Black Agnes (Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar and March)


Poor Art is home sick today, so I happened to catch an episode of Horrible Histories, which, I confess,  is a series I really enjoy watching when I catch it.  One of the sketches was about a Scottish lady, Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar and March (better known as Black Agnes) and her defense of Dunbar Castle.   I’ve decided I’d like to do a little more digging, since she was kind of awesome and I happen to know another awesome Agnes.   There are the usual warnings of how story and history can be difficult to tease apart, but for this post I’m going to favour giving voice to the pleasing story rather than worry overly much about finding incontrovertible sources.  

What I have found so far is that Agnes was the daughter of Isabel Stewart and Sir Thomas Randolph, the first Earl of Moray, who was named Regent on the death of Robert the Bruce.  She married Patrick Dunbar, the Ninth Earl of Dunbar and 2nd Earl of March, in 1320.  Life in castle Dunbar was ..tumultuous, to say the least; it appears it had enjoyed a reputation of impregnability for a long time as a formidable sea fortress, protecting Scotland’s southeast border, but it attracted the very keen attention of the first and second King Edward in England and their new and rather terrifying siege weaponry.  Patrick Dunbar, and so by extension his entire household, must have had an exciting time defending it against all the emerging forms of new heavy artillery, and with the interesting political dances necessary to maintain his alliances with Robert the Bruce, what with shielding King Edward II after Bannockburn at the castle for a bit.   In the early 1330s Patrick Dunbar had had enough, Dunbar Castle was just too much trouble to keep defended and repaired against the English and he had it leveled.  Edward III, apparently, got a bit peeved with that decision and made him rebuild it at his own expense, and it became a barracks for English forces for a short time, eventually coming back under the control of Patrick and his household by the beginning of our story.

So here we have Agnes, in early January 1338, back in her home and probably a bit sick and tired of all the back and forth, the stone barrages and the *hassle*.   Her husband and most of his troops were away fighting with the Scottish army when King Edward dispatched the Earl of Salisbury, William Montague – a very able and highly respected commander – to take Castle Dunbar from her.  In my mind’s eye I imagine the Lady busy at some task, interrupted and forced to throw her eyes to heaven, hitch up her skirts to bustle to the gates with a “Oh what now?!” William Montague called for, and fully expected, the castle surrender at the gates.  Agnes said no.  Montague was ..surprised. She’s supposed to have said “”Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, He pays me meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, While my house will keep me.”  And so a five month siege began.  

First Montague attacked with catapults of large rocks and lead shot.   Lady Agnes had the debris cleared and stored and then led the women in the stronghold out to the walls in their finest dresses and had them make a show of dusting the walls with their handkerchiefs.  

Next the Earl brought in a “sow”, a heavy battering ram on wheels and a protective cover to protect the soldiers pushing it from overhead barrages.  Lady Agnes dropped one of the boulders that the Earl had used against the castle – which she had carefully stored – over the wall and smashed the ram to splinters.  I can’t help imagining Agnes and her ladies pointedly polishing the bolder before it fell, and indeed many of the other rocks that had been so rudely hurled at her home before they were “returned” at various points during the siege.  

For his third attempt Salisbury attempted to bribe the main gate guard to forget to lock the gate. He must have been very smug about his plot when he and his soldiers made their way to the obviously open gate.  It was pure chance that another man, Copeland, went ahead of him and had the portcullis sudden slam shut to trap him instead of the Earl.  

Then came the waiting game while the Earl hoped to starve them out of the castle.  What he didn’t know was that there was a blind spot in his encircling of the castle and while he believed the inhabitants to be starving, they received boat loads of supplies from the townspeople of Dunbar on the castle’s seaward side.  After the delivery Lady Agnes had a fresh loaf of bread and some wine delivered to the Earl with her compliments.   

There is a story that the Earl, now desperate, had her brother – John Randolph, the Earl of Moray,  a prisoner of war captured by the English – sent for, and that he threatened to kill her brother if she did not surrender.  She is reputed to have just laughed and piped up that if he was to do so he would merely be causing her to inherit her brothers estate and titles and, more or less, to have at it.  I’m not sure if her poor brother got to hear all this and how family reunions for ever after might have gone, but it certainly put a crimp in Montague’s plans. (Her brother wasn’t killed, just sent back to prison)

The siege was in its fifth month when Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie and some forty men slipped into the castle through a half submerged gate on the seaward side.  The castle defenders and the newcomers joined forces and attacked through the main gate and, on June 10, 1338, the Earl of Salisbury ordered his forces to withdraw, no doubt thoroughly  sick of the whole affair.

I’ve been trying to see if there is any record of a ballad supposedly written by Montague.  I just keep finding the same little bit that  crops up all over the internet,  I haven’t been able to find a whole version, or confirm if any such thing exists, but I do like the little bit:

“She kept a stir in tower and trench,
That brawling, boisterous Scottish wench,
Came I early, came I late,
I found Agnes at the gate.”




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