Thursday, August 15, 2013

Black Agnes Heroine Countess of Dunbar

Black Agnes of Dunbar
The fortress of Dunbar was always a very important one to the Scots. It commanded the coast road from England across the Border to Edinburgh, not only one of the best routes in itself, but one which had the additional advantage to the English that by following it they could keep in touch with their ships. So it is not surprising that many stirring events in history took place at this historic town.

King Edward I. of England won a very important victory at Dunbar during his first invasion of Scotland, and to the place which had witnessed the triumph of the father, his son, Edward II., fled for safety after his defeat at Bannockburn, taking ship thence back to England. In the time of Mary Queen of Scots the fortress was held by Earl Bothwell; from here he consented to the surrender of poor Mary, and here he rested in safety before his final flight to Scandinavia. Oliver Cromwell fought and won at Dunbar his desperate battle with the Scottish Presbyterians, the fate of which for some time hung in the balance. Cromwell considered the place so valuable that he had new harbour works made there, and a portion of his work, forming part of the east pier of the present much larger harbour, is still to be seen.

The last time that Dunbar resounded to the march of an army bent on immediate fight was in 1745, when the boastful English general, Sir John Cope, landed here to engage the Highland followers of Prince Charles Edward (called the "Young Pretender"). Prince Charlie was at Edinburgh, and Dunbar Castle commanded the road into England. Cope asserted that the Highlanders would run away at the mere sight of his army. He marched westward, but was surprised in the early morning by his enemies when near Prestonpans. In less than ten minutes it was the unprepared English who were flying in disorder, utterly routed.

The foregoing is but a brief outline of the stormy history of those grey and ruined battlements overlooking the bleak North Sea at the southernmost point of entrance to the noble Firth of Forth. The mention of these stirring incidents, however, will serve to show what a very important place Dunbar was, and that it was necessary to Scottish safety that a strong hand should have charge of its fortress. We are now to see how at one of the most critical hours a woman was to hold command, and to hold it worthily.

Early in the reign of King Edward III. of England Scottish affairs were in some confusion. King Robert Bruce had lately died, leaving a son, King David II., then only five years old. That great leader and friend of Bruce, Randolph, Earl of Moray, was appointed Guardian of Scotland, but he too soon died. Edward III., anxious to interfere in Scottish affairs, agreed to help Edward Balliol to make himself king of the Scots. So an English army was again in Scotland, and one of the places they were keenest to take was the fortress of Dunbar.

The castle was a very strong one. It was built on a chain of great rocks that stretched out to sea, and could only be reached from land by one road, which was, of course, strictly guarded. The lord of the castle was the Earl of March (the word March in those days meant a border-land), but he was away with the Scottish army, and his wife was in charge of the castle. She was the daughter of that brave Earl of Moray, Guardian of Scotland, who has just been mentioned. The English army was led by an experienced general, the Earl of Salisbury, and he probably thought that he would not have much trouble in overcoming "Black Agnes," as the dark-haired countess was called.

He soon discovered that she was of heroic mould, however, for though he himself led the storming-parties, she on her side, urging on her men in person, hurled back his every attack. The Lady Agnes was quite fearless, and treated the siege as if it were a pastime to be enjoyed. When the English, with machines made for the purpose, hurled heavy stones against the walls, Black Agnes would call one of her maidens with a napkin to wipe off the dust that they made! The biggest of all the English war-machines was called a sow, and when it was brought to the walls the countess cried out in rough jest that it was surrounded by little pigs. At the same moment a mass of rock, which she had caused to be loosened, was hurled by her men on to the English, crushing their sow and many soldiers with it.

At last there seemed a chance for the English. Near midnight a Scot came into their camp, saying that he was ready to betray the castle for a reward. The Earl of Salisbury and some chosen knights rode carefully forward, and found the gate open and the portcullis raised, as the man had promised. But for all that, they doubted if Black Agnes could so far relax her vigilance; wherefore instead of the earl entering first, he sent forward a retainer. His caution was soon justified, for no sooner had this man passed the gate than the portcullis fell. It was a trick to capture the earl, but the Scots were disappointed this time.

The gallant English lord was loud in admiration of the brave Scottish lady who was thus defying him. Once when examining the defences with a lieutenant, an arrow struck his companion dead. "The countess's love-arrows pierce to the heart," said Salisbury, on his return to the camp. Despite the courtly manner in which the well-bred baron referred to the lady, however, he did not relax his efforts to overcome her.

Salisbury's land forces had now surrounded the castle on the land side, while his ships at sea completed the blockade. The garrison was threatened with starvation. Greater and greater became the privations of the heroic defenders. The countess, no less brave than ever, hoped on, though ground for hope grew less and less. She could not bring herself to think of defeat, and her brave, bright face still gave courage and inspiration to all.

Meantime the story of the struggle and difficulties of the defenders was raising up helpers, and Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie got ready a light vessel filled with provisions and manned by forty brave Scots, who only waited for a dark night to make the attempt to steal past the English fleet. They lay hidden by the Bass Rock, a lofty islet at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, some seven or eight miles from Dunbar, until one starless night they stole very cautiously down the wild coast-line of Haddingtonshire, sometimes all but bumping into an English vessel in the dark. Fortune favours the brave, and despite dangers and difficulties they got safely at last to the castle, whose distant light had been their guide. Be sure Black Agnes welcomed them! This proved to be the turning-point of the long siege. With fresh hope, the garrison made a sudden sally on the English, driving back their advance guard, and after five months of fierce but fruitless attempts, Salisbury was compelled to withdraw his forces and admit defeat. Nevertheless, the English were gallant enough to sing their praises of this Scottish heroine; their minstrels made songs in her honour, in one of which Salisbury is made to say:—
"Came I early, came I late,
I found Black Agnes at the gate."
 Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

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