"O Scotia! my dear, my native soil!
For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent;
Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil
Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet content"
Robbie Burns

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


On a recent trip home from Seattle I watched ROBIN HOOD and marveled at Cate Blanchet in armour going to war again, seems like she didn't have enough from her two Elizabeth movies. But how realistic would that have been having a woman fight alongside men in the medieval period? Well we know the early Celt women were warriors and maybe that spirt if not actual participation in warfare continued with the medieval women of Scotland. We know that many a nobleman would have to leave his castle or tower house to go off an fight for his king. And though he left contingents of knights and men at arms to protect the castle the person in charge was often his mother or his wife. One such woman in the medieval period was Agnes of Dunbar (Black Agnes) and defend their castle they did...

" 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."

--- From a ballad attributed to the Earl of Salisbury

Lady Agnes was the daughter of Isabel Stewart and Sir Thomas Randolph and who married Patrick Dunbar, the Earl of Dunbar/March. His castle Dunbar Castle in East Lothian was the strategic holding for both the Scots and the English during the War of Scottish Independence and after. After the battle of Bannockburn when Bruce's army routed the army of Edward II, Patrick Dunbar gave sanctuary to Edward at Dunbar Castle before he could be whisked away to England. Later, Bruce forgave Patrick Dunbar making him guardian of Berwick Castle in 1322. Dunbar tore down his own castle after trying to defend both castles from the English. But later Edward III forced Dunbar to rebuild at his own expense to house English but that changed n 1338 when Dunbar, who was now entrenched in the Scottish cause got it back.

In early 1338, while Patrick was elsewhere with the Scottish Cause his wife "Black" Agnes was left to defend the castle against the English Earl of Salisbury. Thinking that it was easy pickings with a woman in charge he quickly learned that Agnes was no ordinary woman. When she refused to surrender, he catapulted the castle with huge rocks and projectiles, but Agnes rallied her women and signaled their refusal to surrender by wearing their best clothing meeting on the ramparts to dust away the mess, a suitable insult with dainty lace hankies.

Next Salisbury brings in a battering ram, but Agnes was ready and dropped one of the huge rocks he had catapulted into the castle bailey and smashed it to bits. Salisbury was now really getting frustrated by the obvious insults "Black Agnes" was slinging his way. Thinking to get inside he tried to bribe an inhabitant but was thwarted again. Through all these episodes she thwarted him with verbal insults.

"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

Finally after the siege had gone for weeks he had her brother, Sir John Randolph, the Earl of Moray who was a prisoner of the English brought to the castle. Sir John was forced to call out to his sister, that if she didn't surrender he would be killed. Agnes in bold Scottish determination replied:"...if he is killed he has no heirs, so his land will become mine." Not quite the answer Salisbury expected from a loving sister. Randolph was returned to prison and the siege continued.

What Salisbury was not aware of was that despite the fact he had the castle surrounded on all sides but the water, in the dead of night the townsfolk from nearby villages would row over supplies for those trapped in the siege. This water entrance turned the tide for the siege when Scottish hero Alexander Ramsay heard of Agnes's plight and with his 40 Scottish troops entered the castle through the water entrance to rally those inside. Five months after the start of the siege, Ramsay and his troops surprised the English by leaving the castle through the land gate and attacked them. The English scattered, and on June 10, 1338 Salisbury signed a truce and left the castle to Black Agnes

The mother of two sons, Agnes died in 1369, and her husband died a few months after her. Oddly enough, the fates were with her when in 1347 her brother John died with no heirs, so she inherited his wealth/lands and title. She was called Black Agnes as she had a dark complexion.


Anita Clenney said...

What a great story. What an incredible woman! Thanks for this informative and entertaining post.

Cathie Dunn said...

You dug out another inspiring Scot. I liked her story. Brave woman!

A few weeks ago we went to Dunbar again. Lovely little seaside town with friendly people. I love taking the car along the East Lothian coast on a sunny day. So relaxing.

Thanks for posting :-)

MiaMarlowe said...

Fascinating post. Black Agnes was the best man in the castle.

I have to confess Robin Hood lost me when Marian showed up in armor to fight alongside the men. No way Cate Blanchett has the upper body strength to wield a sword against a man. Your Agnes fought with her wits, which is a woman's most potent weapon.

mjmuse said...

Gotta love those strong women. Great info. Thanks for sharing!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

This is one of the best stories yet, Jody. What a woman Agnes was. One has to salute her determination and imagination. BRAVO!