II. Black Agnes of Dunbar, pp.37-66.

[Heroines of Scotland Contents]

“A lady, one that arm’d 

Her own fair head, and sallying through the gate, 

Had beat her foes with slaughter from her walls. 

.     .     .     .     . 

She trampled some beneath her horses’ heels, 

And some were whelm’d with missiles off the wall, 

And some were push’d with lances from the rock, 

And part were drown’d within the whirling brook: 

O, miracle of noble womanhood!” 

                                                                                    – Tennyson’s Princess

ING ROBERT BRUCE, died in June, 1329, leaving his son David, a boy of six years, as heir of the Crown. The Regency was conferred, with universal consent, on the famous Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, the nephew of the dead monarch, and one of the most sagacious and valiant of the Scottish captains. He accepted office in the face of threatened dangers from the aggressive machinations of Edward III. of England, who instigated Edward Baliol, son of the dethroned King John, to assert his claim to the Scottish Crown. But at the juncture, when a wise and powerful ruler was most needed in Scotland, the Regent died suddenly at Musselburgh, not without suspicion of having been poisoned by an English friar. This calamity encouraged Baliol to hazard his fortunes. With a small body of adherents he landed in Fife, surprised and overthrew the Brucian army on Dupplin Moor, and, in the flush of victory, was crowned at Scone. The young King David was sent, for safety, to the Court of France; Edward of England marched a strong army to Baliol’s support, and Scotland became the theatre of a prolonged warfare, for the details of which we must refer the reader to the pages of our national annals. 

   In this very era – “in those days when the chivalrous spirit was at its height,” as a writer has remarked, “heroism was the virtue of both sexes, as well as of all classes.” During the French wars of that time a brilliant heroine was Jane, Countess of Montfort. On the capture of her husband, who claimed the Duchy of Bretagne, she shut herself up in the fortress of Hennebon, which was immediately invested by the rival claimant, Charles of Blois. Froissart tells that Jane “wore harness on her body, and rode on a great courser from street to street, desiring her people to make good defence, and she caused damosels and other women to cut short their kirtles, and to carry stones and pots full of chalk to the walls, to be cast down to their enemies.” At a crisis of the siege she headed a sally of three hundred horsemen, and dashed into the enemy’s camp, and set it on fire; and in a naval battle off the harbour of the town, “the Countess that day was worth a man; she had the heart of a lion, and had in her hand a sharp glaive, wherewith she fought fiercely.” The heroic lady was eventually relieved by an English force under Sir Walter de Manny. 

   Another Amazon in the wars of Bretagne, but on the opposite side, was Julia, sister of Bertrand du Guesclin, the Constable of France. She and her sister were inmates of a convent; but on the advance of English troops to maintain the Montfort cause, she forsook her cloister, and repaired to Pontsorel, a fortified town. The English beleaguered the place, and Julia’s courage rose with the occasion. The garrison was weak; but she incited the soldiers to resist to the uttermost. She donned a suit of armour belonging to her brother, and took her station on the battlements, where she helped with her own hands to defeat a resolute attempt at escalade. The enemy, baffled at all points – 

“Foil’d by a woman’s hand, before a batter’d wall -”

at last abandoned the siege; but in their retreat were intercepted and almost wholly destroyed by the army of the Constable. Julia’s work was accomplished. She now laid aside her martial guise, and went back to her convent, in which she quietly spent the remainder of her life. 

   Scotswomen of the same day proved themselves not less valiant in the midst of danger. 

   Christina, the sister of King Robert Bruce, and widow of Gratney, Earl of Mar, and Sir Christopher Seton, had wedded, as her third husband, Sir Andrew Moray of Bothwell, one of Wallace’s companions, and a skilful leader, who, after the Battle of Dupplin, was appointed Regent of Scotland by the Brucian party. Not long after his assumption of this dignity, he was taken prisoner at Roxburgh, and endured a captivity of two years in England. During this period the Regency was conferred on two noble Scots in conjunction – the young Earl of Moray, son of the great Randolph, and the still younger Stewart of Scotland, son of Marjory Bruce, and grandson of King Robert. Their enterprises, desultory at the best, were crowned with so much success that Baliol had to flee across the Border and solicit fresh aid from his Southron lord and master, to whom he did not appeal in vain. Sir Andrew Moray, on obtaining his freedom, hurried home and resumed the national struggle, the prospects of which were again darkening. Storm and disaster impended. Baliol’s cause was strenuously upheld by Edward III., who entered Scotland with an army of invasion in the winter of 1334, and, encountering no opposition, reinstalled his weak puppet as king. This done, Edward marched back to England, resolving to return in the following summer and consolidate his conquest once for all. Accordingly, about mid-summer, 1335, he crossed the Border at the head of a well-appointed host, and overran the country. 

   For this campaign the English had hired numerous bands of foreign mercenaries, and in particular a large body of Flemish soldiers of fortune, steel-clad cavalry, commanded by Guy, Count of Namur. These latter auxiliaries having landed at Berwick, took the road to Edinburgh on their way to join the English in the North. Edinburgh was then open and defenceless – the walls being demolished and the Castle dismantled – a sad proof of the incessant warfare that had raged around it. But scarcely had the foreigners ridden into the city when the Earls of Moray and March, and Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalwolsie appeared with a Scottish force on the Borough Moor threatening attack. Namur, confident in his superior strength, led out his troops and gave battle on the Moor. This engagement was remarkable for a singular passage of arms which aptly illustrates our special subject. Whilst the conflict was at its height, a Scottish esquire, named Richard Shaw, and a Flemish warrior, both of whom were conspicuous for valour, challenged each other to combat in the full view of the field. They set their spears in rest, and clapped spurs to their steeds, and 

“The meeting of these champions proud 

Seem’d like the bursting thunder cloud.” 

At the first crash of encounter they transfixed one another with their lances, and both falling from their saddles, gasped out their lives on the bloody turf. Up came a fresh party of Scots, led by Sir William Douglas, the Black Knight of Liddesdale, and the Flemings were driven into the town, where they were hotly pursued. The fray was renewed in the High Street and on the ascent of the hill surmounted by the ruined Castle, until they surrendered at discretion. But when the victors came to scan the scene of contest on the Borough Moor, they discovered to their astonishment that the Flemish soldier who fought and died with Richard Shaw was a woman. Of her name and history nothing was ascertained; though probably she had followed a lover in disguise, and he, too, had perished in the fight. The Earl of Moray now evinced a chivalrous generosity, which had an unfortunate result. He released the Flemish prisoners without ransom, and, moreover, escorted them to the English border; but on his return journey he was unexpectedly attacked by the Warden of Jedburgh Forest, who defeated his followers, made him captive, and hurried him off in irons to Bamborough Castle. 

   Meanwhile a “Governor” of Scotland was appointed under Edward Baliol, in the person of a faithless Scot, David de Strathbogie, Earl of Athole. Though but young, his history was chequered. His aged grandfather was put to death by the English for assisting at Bruce’s coronation and aiding him at the battle of Methven; and his father, who married one of the Red Comyn’s daughters, having first sworn allegiance to Bruce, revolted against him, and was forfeited. The pseudo Governor was thus related by ties of blood, through his mother, to the Comyns; and his Countess was an English lady of the house of Beaumont. Sharing in Baliol’s first invasion, Athole soon deserted him, espoused the other side, and deserted it in turn; and finally he made his peace with the English King, who rewarded him with the dignity he now held. His tenure of office, however, was fated to be both brief and inglorious. 

   The Lady Christina Bruce, now in her declining years, was abiding in the Castle of Kildrummie, anxiously watching how events went, but doubtless cherishing a strong hope of the ultimate triumph of the Scottish cause. Athole, thinking to ingratiate himself still more with his usurping superiors by seizing so good a prize, laid siege to the fortress with 3000 men. But Christina, full of the indomitable spirit of her race, scorned to yield at the traitor’s summons, and, regardless of the risk she ran, maintained a gallant defence, trusting that her husband, Sir Andrew Moray, on hearing of her distress, would hasten to her relief. He did so, in company with Patrick, Earl of March, and the Black Knight of Liddesdale, at the head of a body of 1100 soldiers. On their way the Scots were accidentally joined by a fellow-countryman and well-wisher, named John Craig, who had been made prisoner by Athole, and held to ransom, and was now proceeding to his presence to pay him the sum of ransom-money. The lucky meeting showed Craig a prospect of paying for his freedom in far other coin, and therefore he led the Scots by the nearest route to the enemy’s camp in the Forest of Kilblane. The attack was a fatal surprise to the besiegers, who suffered a total route, and Athole was himself slain. This affair took place on the 30th November, 1335. 

   The fall of the Governor, brought on a new invasion by Edward III., before whom Sir Andrew Moray, who was reinvested with the Regency, warily retired to the North, while the enemy followed, wasting the country which they traversed. At this juncture, Athole’s widowed Countess, with her infant child, had taken refuge in the Castle of Lochindorb, in the shire of Moray. But speedily her retreat was environed by the Regent’s troops. Lady Athole, although hard pressed, did not lack courage. She refused to surrender, and contrived to despatch a message to the English King, entreating him to come to her aid. He promptly obeyed the call, and freed her from danger by compelling the Scots to seek the mountain fastnesses, where they could not be pursued. 

   Thus the strife went on to the utter misery of Scotland. For a season the patriotic cause seemed sunk to its lowest ebb. It was the gloomy time when, as our old historians declare, none but children in their play durst name King David Bruce – and this only a few short years after his father, the national deliverer, had been laid in the dust! Still, all was not lost. In the face of disasters apparently irretrievable, there were gallant Scots who would never submit to English supremacy and the Baliol usurpation – 

“Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn by flying, 

Streams like the thunder storm against the wind; 

Thy trumpet voice, though broken now and dying, 

The loudest still the tempest leaves behind; 

Thy tree hath lost its blossoms, and the rind 

Chopp’d by the axe looks rough and little worth; 

But the sap lasts – and still the seed we find 

Sown deep, even in the bosom of the North; 

So shall a better spring less bitter fruit bring forth.” 

   The better spring was coming, though long deferred. The dark horizon faintly brightened, “as the morning spread upon the mountains.” The patriots found their golden opportunity in the breaking out of a quarrel between England and France. Edward III., who was in Scotland at this time, striving to rivet his claims upon an unyielding people, now opened negotiations with the Brucian leaders for a peace, in order, as was very manifest, that his hand might be free for a French war. But the terms offered, being favourable to Baliol, were rejected by the Scots. On this failure, the King took his departure, leaving behind him William Montague, Earl of Salisbury, and the Earls of Arundel and Norfolk to support Baliol in his delegated sovereignty. War with France was declared on 7th October, 1337. Salisbury, seeing no hopes of accommodation with the Scots, began warlike operations by laying a siege to the Castle of Dunbar in the following month of January, 1337-38. 

   The good Regent Randolph, first Earl of Moray, whose untimely death was a severe misfortune to his country, left two sons, Thomas and John, and a daughter, Agnes, or, as some authorities maintain, two daughters, Agnes and Isabelle. The elder son, Thomas, succeeded his father in the earldom, but fell at the Battle of Dupplin. As he died unmarried, his honours went to his brother John, who became the third Earl, and afterwards the Regent, whom the English Warden of Jedburgh Forest took prisoner and carried off to Bamborough Castle. The sister, Agnes, was wedded to Patrick, ninth Earl of March, a prominent and powerful Scottish noble. She was his second spouse, his first marriage having taken place in 1303-4, with Ermigarda, a lady whose surname is unknown, and who bore him two sons, Patrick and John, both of whom predeceased their father, without leaving issue, though they lived long after his second nuptials, which were solemnized by virtue of a Papal Dispensation, dated 16th January, 1323-24. 

   The Earl’s father, who was the husband of Marjory Comyn, daughter of Alexander, Earl of Buchan, and one of the competitors for the Scottish crown, had been noted for his steady opposition to the national cause in the Wars of Independence until his death in 1309. The family enmity towards Bruce seemed to be shared by Marjory’s son, who continued disaffected to him until after the Battle of Bannockburn. When Edward II. fled in dismay from that fatal field, pursued by the Black Douglas with eighty horsemen, Earl Patrick gave him refuge in his castle of Dunbar, whence the royal fugitive escaped in a fishing boat to England. Subsequently March became reconciled to King Robert, and was made Governor of Berwick. He continued loyal during Bruce’s life, but wavered in his allegiance when Baliol conquered at Dupplin. After the defeat of the Scots at Halidon Hill in July, 1334, March surrendered Berwick to the English; but shortly before that he had razed his castle of Dunbar to the foundations to prevent it being garrisoned by the invaders. At the imperative command of Eward III., however, the Earl was forced to rebuild the fortress that it should admit an English garrison. 

   The new Castle of Dunbar, fortified with the utmost skill of the period, was known as “Earl Patrick’s Strong-House,” and well did it merit the appellation. Its mouldering ruins exist to this day, scattered over the summits of several rocks, which protrude into the German Ocean, and are hollowed below by natural caverns, into which the waves roll with the sound of thunder. Whilst the water washed the bottom of the precipices, the access from the land was protected by defences of the most massive and formidable construction, so that in the days before the use of cannon the place was reckoned impregnable. The original Castle is supposed to have been founded by the first Earl of March, a Northumbrian noble, who fled to the Court of King Malcolm Canmore to escape the power of William the Conqueror. In the year 1296, when John Baliol had revolted from his English allegiance, the Earl of March joined Edward in the invasion of Scotland, leaving his Countess, Marjory Comyn, in Dunbar Castle. Despite her husband’s alliance with the enemy, she was faithful to her King and country, and gave up the place to the Scots, which led to its being beleaguered by the Earl of Warrene, with 11,000 foot and horse under his command. The Scottish army, 40,000 strong, but badly led, advanced to raise the siege, and a battle was fought on 28th April, in the vicinity of the fortress, 

“Where shiver’d was fair Scotland’ spear, 

And broken was her shield.” 

Warrene gained a signal victory, and the Castle soon surrendered. 

   It seems uncertain whether the new Castle was ever in the hands of the English. At all events, in the course of the year 1337, Earl Patrick had it in his own keeping. By this time he had firmly attached himself to the Brucian side. He accompanied the patriot bands in their retreat to the North, while his “Strong-house” was held by his lady and a garrison of trusty retainers. The Countess was apparently in the flower of her days. That she was gifted with beauty and its witcheries has not been said; but from the swarthiness of her complexion she was familiarly called “Black Agnes of Dunbar.” Of personal charms she might or might not have been void; but, according to Wyntoun, the chronicler, she was “wise and ware;” and Pitscottie describes her as “ane woman of great spirit, more nor came ane woman to be.” With a resolute and fearless soul, she was actuated by an ardent love of country, and a hatred of Southron domination, which marked her as the daughter of the great Randolph. Her husband was with the loyal leaders among the Highland wilds; her brother lay in an English prison; the enemy’s squadrons were hovering about her stronghold; and the destinies of Scotland still hung in the balance. Yet the heart of Black Agnes quailed not. She anticipated attack, and prepared to meet it with undaunted fortitude, determined to defend her castle to the last extremity, and ready, if adverse Fate should so ordain, to perish in its ruins. Such was the heroine who, to her immortal renown, withstood a siege, the most memorable in Scottish history – repelling the fiercest assaults on her walls, even as the rocks of Dunbar hurled back the stormy billows. 

   In the month of January, 1337-38, whilst stormy gales troubled the German Ocean, scattering the salt spray and the blinding snow-drift around the towers of Dunbar, the Earl of Salisbury led his troops to the siege of the Castle. If he expected that the sight of his powerful array would daunt the heroic Countess, his mistake was egregious. His soldiers pitched their camp, and drew their lines of circumvallation about the Western side of the fortress; while to cut off all communication by sea the Earl had hired two Genoese galleys, commanded by John Doria and Nicholas Fiesca, which bore along the coast simultaneously with the advance of the army. 

   To the summons to surrender the Countess gave a defiant answer, probably couched in some such terms as that of “Auld Maitland” in the Border ballad, when his castle of Thirlestane was invested by the Southrons –

“Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, 

He pays me meat and fee; 

And I will keep my guid auld house 

While my house will keep me.” 

Though Salisbury might have anticipated such a response at the outset, he doubtless fancied that womanish fears would ultimately prevail, and place the Castle in his hands. The fortress was strong, but his power was formidable. The artillery which he possessed did not include cannon, but comprised the usual balistæ, or engines for casting darts and stones, employed at sieges from remote antiquity – though we may state that cannon were already known in warfare, for Barbour tells that ten years before this time, in 1327, the Scots, when invading Northumberland, first saw cannon – “cracks of war,” as he terms them – which were sued by the English. Salisbury, however, had none of these “cracks,” and we need scarcely say that Dunbar Castle was equally unprovided with them – the machines for defence resembling those for attack. It was only on the land side that the strength was assailed – the height of the rocks precluding all attempts from the sea. 

   The siege opened, and the showers of missiles from the enemy’s lines were fully returned from the Castle, on the battlements of which Black Agnes occasionally appeared, walking in state, attended by her handmaidens, whom she directed, in scorn of the attack, to wipe with their handkerchiefs those parts of the wall within their reach which were struck by the stones from the English engines. The same thing had been done during the siege of Brechin Castle, in the year 1303, when it was defended by Sir Thomas Maule against King Edward I. the besiegers’ machines, says Matthew of Westminster, “were incessantly hurling stones against the walls of the Castle,” and “that valiant knight, Thomas, stood by with a towel and wiped off the mark of the stone from the wall, by way of insulting and deriding the whole English army.” Unhappily he was at last felled by a stone which glanced from the battlement and struck him on the chest. “He being fearfully shaken presently fell down on his back. And while he was still breathing his servants ran up and asked whether they were to surrender the Castle yet. And he, bidding them farewell, cursed them for entertaining such an idea, and so expired.” No mischance, however, befell the undaunted Countess, though she braved as great a risk. The strength of te Castle was daily proved. The soldiers of the garrison were faithful and stout-hearted, still tending – 

     “Mid sap and siege 

The banner of their rightful liege, 

     At their she-captain’s call; 

Who, miracle of womankind! 

Lent mettle to the meanest hind 

     That mann’d her Castle wall.” 

From morning till night the furious hailstorm beat upon the Castle, but without making any visible impression, and thus the time passed by – doubts perchance creeping into Salisbury’s mind that he had rashly undertaken a task which promised to end in failure and cover him with disgrace. 

   Finding, therefore, that his ordinary military appliances were ineffectual, the Earl caused the construction of a huge wooden machine, fashioned somewhat after the Roman testudo or tortoise, namely, a strong shed or covering mounted on wheels, which, being propelled up to the wall of a besieged place, and filled with men, protected them whilst they plied the battering-ram. In the middle ages such a machine was common. It was called truie by the French, and a sow by the English, from its oblong shape, or its use in undermining. William of Malmesbury described it as it was employed by the Crusaders at the siege of Jerusalem. “There was one engine,” he says, “which we call the sow, the ancients vinea, because the machine, which is constructed of slight timbers, the roof covered with boards and wicker-work, and the sides defended with undressed hides, protects those who are within it, who, after the manner of a sow, proceed to undermine the foundations of the walls.” The sow had already done its work in Border warfare, as shown by the ballad of “Auld Maitland”:- 

“They laid their sowies to the wall 

Wi’ mony a heavy peal -” 

the peals being those of the battering ram. 

   Salisbury’s engine, when completed, was brought close to the outer defences of the Castle under cloud of night. The morning beams showed it in position, and the first dull strokes of the ram were hailed with shouts from the besiegers. Dead silence pervaded the battlements, as if the portentous monster had impressed the garrison with the gloomiest apprehensions. But now the Countess emerged into view among her soldiers, and, waving her hand towards the enemy, called out in a clear and disdainful voice:- 

“Beware, Montague, 

For farrow shall thy sow.” 

At the word an immense stone was swung over the battlement by a crane, and, being speedily disengaged from the chain by which it was suspended, dropped sheer down above the sow, which was its mark. It fell with unerring precision upon the roof, with a crash like thunder. The stout timbers yielded to the shock, and the boulder disappeared within the machine, which was wholly shattered. groans and piercing yells issued from the mass of wreck, and as many of the enclosed soldiers as escaped being crushed, crawled forth and fled towards their camp. A great shout arose from the battlements, and then the tones of the Countess were distinguishable, as she exclaimed with a laugh – “Montague’s sow has farrowed!” the flying soldiers seeming like a litter of pigs. Montague’s mortification was extreme on beholding the demolition of the engine on which he had based his best hopes, and the garrison completed its destruction by flinging down combustibles which set the broken timbers in a blaze, like a bonfire kindled to celebrate the success of the indomitable Lady of Dunbar. 

   Salisbury did not repeat his porcine experiment, and thenceforth contented himself with employing the ordinary means of attack. One day, however, his life was placed in imminent jeopardy. He and one of his knights were standing near the trenches, viewing the dark front of the Castle, which still looked unscathed, when they were specially observed from the battlements. A Scottish Archer, named William Spens, recognised the Earl, and taking aim at him at a venture, let fly an arrow. the shaft missed its object, but struck the knight, piercing his surcoat and the three folds of his habergeon or mail-coat, and also his acton or wadded and quilted tunic under the armour, and thence transfixing his breast. he fell dead at the feet of his commander, who started back, ejaculating, “There! that is one of my lady’s tiring-pins. Back Agnes’ love-shafts go straight to the heart!” 

   The lady’s shafts flew thick, and her “strong-house” still defied every assault. But another enemy became dreaded. The supplies of the garrison were diminishing, do that famine was apparently not far off. The winter was gone with its wild blasts; the spring was breathing over the land; the buds were on the trees, wild flowers decked the fields, and the woodlands were vocal with the melody of Nature’s choristers. When would the stubborn lady yield? Salisbury, grown impatient of the protracted delay, now resolved on trying whether the fidelity of any soldier of the garrison was corruptible. At length he found means of communicating his proposal of treachery to the chief-keeper of one of the lesser gates, probably a sally-port of the Castle. The proposal was that the warder should, on an appointed night, admit a party of the besiegers, for which service an ample reward was pledged him. The man never for a moment wavered in his trust. He listened to the tempting offer, but immediately informed his mistress, who told him to close with the bargain, that so the seducer might fall into his own snare. The warder accordingly agreed with Salisbury that on a certain night he should open the gate to him and a party of his soldiers. 

   The night came, with silence brooding over camp and castle, nothing being heard but the heavy dash of the waves on the cliffs, and at intervals the calls of the sentinels. No moon was in the sky, and ir was the darkest hour. Salisbury and a chosen band marched out stealthily on their mission, expecting that the morrow’s sun would greet the English standard spread to the breeze on the highest tower of Dunbar. They approached the Castle without attracting notice, and, reaching the particular postern, found the warder at his post, and apparently ready to fulfil his paction. All was well, and triumph awaited them. The portcullis by which the gate was defended rose slowly, with little jar of chains and pulleys; even that slight grating sound seemed lost in the moan of the midnight wind; and the gate itself was opened wide. Salisbury was eager to be the first to enter; but just at that moment one of his followers, John Copeland by name, who had perhaps acted as intermediary betwixt him and the warder, suddenly stepped in advance of him, and passed within the portal. No sooner had he done so than down came the portcullis behind him with a terrible clang. The Earl sprang back and instantly there was a loud shout in the court that he was captured. But the Countess and her men were soon undeceived as to their prisoner, and it was with much disappointment that she called after the retreating Salisbury – “Farewell, Montague! I intended that you should have supped with me to-night, and assisted us in defending Dunbar against the Southrons.” 

   All this time, while the “iron sleet of arrowy shower hurtled in the darken’d air” around the Castle, no effort seems to have been made by the Scots in the field to strengthen the garrison or raise the siege. Nevertheless the patriots were not idle. To them the defence of Dunbar was an encouraging example, as they prepared, under manifold difficulties, for a general struggle. It was becoming evident that summer would see a change. April, with her glistening tears and sunny smiles, would soon give place to rosy May; and behind the massive walls of Dunbar, the valiant Countess still bade defiance to the foe. The English leader, seeing the futility of the assaults, judged it expedient to turn the siege into a strict blockade, thinking to attain his end by the slow but sure process of starvation. With this view he procured additional vessels to join the Genoese galleys in shutting up the Castle by sea. Truth to tell, the garrison were now reduced to scanty rations, but they held out without a murmur, trusting that their friends to whom their pressed condition was known, would find means for their speedy relief. 

   But relief was at hand. Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalwolsie and a band of companions had been lurking among the caverns of Hawthornden, whence they often issued to cut off detached parties of the English. Ramsay now took upon himself the hazardous task of relieving Dunbar. He and forty followers stole down to the coast, and, filling several boats with provisions, crossed over in them to the Bass Rock. When midnight came, cloudy and dark, the patriots steered cautiously towards the beleaguered Castle, before which lay the blockading squadron. In the thick gloom that brooded on the sea Ramsay’s boats passed unseen through the cordon, and safely reached the bottom of the embattled rocks, close beneath a low postern of the fortress. Signals were made and answered: joyfully were the adventurers received by the famished garrison, and the boats were quickly unloaded of their cargoes. The gallant band entered the Castle, intending to abide there while the siege lasted. But no sooner were they within the walls than Ramsay declared his intention of making an immediate sally on the land side. Suddenly the enterprising knight and a chosen company broke forth upon the advanced guards of the enemy, and drove them back in confusion to their lines. 

   It is the last straw that breaks the overladen camel’s back. Montague had hitherto met with nothing but disappointment; and now, when he deemed the prey almost within his grasp, the Castle was revictualled and the garrison reinforced by a body of experienced warriors. The blockage had failed as utterly as the attack on the “strong house.” The naval squadron had proved, at the critical juncture, as useless as “painted ships upon a painted ocean.” Salisbury was loth to acknowledge discomfiture by a woman: and now, according to the Chronicle of Lanercost, he had recourse to an expedient by which he fully trusted to overcome the heroine’s stubborn resolution – a desperate and cruel expedient, such as had been often practised, in similar circumstances, at other sieges both at home and abroad, though with varying results. He despatched a message across the Border, desiring that the Earl of Moray should be brought from his prison to Dunbar: and the captive being so sent under a sure guard, Salisbury had him taken before the walls of the Castle, and announced to the Countess that unless she surrendered, her brother’s life should be sacrificed on the spot. But we will let the chronicler tell out the story in his own way. “After Easter,” which fell on the 12th April, in 1338, “the said Earl was brought back into Scotland as far as Dunbar, in case by chance the Countess, his sister, might surrender the Castle in exchange for his life being preserved; but she replied that the Castle was the property of her lord, and had been entrusted to her guardianship, nor would she deliver it to any one except by his authority. When those who were engaged in the siege outside said that then her brother would be put to death, she answered, ‘If you do that, then shall I be the heiress of the Earldom of Moray;’ for her brother had no children. The English, however, were unwilling to do what they threatened, and they rather preferred to lead him away again into England and detain him in custody as before.” 

   Although thus baffled, Salisbury still lingered in his lines, hoping against hop; but it was all in vain. On the 10th of June 1338 he concluded a cessation of arms with the Countess, and then broke up his camp and retired Southwards in very humbled mood. His soldiers celebrated the achievements of Black Agnes in a quatrain, preserved by Wyntoun:- 

“I vow to God she makes great steer 

The Scottish wench ploddere; 

Come I aire, come I late 

I fand Annot at the gate.” 

   The lines have been modernised thus:- 

“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.” 

   The siege, which terminated so ingloriously to Salisbury, had lasted nearly five months. 

   The triumph of Black Agnes was followed, after no long interval, by a series of brilliant successes on the part of the Brucian forces. But the war brought a dreadful famine. The land wore the aspect of a desert. No seed was sown, no harvest reaped. Numbers of people dropped down dead in the fields of sheer starvation and lay unburied. Others sought to appease the pangs of hunger by feeding, like cattle, upon grass. Horrors unnatural sprang out of this desperate misery. Yet the spirit of the suffering nation remained unbroken. The sword might destroy, and cleanness of teeth spread heart-rending desolation, but the crown of Scotland should rest on no other brow than that of her rightful sovereign, the son of the Bruce. While the famine was at its height, the aged Regent, Sir Andrew Moray of Bothwell, paid the debt of nature, and the reins of power came into the hands of Robert, the Steward. The successes of the Scots emboldened the new Regent and the Parliament to bring home King David, who had been long a guest at the Court of France. He was now in his eighteenth year, and he landed in Scotland on 4th June, 1342, when the country was almost cleared of the Southron invaders. 

   Little is known regarding the subsequent career of Black Agnes. She displayed no farther deeds of valour, though she lived for thirty years after the siege of Dunbar. Her only surviving brother, Thomas, third Earl of Moray, fell at the battle of Durham in 1346 – the disastrous fight in which King David was made prisoner by the English. As the Earl had no male issue, his sister became his heiress, and so inherited the earldom of Moray. Her husband died on 11th November 1368, in his 84th year; and she followed him to the grave in 1369, leaving no children. 

   The name of Black Agnes will never fade from Scottish history. Moreover, her derisive couplet respecting the destruction of Salisbury’s great engine has given her a claim to be ranked in another category than that of heroines. “Ritson,” says Sir Walter Scott, “admitted the Countess Agnes into the list of Scottish poets upon the strength of that single couplet; from the record of Scotland’s heroes none can presume to erase her.” But, on the other hand, while so little is known of her life after the triumphant defence of Dunbar Castle, it is amusing to read the absurd verses which some Southron, probably of her own time, and bitterly chagrined at her fame, had added to the Scottish ballad of “Thomas of Ercyldoune and the Queen of Elf-land” (printed in Laing’s Select Remains of the Ancient Popular and Romance Poetry of Scotland) – verses predicting for the heroine the most miserable fate as a captive in London! True Thomas, closing his importunities for knowledge of the future, says to the Elfin Queen – 

“Lovely lady, tell thou me 

Of Black Agnes of Dunbar, 

And why she have given me the warre 

And put me in her prison deep; 

For I would dwell with her ever mair, 

And keep her ploos and her sheep.” 

   To which the Queen makes reply – 

“Of Black Agnes come never gode, 

Wherefore, Thomas, she may not the; 

For all her wealth and her worldly gode, 

In London cloysed shall she be. 

Ther preuysse never gode of her blood, 

In a dyke then shall she die; 

Hounds of her shall have their food, 

Magrat of all her kyng of lee.” 

   It is sufficient to say that Thomas the Rhymer was dead before Black Agnes was born; and that the prophecy of her fate was likely the fabrication of a fugitive from the farrowing of Montagu’s sow. 

   The question as to whether Black Agnes had a sister has been treated by Mr. Archibald Hamilton Dunbar, younger of Northfield, in a paper printed in the Proceedings of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries, 1887-88, entitled “Notes on the Old Earldoms of Dunbar, March, and Moray.” He quotes Pitscottie’s statement that the Regent Randolph had two daughters of whom Agnes was the eldest, and “the second was called Jeall, and was married upon John, brother to the Earl of March, and bore to him George, who succeeded to his father’s brother heritably to the earldom of March. Ane other son called John,” of the same marriage, “was promoted to the earldom of Murray.” Pitscottie is mistaken about one or two names. But Mr. Dunbar considers it reasonable to conclude that Isabelle, spouse of Sir Patrick of Dunbar, who was nephew of the ninth Earl, and father of George, tenth Earl of March, was the younger daughter of the Regent Randolph. The seals of Sir Patrick and his wife are appended to a Charter of 2d January 1351-52. The lady’s seal bears her husband’s arms impaling her own, which last are the three cushions within a tressure flory and counter flory for Randolph.

One thought on “II. Black Agnes of Dunbar, pp.37-66.

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