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Dunbar versus Douglas



An Article by Andrew Spratt

Dunbar Castle
Dunbar harbour and castle, East Lothian, Scotland, in 1987
Today the fragmented ruins of Dunbar Castle, some thirty miles east of Edinburgh, on a series of rock stacks beside the North sea, fail to hint at the original size and form of this once great, strategic coastal fortress. Not only was it fought over time and again by the Scots and English,(the most famous siege being in 1338 when ‘Black Agnes’, Lord Dunbar’s young wife, was its defender. The siege was eventually raised by Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie Castle, who smuggled men and supplies in by boat, passing through the blockading English fleet.) The castle was also fought over by two powerful rival Scots families, the Dunbars whose seat it was and the Douglases, being besieged by the ‘Black’ Douglases in 1396 then seized by them in 1400. The castle was also seized again from the Dunbars in 1434 by the ‘Red’ Douglas faction.

In the 13th century, the castle was but one in a chain of fortresses held by the Dunbars, “the seven war steeds of Dunbar”. Historians still argue which “seven” castles made up the “war steeds”. A possible list would include Dunbar Castle, Hailes castle near East Linton, Byres Castle near Haddington, Luffness Castle beside Aberlady, Stoneypath Tower near Garvald – all in East Lothian; then Coldbrandspath Tower (Cockburnspath) and Billie Castle near Chirnside in the Borders. By the late 14th century, many of these “war steeds” had passed to other vassal families. Hailes to the Hepburns through marriage, Byres to the Lyndsays, Luffness to the Bickertons and then Hepburns and Stoneypath to the Douglases of Dalkeith through marriage. In 1400, Coldbrandspath was seized by the ‘Black’ Douglases, and again by the ‘Red’ Douglases in 1434, when they also seized and kept Billie castle.

The Dunbars whoses forefathers were called GosPatrick or CosPatrick changed their name to Dunbar after their principal fortress or tower called a ‘Dun’ on a rock bar hence Dun-bar. Likewise the Douglases Flemish forefathers took their name from the ‘dark water’ beside which they made their first camp on their arrival in Scotland. It was not unusual for families to name themselves after a location or place of ancestral significance.

Originally the Dunbars and Douglases fought unitedly against other Scots families, but mostly against the English. In 1346, Sir Patrick Dunbar and William Douglas the ‘Knight of Liddesdale’ both distinguished themselves at the battle of Neville’s Cross near Durham; but were defeated and captured along with their King, David II (1329-1371). Ironically William was held, for a time in his own castle of Hermitage. As this was where he, for some unknown reason, incarcerated and killed Alexander Ramsay (the Scots hero of the 1338 siege of Dunbar) in 1342. Eventually William’s Godson another William Douglas, later 1st Earl of Douglas, ambushed and killed the ‘Knight of Liddesdale’ while hunting in Ettrick Forest in revenge for Ramsay’s murder and for allegedly collaborating with the English. William, 1st Earl of Douglas with King David’s blessing also claimed his Godfather’s castle of Hermitage and lands of Liddesdale for himself and his kin.

In 1355, Sir Patrick Dunbar also supported William, 1st Earl of Douglas’ victory over the English at the first battle of Nisbet near Duns. Dunbar then travelled abroad to France with William, 1st Earl and his cousin known as Archibald ‘the Grim’ Douglas, because of his terrible countenance in warfare, (later 3rd Earl of Douglas) to fight on behalf of the French King John II at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, against the ‘Auld Enemy’, England. Although the Scots-French army was defeated and the French King captured, these three Scots Knights, Dunbar, Douglas and his cousin returned home relatively rich men with French monies paid as mercenaries. Patrick Dunbar chose to use his money to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy lands where he died in 1357, leaving his son George to inherit Dunbar castle. William, Earl of Douglas completed the great red sandstone curtain wall of Tantallon Castle
Tantallon Castle ruin
Southwestern tower of Tantallon Castle with Bass Rock in the distance
between 1360/71 near North Berwick. While his cousin Archibald ‘the Grim’, having cleared the English out of Dumfries, in his role as Lord of Galloway, built his island Keep of Threave to protect Dumfries and Galloway around 1369 onwards.

In 1363, King David II of Scots and Archibald ‘the Grim’ Douglas attacked and defeated the Earl of Mar’s forces from Kildrummy Castle in an unprovoked act of royal aggression. Mar’s Brother-in-law William, Earl of Douglas, enraged by this action, seized Dirleton castle holding the Halyburtons hostage and captured some Ramsays in Fife in a separate raid as William and his ally George Dunbar, 10th Earl of Dunbar, both believed these families were in league with the King and Archibald ‘the Grim’, (however they did not execute the hostages for this alleged treachery).

William and Dunbar then sacked lands in Lanark, where they in turn were met and defeated by the King and Archibald ‘the Grim’. The Earls of Douglas and Dunbar then sued for peace. To compensate for their rebellious actions both William, Earl of Douglas and George Dunbar had to give some of their Border lands to Archibald ‘the Grim’ at the King’s insistence. But no further action was taken against Douglas and Dunbar by the King since to push them too far would result in open civil war.

In 1371, William, Earl of Douglas clashed with George Dunbar and his brother John, Lord of Fife at Linlithgow Palace over the ‘choice of their future king’. Since King David’s death, William contested the right of the ‘Stewart’ to become King Robert II (1371-1390) while the Dunbars supported Robert. Because both the Douglas and the Dunbars had large armies around the Palace, things could spill over into violence.

Such a challenge against a future king was surely suicidal on William’s part. Yet he wasn’t discounting the blood line of the ‘Stewart’ to the Bruce but suggested the possibility of other crown candidates. He personally raised the spectre of his own claim to the throne or rather that of his Brother-in-law Thomas, Earl of Mar, the nearest blood line to the old Balliol/Comyn families claim. In fact even the Dunbars could claim royal descent through Aba, the illegitimate daughter of King William ‘the Lion’ (1165-1214).

Douglas therefore sought to extract various concessions from the ‘Stewart’ for his support. The Dunbars expected a fight. Instead the ‘Stewart’ entered into negotiations with the Douglas faction. William’s son James (later the 2nd Earl of Douglas) was to marry ‘King’ Robert’s daughter and as part of a marriage settlement would receive a 100 merk pension maintained by Royal Customs. William himself became Royal Justiciar south of the Forth, with an annual salary of £200. Further when the marriage took place, a payment of £500 was given to William and £100 to his son. Instead of destroying his standing, William had enhanced his position, power and earned the respect of the other Lords for having been so bold. Later when Thomas, Earl of Mar died, William made his Brother-in-law’s widow his mistress, starting off the illegitimate ‘Red’ Douglas line of Tantallon who, in theory, could claim links to the Balliol/Comyn crown claim though this was never exploited.

In 1388, George Dunbar with William’s son and successor James, 2nd Earl of Douglas led a decoy army to attack Newcastle. While Archibald ‘the Grim’ and the Lord of Fife with an even bigger army attacked the west coast of England. In a skirmish before the walls of Newcastle James unhorsed Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy the English commander stealing his banner. This led to the battle of Otterburn where ‘Hotspur’ tried to recover his colours. During the night attack on the Scots camp, James was stabbed in the back by his own armour bearer, John Bickerton of Luffness castle. Douglas then fell in the English charge but his death was concealed while Sinclair of Herdmanston Castle held aloft the Douglas banner crying ‘A Douglas!, A Douglas!’. As Sinclair almost floundered beneath the English push, Patrick Hepburn and his son from Hailes castle saved the banner rallying the Scots. ‘Hotspur’ and his brother were captured and the rest of the English put to flight, hence some accounts call Otterburn ‘Chevy chase’.

The mastermind behind James’ assassination was probably Archibald ‘the Grim’ who had most to gain, or rather seize, after his death. By using Bickerton of Luffness, a former Dunbar vassal family from a former Dunbar house, he implied the Dunbars were involved in the murder, if questions were asked. But nothing came of this since Bickerton was also murdered outside Luffness castle, on holy ground beside the Friary, before he could be arrested and questioned. Then his assassin, Ramsay of    mysteriously disappeared with Waughton passing to the Hepburns, another Dunbar vassal family.

The weak-willed King Robert III (1390-1406) allowed Archibald to retain the title 3rd Earl of Douglas, despite the claim of James’ half-brother, George the ‘Red’ Douglas of Tantallon. This was aggressively protested by his mother and her kin, the Sinclairs of Herdmanston. Archibald as Earl claimed many Border lands which belonged to George’s father William, even the estates in Liddesdale were given to Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith, a long time ally of Archibald.

Buncle Castle remains
The remains of Bunkle Castle
During these troubled times, there was even an attempt to seize Tantallon from the young ‘Red’ Douglas by the Stewarts through Malcolm Drummond with the support of the Halyburtons of Dirleton. But the castle’s Constable Allen Lauder, the Sinclairs and the Lyndsays of Byres refused by show of strength to allow this to happen. Drummond relented his claim to Tantallon and George became 1st Earl of Angus when his mother resigned her title in favour of him, giving him lands in Angus, Perth and Bunkle Castle in the Borders. James’ murder at Otterburn was the spark that in time caused a fiery feud between the Red and Black Douglases which was to last some 70 years, which climaxed in such battles as Arkinholm 1455 and Lochmaben 1458.

In 1389, Drummond disgusted by his failure to become Keeper of Tantallon and Archibald’s ability to seize lands unchallenged by the King, resulted in him seeking English help in pursuing his own claims. However, as he led his English army into Scotland, he was ambushed by Archibald. With his forces destroyed, Drummond is thought to have fled to France as his body was never recovered from the battlefield.

In 1396, George Dunbar, Earl of March’s daughter Elizabeth was married to Prince David. However, Archibald secretly suggested to King Robert III that the marriage should be abandoned in favour of his daughter Marjory Douglas. To this end, the King, totally out of character, massed an army at Haddington with Black Douglas support and besieged Dunbar Castle, “in connection with the irregular marriage of his son and a daughter of the Earl of March.” The King also invoked the wrath of the church, claiming the marriage had gone ahead before permission of Pope Benedict XIII had officially been given.

The siege, or rather blockade since there is no mention of siege engines being used, dragged on into February 1397 when George Dunbar obtained a safe conduct order from King Richard II (1377-1399) of England for himself and one hundred of his household to travel and reside in England for six months. On the 10th of March, the Pope dissolved the marriage, ending the King’s assault on Dunbar Castle. Surprisingly, Dunbar returned to his castle bearing the King no ill-will since he was under the misconception that when enough time had passed and the Pope gave his blessing, Prince David would officially re-marry his daughter. Dunbar seemed totally oblivious to Archibald’s scheme.

In 1398, George the ‘Red’ Douglas with his allies, the Sinclairs, the Lyndsays and the Nisbets, attacked the Douglases of Dalkeith, burning lands around Dalkeith Castle and Stoneypath Tower, testing the water to see what their ally and mentor Archibald ‘the Grim’ would do. But, since he was preoccupied with other schemes against the Dunbars, he did nothing. Encouraged by this, George gathered more allies to his cause including the Sinclairs of Roslin Castle in West Lothian and David Fleming of Biggar. He then attacked lands in the west using Calder Castle as a base of operations and systematically harassed the Dalkeith Douglases for the next two years, demanding the return of his Father’s Liddesdale lands. Eventually, George and his allies, with the Hays of Yester castle as an escort, marched on Bothwell Castle for a meeting with Archibald. George agreed to end the Red Douglas attacks in exchange for some of the lost Liddesdale lands.

In 1399, King Richard II was replaced by the usurper, Henry IV (1399-1413) with the aid of the Percies of Northumberland. Since the truce between the Scots and the English had been arranged during Richard’s reign, there was doubt as to the validity of such a treaty. So Dunbar sent his sons with Archibald’s son, also Archibald, Master of Douglas (later 4th earl of Douglas ‘the loser’) to storm and burn Lord Grey’s Wark Castle on the English Border. King Henry demanded those responsible for the attack on Wark should be brought to justice or else he would invade Scotland. Prince David acting in his father’s name refused to debate the truce and to add insult to injury addressed the reply to the Duke of Lancaster, Henry’s old title, refusing to recognize his kingship. Consequently, Henry sent orders to muster an army at York, calling in all reserve forces which, once assembled, he would personally lead into Scotland supported by a supply fleet of ships moored off Tynemouth.

In 1400, George Dunbar became aware of Prince David’s proposed marriage to Archibald’s daughter. Angered by this insult to his daughter, Dunbar challenged the King to “keep his agreement with him, or he would arrange for something unheard of and unusual to be done in the kingdom.” The marriage went ahead despite Dunbar’s threats and to add insult to injury, Prince David made the Master of Douglas lifetime keeper of Edinburgh Castle, effectively turning it into a Black Douglas stronghold within striking distance of Dunbar’s Lothian lands and his principal seat, Dunbar castle itself.

Dunbar met with his vassalmen, including the Lauders and Hepburns, divulging plans to switch allegiance from King Robert III to King Henry IV of England. He commanded they return to their respective castles and prepare for war, incase King Robert’s forces attacked. George Dunbar then left his castle defended by his nephew Maitland of Lethington (Lennox love Tower) while he and one hundred of his men travelled to England to offer his services as soldiers, including the use of his castles as staging posts for any planned invasion of Scotland. ‘Hotspur’ Percy was about to take Dunbar up on his offer when news came that Dunbar Castle had been attacked by the Master of Douglas, acting in King Robert’s name. To save bloodshed, Maitland had thrown open the gates and surrendered on reasonable terms, since Dunbar’s family were courteously allowed time to pack up their belongings and leave with ‘safe’ escort to the Border. Coldbrandspath (Cockburnspath) Tower and Billie Castle were still in Dunbar hands unlike Hailes and Markle Castle as their keepers, the Hepburns had sided with the ‘Black’ Douglases.

In reply, King Henry with the ousted Dunbar and ‘Hotspur’ invaded Scotland besieging Edinburgh Castle which was defended by Archibald ‘the Grim’ and his son-in-law Prince David, Duke of Rothesay. The siege proved ineffective and Henry declined David’s offer of ten or twenty of their best men to fight to the death to settle the outcome of the siege, since Henry had superior numbers and time on his side. Though the English siege camp was heckled by the Master of Douglas and Ramsay of Dalhousie Castle near Bonnyrigg.

During these raids, the Master of Douglas discovered Prince David’s uncle, the Duke of Albany, with a large army nearby. But Albany refused to join in the assaults on the English camp. Likely he wanted Edinburgh Castle to fall and Prince David killed or captured so he would be a step closer to seizing the throne from his weak brother, King Robert III. As the camp raids continued Henry, at Dunbar’s insistence sent a task force to besiege Dalhousie Castle. Both sieges of Edinburgh and Dalhousie were suddenly abandoned when news came that Owen of Glendower rightful Prince of Wales had revolted against the English over lords and was attacking Caerphilly Castle. Henry and his entire army marched quickly south to Wales to prevent Owen’s rebellion from gaining support and to save Caerphilly, a key symbol of English domination over the Welsh.

In 1401, Dunbar and ‘Hotspur’ with 2,000 men made a lighting raid on the Lothians burning down Markle castle and village along with the villages of Traprain and Hailes. The castle of Hailes proved too strong stoutly defended by the Hepburns who, as ex-Dunbar vassals, recognised Lord Dunbar would give them no quarter making their resistance all the more determined.

Today, the ruin of Hailes Castle seems a weak site. However, in 1400, the Traprain burn was dammed back trapping rain water from the hillside flooding the castle ditches on three sides before cascading down on the River Tyne which protected the north side. Dunbar and ‘Hotspur’ made two unsuccessful assaults on the castle before making camp for the night, planning to attack again at first light.

In the darkness, disguising his small numbers, Archibald Douglas with an ‘armed force’ from Edinburgh Castle threw the English camp into total confusion. The Hepburns raced out from their castle to join in the slaughter which ensued. Somehow Dunbar and ‘Hotspur’ escaped with ‘loss of camp and booty.’ The remaining English fled to Coldbrandspath (Cockburnspath) Tower but this was soon stormed by the Scots and captives taken. Others fled to South Berwick (Berwick on Tweed) where one knight, Thomas Talbot, tried to make a stand against the pursuing Douglases before the Town walls, but was unhorsed and his banner taken as a trophy.

In December 1400, Archibald ‘the Grim’ 3rd Earl of Douglas, Lord of Galloway died at Threave castle in
4th Earl of Douglas
Thought to be the 4th earl of Douglas
 Dumfries. His son, Archibald then became 4th Earl of Douglas, 2nd Lord of Galloway. He was known in historical accounts as ‘the loser’ because of the amount of battles he lost – Homildon hill in 1402 where he was wounded five times and lost an eye; Shrewsbury in 1403 where he lost a testicle and finally Verneuil, France in 1424 where he lost his life.

In 1401, Archibald’s brother-in-law Prince David led an army up the Fife coast extracting revenues from various towns and castles, at times by force for his own pocket, even though they had already officially paid their dues to his Uncle, the Duke of Albany. Archibald and Albany had Prince David arrested to keep the peace. But, as he was “long guarded” at Falkland Palace, David mysteriously died, probably of starvation. Albany was keen to seize the throne from this brother Robert III who was a very sick man both mentally and physically, so it was only a matter of time. Only Robert’s remaining son the boy Prince James (later King James I of Scots 1406-1437) remained to block Albany from his goal.

In June 1402, The Hepburns, the Lauders, the Cockburns and the Halyburtons raided the north of England. On their return they were engaged at the second battle of Nisbet by ‘Hotspur’ Percy and George Dunbar. Because all the families, aside from the Halyburtons were ex-Dunbar vassals, it made the fighting all the more fierce with the Scots gaining the upper hand. Suddenly Dunbar’s son arrived with reinforcements from Berwick Castle, winning the day for the English. Dunbar then executed the Hepburn contingent despite their honourable surrender. Halyburton was kept in such detestable conditions before being ransomed that he died of ‘loosing of the bowels’ on his return home. Dunbar’s treatment of the Lauders and Cockburns isn’t recorded but likely they didn’t fair any better.

In September 1402, Archibald, 4th Earl of Douglas and Albany’s son, Murdoch Stewart, led a large Scots army to sack Newcastle. Included in this force were the ‘Red’ Douglas of Tantallon Castle and his rival James Douglas (the younger) of Dalkeith Castle along with the Sinclairs, the Hays, the Ramsays, the Gordons and Livingstons to name but a few.

After looting and burning Newcastle, the Scots laden down with much heavy booty, marched homeward and eventually had to stop to make camp. ‘Hotspur’ Percy and Dunbar, having assembled an army at Dunstanburgh Castle, marched to intercept the Scots at Homildon Hill near Wooler. Their camp was attacked by Percies archers units in an attempt to draw the Scots off the hill side. These expert longbow men quickly routed the Scots shortbow contingent and sent large volumes of arrows which fell like storm rain into the camp. Eventually, after many deaths, Archibald rode down the hill with a troop of his horse. He hoped to rush the archers. However when the archers saw this, “they retreated, but still firing so vigorously, so effectively, that they pierced the armour, perforated the helmets, pitted swords, split lance and pierced all equipment with ease”. The Scots charge suddenly became a desperate flight for fear of the “death dealing arrows”. Archibald and George the ‘Red’ Douglas both had their horses shot out from under them and continued to fight on foot. “Archibald was pierced with five wounds, notwithstanding his elaborate armour”, and had an eye poked out before being captured. George had a single arrow through the chest and like Halyburton of Dirleton, he was kept in appalling surroundings before being ransomed that he died of a ‘plague’ contracted during his captivity.

King Henry IV (1399-1413) of England was delighted with ‘Hotspur’ and Dunbar’s victory at Homildon Hill and since so many prominent Scots Lords had been captured southern Scotland lacking leadership was now vulnerable to future English attacks. Also the Percies stood to collect a king’s ransom in ransom payments for these Lords. Greedy for this revenue, the King broke with border tradition demanding all the prisoners be handed over to him for ransom. ‘Hotspur’ refused stating that he and his ancestors had fought the Scots for centuries without the aid or sponsorship of the Kings of England. They financed their campaigns by ransoms, lootings and other spoils of war which were accepted as border law by the victors on both sides of the border.

Henry continued to demand some, if not all the prisoners. This was a gross miscalculation on the King’s part since the Percies like the Douglases in Scotland were extremely powerful both logistically and politically with many allies. To compromise, many of the prisoners were given to the King except Archibald, 4th Earl of Douglas, Lord of Galloway and other key Scots. In exchange, King Henry, though he had no legal right to do so, granted the Earldom of Douglas to Hotspur’s father, the Earl of Northumberland with all the lands of Eskdale, Liddesdale, Lauderdale, Ettrick Forest, Teviotdale and the Lordship of Selkirk. He also granted the Lordship of Galloway with its southern estates to the Earl of Westmoreland. While George Dunbar was rewarded with additional monies of his continued loyalty, having already been given a lifetime pension and a manor house in 1401.


In fact George Dunbar had already raced to Henry’s court with his suspicions that things were not as they appeared. When the Duke of Albany arrived with a large Scots army to save Cocklaws and Innerwick, ‘Hotspur’ and Douglas had disappeared possibly collecting troops from Dunbar Castle. The two token, mock sieges had been a smoke screen by the Percies to lull Henry into a false sense of security. ‘Hotspur’ and Douglas were now racing south to link with the rebel army of Owen of Glendower of Wales and the Earl of Northumberland who was marching with an even larger army drawn from the northern counties of England. Once these three armies merged, their intention was to overthrow King Henry by force of arms and install a new usurper king, perhaps even ‘Hotspur’ himself.

The willingness of Douglas and his fellow captive Scots to fight for ‘Hotspur’ seems a puzzle. However, Douglas’ motives were clear for three reasons. First, the Percies would waive the huge ransoms owed by Douglas and his men for their freedom. Secondly, the English claims to the Earldom of Douglas and the Lordship of Galloway with the lands and titles these encompassed would be abandoned. Finally, the key reason for Douglas’ collaboration was his old adversary Dunbar, lacking the sponsorship of the King would be destroyed politically since he and his family were totally dependent on the goodwill of Henry.

Owen was grateful of Percy support, as he had been conducting a guerrilla war against Henry for years with little real success. Now he would have the manpower to face Henry in the open field and finally defeat him. Then Wales would be free; the Percies would have a new puppet king; while the Douglas and his men would have their freedom. Everyone would be happy. Unfortunately, the would-be rebels failed to count on the actions of George Dunbar who warned King Henry as he marched north, ironically to aid ‘Hotspur’ in his alleged battle against the Duke of Albany. Dunbar and the King then raced southwest to intercept ‘Hotspur’ and Douglas at the battle of Shrewsbury near the Welsh border before he could link with the other two rebel armies.

At the battle, Douglas led the Percy vanguard of archers who fired first without warning and so fast that “the sun lost its brightness so thick were the arrows.” Henry’s archers made a token reply with “a shower of sharp points against their adversaries.” But by this time many of their number had already “fallen as fast as the leaves in autumn.” After this bloody exchange both sides put their hands to swords and axes with which they began to slay each other. ‘Hotspur’ and thirty mounted knights with lances couched carved a lane in the middle of the host until they came on the King’s banner where they killed four ‘decoy’ king Henrys dressed in royal surcoats. After being unhorsed ‘Hotspur’ continued his search for Henry on foot. At this point, some accounts claim he was within striking distance of the ‘real’ King Henry, when he was fatally wounded in the neck and quickly bled to death.

Douglas carried on the fight. “Men and horses were slain in such ways as it was pitiable to see.” Soon Douglas was wounded in the groin and captured, probably by Dunbar, as he led one of Henry’s wings. As night fell, many on both sides fled the field not knowing who had actually won. With news of Hotspur’s death and Douglas’ capture, The Earl of Northumberland, approaching with a huge army, suddenly sued for peace, with the King seeking only to recover the body of his son. Owen’s army, which was also nearby, quickly fled back to Wales. Although Archibald Douglas became an English captive again, he was still able to wield great political power in Scotland through his brother James the Gross, or the Fat (later 7th Earl of Douglas) and continued to conspire with the Duke of Albany.

When the lands of Cavers and sheriffship of Roxburgh were resigned by the illegitimate son of James, 2nd Earl of Douglas (who died at Otterburn in 1388) they were pre-arranged to pass to the deceased Earl’s half brother George the ‘Red’ Douglas and his kin. Instead however, in 1405, they were granted by the crown to David Fleming of Biggar who as an ex-Red Douglas ally became a target for the wrath of the Red Douglas faction.

Interestingly, this grant was signed by Archibald Douglas who was on temporary diplomatic loan by King Henry as a goodwill gesture while attempts were made to seize the exiled Earl of Northumberland and his allies who had fled to Scotland after another failed rebellion. Efforts to capture the Percy Lords failed and Archibald returned once more to England while negotiations continued for the next two years as to what his final ransom price would be for his freedom.

In February 1406, Sir David Fleming with a ‘strong band’ of the leading men of Lothian accompanied by the young Prince James (later King James I) as a symbol of royal authority marched majestically on Tantallon Castle, near North Berwick. It appeared that King Robert III or rather his lackeys were re-asserting the Stewart claim to Tantallon made and abandoned in 1388. The King, as young William the Red Douglas’ grandfather, wanted to bring his grandson and Tantallon under crown protection.

But the castle garrison, under the command of William’s grandmother and her kin the Sinclairs, refused the royal party entry. It isn’t recorded what was said to demand entry but some sort of violence erupted, possibly archers, causing the ‘strong band’ to flee, fearing for the safety of Prince James. This doesn’t appear to be an attempt on the Prince’s life but merely a warning to Fleming for stealing the Douglas lands in Cavers. Since the Red Douglases were not in league with the Duke of Albany in his attempts to seize the throne. The royal band then fled to Robert Lauder’s castle of North Berwick, a small towerhouse close to the seashore.

Perhaps expecting an assault from the Tantallon garrison, the Prince was rowed out to the even stronger Bass Rock Castle, an island in the Firth of Forth almost directly opposite Tantallon. Fleming and the remaining royal army appeared trapped. To the east was Tantallon, to the south Herdmanston Castle and Byres Castle both held by garrisons loyal to the Red Douglas faction. To the west was Dirleton Castle held by the Halyburtons whose loyalties were doubtful. Beyond that lay Edinburgh Castle held by Archibald’s brother James the Gross, who was ally of the Duke of Albany, who wanted Prince James dead so he could become King.

With great haste, the royal army raced passed Dirleton, flying the Royal banner implying the Prince was present. The army was shadowed by the Halyburtons and Sinclairs who had already sent riders to Edinburgh castle which drew out the Black Douglas army from there. After a length pursuit, the royal force was overtaken at Long Hermiston Moor and after a terrible fight routed and their leader David Fleming executed.  Rushed plans were made to send Prince James to France. So from the Bass Rock he boarded the merchant ship Maryenknecht. Unfortunately the ship was attacked by the English and Prince James taken captive for 18 years. With the news of his son’s capture, King Robert died a broken man. His brother Albany then seized power as ‘Governor’ of the Kingdom.

In 1408, Albany entered into negotiations with the exiled George Dunbar, Earl of March. Since he was partly to blame for the death of ‘Hotspur’ Percy, he had made many enemies in England. The Dunbars had made several attempts to recapture Coldbrandpath (Cockburnspath) Tower in an effort to re-establish themselves in Scotland. Albany felt the time was right for the Dunbars to return to the Scots’ side, and Dunbar was agreeable. So a deal was struck where George Dunbar would give his Lordship of Annandale to Douglas in exchange for Dunbar castle. Surprisingly Douglas agreed to this and the exchange made. The Dunbars’ return to the Scots’ side was dramatic with assaults on Roxburgh Castle, Fast Castle and Jedburgh Castle.

In 1424, on King James I’s return to Scotland , having spent 18 years in English captivity, he had many old scores to settle with various treacherous lords in the Scots realm. However, first he had to secure his throne by building a political and military power base of loyal lords around him to bring his kingdom to order before he could deal with specific corrupt individuals.

The old Duke of Albany had been responsible for Prince David’s death (James’ older brother) and had seized control as Governor of the kingdom. However, he had died during James’ captivity and was replaced as Governor and Duke by his son Murdoch Stewart of Doune Castle, located near Stirling. So the King’s wrath would now extend to Albany’s offspring. Albany had also allowed the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles, to become virtual kings of the Highlands, unchecked by the Lowland parliament since the battle of Harlaw in 1411. The MacDonalds would have to be brought to account and recognize that James was King of all Scots, not just the Lowlands.

Also the Dunbar family, of Dunbar Castle exiled by James’ father King Robert III were reinstated by Albany and given their castle back without consulting King James in England. Even Archibald 4th Earl of Douglas, Duke of Touraine, busy fighting in France, was implicated in Prince David’s murder at Falkland Palace. He, like the rest would have to answer for past crimes.

But the King had learned to become a patient man and would carefully move events along to achieve his intricate plans of revenge, indirectly diving lords to his advantage, then striking. Rather than a blatant direct assaults on the Albanys, MacDonalds, Dunbars and Douglases head on as this would be suicidal.

Soon news came that Archibald, 4th Earl of Douglas had been killed in France at the battle of Verneuil along with Albany’s brother the Earl of Buchan. In the confused aftermath of Douglas’ death, the King sent the Lauders to seize Edinburgh Castle from the Black Douglases. Archibald’s lifetime keepership of the monument arranged by Prince David in 1400 had ended with the news from Verneuil. Later the King also seized the title Earl of Buchan to allocate it to whoever he wished.

The Lauders, by royal command, then turned of Duncan, Earl of Lennox (Albany’s father-in-law), imprisoning him in Edinburgh Castle. King James also involved George Dunbar, 11th Earl of March in this action by having him imprison Sir Robert Graham, an ally of Lennox, in Dunbar Castle, a token gesture to conceal the fact that in time he would also turn on the Dunbars. This action resulted in a rebellion in the Lennox lands around Ayr in the west. So the King met with John the ‘Red’ Stewart (an illegitimate son of King Robert II) at Dundonald Castle sending him to take Dumbarton Castle from the rebels and quell any further rebellions.

Caerloverock Castle
Caelaverock Castle
By 1425 the King had full established his position politically and having isolated the allies and power of the Albanys, started to attack them directly. Murdoch, Duke of Albany, his wife, the Duchess of Albany and their son Walter were all arrested as Doune Castle and Falkland Palace were seized by crown forces. Albany was taken to Caerlaverock Castle in Dumfries by Archibald 5th Earl of Douglas to be incarcerated there by the Maxwells. Today the corner tower of Caerlaverock where Albany was held is still known as “Murdoch’s Tower”. The Duchess was taken to Tantallon’s dungeon by William the Red Douglas, 2nd Earl of Angus. Finally Albany’s son Walter was held on the Bass Rock island beside Tantallon. However, the King failed to capture Albany’s other son James the ‘Fat’ Stewart, who rallied rebels in the west killing John the ‘Red’ Stewart before the walls of Dumbarton Castle.

In retaliation the King reunited Albany, his son Walter, and his father-in-law Duncan at Stirling Castle. Where after a trial of sorts, they were beheaded and their heads taken first to the Bass Rock then to Tantallon Castle, where the Red Douglas then threw the heads down into the dungeon beside the Duchess of Albany in an effort to drive her insane. No one knows what pain and grief she must have experienced as she peered in the half light (Tantallon’s dungeon has a narrow slit for a window, so no one could climb out) to identify the head of her husband, her son and her father. Likely the King was present to hear her despairing cries to savour his moment of victory over the Albanys. Soon after, the Red Douglas took pity on the Duchess and moved her to a more comfortable chamber in the east tower, where at his insistence, she signed an acknowledgement to say what the King had done was just. This kept the King happy while he seized Albany lands and chased James the ‘Fat’ Stewart from the west. Douglas continued to confine the Duchess within the bounds of Tantallon for her own safety as the King became such a volatile character and given his later treatment of the MacDonalds and the Dunbars, Douglas was justified in his fears.

James the ‘Fat’ escaped the Kings clutches by fleeing to Ireland where he declared himself rightful King of Scots entering into a contract with the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles. King James sent word to the Highlands that the MacDonalds were to break all contact with the outcast James the ‘Fat’ or risk royal anger. However John Mor MacDonald continued to communicate with James the ‘Fat’ despite the King’s threats.

Newark Castle
Newark Castle, c1904
In 1426, King James upset the Black uglases by claiming Ettrick Forest beside their hunting seat of Newark Castle in Selkirkshire as a royal property. So the Earl of Douglas now had to effectively pay rent to graze Douglas cattle on Douglas land. Reluctantly the Earl agreed. This may have been an initial attempt by the King to push the Black Douglases into a rebellion since he had built a new power base round their rivals the Red Douglases with their allies, the Hepburns of Hailes Castle.

In 1428 a dispute arose between the Red Douglas and Dunbar over the keepership of Coldingham Priory, an outpost cell of English monks from Durham established as a goodwill gesture by King James on his release from Durham in 1424. The outpost was viewed by many Scots as a nest of English spies. Dunbar like his father before him was sympathetic to the English, taking the role of patron and unofficial ‘Protector’ of the priory, despite it being a Black Douglas interest ran by the Humes.

The King intervened, offering his protection through the Red Douglas appointing him our “special Protector” of Coldingham, which was a severe blow to Dunbar’s political credibility. The Red Douglas though, “abused his power” in his pursuit of would-be spies causing “intolerable oppression” of the monks including the Scots Bailie, David Hume and the English Prior, William Drax, described as “a serpent in the bosom of the Kingdom”. This resulted in Hume and Drax joining forces, plotting to over throw the Douglas grip on the Priory. The Humes also set about constructing an enclosing
Outer wall around Coldingham, which as time went on became more like a defensive Barmkin wall rather than a traditional monastic wall dividing worldly men outside from Godly men inside.

Also in 1428 King James regarded the MacDonalds as haughty outlaws who flouted royal decrees. He therefore planned to clip their wings in a daring raid. He marched north with his wife and her entourage of ladies in waiting, to disguise his hostile intent for a meeting with the MacDonalds and Highland clan leaders at Inverness Castle (a Keep and Barmkin on an angled embankment beside the River Ness). Several miles behind a body of Lowland Knights shadowed the King ready to aid him when the time was right.

The King shrewdly met the Highland leaders individually, including Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, his mother and his uncle John Mor, quickly imprisoning them in different parts of the castle so as not to alert the MacDonald armies camped beside the River Ness. Meanwhile, outside had taken on a playful festival air with music, singing and dancing, trails of strength, mock battles and traders offering their wares. The Highlanders were totally oblivious to the King’s hostile scheme. Suddenly the castle gate were shut as Lowland men-at-arms mounted the battlements menacingly.

Just as suddenly the Lowland Knights appeared, scattering the confused MacDonalds from in front of the castle Barmkin walls. During this engagement, some of the captive clan leaders tried to escape but were killed by their Lowland jailers. It was several minutes before King James regained control of the situation with prisoners secured and the Highlanders outside dispersed.

The Stewart, Earl of Mar from Kildrummy then used Inverness Castle as a base to police the Highlanders on behalf of the King. The King took Alexander MacDonald, his mother and his uncle John Mor and the remaining leaders to prisons in the Lowlands until the clans realized they were to be in subjection to James as King of all Scots.

Later in 1428 John Mor was released to mediate with the clans to bring peace to the Highlands. King James secretly sent James Campbell to meet with Mor at Dunure Castle to offer him the title Lord of the Isles in place of Alexander if Mor would be in subjection to the King uniting the clans under royal authority. Mor refused to steal his nephew’s title and was killed in the bungled arrest attempt that followed. King James then executed Campbell, even though he had been on a royal mission, to distance himself from Mor’s murder. These to events caused a “great noise” in the Highlands with Mor’s son Donald Balloch of Dunivaig Castle in open revolt and Campbell’s kin on the verge of rebellion.

Early in 1429 King James sent Alexander MacDonald north to bring peace. To ensure his cooperation in this venture, the King retained Alexander’s mother at Edinburgh. Despite the obvious threat to his mother, Alexander led the MacDonalds in rebellion attacking Inverness Castle. But it proved too strongly defended by the Stewart, Earl of Mar that the siege was eventually abandoned.

In reply, James marched on the Highlands with a large Lowland army including the Red and Black Douglases, the Hepburns, the Halyburtons and many other Lothian families of note. Aside from the Dunbars who either failed to attend the King’s call to arms, or more likely, were not invited since the King was isolating the Dunbars from his selected power base of loyal Lords.

This Lowland army routed the MacDonalds at the battle of Lochaber, Alexander was again captured and taken to Tantallon’s dungeon by the Red Douglas, theoretically ending the rebellion. Mor’s son, Donald Balloch, continued his vendetta from Dunivaig in skirmish raids on the King’s men in the north.

In 1430 King James took the castles of Sween and Skipness to prevent them from being used by Balloch and his rebel band. Meanwhile, in the Lowlands, the King made the Red Douglas Warden of the East March replacing George Dunbar, further isolating the Dunbars and denting their already bruised pride.

Lochleven Castle
Lochleven Castle
By 1431 the cDonalds surprised and defeated the Stewart Earls of Mar at Inverlochy Castle, causing the King to call on his Lowland Lairds for a second Highland campaign. But Archibald the Black 5th Earl of Douglas refused to commit his forces and was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle by the King. Lochleven Castle was held by the Douglases of Lochleven who were kin to the Douglases of Dalkeith and allies of Archibald’s grandfather. So Archibald’s stay was a pleasant one and merely a place of confinement to show the King’s authority. The King couldn’t risk war with the MacDonalds and Black Douglases at the same time. Somewhat reluctantly the King released Alexander MacDonald and Archibald Douglas and apologised to them both. Alexander was sent north with a Lowland bride, Lord Halyburton’s sister, Elizabeth, to symbolize peace between the Highlands and Lowlands. On the other hand Archibald avoided contact with the King staying at Newark Castle and then Caerlaverock Castle attending to Black Douglas vassal matters.

In August 1432 the Red Douglas and George Dunbar appeared before the King at Linlithgow Palace to settle an ongoing dispute over Guardianship of Cranshaws Tower and its surrounding lands (an old Black Douglas interest held by the Swintons since Lord Swinton’s death at Verneuil with his master, the 4th Earl of Douglas in 1424). George Dunbar felt his nephew, young John Swinton, the present Keeper of Cranshaws, should be under Dunbars protection, as John’s Tutor and Guardian, Wedderburn was a vassal of the Red Douglases so there was an obvious conflict of interest, as Wedderburn would serve Douglas first and young John Swinton second. Once again the King sided with Douglas re-affirming that Wedderburn remain Tutor of Swinton and Guardian of Cranshaws Tower further frustrating the Dunbars.

By march 1433 the Red Douglas, Earl of Angus was ousted from being “Protector” of Coldingham Priory by the Prior of Durham, who wrote “We discharge the said Earl and others with his name and authority from all administration in our cell” (Coldingham). This political move was backed by a physical Hume presence behind Coldingham’s newly completed outer wall, which had effectively turned the Priory into a fortified camp. Rumours flew that the disgruntled Dunbars were willing to support the Humes if Coldingham was attacked. Hence, the whole situation could escalate into a large scale civil war.

The King prevented the Red Douglas from assaulting Coldingham directly. Such an attack on an English Monastic cell would result in a retaliatory strike by the English. Part of King James’ ransom agreement with England was there would be peace between the two nations. So diplomatic measures were brought to bear on Coldingham, allowing James to plot the downfall of the Dunbars, the last family on his list of those deserving of destruction.

In July 1433, the Red Douglas met with the Lothian Lords of Hepburn, Halyburton and Crichton at Luffness Castle with the Kings’ blessing. They conspired the political overthrow of the Dunbars and the capture of their castle of Dunbar itself. In that same month, because of skirmishes around Coldingham by forces unknown, war broke out on the Borders, momentarily distracting Douglas and Hepburn from their goal of destroying the Dunbars.

In 1434, King James declared George Dunbar’s castles and lands forfeit because they had been reinstated without his permission and against the wishes of his father King Robert III. George was arrested by Crichton and held at Edinburgh Castle, while the Red Douglas and Hepburn seized Dunbar castle by royal command. George tried to appeal for the return of his castle and lands by political means, but was offered the title the Earl of Buchan as compensation, with the token northern lands this title held. This was the final insult. Dunbar then sought military means calling on English support to seize his castle back by force. News of the plot reached the King, so George fled to England although his sons appear to have continued to hold Coldbrandspath (Cockburnspath) Tower and Billie Castle in their father’s name.

Eventually in 1435, an English army led by Sir Robert Ogle and the Percies marched north from Berwick Castle with the objective of taking Dunbar Castle from Douglas and Hepburn. However, instead of waiting to withstand a siege, Douglas and Hepburn with Ramsay of Dalhousie cunningly ambushed and defeated the English at the battle of Piperdean just short of Cockburnspath. Though Alexander De Elphinestone was killed was killed on the Scots side, the majority of the English were captured alive and nobles ransomed.

Interestingly, such ex-Dunbar vassals as Spens, and others allowed the English to advance up the East March unchallenged, as they sincerely believed the Dunbars were entitled to re-establish themselves in Dunbar Castle. The King then tried to win over Dunbar’s vassal families with rewards of land before turning his attention on the English garrison at Roxburgh Castle.

In 1436 King James eventually besieged Roxburgh, giving the garrison months of notice to prepare. The siege became a complete fiasco, with James fleeing the siege when his own men plotted to kill him; a fresh English relieve army arrived and the loss of his ‘shooting equipment’ to the English to boot. (ie ‘fine, large guns, both cannons and mortars’ with their German gun crews.) Later in 1437, King James was assassinated at Perth, leaving his widow Queen Joan to bring up their son the young King James II (1437-1460). Because of her blood (English) and sex she was sidelined by the feuding Scots Lairds after the King’s death. In November 1444 she was besieged in Dunbar Castle by the Black Douglas faction, who may have had the blessing of the young King James II. While she was protected by James the Red Douglas and Adam Hepburn. Likely supplies from the nearby Red Douglas stronghold of Tantallon castle were shipped in to maintain the garrison at Dunbar, by way of its inner haven hidden from the landward side. However, after a 10 month siege Queen Joan died at the castle in 1445 and Douglas and Hepburn in theory then handed it over to the Keepership of King James II by way of the Black Douglases.

The Dunbars made a last ditch effort to return to Scotland in 1446 but were put to flight by William the Black 8th Earl of Douglas and were forced to abandoned all hope of regaining their ancestral seat of Dunbar Castle. In 1488 the crown had Dunbar Castle torn down ‘cassyne doune and al-utterly distroy-it’ so that it couldn’t be used as a base by the invading English. It was then rebuilt again between 1497-1501 by the famous sea captain Sir Andrew Wood and a gun ‘blockhouse’ added around 1510 by John, Duke of Albany. In 1548 the castle, with a French garrison, was slighted by the invading English and after Mary Queen of Scots ‘imprisonment’ there by Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell in 1567, the castle was once again cast down leaving the few fragments of ruin and unseen vaulted chambers to hint at its former glory today - A place of sieges, intrigue and betrayal. The pride of the Dunbars and the desire of the Douglases.

Andrew Spratt

1999 A.D.
Revised 2011

See also:

  • Dunbar Castle
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