Black Agnes – The Sassy Thorn in The English Lion’s Paw

Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, better known as Black Agnes due to her dark complexion, was the wife of Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March. She became renowned for her heroic defence of Dunbar Castle in East Lothian, Scotland against an English siege led by William Montague, 1st Earl of Salisbury.

The Second War of Scottish Independence (1332–1357) was in full swing when Salisbury arrived outside the gates of the formidable castle on 13 January 1338. Dunbar Castle overlooks the entrance of the town’s harbour and is defended on the west, north and east sides by water. Nonetheless, this should have been a relatively easy castle for the English army to take as its lord, Patrick Dunbar, was away fighting an English army in the north.

The English never banked on the resilience of the Lady of the Castle, though.

Women were known to take charge of castle or manor business while their husbands were away during the Middle Ages and even defend it if needs be. With just her servants and a handful of guards, this was exactly what Black Agnes was intent to do in the face of a 20,000 strong English army. When ordered to surrender the castle she replied:

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.

Basically, Agnes was telling Salisbury that it was on!

The Siege

Salisbury’s first attempt to take the castle centred on catapulting massive rocks and lead shot against the ramparts. This was met with complete disdain by Lady Agnes, who, between attacks, sent her ladies-in-waiting, dressed in their Sunday finest, to dust off the ramparts with their handkerchiefs. In a showing of true sass, she literally brushed the attack off!

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Next, Salisbury rolled out his secret weapon – an enormous siege tower, known as a sow. Black Agnes was ready for this attack and advised Salisbury to “take good care of his sow” before ordering one of the giant boulders, which had been hurled at the castle earlier, be thrown from the battlements. The sow was smashed to pieces, sending the surviving Englishmen fleeing in every direction for their lives.

Frustrated that he was unable to make any progress through arms, the Earl of Salisbury attempted more Machiavellian, and less chivalrous, tactics. He bribed the guard of the principal entrance to Dunbar Castle, advising him to either leave the gate unlocked or to leave it in a manner that the English could easily break through. However, in an equally unchivalrous act, the guard accepted the money and then informed Agnes of the plan. Salisbury led his men to the gate, but at the final moment one of his men pushed past him just as the garrison lowered the portcullis, separating him from his comrades. Agnes, of course, had meant to trap Salisbury and taunted him from the battlements by shouting:

Farewell, Montague, I intended that you should have supped with us, and assist us in defending the Castle against the English.

At one point, having earlier captured Agnes’ brother, John Randolph, 3rd Earl of Moray, the English paraded him in front of the castle and threatened to hang him if Agnes did not surrender. She simply pointed out that should her brother, who had no children, be killed then she would personally greatly benefit as she would inherit his title, lands and holdings. The humiliated Salisbury quickly recognised the flaw in his plan and let the earl live.

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Salisbury had one final throw of the dice and moved to isolate the castle from roads and any outside communication in an effort to starve the garrison into surrender. Fortunately for Agnes, Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, who had earned a reputation for being a thorn in the English king’s side, heard what the English were attempting to do and moved from Edinburgh to the coast with forty men. Ramsay and his company approached the castle by sea, with supplies, and entered the castle via the half-submerged postern (secondary gate) next to the sea. Utilising the tactic of surprise, the Scotsmen charged out of the castle and pushed their enemy’s advance guard all the way back to their camp.

Salisbury, realising that he was not going to get the better of Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, finally admitted defeat five months after arriving at the castle and lifted the siege on 10 June 1338. The triumph of a Scotswoman over an English army lives on in a ballad made up by the English as they marched away:

She makes a stir in tower and trench,

That brawling, boisterous, Scottish wench;

Cam I early, cam I late,

I found Agnes at the gate.

The Rest is History