Hidden historical heroines (#38: Black Agnes)

Black_Agnes,_from_a_children's_history_bookAgnes, the Countess of Dunbar and March, (1312 – 1369) nicknamed “Dark Agnes” for her dark hair and swarthy complexion, was a descendent of Robert the Bruce, of whom famed Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott once said: “From the record of Scottish heroes, none can presume to erase her.”

Despite a thorough trouncing by Robert the Bruce in 1314, the English made another attempt at subjugating Scotland and to seize its crown from David II in 1338. On an inhospitable January day they arrived outside the gates of Dunbar Castle, a stronghold near the fallen border town of Berwick. The castle’s master, the Earl of Dunbar and March, was away fighting the English in the north of the country, leaving command with his wife the Countess of Moray, Lady Agnes Randolph.

Thinking a castle under the command of a woman – and with only a handful of fighting men left behind in it – would be fairly easy pickings, the English – under the command of the Earl of Salisbury – simply rolled up and demanded that Agnes surrender. The lady merely replied:

“Of Scotland’s King I have my house,
He pays me meat and fee,
And I will keep my good old house,
While my house will keep me.”

The siege began by the English catapulting huge rocks at the old walls, which admirably held. In between the attacks Agnes sent her maids dressed in their finest onto the battered ramparts to clean the marks on the walls with their dainty white handkerchiefs, and to dust away the debris. Agnes herself would walk the ramparts, catcalling at and taunting the frustrated English below. Infuriated, the English brought out their battering ram. Agnes immediately turned the tables, dropping one of the huge boulders that the English had previously fired over the walls from the ramparts and crushing the ram below to splinters.

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The siege dragged on for months but Agnes could not be cowed. Edward III was growing increasingly impatient with the cost and embarrassment of this prolonged siege against a barely defended castle, so the Earl of Salisbury resorted to less chivalric means. He bribed one of Agnes’ guards to sneak he and a retinue of his men into the castle. The guard agreed, pocketed the money and immediately told Agnes, who hatched a plan. Believing Salisbury would be leading the men, she instructed her guards to lower the gate immediately after the first man went through. Luckily for Salisbury, one of his men had passed him on the approach. The lucky Earl hightailed it back to his camp, with Agnes calling after him “fare thee well! I meant that you should have supped with us and support us in upholding the castle!”

The English camp was running low on supplies, so Salisbury decided the safest way of defeating Agnes was simply to starve her out, so settled down to wait. He didn’t however know about the half-submerged doorway on the unguarded, rocky side of the castle, or that local fishing boats were slipping discreetly past the galleys positioned out to sea to stop supplies getting through. One morning Agnes cheekily sent a freshly baked loaf of bread and a bottle of fine wine down to Salisbury, and he realised he was being thwarted still.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Salisbury sent for the Earl of Moray, Agnes’ brother who had previously been captured by the English. He paraded the young man up and down in front of Agnes on the castle walls with a noose around his neck, proclaiming he would be killed if Agnes didn’t immediately surrender. Cool as a cucumber, Agnes immediately pointed out that by killing her childless brother, the title of the Earl of Moray would pass to her, increasing her power and influence. Salisbury quickly recognised the flaw in his argument and let the Earl live.

Finally, after five months, Salisbury realised he would never get the better of Black Agnes, and on 10 June 1338 signed a truce. As the defeated English marched away, the men sang:

“She makes 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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