Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Black Agnes - Dunbar, 1338

Dunbar Castle today.

Agnes, Countess of Dunbar is well known here in East Lothian for her role in defending Dunbar Castle against an English army in 1338. There's not much left of the castle now but what there is seems to rise fully formed from the red stone of the local area like it's part of the rock itself. In any case what little still remains around the harbour today isn't Agnes' castle of 1338.  That earlier stronghold was later 'casttit doune' on order of the king to prevent it falling into enemy hands.

The Celtic Votadini or Gododdin, are thought to have been the first to defend this site, the Brythonic name Dyn Barr, (the fort of the point) is still in use. By the 7th century Dunbar Castle was a central defensive position of the Kings of Bernicia, an Anglian kingdom that took over from the British Kingdom of Bryneich. During the Early Middle Ages, Dunbar Castle was held by an Ealdorman owing homage to either the Kings at Bamburgh Castle, or latterly the Kings of York. In 678 Saint Wilfrid was imprisoned at Dunbar, following his expulsion from his see of York by Ecgfrith of Northumbria. Later, Dunbar was said to have been burnt by Kenneth MacAlpin, King of the Scots. Certainly he is on record in possession of the castle in 879.

Let me describe some background to set the scene that propelled Agnes to her destiny.

By 1338 Scotland was in a chaotic state. Robert The Bruce had been dead almost ten years and his presence no longer blinded its enemies and shadowed the land with confidence, optimism and determination. He'd lived long enough to sign the treaty which recognized him as king of a free country and send it south for an English king's signature and hollow promise of peace in perpetuity. It was carried by a hundred knights on safe-conduct pass to Edward in York, a place they had recently passed through equally safely without such protection. The treaty was ratified by the English Parliament at Northampton but seen by the aristocracy for the capitulation it really was. As part of the peace process,  David, The Bruce's five year old son was married to Edward's child sister, Joan, aged seven.  Edward too renounced all claim upon Scotland and recognised  'His most dear friend and ally, Lord Robert, by grace of God, King of Scots.'  All documents relating to Scotland removed over the previous decades were also to be returned, although it would be 600 years and many sovereigns later before it happened.

{Intriguingly there appears no mention of the Stone of Destiny even though it's hard to believe given its historic importance to Scotlands kings. It would take even longer for that relic to be returned.}

Stone of Destiny under the coronation
throne, Westminster Abbey.

Peace, such as it was, was superficial. It didn't stop cross border raiding by either side. Power in Scotland was in the hands of a Regent - Mar, the young kings cousin - also heir to the throne should the boy-king die. South of the border the exiled King John Balliol's son Edward was receiving tacit royal support and encouragement in his aim of restoration to what he saw as his birthright. He was supported too by those Lords and sons of Lords who had lost lands, titles and influence when Bruce came to power. This eager group, known as 'The Disinherited',  were an ideal audience in which to foment rebellion and trouble north of the border to keep the situation unstable and pressure on the troublesome Scots.

 The Disinherited and their English allies sailed on 31 July 1332 from several Yorkshire ports to Kinghorn in Fife to get round the terms of the Treaty of Northampton that forbade English forces to cross the  River Tweed which at that time marked the border. Moving inland they were met by a Scots force at Dupplin Moor, near Perth. The battle that ensued lasted from dawn until noon and by that time English bowmen, in an early indication of the power and potential of the longbow, had destroyed most of the Scots army, including Regent Mar. . In that gleeful medieval way, it was said that Scots bodies piled up the height of a spear on the field. Victorious Balliol was crowned King at Scone six weeks later, surrounded by the disinherited and many who had previously supported Bruce. He offered the English Edward homage as liege lord and lands in the south which effectively brought England to Edinburgh's doorstep, asking for David's marriage to be set aside so he could marry the young Joan in his place and establish his own dynasty. By December though he was forced to flee half-dressed into the night on an unsaddled horse, back across the border to Carlisle, when a force under Randolph and Douglas, loyal to the boy-king of Scots caught him unprepared at his camp in Annan. King Edward was furious and now openly showed his support for Balliol, claiming the Scots had broken the Treaty of Northampton through their cross border raiding and by raising an English army to invade Scotland once more. Archibald Douglas, younger brother of crusading James, who had thrown Bruce's casketed heart ahead of him before charging to his death among the Saracens en route to bury that same item in the Holy Land, was made new Regent of Scotland until David reached his maturity.

In 1333 Edward came North at the head of an army to take Berwick once again and met the Scots army at Halidon hill, two or three miles north of the town. The Scots had seemingly learned little or nothing from the defeat of Dupplin Moor and now no longer faced the inexperienced boy king who years before had wept in frustration as another Scots army, against overwhelming odds, outwitted him and melted away in the night to live and fight another day. He was now the warrior tactician who, just a few short years in the future, would destroy French chivalric power to win at Crecy, and his army reflected his new understanding of firepower, heavy as it was with men practiced from childhood in the spine crushing discipline of the longbow and the cloth yard arrow, fletched with goose and tipped with steel. The old Scots tactic of the spear tipped 'schiltrom' formation densely packed with men finally proved itself out of time and tragically inadequate.This time Edward had picked an ideal position and there would be no mistakes allowing the enemy to escape.  As the Scots ranks attacked in their lumbering hedgehog formations that windy morning they began to slip on the grassy slope even before clouds of arrows were driving into them. It was said that the onslaught of the bowmen was so fierce that the Scots turned their heads as if walking into sleet. When finally they broke and ran,  death rode close behind, armour clad with steel mace or sword at the ready. The notion of confidence, of invulnerability, which had been Bruce's hard won legacy was gone.

 It had lived less than a lifetime.

Schiltrom fighting 

For Edward, it was the kind of victory that his long legged Grandfather would have been proud of. It was vindication of his tactics and bloody rehearsal for victories yet to come. For the Scots it was utter disaster. Those Barons quick enough to find a fast horse and flee the field, quickly sent the boy king and his queen to France and the protection of its king before heading for the hills or throwing themselves at the dubious mercy of Edward and Balliol. Scotland lost 5 Earls, 70 Barons, 500 knights and countless thousands of spearmen. The English lost virtually no-one. Records show their losses at 14, a dozen of them archers. With the loss of its army, Scots resistance returned to the old ways of guerrilla tactics, isolated strongholds and lightning raids from the wilderness. For the next twelve years there would be no peace, but a virtual civil war as Regent after Regent resisted the usurper Balliol in the name of King David.

It was this world that Black Agnes inhabited.

Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar, was the daughter of the Earl Of Moray, one of Bruce's most loyal supporters, who had fought beside his king at the Bannock-Burn and other places. Her husband, Patrick, Earl of Dunbar and March { the border lands were called 'Marches'} was also of royal blood and a supporter of David II. The vulnerable and volatile border lands needed a trustworthy hand and a strong sword arm.  The Dunbar's epitomise a loyal and trustworthy pedigree of support for David in the trying times of his exile. In 1338 Earl Patrick was absent from his lands fighting for the cause in the north. Agnes was left in control of the stronghold of Dunbar castle with a skeleton force and her retinue of servants. In those days this was no unusual thing but it is more noticeable for the fact that she was left during such dangerous times. This may be an indication that it was felt Dunbar was the safest place or that there was no-one capable enough, or trustworthy enough, to be left in her stead. History would show that it was indeed fortunate that Lady Agnes and no other was in charge at the time. She's come down the years known as Black Agnes, perhaps from the jet-black of her hair or from the combination with her olive coloured skin. Both were noted. Both are possible, but we don't know for sure. What we do know is that in January of 1338 Lord Montague, Earl of Salisbury, an experienced soldier, arrived at Dunbar with an English army and instructions to take the castle. He was in high spirits and felt sure that he would be a match for the Lady Agnes. In that belief he would find himself sadly mistaken.

Asked to surrender the castle, Agnes declined, reputedly stating,

"Of Scotland's King I haud my house, He pays me meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me."

Pleasantries over, the siege began in earnest with an extended bombardment by catapults. During three weeks of almost continuous assault, Agnes showed her contempt for Salisbury's efforts by walking the battlements between salvos, her retinue of ladies in waiting dressed in all their finery, all ostentatiously dusting off the damage done by the English missiles with handkerchiefs of white linen to indicate that it was no more than a minor inconvenience. It's easy to imagine Lord Salisbury's reaction. No matter when he attacked, Agnes was prepared, her small force ready to act. This was recorded later in ballad form as if from his own mouth,

 "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."
Agnes was an early master of one-upmanship. Faced with her captured brother being brought to the castle by the English, a rope around his neck, she answered their threat to hang him before her eyes by telling them to do so as she would then inherit his lands and titles. {Her brother was not hanged but taken away to custody in England.}  On one occasion she narrowly missed capturing Salisbury himself, leading an attempt to gain entry to the castle - having bribed the gatekeeper - who in turn advised Lady Agnes. Instead she sprang the trap too soon and shut the portcullis down on an attendant instead, but sent caustic word to Salisbury later that evening that 'she had hoped to dine with him and was sorry to have missed him.'  Salisbury responded by sending for a huge siege engine called 'The Sow', a battering ram with a wooden roof. He attacked the castle entrance only for Agnes to destroy it before any damage had been done by dropping, from the ramparts, a huge rock previously fired into the castle by English catapults. It went through the roof  of 'The Sow' killing many of the men who were operating it.  In yet another episode she had Salisbury targeted by a bowman at range and only narrowly missed him, striking and killing the man at his side.

 Even the English quipped admiringly, "Black Agnes' love-shafts go straight to the heart!".

Salisbury continued to besiege Dunbar for five months by which time things were desperate and starvation was near. Hope came when a small force from the castle on Bass Rock managed to get supplies through the naval blockade by disguising themselves as fishermen returning to port. With typical crushing mockery Agnes sent Salisbury a fresh baked loaf of bread and a bottle of fine wine.  By this time Edward's attention was elsewere and he was beginning to cast his eye at France. This new focus caused him to relocate forces in support , leaving Balliol to manage Scotland as best he could. By June 10th Salisbury was ordered to lift the siege and left in disgrace. His nemisis would go down in Scots history as Black Agnes of Dunbar.

Even hundreds of years later Agnes is recognised by many in Scotland as a true heroine and an inspirational leader. Her name and values were used several centuries later to rally support and inspiration in the name of the womens suffrage movement in the early years of the twentieth century.

She was voted in the top 100 in the millenium list of influential Scots.
Sketch of Suffragette Banner

see you later.


Morning's Minion said...

What an interesting and courageous woman--I like her sense of appropriately scathing remarks.
As I read and try to sort some of Scotland's history it does seem to me that it has always been a "bloody ground". Loyalties appear to have been as changeable as the weather.

La Belette Rouge said...

So cool! I love learning about Celtic history. I am presently watching season 4 of the silly yet delightful Tudors season 4 and just today King Henry was moaning about his troubles with the KIng of Scotland. He made a rude joke about the King's intelligence that I will spare you. Seriously, Agnes needs a movie made about her. Maybe Angelina Jolie or some other mega-star could play this seriously powerful woman( not that she is best suited, I just want the film to be seen and Angelina gets butts in the seats---if you know what I mean).

Bovey Belle said...

Wow. Brilliant post. I shall come back and re-read it later and digest a bit more, hopefully. Black Agnes was quite a character, to say the very least!

Scottish Nature Boy said...

Fantastic! Your every post, an education Al! Even although I grew up in East Lothian and knew Nigel Tranter well, I'd never heard more than the sketchiest of details of Black Agnes. There ain't nothing like a dame - and WHAT a dame she was! And your writing had me laughing out loud at her brass neck and wit! A great post about am amazing woman.

Alistair said...

Glad you enjoyed it folks....

You might like some of my other posts on Scots history too if you've not read them before. Just follow the 'scots history' link on the sidebar.

coastkid said...

East Lothian needs more woman like her...-:) great post Al!

Lindsey Dunbar said...

What an awesome story! And what a women, very courageous and clever,and a bit cheeky :)

Alistair said...

Hi Lindsey - Thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment. I'm glad you enjoyed my tale of our local heroine so much and I agree - she sounds like a tough nut to crack and with a wicked style of intimidating the 'stronger' sex.

Thanks again and drop in anytime!

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