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Issue 43 - That brawling, boisterous Scottish wench

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Scotland Magazine Issue 43
February 2009


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That brawling, boisterous Scottish wench

Annette Harrower-Gray looks at the amazing tale of Black Agnes, Countess of Moray.

The Catholic Church in the medieval period considered women inferior to men and demanded that whilst attending to the domestic needs of their lord they should act at all times in a meek and subservient manner.

One woman though, Lady Agnes Randolph, Countess of Moray, or Black Agnes as she was known, proved to be neither meek nor subservient and her courage, fortitude and iron will brought a whole new meaning to the term ‘good housekeeping.’ Black Agnes was given the name because of her dark hair and dusky complexion but no doubt the fact that she defended her home against an English siege and won the battle without so much as raising a sword, contributed to the use of the nickname.

Born in 1312, Black Agnes was the daughter of Robert the Bruce’s nephew, Thomas Randolph 1st Earl of Moray. On her coming of age, she married Patrick Dunbar, 9th Earl of Dunbar, 2nd Earl of March and keeper of the ill-fated Dunbar Castle.

This formidable fortress near Berwick was considered to be the key to Scotland on the south east coast. Until the age of firepower, it was deemed impregnable and as a result, Edward II of England had been keen to possess it during the Scottish wars of independence. Another attempt to seize the castle was made in 1322 and, in 1333, tired of constantly having to defend the castle against English attack, Patrick had it leveled to the ground.

This gesture proved futile as the incoming English king, Edward III, forced him to rebuild it at his own expense for use as an English garrison.

However, by 1338, Dunbar Castle was once again in Patrick’s possession although he himself was away on military duties in the north of Scotland, leaving his wife at home.

As his grandfather and father before him, Edward III was determined to conquer the Scots and his strategy at this time was to remove David II from the Scottish throne and replace him with the more pliable Edward Balliol, the exiled King John Balliol’s eldest son. It was to this end that one of Edward’s best commanders, William Montague, Earl of Salisbury, was sent to Dunbar. With Berwick already fallen to the English, Edward considered Dunbar Castle with only the lady and a handful of men to guard it, easy pickings.

On 13th January 1338, Salisbury presented himself and his army in front of Dunbar Castle and demanded that Black Agnes surrender the castle to him. To his great surprise she refused.

‘Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, He pays me meat and fee, And I will keep my gude and house, While my house will keep me.’ She proclaimed and stubbornly remained in the castle.

The astonished Earl commanded his soldiers to load their catapults and bombard the walls with lead and rocks. When they were finished, Black Agnes ordered that the boulders be tidied away for future use and had her maids who were dressed in their Sunday best, clean up the mess the English had made. Agnes herself dusted the battlements with a fine lace handkerchief giving the impression that Salisbury had done no more than irritate her.

The English commander decided to force her surrender by bringing out his secret weapon, a huge battering ram known as a ‘sow.’ Confident his men were well protected by the sow’s wooden roof; it was rolled up to the gate. Agnes signalled for the boulders she was saving to be dropped from the ramparts smashing the roof of the ‘sow’ and sending the surviving attackers fleeing in all directions. The English soldiers had suffered a battering from their own ammunition.

At this juncture it became obvious to Salisbury that this was no docile maiden he was dealing with and, if he was to take the castle, then a devious plot was called for. He bribed one of Agnes’ guardsmen to sneak him and his men into the castle. The guardsman pocketed the payment and immediately told Agnes of the encounter.

Believing that they were going to be entering the castle, the Earl and his soldiers arrived at the gate. The guards, thinking Salisbury would be first to enter, dropped the gate after the first soldier stepped into the castle.

Fortunately for Salisbury, one of his men had passed him on the approach. The thwarted Earl retreated back to his camp with Agnes yelling at him from the castle walls: ‘Fare thee well Montague, I meant that you should have supped with us and support us in upholding the castle from the English!’ Several months passed and, as winter turned to spring, Salisbury developed a plan of great cunning. It would only be a matter of patience to starve Agnes and her small brigade out of the castle. However, he knew nothing of the secret door, partly underwater, that lay off the unguarded rocky side of the castle. Under cover of darkness, Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie arrived with men and supplies and delivered them through the concealed entrance.

Although the English army themselves were running low on supplies, Salisbury was none too pleased when, the following morning, Agnes sent him down a fresh loaf of bread and some fine wine.

Edward III was by now unhappy about meeting the huge costs of the siege and Salisbury was desperate to draw it to a successful conclusion. John Randolph, 3rd Earl of Moray, and Agnes’ brother, was captured and brought to Dunbar. The English threatened to hang him if the defenders did not surrender the castle. Agnes retaliated pointing out that her brother had no heirs bar herself and if they did kill him then they would be doing her a favour, as she would inherit his lands and titles.

Frustrated and believing Agnes’ greed was greater than her love for her brother, Salisbury once more retreated but spared John Randolph and sent him back to prison.

Tired of her one-upmanship and mocking comments. the weary Earl accepted a truce on June 10th 1338, five months after the siege had begun. As he marched away he reputedly took advantage of the only form of retribution left to him. He wrote a song.

‘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.’ Black Agnes was once more in sole possession of her castle, having held on to her home through one of the finest displays of ‘good housekeeping’ in Scottish history.