“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.”
She was called “Black Agnes” because of her dark hair and complexion, though she could have just as easily received the nickname because of her fierce determination to protect her home, Castle Dunbar in Scotland, from invasion by the English.
In 1338 Lady Agnes Randolph, the Countess of Moray, was left in charge of Castle Dunbar, Scotland, as her husband, Patrick, the Lord and Earl of Dunbar and March, was out with his soldiers fighting the English in Northern Scotland.
As it happened, the Earl of Salisbury, William Montague (known to be one of the best commanders of his time), decided that with nearby Berwick taken by the English and with Patrick and his soldiers away and the Lady in charge, Castle Dunbar would be easy pickings for his English troops.
On January 13, 1338, The Earl of Salisbury marched on Castle Dunbar and demanded that Lady Agnes surrender to the English. However the Lady surprised the Earl by refusing to surrender to his troops and proudly proclaimed:
”Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, He pays me meat and fee,
And I will keep my gude and house, While my house will keep me.”
The surprised Earl set about having his soldiers hurl rocks and lead at the castle with catapults. However, when the assault was finished, Lady Agnes had her maids (who were dressed in their Sunday finest) dusting and sweeping the mess the English had made, and giving the impression that the Earl had done nothing more than simply annoy them.
At that point the Earl brought out his secret weapon, a giant battering ram, which he rolled right up to the front gate. However the Lady also had a secret weapon – she’d been saving some of the giant boulders that the Earl had hurled earlier, and she had her men drop them over the side of the castle and destroy the battering ram.
At this point the Earl decided that he needed to be a bit more clever, as this was no meek maiden he was dealing with. He decided to bribe one of the Lady’s guardsmen to let he and his men into the castle. However, after taking the payment, the guardsman immediately went to Lady Agnes and told her of his encounter with the Earl.
Later on the Earl and his soldiers, believing they were going to be sneaking into the castle, arrived at the opened gate. Believing that the Earl would the first to enter, the guardsman dropped the gate after the first solder had entered the castle. As the once again defeated Earl made his way back to his camp, the Lady Agnes shouted down to him from the castle walls;
“Fare thee well Montague, I meant that you should have supped with us and support us in upholding the castle from the English!”
Months and months passed, and the Earl decided that he would starve the brilliant Scotswoman and her small brigade out of their castle.
However, Castle Dunbar had a rocky beach to one side, and could not be completely surrounded by the Earl’s men. In the dark of the night, the locals would bring food and supplies to Castle Dunbar by way of the sea, and enter the castle through a secret door that was partially underwater!
As it was, the Earl and his own troops were running low on supplies, so you can imagine the Earl’s surprise when Lady Agnes sent out fresh bread and a bottle of wine.
Understandably at his wit’s end, the Earl commanded that John Randolph, the Earl of Moray and brother to Lady Agnes, be brought before him. The English commander demanded that John shout up to his sister that if she didn’t immediately surrender that he would be put to death.
Lady Agnes, however, pointed out that this was folly. If John were put to death, all his holdings would go to her as he had no children to pass them on to, and she would become the next Earl of Moray.
Montague recognized the error of this tactic and let her brother go.
On June 10, 1338, the Earl of Salisbury gave up and marched home.
Lady Agnes, who was in her early thirties, defeated the English army, and saved Castle Dunbar for Scotland.