Friday, September 15, 2023

Just where did the Douglases come from?

 By the time of the death of King Robert the Bruce, his great captain, James, the Black Douglas, was one of the most powerful and richest men in Scotland. But even in James' father's time they were neither rich nor particularly powerful, and it is an good question where they came from and how they ended up so powerful they were seen as a threat to the monarch.

Like a great many medieval families, the surname Douglas was originally a place name and title. It came from the river Douglas. In Scots Gaelic 'dubh' means black or dark and glas means grey-green. Near the banks of that river the first of the Douglases known to history, named not surprisingly William of Douglas, built his castle and took the name as a title. But where did he come from? 

It is notable that the Douglas escutcheon and that of the very important Murrays are nearly identical, three white stars on a blue band. (In heraldry azure, three mullets argent) That has led to speculation that the two families were related, but speculation is not necessary. In 1362 when Archibald the Grim was preparing to marry the Murray heiress, he had to send to the pope for a dispensation because they were related within six generations which confirms that they were related. It is known exactly where the Murrays, or Morays as they were known earlier, came from. They were originally Flemish and fought as mercenaries for King David I in his war to claim the crown of Scotland. He rewarded them with lands and they became an important family in the Scottish court. 

I think we can safely conclude that the Douglases were a cadet branch of the Murrays. It is likely that William of Douglas set off to build his own power base. He signed various charters as a witness between 1175 and 1215, so he is firmly placed in history.

However, they had neither their relatives wealth or status, and were not of great significance on the national stage. They worked to build their power base, which was land in medieval Scotland, but little is heard of them. In 1263, William of Douglas, known by the sobriquet 'Longlegs', fought for the Scots at the Battle of Largs, in 1263, a battle between the Norwegian army and the Scots which the young Scottish king Alexander III won. It would surprise many that Scotland was at peace with England but fighting the King of Norway who wanted to claim western Scotland. 

It was Longleg's son, yet another William of Douglas referred to as William le Hardi (William the Bold) who began the family's real climb to prominence. In 1270 and still in his twenties, he accompanied David, Earl of Atholl, and many other Scottish nobles on the Eighth Crusade. By 1289, the ambitious young man was styling himself Lord of Douglas, the first time that title was used. He had become important enough to marry Elizabeth Stewart, daughter of the High Stewart of Scotland. She died shortly after giving birth to James of Douglas, probably of complications of child birth.

At about that time King Alexander, after a long and successful reign, died when thrown from his horse. 

William le Hardi was not a man to let the grass grow under his feet. Pretty shortly after his first wife's death, he laid siege to Castle Fa'side and kidnapped Eleanor, widow of William de Ferrers, a considerable landowner in both England and Scotland. The Scots arrested him but then released him, and the two were married. She obviously could have escaped his grasp while he was imprisoned so one must make of that what you will. At any rate, King Edward I of England was enraged as usual and demanded that William be turned over to him, a demand the Scottish guardians of the realm chose to ignore.

Sadly the long peace between England and Scotland was rapidly coming to an end. It was the mistake of the Scots to think that they could trust Edward of England. They should have taken his brutal conquest of Wales as an example but did not.

When King Alexander's last direct heir of his body, his granddaughter Margaret, died on her way to Scotland, there was no clear heir to the throne. The Scots asked King Edward to mediate between the several claimants, prominently Robert the Bruce, called the Competitor and grandfather of Scotland's hero king, and John of Comyn. Primogenitor had still only been loosely adopted in Scotland and laws of inheritance in Scotland differed from those in England. Because of later events, it is largely assumed that King Edward decided to declare John the king because he was a weakling. Edward may have believed that. Certainly, in Scottish tradition, which Edward ignored, Robert the Bruce had a better claim. He was closer by one generation to the late king.

Edward lost no time in trying to force King John and the Scots into subservience to him and his rule. He even overturned a ruling by a Scottish court and demanded that King John appear before him in England. John at first gave way, but the Scottish nobles forced him into defiance. Thus began the war. After the disastrous Battle of Dunbar in which thousands of Scots died and hundreds taken prisoner, King Edward stripped King John of the throne of Scotland and declared Scotland his personal possession by conquest.

It did not take long for rebellion to rise. Douglas's cousin in the north of Scotland, Andrew de Moray, son of the Lord of Petty, raised his banner in rebellion while in the south of Scotland, the more renowned William Wallace did the same. William the Hardi promptly joined with Wallace in fighting the English. He was twice taken prisoner. The second time, he died of maltreatment in the Tower of London, but the English had failed to gain possession of William's young son. James of Douglas was safely in France, but he soon joined the household of Bishop Lamberton as a squire. 

When Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, raised his banner and seized the throne, young James threw his lot in with the new king.

It was James who earned the title of Black Douglas and fought, side by side, through the long years of struggle and war with King Robert the Bruce. In that was richly rewarded with vast land holdings and powers as they pushed the English out of Scotland. King Robert on his deathbed tasked James with carrying his heart on crusade. James died doing so and ever since the Douglas escutcheon has shown a heart below the three stars. 

Only three years after James's death, the English once again invaded Scotland, for a time pretending to do so on behalf of the son of the man they had stripped of the crown. James's only legitimate son, young William, died on the field as a squire to his uncle Archibald. Through forty more horrendous years of fighting, the Douglases led the fight for Scotland's freedom, but with great power and wealth too often comes arrogance. It was unweaning arrogance that was a few decades later their downfall.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

One of Scotland's great heroines! Part 2

Agnes Reynolds, Countess of Dunbar, must have watched from the ramparts as William Montague, Earl of Salisbury's huge English army surged into view and formed a camp, cutting her off from aid. A woman of only about thirty who had spent most of her life in the midst of a desperate war, she knew what to expect. Of course, that did not prevent her defiance, but she had to wonder how long even her well-provisioned castle with a deep well within its thick walls could hold out. Her husband, Patrick, Earl of Dunbar, and most of the Scottish army were in the north of Scotland. 

Three years before under the leadership of Andrew Murray, the Scots had destroyed the army of David de Strathbogie, the chief lieutenant of the English in the north. Now even the walled city of Perth and Stirling Castle were in danger of falling if Salisbury did not lead his army to their relief. But first Dunbar Castle had to be taken. 

The construction of trebuchets began. Then they flung massive rocks and even boulders. Day and night, they pounded the castle walls. However, bombarding Dunbar Castle was not an easy task. They could not be brought close enough to do maximum damage despite the size of the stones used. Some of those boulders the canny Agnes ordered saved for her own use. 

The crashes of huge stones against the ramparts were constant. So were the taunts from Agnes as she sent her women to dust the castle's crenellations behind which her archers took potshots at the enemy. At one near miss, Salisbury is said to have quipped, "There comes one of my lady's cloak pins. Agnes's love shafts go straight to the heart."

After weeks of frustration at watching little damage from their bombardment, Salisbury ordered the construction of a battering ram, sometimes referred to as a 'sow'. Out of reach of her archers, his men hung the trunk of an ancient pine by chains from a slanted roof mounted on wheels. Fresh cow hides covered the roof.

As the English soldiers heaved beneath the protection of the roof and pushed it closer and closer to the castle's thick wooden gates, her archers shot fire arrows at it. They all sputtered out when they struck the damp hides. If the English broke through the gate, even her strong castle could not hold out. The sow must be destroyed!

There was still one last hope. That hope had been sent her by the English. Her men dragged and hauled the largest of the boulders that had been flung against her walls onto the ramparts above the gate. Agnes ordered them to hold until the sow was immediately beneath the gate and the first blow resounded. Then they shoved it off. It smashed the sow to splinters. The English attackers not killed fled, many falling to arrows from the walls as they ran.

Salisbury knew that there was more than one way to take a castle. Many castles had fallen to treachery. He managed to get word to one of Agnes's guardsmen that he would be well paid for leaving the gate open the following night. The guardsman agreed. He then revealed the plot to Agnes. When Salisbury led the sneak attack, he was also not stupid. He let his men go first. The portcullis crashed down and the earl barely escaped capture and Agnes called down, "Farewell, Montague, I mean for you to sup with me the night."

Salisbury was frustrated beyond words. No progress had been made, the costs were piling up, and the siege needed to end before Scottish winter set in. As it happened Agnes's brother, Thomas, Earl of Moray, had been taken by the English in an ambush three years previously. He was being held in the dungeon of Nottingham Castle, far to the south as they had wanted to take no chances on his being rescued. But needs must, so a message was sent hundreds of miles south and the prisoner dragged in chains to outside Dunbar. A gallows was constructed, a rope placed around Thomas's neck, and Agnes told that if she did not surrender that her brother would hang.

Agnes sent back the message that as her brother had no children that she was his heir. Hang him if you will, she declared, and I will profit. After a few days, Thomas was returned to Nottingham and his dungeon.

By June Dunbar still had not fallen, but supplies were growing desperately low. The eventual enemy of even the strongest castle was starvation. Agnes sneaked word that she needed aid to the one man who might be able to help. She knew she could count on Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie and she was right. He found a few small boats. With twoscore of his men, he sneaked by night past English ships that guarded the sea approach, reached the seaward gate, and brought ashore fresh supplies. The English saw the resupply effort going on and charged. Ramsay and his men chased the English back to their camp.

Shortly after, on June 10, 1338, Walter Montague, Earl of Salisbury, gave up and retreated to England having done nothing but expend a lot of English gold and make 'Black' Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar, into a heroine of legend. As the ballad puts into Salisbury's mouth, "Came I early or came I late, I found Agnes at the gate!"

(Postscript: I find it amusing that two years later Thomas Randolph was exchanged for that same earl of Salisbury who had himself been taken prisoner.)