Agnes, Countess of Dunbar
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Black Agnes, as depicted in a children's history book from 1906
|Spouse(s)||Patrick, Earl of March|
|Father||Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray|
|Mother||Isabel Stewart of Bonkyll|
Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March (née Randolph; c. 1312–1369), known as Black Agnes for her dark hair and eyes, and sallow complexion, was the wife of Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March. She is buried in the vault near Mordington House.
She was the daughter of Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, nephew and companion-in-arms of Robert the Bruce, and Moray's wife, Isabel Stewart, herself a daughter of John Stewart of Bonkyll. Agnes became renowned for her heroic defence of Dunbar Castle against an English siege led by the Earl of Salisbury, which began on 13 January 1338 and ended on 10 June the same year.
The Siege of Dunbar
This attack took place during the conflict which arose when Edward Balliol, with English backing, attempted to seize the Scottish crown from David II. Patrick Dunbar was fighting in the far-off Scottish army when English forces besieged his home, the great castle of Dunbar in East Lothian. Patrick's wife, the Lady Agnes, was left alone with only a retinue of servants and a few guards to meet the English siege, but she refused to surrender the fortress, by one account declaring that
- "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."
Women occasionally commanded besieged mediaeval garrisons, for if the lord of a castle were away his wife might be left in charge; but Agnes's is one of the few sieges which has been widely remembered. Though considered one of the ablest commanders of his day, Salisbury was obliged to lift his fruitless siege of Dunbar castle after nearly five months without success.
Salisbury began the siege with a bombardment by catapults, sending huge rocks and lead shot against the ramparts of Dunbar. Lady Agnes responded by having her maids dress in their Sunday best; she then led them to the outer walls, where with their handkerchiefs they nonchalantly and slightingly dusted away the damage from the bombardment. She would also taunt the English from her walls and berate her garrison to make them fight harder.
Montague next assaulted the castle with his battering ram. Agnes had a huge boulder, captured from an earlier attack, dropped over the walls which smashed the English assault machinery.
According to one story, at one point during the siege, the English captured Agnes's brother John Randolph, 3rd Earl of Moray, and paraded him in front of the castle with a rope round his neck, threatening to hang him if she did not surrender. She told them to go ahead, as she would then inherit the Earldom of Moray. John survived this brinkmanship. However, this story may be a later invention, as she was not heir to the earldom.
On June 10, 1338, William Montague ordered his army to withdraw, leaving Lady Agnes in sole possession of her castle. She is remembered in a ballad which attributes these words to Montague:
- "Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the gate."
Some accounts describe her as Countess of Moray, on the assumption that she inherited the earldom when her brother John was killed at the Battle of Neville's Cross. However, the earldom actually reverted to the crown, although it was later granted to her nephew.
It seems that there were no surviving children of the marriage between Agnes and the Earl. Their estates were left to children of the marriage between the Earl's cousin John de Dunbar of Derchester and Birkynside and his wife, Isobel Randolph, Agnes's younger sister.
The three nephews were:
She also had a ward, Agnes Dunbar, who became mistress of King David II.
- Balfour Paul, Scots Peerage (1904) vol vi, pp294-295
- Mortimer, Ian (2008). The Perfect King The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation. Vintage. p. 147.
- Chicago, Judy. (2007). The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation. London: Merrell. ISBN 1-85894-370-1.