ER,  Scotland,  Western Europe

Lady Agnes Randolph, Countess of Moray-  Black Agnes

Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar Photo Credit-
Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar Photo Credit-

As a person of Scottish descent, I can attest that you do not mess with a Scottish woman.  My grandmother was five foot four and ninety pounds soaking wet, and could put the fear of God in her six foot plus and two hundred pound sons with only a look.  I was put in mind of that memory when I researched the story of Lady Agnes Randolph.  She faced down an English army without ever raising a sword and won.

Born in 1312 to Thomas Randolph 1st Earl of Moray and his wife, Isabel Stewart.  The Earl was the nephew of Robert the Bruce, who had become king of Scotland after the Scottish Wars of Independence.  Called Black Agnes because of her dark eyes and hair and olive skin, Agnes married Patrick Dunbar, 9th Earl of Dunbar, 2nd Earl of March.  She was the Earl’s second wife.  One of the Earl’s castles was the formidable fortress of Dunbar near Berwick.  It was considered the key to the southwest of Scotland.  Edward II had been keen to capture it, and the Earl Patrick had even leveled it to the ground to keep it out of English hands.  He had been forced to rebuild the castle at his own expense, and by 1338 it was back and better than ever.

Despite the victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the English had not given up their hopes of conquering Scotland.  Edward III had a scheme to oust David II, Robert the Bruce’s son, and replace him with the much more pliable Edward Balliol, the exiled King John Balliol’s eldest son.  Earl Patrick was away on military duty with the king in the north of Scotland leaving his wife, Agnes, and a handful of men to hold Dunbar.  Edward III wanted Dunbar and sent his best commander to get it.

William Montague, Earl of Salisbury, rolled up to Dunbar with an army and demanded its surrender.  They thought it was a done deal as Berwick had already fallen and Dunbar was only held by a handful of soldiers and, perish the thought, a woman.  Salisbury got the shock of his life when Agnes told him no.  She sent the following message to his request for surrender, “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.”  Salisbury was flabbergasted.  He fired up the siege engines and bombarded the walls with boulders and lead.  Agnes instructed the boulders to be saved, then paraded with her ladies in their best gowns and dusted the ramparts with their fine lace handkerchiefs.  All of this in view of the astounded English army.

Ruins of Dunbar Castle Photo Credit-
Ruins of Dunbar Castle Photo Credit-

Salisbury was done playing.  He brought out a huge battering ram known as a ‘sow.’  When the army began using it on the gates, the boulders they had thoughtfully sent to the castle were returned…on their heads….from a great height.  When force didn’t work, he tried bribery.  Salisbury tried to bribe a guard to open the castle gate to his men.  The guardsman pocketed the cash and told Agnes immediately.  They small band almost got trapped in the castle, but Salisbury got away.  Agnes called to him from the walls as he fled, “Fare thee well Montague, I meant that you should have supped with us and support us in upholding the castle from the English!”

So Salisbury settled in for a siege.  He thought if he just waited, Agnes and her people would starve.  What he didn’t know was there was a secret door where men and supplies were replenished by Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie.  After they were resupplied, Agnes graciously supplied the English with a fresh loaf of bread and bottle of wine, much to Salisbury’s chagrin.  As a final straw, Salisbury kidnapped Agnes’ brother and marched him before her with a noose around his neck.  He said if she did not submit, her brother would hang.  Agnes brazened it out and called back to do it with her thanks as she would inherit her brother’s title and lands.

Five months later, the Earl of Salisbury was beaten.  He negotiated a truce and marched away with Dunbar still in Scottish hands.  The only recompense he had was writing a song about his nemesis as he rode away.  “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.”  Case in point.  You do not mess with a determined Scottish woman.


Sources available on request