Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dunbar, Agnes

DUNBAR, AGNES, Countess of Dunbar and March (1312?–1369), known from her swarthy complexion as Black Agnes, is celebrated for her spirited defence of Dunbar Castle in January 1337–8. The countess was the daughter of Randolph, earl of Moray, and Isabel, the only daughter of Sir John Stewart of Bonkyl, and, through her father, grandniece to Robert Bruce.

She married Patrick Dunbar, tenth earl of Dunbar and second earl of March (1285–1369), who was prominent as an adherent of the English. After Bannockburn (1314) he received Edward II into his castle of Dunbar, whence the king was conveyed to England. But shortly afterwards he came to terms with his cousin Robert I, and in the following year he was one of the parliament at Ayr which settled the succession to the Scotch crown. For the next fifteen years Patrick continued to actively support Robert and David II. He helped to capture Berwick, signed the letter to the pope asserting the independence of Scotland, commanded one of David's armies at Dupplin, and as governor of Berwick Castle directed its defence when besieged by Edward III. But after Halidon Hill (1333) he put himself under Edward's protection, engaged to garrison Dunbar Castle with English troops, and attended Edward Baliol at the parliament at Edinburgh in 1334. At the end of that year, however, he renounced his allegiance to Edward III, and for the rest of his life remained a supporter of the national cause. He was engaged in a campaign against the English invaders in 1337, when his wife defended their castle, and at the battle of Durham he held part command of the left wing of the royal army. After that defeat and the capture of the Scottish king he was especially active in his endeavours to obtain David's release, and when that event took place became one of his sureties. He was rewarded by David with a grant of castlewards of all his lands and a pension of 40l. per annum, and Dunbar was made a free burgh in his favour. In 1363 the earl, for a reason no longer known, rebelled against David, but was quickly and effectually suppressed.

Dunbar Castle was one of the few important Scotch fortresses which had not been taken by the English in January 1337–8; and since its position, overlooking a convenient port, rendered its acquisition desirable, siege was laid to it by the Earls of Salisbury and Arundel with a large force. In the absence of her husband the defence was undertaken with remarkable courage by Agnes. Not content with merely directing measures of resistance, she would mount the battlements to jeer at the assailants, and among other words put into her mouth as uttered on these occasions is the well-known taunt addressed to the Earl of Salisbury with reference to the fate awaiting his battering-ram:

Beware Montagow,
For farrow shalt thy sow.

As further evidence of her contempt for the English armament, she is said to have sent out maids, gorgeously attired, to wipe off with clean handkerchiefs the marks made on the towers by stone and leaden balls. Twice the castle came near to falling: once through the treachery of a porter who had been bribed, and later through scarcity of provisions, the harbour being blocked up. In this last difficulty relief was brought by Sir Alexander Ramsay, who successfully ran the blockade. After six months of fruitless operations the English gave up the attack as hopeless, and the siege was raised.

On the death without issue of her brothers, Thomas and John, who perished, the one at Dupplin in 1332 and the other at Durham in 1346, the Countess of Dunbar and her husband kept possession of the earldom of Moray, which was afterwards transferred to their younger son. They also obtained the Isle of Man, the lordship of Annandale, the baronies of Morton and Tibber in Nithsdale, of Mordington, Longformacus, and Dunse in Berwickshire, of Mochrum in Galloway, Cumnock in Ayrshire, and Blantyre in Clydesdale. In 1368 the earl resigned his earldom to their eldest son, George, who succeeded him, and in the same year their eldest daughter, Agnes, became the mistress of David II, whose affection for her was the chief reason of his divorce from Margaret Logie; she afterwards married Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith. Another daughter, Elizabeth, married Sir John Maitland of Lethington, and from her was descended the Duke of Lauderdale, who took as second title the marquisate of March. The Earl of Dunbar, then plain Sir Patrick de Dunbar, died in 1369, at the age of eighty-four, and his wife is said to have died about the same time.

Columba Dunbar (1370?–1435), bishop of Moray, grandson of Agnes Dunbar, and younger son of George Dunbar, eleventh earl of March, was dean of St. Mary Magdalene, Bridgnorth, in February 1403 (Eyton, Shropshire, i. 338); became dean of the collegiate church of Dunbar 1412, and bishop of Moray 3 April 1422. Henry VI granted him safe-conducts through England on his way to Rome and Basle respectively in 1433 and 1434. He carried on the restoration of the cathedral of Elgin, and rebuilt the great window over the west door. He died at his palace of Spynie in 1435, and was buried in the Dunbar aisle of Elgin Cathedral, where the effigy on his tomb still survives.

[Douglas and Wood's Peerage of Scotland, ii. 169, 170; Boece and Stewart's Buik of the Croniclis of Scotland (Rolls Ser.), ed. Turnbull, iii. 341; Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, ii. 654, and pref. pp. lxiii, lxxv n.; Burke's Dormant and Extinct Peerage; Ridpath's Border History (1776), p. 325; Burton's Hist. of Scotland, ii. 324, Keith's Bishops of Scotland, p. 143; information from Capt. A. H. Dunbar.]

A. V.