Dunbar, Agnes (1312–1369)
Dunbar, Agnes (1312–1369)
Scottish hero and countess of Dunbar and March. Name variations: Black Agnes; Agnes of March; Agnes of Dunbar; Lady Randolph or Lady Agnes Randolph. Born in 1312 in Scotland; died in 1369 in Scotland; daughter of Sir Thomas Randolph, 1st earl of Moray; married Patrick (1285–1369, a prominent and powerful Scottish noble), 10th lord of Dunbar and 2nd earl of March, in 1324; children: at least three, including Agnes, later mistress of David II (1323–1370), king of Scotland (r. 1329–1370).
Agnes Dunbar was one of Scotland's many female participants in the war against English rule. She was probably related to the powerful warrior-king Robert I the Bruce which would have tied her to the royal house. Like Robert, Agnes had a passion for conflict and adventure as well as a loyalty to Scotland's cause. She married Lord Patrick of Dunbar, who was at first allied with England but soon switched his allegiance to his native country, no doubt in part due to Agnes' influence.
Called "Black Agnes" for her swarthy complexion, Agnes became known as an outspoken, bold woman and an inspiration to others as the war against England intensified in the 1330s. England had never accepted Scotland's claim to be an independent kingdom, and the English warrior-king Edward III sought to bring Scotland back under English rule by force. Agnes' brother was imprisoned by the English, and in 1337 Patrick left Dunbar Castle, situated on the coast near Edinburgh, to lead troops against the English invaders. The earl of Salisbury led his troops to the fortress of Dunbar in January 1338, using two Genoese galleys to cut off access by sea. Agnes refused to surrender, and the siege began.
Stories of her defense tell of Lady Agnes walking the battlements daily, yelling insults and taunts to the Englishmen below and, with her women, wiping off the damaged stones using their handkerchiefs. When Salisbury built a siege engine to batter the walls, Agnes had a stone dropped on it by a crane, destroying it. Salisbury turned the active siege into a blockade to starve her out, and the Scots were unable to send her reinforcements or try to raise the siege. She refused all offers to negotiate and refused to surrender despite the fact that food and water rations grew smaller every day and the suffering inside the castle must have been great. By late spring when the situation was critical, Scotsman Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalwolsie and 40 followers managed to bring provisions into the fortress by boat.
Salisbury then had Agnes' brother, the earl of Moray, brought from prison in mid-April 1338, and threatened to kill him if she did not surrender. She responded that the castle belonged to her husband, and if her brother were killed then she should inherit all his property. The earl was sent back to prison. In June 1338, after a siege of nearly five months, a truce was signed between Salisbury and Agnes, and the English withdrew from Dunbar. Agnes became a Scottish hero. She and her family were amply rewarded by the Scottish king for their bravery and loyalty, making her and her descendants quite wealthy. Her diligence was commemorated in an English ditty: "Came I early, came I late, I found Agnes at the gate." Agnes Dunbar lived another 30 years.
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Uglow, Jennifer, ed. Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1989.