Dunbar sits at the water’s edge, and Agnes’ plight had become well known beyond the siege. In Edinburgh, Sir Alexander Ramsay gathered ships, food and 40 men. He took them down the coast and, by night approached a secret waterside postern gate to Dunbar. Slipping inside, he gave the food to Agnes – before leading a dawn attack via the front gate on Montagu.
The English were thrown back in disarray before rallying in their camp. As the English bristled, a sudden parade under the flag of truce struck forth from the gate. One of Agnes’ maidservants brought forth a gift for the good earl. It was some fresh bread and wine, a clear indication that they would not be the ones starving.
After five months of siege and 6,000 English pounds spent on the siege, the attackers had nothing to show for it. They called off the siege and departed. Black Agnes had seen them off, and lived large in Scottish folklore even in her own time. The tale of one woman putting paid to the English invader was a rallying cry across the nation.
In a curious twist of events later in the war, the Earl of Salisbury was captured by the French and exchanged for the Countess’ brother. I wonder if either side had a chuckle at the irony, given Montagu’s attempt to take Dunbar by leveraging said brother.
Scotland would eventually throw off the English yoke, and Agnes was able to die in her castle at peace. A ballad was struck up about her, of which the most famous line is:
“Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the gate.“
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