Black Agnes and Psychological Warfare For the Win

I love Scotland, from the streets of Edinburgh to it’s Highland Coos. Seriously, it is an awesome place filled to the brim with awesome people. And one of the most awesome people to have ever trodden upon Scotland’s soil is Agnes Randolph, the wife of Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March, known historically as Black Agnes.

Black Agnes stand-in

The Scottish called her Black Agnes because she was had black hair and eyes and the olive complexion more associated with the Mediterranean than the maidens of Midlothian. The English called her Black Agnes because she was evil – providing evil means not giving the English what they want. If that is indeed the definition of evil then Black Agnes was the most evil Scotswoman to have ever lived.

On 13 January 1338 English forces led by the William Montagu, 1st Earl of Salisbury, a renown military tactician, began a siege on Dunbar Castle.


Salisbury was there to get the castle for Edward III, who was trying to squash Scottish independence like his grandfather before him. Patrick was off fighting for King David II of Scotland and only a few men were left with Agnes to defend the keep. Salisbury, bless his heart, must have thought taking this strategic position would be a cakewalk. What could a noblewoman do to defend a whole castle?

She could reinvent psychological warfare, that’s what.

The stalwart Salisbury demanded that Agnes surrender, but she refused to do so. Legend has it that Agnes told her erstwhile besiegers:

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.

If he wanted Dunbar, then Salisbury would have to take it forcibly from Black Agnes. No worries. Salisbury had an entire army with siege engines like catapults and a massive battering ram surrounding a castle defended by a handful of fighters, some servants, and a gaggle of women. He might have even felt sorry for the brave but doomed Agnes as he ordered his men to loose the catapults.

Boulders rained down on Dunbar Castle. The edifice took a pounding, but when the dust cleared the walls were still standing. That’s when Black Agnes served a steaming pile of psychological pudding to Salisbury.

She and her ladies got all gussied up in their best clothes and in full view of Salisbury and his army they sashayed across the battlements flicking off dust with their lace hankies. “Oh look,” their actions said, “some naughty little boys were flinging pebbles and made a bit of a mess. Tsk, tsk.”

black agnes

Agnes 1/ Salisbury 0.

The profound unconcern shown by Black Agnes must have had a withering effect of Salisbury and his men, but the earl rallied and attacked again. This time he unleashed “the sow”, a powerful battering ram that would surely break through the castle gates. The armored sow was trundled up to the doors … and Black Agnes had her men roll one of the boulders that Salisbury had previously lobbed onto her ramparts over the edge of the castle to smash the battering ram to matchsticks.

The score was now Agnes 2/ Salisbury 0.

Thwarted on a direct attack, the Earl of Salisbury decided to take a more covert route to victory. He bribed one of the castle’s Scottish guards to raise the gate on a prearranged night and let in the English attackers. The guard, being Scots, took the money and promptly went to Agnes to rat out the whole plan.

Believing that they were going to be entering the castle, the Earl and his soldiers arrived at the gate. The guards, thinking Salisbury would be first to enter, dropped the gate after the first soldier stepped into the castle. Fortunately for Salisbury, one of his men had passed him on the approach. The thwarted Earl retreated back to his camp with Agnes yelling at 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!’

Ah, nothing like the Scots to rub salt on a wound in a witty way.

Agnes 3/ Salisbury 0.

Salisbury now had nothing left to do but starve Agnes out. His forces surrounded the castle and no food could get in. How long could this stubborn woman hold out before hunger drove her to surrender?

Unfortunately for the Earl he didn’t know about the castle’s back door; a hidden entrance that was partly underwater. Agnes sent word to her allies that she was under siege and needed reinforcements. Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie brought her more fighting men and supplies, which he snuck into the castle through the secret passage under the cover a darkness. While Salisbury patiently waited for Agnes to grow desperate, she and her retainers ate well. Agnes also waited until it was clear the English themselves were pinched for fresh foodstuffs, and thoughtfully sent the Earl some fresh-baked bread from her own kitchen.

Agnes 4/ Salisbury 0.

On 10 June 1338 the Earl of Salisbury finally gave up and led his humiliated troops away from the castle. Agnes had won, and won big.

A ballad, attributed to the Earl himself, was written about the implacable Countess of Dunbar and March:

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

Scots women are nothing to trifle with, boyo.


3 thoughts on “Black Agnes and Psychological Warfare For the Win

  1. kyra, i emailed this url to a scottish type crone. thank you for the tale.

    mary lou

    1. Because there were no drawings of Black Agnes and I needed a pictorial representation of similar historical epoch to make my blog look less dull 🙂

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