British history has featured some exceptional, innovative and fearless women. From Boudica to Elizabeth I, Ada Lovelace to the Suffragettes, the list goes on.
One of the most fascinating and relatively unknown characters from Scottish history is Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar.
Commonly referred to as ‘Black Agnes’, she was the daughter of Thomas Randolph, the Earl of Moray. Randolph was the nephew and well-known confidant of King Robert Bruce.
Agnes is renowned for her defence of Dunbar Castle in East Lothian, where she helped repulse a besieging English force during the Second Scottish War of Independence.
So-called because of her unusual olive complexion and dark hair, the nickname would perhaps come to mean something far different to the Englishmen she faced.
Whirlwind changes were afoot in 14th century Scotland. The First Scottish War of Independence was a defining moment in Scottish history. Victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in September 1314 tentatively secured Scotland’s position as an independent kingdom.
Some 14 years later, the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton was signed, securing Scotland’s status as a fully independent kingdom and asserting Robert Bruce’s position as monarch.
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. The Kingdom of England still had its eyes set on dominating the troublesome northern neighbour, however, and in 1338 hostilities resumed.
The Second Scottish War of Independence took place between 1332 and 1357. This second cluster of military clashes between the two kingdoms arose due to issues still lingering from the first conflict.
England’s nobility had never truly accepted the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton and it merely fuelled a new wave of resentment and war fervour.
When Edward III invaded Scotland in 1333, the country was once again plunged into turmoil and strife. Hell-bent on pacifying the Scots once and for all, an English force under the command of the 1st Earl of Salisbury, William Montagu, arrived outside Dunbar Castle’s imposing gates on the 13th January 1338.
All things considered, this should have been a routine 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, as the Countess had been left in command of the fortification.
In Valiant Defence
Upon the arrival of the English host, Dunbar Castle was 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, Agnes is recorded as having 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.”
The Earl of Salisbury ordered his force to begin bombarding the castle with siege weapons. The walls held strong against the onslaught of catapult fire, however, and during this onslaught, the defenders goaded their foes. It is said that she sent her maids onto the ramparts, dressed in their finest garments, to sweep and help repair the damage; all the while shouting obscenities and gesturing toward the besieging force.
The Seige Continues
Having initially failed to penetrate the fortress walls, Salisbury brought forth a battering ram complete with an overhead fixture to protect against missile fire.
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.
As time passed, the besieging force stood fast. With supplies dwindling the opportunity to take Dunbar Castle was quickly approaching. Salisbury’s humiliation and the defence of Dunbar Castle would soon be over. 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 this she sent him a freshly baked loaf and some wine. At this point, Salisbury’s appears to have grown desperate. Out of sheer desperation, he called upon the Countess’ brother, the Earl of Moray to parlay on behalf of the English force.
The Earl had been captured by English forces during a previous military engagement and had agreed to cooperate. 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.
Still, the Countess refused to surrender. Speaking to her brother, she is alleged to have told him that if he died, then she would happily inherit his titles and succeed him as the next Earl of Moray.
Salisbury’s bluff had been called and he returned the earl to captivity. After five months of fruitless attempts to seize Dunbar Castle, the decision was made to abandon the siege.
Salisbury is said to have lamented his failure, stating:
“Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the gate.”