The British Isles has been home to some truly formidable women throughout history; from Boudica to Elizabeth I, Suffragettes to Mary Queen of Scots, the list beyond comprehension.
Today’s post will focus on an individual I only discovered recently, a woman so fearless, dedicated and cunning that those who her crossed probably couldn’t quite believe she was of this world.
I introduce Black Agnes, the Countess of Dunbar.
The early-14th century witnessed incredible changes; the Scottish Wars of Independence reached an epic climax in 1314 when English forces under Edward II were defeated at Bannockburn and the years following would see Robert Bruce cement his position as Scotland’s sovereign and secure legendary status.
The years following Bannockburn were eventful, to say the least. Edward Bruce, the brother of King Robert, tried to unite Scotland and Ireland – an endeavour in which he failed.
Across the English Channel the issues that plagued Anglo-French relations continued to stir and in England, Edward II and his father’s legacy were both long dead. Despite a crushing defeat in 1314, the Kingdom of England still had its eyes set on dominating the troublesome northern neighbour – and in 1338 England returned.
The second Scottish War of Independence took place between 1332 and 1357 and was the second cluster of military engagements between Scotland and England. This conflict arose due to issues still lingering from the first conflict.
The Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton had never truly been accepted by the English nobility and created a new wave of war fervour and resentment toward the Scots.
When Edward III invaded Scotland in 1333, Scotland was once again plunged into conflict and strife.
Hell-bent on pacifying the Scots once and for all an English force under the command of William Montagu, the 1st Earl of Salisbury arrived outside the imposing gates of Dunbar Castle on the 13th of January 1338.
All things considered, this should have been an easy encounter as Patrick Dunbar, Earl of Dunbar and March was fighting an English host further north.
This would not be a simple smash and grab, however. In command of the castle was Lord Dunbar’s wife, Lady Agnes Randolph, the Countess of Moray.
Nicknamed “Black Agnes” due to her dark hair and complexion, the nickname would perhaps come to mean something far different to the English host positioned outside the walls of Dunbar Castle.
In Valiant Defence
Dunbar Castle was, naturally, left largely undefended. With the Earl of Dunbar further afield, a small garrison was left behind to maintain order in the local area.
Aided by this small garrison, Lady Agnes vowed to defend the castle when ordered to surrender.
Upon receiving terms from the English host – under the command of Lord Salisbury – Lady Agnes responded in a quintessentially belligerent Scottish manner.
Refusing Salisbury’s terms she eloquently replied:
“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.”
Words would not repel the English host, however, and the Earl of Salisbury swiftly ordered his force to begin bombarding the castle with siege weapons. The walls held strong against the onslaught of catapult fire and during the assault, Agnes is said to have sent her maids – dressed in their finest garments – onto the ramparts to sweep and clean the damage.
Having failed to penetrate the fortress walls, the Earl of Salisbury decided to bring forth another weapon at his disposal – a battering ram complete with a protective overhead fixture to protect the men below.
Believing this to be his key to breaking the siege, Salisbury launched his attack confidently.
When English troops arrived at the castle gates, however, they were met with a barrage of boulders from above.
A roof over their heads may have granted protection from rocks, but roasting hot pitch would finish the job.
The men who were lucky enough to avoid being crushed by rocks met an equally horrific end. Flesh peeling from their bones the troops were forced to retreat.
Beleaguered and terrified the Englishmen scattered and fled from the scene.
The Siege Continues
As time passed the besieging force stood fast. With supplies dwindling the opportunity to take Dunbar Castle was quickly approaching, and when the last supplies were consumed Salisbury would likely have sensed that victory was at hand
His humiliation would soon be over and the valiant defence of Dunbar Castle would soon be put to rest.
Help would arrive for the defenders, however, when Sir Alexander Ramsay arrived by sea with fresh supplies and fighting men.
The Countess teased Salisbury further, as it is said the morning following the reprieve she sent him a freshly baked loaf and some fine wine – at this point, Salisbury’s rage appears to spiral out of control.
Strong and Steadfast
Out of sheer desperation Salisbury called upon the Countess’ brother, the Earl of Moray to parlay on behalf of the English force. The Earl had previously been captured by English forces during a military excursion and was obliged to cooperate – else lose his head.
Within a few metres of the castle walls, Moray stood before his sister and called for her to open the gates and surrender the fortress.
For Moray, this was life or death. Salisbury had threatened to execute him were his advances unsuccessful.
Defiant still, Lady Agnes appeared on the castle walls and refused her brothers call for surrender.
In a particularly cold response, Agnes pointed is said to have pointed out that Moray had no heir to succeed him, and if he were killed it would be Agnes to succeed him as the next Earl of Moray.
Salisbury’s bluff had been called; he returned Moray to captivity and set about digging in for the long haul.
After five months of fruitless attempts to seize Dunbar Castle, Salisbury realised that he could not best the Countess. Her conviction, combined with the strength of Dunbar’s walls.
The English force abandoned its attempts to take the castle. Salisbury is said to have lamented his failure, stating:
“Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the gate.”
Women often played second fiddle to their male counterparts throughout this perid of history. Agnes is testament to the strength and will of women throughout the ages of and her legend is still remembered to this day.