‘Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the gate.’
In January 1338, William Montagu, 1st Earl of Salisbury, laid siege to the coastal stronghold of Dunbar Castle. The castle’s strategic position made it a significant asset; seizing it would provide a key stronghold for English forces against the pro-Bruce allies in Scotland. However, Salisbury quickly encountered an obstacle to the success of his siege – Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar.
The siege of Dunbar took place during the second stage of the Scottish Wars of Independence. This infamous period of warfare was triggered by the political turmoil of a Scottish royal succession crisis with the sudden death of Alexander III in 1286, and then of his young heir, Margaret Maid of Norway, in 1290. Edward I of England became involved as a mediator in Scottish politics in the selection of a new King of Scots. However, in 1296 Edward invaded Scotland, instigating war in his attempt to render the kingdom a subservient vassal of the English crown. The first stage of the wars ended under the reign of Robert the Bruce with the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328, recognising Scotland’s sovereignty as a kingdom separate from England. Despite Bruce’s efforts, the second stage of the wars erupted in 1332 with the combined forces of Edward Balliol and Edward III of England laying claim to Scotland. A tentative resolution was only found in 1357 with King David II of Scotland’s release from English captivity, but political tension and conflict between the two kingdoms would remain for centuries to come.
These tumultuous years affected all facets of society, but there is remarkably little appreciation for the heroines of the wars as well as the heroes. This is particularly stark when considering how regularly women became involved in this warfare, both as targets and as leaders. Edward I’s striking merciless treatment of Robert the Bruce’s female family members and allies is testament to the importance of influential women during this period. Generally, medieval elite women are misunderstood as unexperienced damsels in distress; the Scottish Wars of Independence challenge this. The reality was that, in addition to running large households and managing vast estates, elite women were expected to lead in more extreme situations. It was not unusual to see women defending the properties and estates which they managed, particularly considering the frequent absences of husbands in fourteenth-century warfare. The dramatic siege of Dunbar Castle in 1338 is an iconic example of this – famously defended by Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar.
Agnes Randolph was the daughter of the legendary Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray and one of Robert the Bruce’s closest confidantes. Randolph became such a respected and dependable figure in Scottish politics that when Robert died in 1329, he was entrusted as Regent for the young David II. As Randolph’s daughter, Agnes was the continuation of this great legacy. She became Countess of Dunbar upon her marriage to Patrick, Earl of Dunbar, and thus held an esteemed position in Scottish aristocracy. The siege of Dunbar took place whilst Agnes’ husband was absent; an attempt to take advantage of the earl’s absence. Nevertheless, Agnes was more than capable of taking up the defence of the castle against the English attackers – perhaps to the Earl of Salisbury’s surprise.
Salisbury began a meticulously planned attack. His first method was to bombard the castle with catapulted rocks and other heavy objects to cause structural damage and drive fear into the waiting inhabitants. Agnes’ response was to dismiss his efforts by sending her maidservant to dust off the castle ramparts with her handkerchief – an act which must have enraged Salisbury and his forces. All the more enraging was the destruction of the English siege engine by Agnes’ garrison, who launched Salisbury’s own catapulted rocks back from the castle walls.
The next plan of attack for Salisbury was of a sly nature but held the promise of success. Salisbury bribed one of Agnes’ guards to leave the primary gates to the castle unlocked or damaged to such an extent that an English attack would break through easily. However, his plan was foiled by the guard’s loyalty to the Dunbars, who promptly reported the bribe to Agnes. When the English forces attacked, the portcullis was quickly lowered at the last minute in a failed attempt to trap Salisbury himself. Agnes allegedly mocked the attackers as they retreated with their tails between their legs, lamenting that Salisbury would not be able to join her in defending the castle.
Salisbury supposedly moved to harsher methods, presenting Agnes’ captive brother – John Randolph, Earl of Moray – to be hung in front of his sister, lest she not surrender the castle. Agnes refused to relent, arguing that John’s death would only mean that the earldom of Moray would pass to her. However, this event has likely been confused with the siege of Berwick in 1333, where Sir Alexander Seton and Lady Christian Seton commanded the Berwick garrison against attacking English forces. Their son, who was an English hostage, was brought out to be hung before his parents to convince the couple to surrender. Lady Seton urged her husband to resist the English threat, and their son was indeed executed before them. At Dunbar, John Randolph was not executed and went on to become a key ally of David II until his death in 1346.
Salisbury eventually resorted to starving Dunbar of supplies and contact with external allies. Months of siege crawled slowly by, until a Scottish force led by Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie finally arrived to relieve Dunbar Castle. Ramsay allegedly accessed the castle by sea under stealth and emerged from the castle in a surprise attack upon the English. After five months of leading an expensive and draining siege, Salisbury was forced to admit defeat and abandon his cause at Dunbar. Agnes’ success in leading her garrison in their defence against the English siege earned an iconic place in Scottish legend and song: ‘Cam I early, cam I late, I found Agnes at the gate.’