Agnes Randolph, the Countess of Dunbar is one of my favorite Scots. She’s also known as Black Agnes due to her dark hair and eyes. Her ordeal began in 1338 when William Montague, the Earl of Salisbury, lay siege to Dunbar Castle.
Agnes’ husband, Patrick, was away fighting the English on another front and it was left to Agnes to defend their home with only a few soldiers for help.
Salisbury, considered one of the great commanders of his day, thought he would have an easy victory against a lone woman, but he hadn’t counted on Agnes’ indomitable spirit, courage, and perseverance.
First, he catapulted Dunbar with boulders, destroying part of the battlement. Her response was to dress in her best gown, and with her ladies-in-waiting, and walk the fortifications. She dusted the broken walls as if there was nothing amiss, letting her enemy know she was not going to be intimidated.
Then he tried to force the gate with his battering ram. Lady Agnes had her men bring the largest boulder they could find (it was probably one that Salisbury had just thrown at them) and drop it onto the ram, thus squashing it. It is said she jeered at Salisbury’s men as they ran for their lives.
Salisbury even tried to bribe one of Agnes’ guards into opening the gate. He promised the man a fortune for betraying his mistress. The guard seemed to agree, but unbeknownst to Salisbury it was a trap. That night when he and a small group of English soldiers tried to sneak into the castle, the portcullis came down, springing the trap. Unfortunately, one of Salisbury’s men had gotten ahead of him while passing through the gate, and Agnes thinking the English commander would be in the lead, trapped the wrong man.
Salisbury was getting desperate. He tried to starve them out by putting boats in the surrounding water, forming a blockade. Without food and supplies life for Agnes and her people began to look bleak.
Help arrived in the shape of Sir Alexander Ramsey of Dalhousie, a Scottish knight. One dark night he sailed across the water, it’s thought he accessed the keep using a natural cavern built into the castle’s foundation. He delivered food and supplies to the besieged populace, relieving the famine. The next morning Agnes had a fresh loaf and some wine delivered to Salisbury with her compliments, letting him know that he could not break her.
In an act of desperation Salisbury brought Agnes’ brother, John Randolph, the Earl of Moray, as a prisoner to Dunbar. He informed Agnes that he would kill her brother if she didn’t submit. She didn’t surrender. She told Salisbury to go ahead and kill him because her brother had no children, and she would inherit his lands if he died.
It sounds heartless but you have to remember at the end of a siege the nobility were allowed to live, but the servants, peasants, and soldiers were all put to death. So there was a lot more riding on this than her brother’s life. By the way, John survived the ordeal and died in 1347.
The siege finally ended when Ramsey, under cover of darkness, maneuvered his men, across the water and into the castle. He joined forces with Agnes’ men and launched a surprise attack, through the main gate, scattering the English.
Black Agnes withheld and triumphed against a five-month siege. She did it using courage, persistence and shear stubbornness. But I think she was a woman ahead of her time. Surrender was not an option, and she understood that sometimes it’s more important to appear strong than to actually be strong.