Thursday, June 16, 2011

Siege of Dunbar Castle


Among the warlike exploits of this period, we must not forget the defense of the Castle of Dunbar by the celebrated Countess of March. Her lord, as we have seen, had embraced the side of David Bruce, and had taken the field with the Regent. The Countess, who from her complexion was termed Black Agnes, by which name she is still familiarly remembered, was a high-spirited and courageous woman, the daughter of that Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, whom I have so often mentioned, and the heiress of his valour and patriotism. The Castle of Dunbar itself was very strong, being built upon a chain of rocks stretching into the sea, having only one passage to the mainland, which was well fortified. It was besieged by Montague, Earl of Salisbury, who employed to destroy its walls great military engines, constructed to throw huge stones, with which machines fortifications were attacked before the use of cannon.

Black Agnes set all his attempts at defiance, and showed herself with her maids on the walls of the castle, wiping the places where the huge stones fell with a clean towel, as if they could do no ill to her castle, save raising a little dust, which a napkin could wipe away.

The Earl of Salisbury then commanded them to bring forward to the assault an engine of another kind, being a species of wooden shed, or house, rolled forward on wheels, with a roof of peculiar strength, which, from resembling the ridge of a hog's back, occasioned the machine to be called a Sow. This, according to the old mode of warfare, was thrust up to the walls of a besieged castle or city, and served to protect from the arrows and stones of the besieged a party of soldiers placed within the sow, who were in the meanwhile to undermine the wall, or break an entrance through it with pickaxes and mining tools. When the Countess of March saw this engine advanced to the walls of the castle, she called out to the Earl of Salisbury in derision, and making a kind of rhyme,—

" Beware, Montagow,
For farrow shall thy sow.'' 

At the same time she made a signal, and a huge fragment of rock, which hung prepared for the purpose, was dropped down from the wall upon the sow, whose roof was thus dashed to pieces. As the English soldiers, who had been within it, were running as fast as they could to get out of the way of the arrows and stones from the wall, Black Agnes called out, "Behold the litter of English pigs!”
The Earl of Salisbury could jest also on such serious occasions. One day he rode near the walls with a knight dressed in armour of proof, having three folds of mail over an acton, or leathern jacket; notwithstanding which, one William Spens shot an arrow with such force that it penetrated all these defences, and reached the heart of the wearer. "That is one of my lady's love-tokens," said the Earl, as he saw the knight fall dead from his horse. "Black Agnes's love-shafts pierce to the heart."
Upon another occasion, the Countess of March had well nigh made the Earl of Salisbury her prisoner. She made one of her people enter into treaty with the besiegers, pretending to betray the castle. Trusting to this agreement, the Earl came at midnight before the gate, which he found open, and the portcullis drawn up. As Salisbury was about to enter, one John Copland, a squire of Northumberland, pressed on before him, and as soon as he passed the threshold, the portcullis was dropped, and thus the Scots missed their principal prey, and made prisoner only a person of inferior condition.

At length, the Castle of Dunbar was relieved by Alexander Ramsay of Dalwolsy, who brought the Countess supplies by sea both of men and provisions. The Earl of Salisbury, learning this, despaired of success, and raised the siege, which had lasted nineteen weeks. The minstrels made songs in praise of the perseverance and courage of Black Agnes. The following lines are nearly the sense of what is preserved :

She kept a stir in tower and trench,
That brawling boisterous Scottish wench ;
Came I early, came I late,
1 found Agnes at the gate. 

The Siege of Dunbar Castle is dated by Rampant Scotland as June 16, 1338.  Sir Walter Scott recounts the story in his “Tales of a Grandfather” (above).  The main conflict of this period was the effort of Edward Balliol, with English support, to take the Scottish throne from David II.  Black Agnes Dunbar’s husband Patrick was away fighting the English when the William Montagu, the Earl of Salisbury arrived. 

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