Black Agnes: Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar, c1300 – 1361
Black Agnes Randolph won renown by her defence of Dunbar Castle against an English force at one of the most turbulent times in Scottish history.
Living as she did at such a remove in time, and despite her subsequent fame, firm details about Agnes’ life are frustratingly rare. She was, however, well connected from birth. Her father was Thomas Randolph, a nephew of Robert I, King of Scots. Thomas was an early supporter of King Robert and won a reputation as one of his most able military commanders. For his service he was created earl of Moray and rewarded with lands across Scotland. Agnes was his elder daughter; three other children reached adulthood: Thomas (junior), John and Isabel. As a rising star it was natural for earl Thomas to link his family to established power through dynastic marriages. Both his daughters were married to scions of the Dunbar family: Agnes married (around 1320) Patrick Dunbar, earl of Dunbar and March; Isobel married another Patrick Dunbar (a close relative of the first). Agnes was the earl’s second wife: he already had (at least) two sons, yet another Patrick and John.
Agnes’ new family was one of the most ancient and powerful in Scotland. Their vast holdings of land in East Lothian and Berwickshire and their many castles and strongholds gave them a critical role in the backwards and forwards sway of politics and warfare between Scotland and England. At the time of Agnes’ marriage earl Patrick was firmly in the Scottish camp as Sherriff of Lothian and a signatory of the Declaration of Arbroath. Patrick’s responsibilities extended to service and command in the Scottish forces. Agnes, as was not uncommon, seems to have been responsible for the earldom in the absence of her husband and stepsons. During one of these periods Agnes was faced with a crisis.
Dunbar Castle was invested by an English force early in 1338. Agnes had few resources to repel the besiegers but set about making their task as difficult as possible. She had a few guards, the castle servants and her maids – and with them she stood off the besiegers for weeks, taunting them from the battlements, goading them by dusting the impact marks of their shots, and defeating several attempts at storming the castle. Salisbury, the English leader, resorted to parading Agnes’ captured brother before her and threatening his life. Her response was simply that on his death, she would be Countess of Moray so Salisbury could do as he liked!
Eventually, a boat from the Bass slipped into the castle by sea with supplies and reinforcements. When Agnes demonstrated her new-won resources, Salisbury gave up in disgust. Agnes’ heroism and patriotism entered Scottish lore. Many accounts were written and ballads sung. Most writers mention her complexion and dark hair – hence ‘Black’ Agnes. The spirit with which she out-witted the English was seen as characteristically Scottish and it still is!
After the siege Agnes slips back into the background. However, with the death of both of her brothers, she and earl Patrick assumed the dignity of Earl and Countess of Moray and Lord and Lady of Annandale – with weak central government there was no-one to say they couldn’t! Agnes died in 1361 and was buried at one of the ecclesiastical establishments patronised by the family; Patrick died around 1370 but not before arranging the secure transmission of the family’s estates. As his sons were already dead the titles and lands passed into the hands of Agnes’s Dunbar nephews. George, the elder, got Dunbar & March, Man and Annandale; John, the younger, was (eventually) confirmed in Moray.
Evidence of George’s titles was there to see at Dunbar for nearly 500 years, inscribed in stone above the entrance to the Great Hall of Dunbar Castle. George inherited the spirit of his belligerent Randolph aunt and grandfather; this led him into strife with his cousins the Stewarts (by then the Royal House of Scotland) – but that’s another story!