Black Agnes of Dunbar

Agnes, Countess of Dunbar was also known as Black Agnes because of her black hair and eyes and also her sallow complexion. She was married to Patrick. 9th Earl of Dunbar and her parents were Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray and Isabel Stewart of Bonkyll. The main reason we remember Black Agnes is because of her heroic actions when Dunbar Castle was laid siege to by the English During the Second Scottish War for Independence from 1331 to 1341.

Black Agnes, as shown in a children's history book from 1906

On January 13th, 1338 while Patrick was away, the English thought it would be a good time to lay siege to the castle thinking it would be easy because the only people that were there was Lady Agnes, some servants and a few guards. What they didn’t expect was the pure power and determination of Black Agnes against the vastly stronger 20,000 English army. She was said to have said

”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.”

Woman at the time were known to take charge of their household while the men were away and if they had to they would defend. The siege was led by William Montagu, 1st Earl of Salisbury and his first method of attack was to launch large rocks into the castle and fire lead shot against the ramparts, but all Agnes did to counter this was to have one of her ladies-in-waiting dust the ramparts off with her kerchief. This did not please the English so they started employing a large siege tower called a ‘sow’ in an attempt to storm the castle, but all Agnes did in return was say,  “take good care of his sow, for she would soon cast her pigs within the fortress.” and she then gave the order that the large boulder, that was launched at them earlier, was to be pushed from the battlements and it crushed Salisbury’s sow right where it stood.

When Salisbury was unable to make any progress using force he turned to bribery and tried to bride the Scotsman who guarded the main entrance to the castle to leave it either unlocked or in such a way that they could easily break into the castle. Though the Scotsman took the money he reported it to Agnes so that they were ready for the English when the time was right. They dropped the portcullis after the first man entered thinking that Salisbury would be leading the charge but it turns out one of his men had pushed past him so they were unable to capture him but instead they had once again stopped one of his attempts to take the castle and taunted him by saying, ” Farewell, Montague, I intended that you should have supped with us, and assist us in defending the Castle against the English.” 

At one point Salisbury captured Agnes’s brother, John Randolph, 3rd Earl of Moray and they threw a rope around his neck threatening to hang him if Agnes didn’t surrender the castle to them, but she just replied with a go-ahead because if he died then she would get his earldom, though she would get no such thing, but the English didn’t know this.

As one final attempt to take the castle the English cut off all contact with the outside world trying to starve the people inside but they didn’t expect a man called Ramsay of Dalhousie, who had been a thorn in the English’s King’s side moved from his post in Edinburgh to Dunbar in order to help the Countess along with forty other men. They approached the castle by sea and snuck into the castle through the postern. They charged out of the castle and they managed to push the unexpecting advanced guards back all the way to their camp.

After five months Salisbury gave up the siege on the castle on June 10th 1338, but that win over the English for the Scots became a ballad which put these words in Salisbury’s mouth,

”Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the gate.”

Ruins of Dunbar Castle

That failed siege cost the English army nearly 6,000 pounds and they got completely nothing from it, and for centuries after Agnes’s defense of Dunbar Castle caught the attention of many Scottish historians due to her bravery and is one the best-remembered instances of Woman defending their homes during the Middle Ages.

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