Historical Figures

Agnes of Dunbar, Tenacious Guardian

Last updated:2022-07-25

Agnes of Dunbar, nicknamed “Black Agnes” for the color of her eyes and hair, was a Scottish countess known for her heroic defense of Dunbar Castle under siege by the English.

Scottish War of Independence

Born in the early 14th century in northern Scotland, Agnes is the daughter of Isabel Stewart and Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray and Scottish soldier. Little has come down to us from his childhood. Agnes was born during the First War of Scottish Independence and her father commanded armies in decisive battles.

Around 1320, Agnes married Patrick V, Earl of Dunbar and March (south-east Scotland). On the death of King Robert I of Scotland in 1329, his father was appointed regent and remained so until his death three years later. Succession wars broke out and Edward Balliol, King of Scotland from 1332 to 1336 and supported by the English, disputed the crown with David II of Scotland. Patrick takes part in the fights.

The Siege of Dunbar Castle

In January 1338, while Patrick was at war, the Earl of Salisbury William Montagu, loyal to the King of England, besieged Dunbar Castle where Agnes resided with her retinue and a few guards. Determined to defend her fortress, she reportedly said:

"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. »
(From the King of Scotland I have my home, I pay him meat and tax. And I will protect my home, as my home will protect me)

William Montagu begins the assault on the castle using siege engines and catapults, without impressing Agnes. According to the story, in response to the stones and boulders sent by the enemy against the wall, Agnes would have simply sent one of her ladies-in-waiting to dust the walls with a scarf. She destroys the siege tower with which William Montagu intended to invade the fortress.

Unable to defeat the fortress with arms, the Earl of Salisbury attempts to bribe a castle guard into opening a gate for his troops. The man accepts the money, but warns Agnes of the scheme. When William Montagu enters the castle, the Countess is ready to receive him.

After his multiple failures, the Earl of Salisbury decides to isolate the fortress and prevent Agnes from getting supplies to starve him. But the intervention of allies made it possible to push the English back to their camp, and to undo their new stratagem. In June, after five months of vain attempts, William Montagu recognizes his defeat and lifts the siege.

The story of this Scottish countess resisting an English nobleman is remembered as an example of courage and tenacity. Ballads written about this victory lend these words to Salisbury:

Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the gate. ”
(Come early, come late, Agnes was at the door)