Scotland’s Second War of Independence, part 3: recovering the kingdom, 1337-41
Our series continues as we look at how the Bruce Scots, having weathered the storm of Edward III’s invasions in the mid-1330s, were able to claw back control over the kingdom, paving the way for David II to return home
Dr Iain A. MacInnes continues his reconstruction of the Second War of Independence by discussing how the Bruce Scots, having weathered the storm of Edward III’s invasions in the mid-1330s, were able to claw back control over the kingdom, paving the way for David II to return home
The campaign season of 1338 was dominated by the English siege of Dunbar Castle. Although not perhaps the most important event of the conflict, it was nonetheless a large-scale enterprise that continued for the best part of six months. The Lanercost Chronicle records that those within ‘were surrounded by a deep trench, so that they could not get out; wooden houses were constructed before the gate, and pavilions or tents were set up for the lodging of the chief persons in the army’.Those chief persons included William Montague, earl of Salisbury, Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel and Hugh Audley, earl of Gloucester.They did not, however, include the king. Edward III was at Berwick at the commencement of the siege, seemingly to discuss matters on the continent with some of his major nobles, but he left soon after to oversee preparations for his
expedition to the Low Countries. It was the earls, then, who were left to reduce the castle which was described by the same chronicler as being ‘irksome and oppressive to the whole district of [English-held] Lothian’.
BLACK AGNES AND DUNBAR
The defence of Dunbar was led by Agnes Dunbar (née Randolph), countess of March, known to history as ‘Black Agnes’. She was not the first noblewoman to undertake such an effort during this conflict. Indeed, she was at least the third, following the examples of Christina Bruce at Kildrummy (1335) and Katherine Beaumont at Lochindorb (1336). Agnes was, however, the noblewoman about whom the most was written due to the vigour she displayed in leading Dunbar’s defence.Walter Bower, in his Scotichronicon, relates a series of tales that emphasise Agnes’s involvement in the siege and bring her to life as more than simply a stock character of medieval history. For example, Bower noted that Countess Agnes: girl to be sent, adorned like a bride for her husband, who with a white piece of cloth or handkerchief held in her hand would wipe and gently rub the place of impact.
When the earl of Salisbury had a siege engine known as a ‘sow’ created to provide his troops with covered access to the castle walls, Countess Agnes in turn had a stone launched from one of her siege engines which struck the sow and dashed to pieces those sheltering under it. She apparently mocked the English once more by crying ‘Montague, Montague, beware, for your sow will farrow!’ And when the earl of Salisbury thought he had gained entrance to the castle by bribing one of its gate-keepers, the tables were turned and almost led to the capture Montague himself. He was only saved from his fate by the quick-thinking of the English knight, John Coupland, who pulled the earl out of the way and was taken by the Scots instead. Bower wrote again of Countess Agnes’s derision of the English attackers, calling ‘Adieu Monsieur Montague’ to the relieved earl.
While the English forces lay before Dunbar Castle, however, the Bruce Scots were busy elsewhere. Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie led a raid across the border, potentially in an attempt to draw the besiegers away from Dunbar. William Douglas of Liddesdale was active in Lothian and ambushed forces from the garrison of Edinburgh Castle when they were raiding the local countryside. Amongst those captured was the garrison’s commander, John Stirling. Deciding to make use of his captives, Douglas took them back to Edinburgh and displayed them to the remaining garrison within the castle. He demanded that the garrison surrender, offering them safe conduct to return to England with their lives and goods if they did so, but threatening to execute every one of his prisoners if they did not.The garrison called Douglas’ bluff and refused. Contemporary notions of good behaviour meant that Douglas was required to provide safety to his prisoners after their capture and surrender, as long as they were noble of course. And the garrison likely knew this and could be relatively safe in the knowledge that Douglas would not carry out his threats. Indeed, he did not, and sent his prisoners off to captivity instead. Interestingly, though, these actions may have had a direct impact on a very similar event that occurred soon after.
For John Randolph, earl of Moray,
AFTER SIX MONTHS OF SIEGE, DUNBAR AND ITS GARRISON HAD SUCCESSFULLY HELD OUT, AND AS THE CHRONICLE EVIDENCE SUGGESTS, MUCH OF THE CREDIT FOR THAT WENT TO COUNTESS AGNES
in English custody after his capture in 1335, was brought before the walls of Dunbar Castle in much the same way as John Stirling had been at Edinburgh. Randolph was the brother of Countess Agnes of Dunbar and, it was assumed, pressure could be put on her to surrender if she wished no harm to come to her sibling. But the Lanercost Chronicle, echoing the view of her provided by Bower, reported that Countess Agnes refused to surrender on the basis that Dunbar was her husband’s castle, not that of her brother. Moreover, as she went on to say, if the English executed Earl John then that would simply result in her becoming heir to the earldom of Moray as her brother had no children of his own. And so, just as with Douglas at Edinburgh, the English did not carry out their threats and instead returned the earl of Moray to his captivity in England.
The siege of Dunbar dragged on until June 1338, but the earl of Salisbury had abandoned it by the end of April. Edward III was preparing to take ship to sail to the continent and Montague, as one of the king’s key noble supporters, did not want to miss out.The other English lords at Dunbar felt similarly and so made a series of truces, and then a final peace, that allowed their departure for England and on to the Low Countries as what became known as the HundredYears War entered its initial phase. After six months of siege, Dunbar and its garrison had successfully held out, and as the chronicle evidence suggests, much of the credit for that went to Countess Agnes.
CHANGE OF LEADERSHIP
In spite of these successes, Scotland also suffered a significant loss in 1338. Andrew Murray, leader of the Bruce Scottish war effort since at least 1335, died. This may have been a result of dysentery contracted whilst besieging Edinburgh Castle and it was a significant blow to Bruce activity. Murray had led an active resistance to the Disinherited and English administrations in Scotland. He had led Bruce forces to victory at Culblean and had overseen a concerted effort to roll back the advances made by the supporters of Edward Balliol and to disrupt English attempts to control southern Scotland. He even resumed Scottish raids into northern England, forcing Edward III to spend money on English border defence and on regular musters of troops to oppose both real and imagined Scottish incursions onto English soil. These raids in particular demonstrated increasing Bruce confidence in the direction of the war. Murray was not, however, regarded in a wholly positive light. This ambivalence is demonstrated in Walter Bower’s eulogy for the dead guardian, where he wrote:
By assault he destroyed all the castles and fortresses on this side of the Forth that were occupied by the English… But he also reduced all the regions through which he passed during his expeditions to such desolation and scarcity that more perished through hunger and extreme poverty than the sword destroyed from the time of the outbreak of the war.
Victory came at a cost, and later Scottish chroniclers like Bower would question whether the pain suffered by Scots had really been worth it. In spite of such commentary, however, it is clear that Murray’s success cannot be underestimated.
Following his death, the guardianship of Scotland returned once more to Robert the Steward as nearest heir to the young David II. Despite his brief flirtation with the two Edwards in 1335, the Steward recognised that this was his chance to shine. Whether he took advantage of this situation, however, is debatable. He was involved in various military activities in the next two years. These were, however, largely focused on targets within Scotland. This may have been a deliberate strategy.The recapture of the remaining Disinherited-held castles and advancement of the war into the English-held south could return Scotland to its pre-war extent. But some argue that the Steward’s Scottish focus was only intended to feather his own nest and benefit his family and allies. And the Steward may ultimately have had little choice over the matter, as he struggled to control the activities of Bruce commanders who had grown powerful because of successful wartime action.
These men, such as Alexander Ramsay and William Douglas of Liddesdale, established a reputation for chivalry and attracted local knights and squires to their ‘military schools’. They achieved fame and wealth by attacking English targets and raiding across the border. But this also led to a rather disunited war effort, with power devolved to those able to gather a fighting force and wield it as they saw fit. While they could combine their forces when required to mount larger operations, this had to be for the benefit of all involved. And such disunity also invariably led to competition between lords who sought to become yet more powerful, which would ultimately have tragic consequences. Still, in the short term, the Bruce Scots continued to have success in their efforts. Ramsay led a raid on northern England in late 1338 that defeated a force of English borderers near Wark. And English writers increasingly saw the Bruce Scots working in tandem with the French in their attacks as Edward III spent more time on the continent. Key Scottish fortifications were also targeted in a series of sieges and surprise attacks that unpicked the Disinherited hold on Balliol Scotland, and increasingly threatened the English-held south.
THE SIEGE OF PERTH
The biggest gain of 1339 was the recapture of Perth after a concerted siege by the Bruce Scots. Efforts had already been made against the town as recently as 1338, but the size of the
siege employed in the following year emphasises Perth’s importance. It was Edward Balliol’s capital and had been one of the first major urban centres to submit to the alternative king back in 1332. By 1339 it was held by an English commander, Thomas Ughtred, with a garrison largely made up of men from his Yorkshire estates. There remained, however, a remnant of the Balliol force that had held the town in previous years for King Edward. The relationship between Perth and the competing sides in the conflict is an interesting one. It changed hands multiple times during the period 133235, but appears to have fared badly at the hands of the Bruce Scots. In particular, their periods of occupation ended with deliberate destruction of parts of the town as they sought to make it indefensible to the enemy. The people of Perth may also have been welcoming of their new Balliol king, and the town’s importance for King Edward (as well as for Edward III when on campaign in Scotland) may have brought specific benefits. Certainly, Bruce military activity from 1335 to 1338 largely by-passed the town and its surrounding countryside as other areas of Balliol support were targeted instead.The garrison based within the town may have been one reason why this remained the case.
When Thomas Ughtred took up the position of Perth’s constable in 1337, he did so with the promise to find 800 men for its defence in times of war. It is highly unlikely that he ever achieved this number, but English pay records suggest that the garrison at the time of his arrival numbered around 470, which remained a sizable contingent. Other records emphasise that this was not simply a static force, and that the garrison’s mounted troops were engaged in activities in a broad area around Perth. They may even have had access to naval resources to patrol the Tay.The efforts of Edward III to secure the town may also have included the building, repair, or replacement of the town’s defences to enclose it with walls and/or gates. Perth therefore joined Berwick as the only Scottish towns to have their own defences and thus enable them to have a better chance of withstanding a siege.
Ughtred also appears to have been committed to his role and spent considerable time writing to Edward III begging for increased supplies for the town and pay for his troops. There were practical reasons for doing so – unpaid troops were likely to desert – but it may also relate to the wellbeing of the townspeople. Perth Castle had been abandoned by the 13th century and so there was no separate fortification in which the garrison would reside. As a result, the relationship between town and garrison must have been one of close proximity and so Ughtred had to ensure its stability if he were to successfully retain the loyalty of those who lived under his control.
That relationship was sorely tested by the siege that took place in the summer of 1339. A large Bruce force, including the Steward and several other Scottish nobles, arrived in June and besieged Perth for over two months.The Bruce Scots had reduced the Disinherited presence in the areas around the town in the previous period, and they successfully captured the last Balliol-held castle in Fife (Cupar Castle) around the same time. There were, therefore, few friends to come to Perth’s aid.The Bruce Scots reinforced this with the use of five French ships led by a ‘pirate’ called Hugh Hampyle, which patrolled the Tay to ensure no messages were sent to England and no supplies could aid the townspeople. These ships, along with some French troops, had been brought to Perth by William Douglas of Liddesdale who had returned from a visit to David II in Normandy. On top of this, Earl William of Ross brought miners to the siege who ‘constructed tunnels, digging them over long distances, by which means they drew the water out of the moats and left them dried up’. The Bruce Scots also devastated the surrounding countryside, removing any crops and foodstuffs that could be used to supply the town. Bower wrote that:
so great… was the dearth and lack of provisions that the common people were starving everywhere; and eating grass like sheep, they were found dead in pits. Nearby there lurked in a ruined building a certain peasant called Christy Cleke with his fierce woman; they lay in wait for women, children and young people, and after strangling them, like a wolf, lived on their flesh.
Bower’s somewhat fanciful tale may have been the stuff of local legend, but it reinforces the suffering of the townspeople at this time. Although the garrison and townsmen put up a strong resistance, it was probably the lack of food which forced Thomas Ughtred to enter negotiations for Perth’s surrender. As a result, the commander and his troops were given safe conduct to depart by sea for England and Perth returned to Bruce control.
THE RETURN OF THE KING
Events on the continent increasingly affected those in Scotland as the early stages of the Hundred Years War produced a number of truces which the French ensured included the Bruce Scots. In this way Scotland was never left isolated to face Edward III alone, and the English king in turn was faced by an ongoing two-front war as he increasingly campaigned across the Channel.The Bruce Scots used these truces to their advantage, however, and did not always strictly adhere to the periods of peace that were meant to take place. English chroniclers complained bitterly about Bruce breaches of truce, but ultimately there was little that could be done when their king’s focus lay firmly elsewhere. A Bruce raid over the border in 1340, led by the earls of March and Sutherland, caused significant destruction but was overtaken by a force of English borderers and defeated, with the loss of all their booty and the capture of many Scots.
Still, the situation in northern England was not a stable one. One English chronicler, Geoffrey le Baker, suggested that ‘the marcher lords of the area took no steps to meet [the Bruce Scots] in a battle, or rather kept putting it off, although they had been given much money by the king to guard the marches’. Such distrust of the motives and abilities of the northern English nobility echoes similar fears from the wars of Robert I, when Edward II largely abandoned northern England to fend for itself. It is easy to see in comments like Baker’s a return to