Cockburnspath Tower and the feuding Dunbar/Douglas factions.
Just below a viaduct of the A1 road to Berwick upon Tweed
sits the broken keep and outer buildings of Cockburnspath Tower, perched above a
deep rocky ravine. Which must have presented a great obstacle to any would-be
attackers. Likely this chasm was originally spanned by a wooden bridge, possibly
close to the site of the present stone bridge. No doubt this could easily be
policed by the castle garrison or for that matter simply dismantled during times
of war with the invading English.
Cockburnspath was held by several noble Scots families, the
Dunbars, the Homes, the Sinclairs and the Douglases. However, because of the
nature of these families (the Dunbars and Douglases in particular) it is
difficult to say who legally held the castle for certain at times, because they
stole lands and castles from each other on a regular basis. And despite the
intervention of the Kings of Scots to settle these family feuds, they continued
squabbling for centuries while also finding time to fight the 'Auld Enemy' (the
English) at home and in France.
The present castle ruin dates from the late 15th/early 16th centuries, containing
an oblong plan keep with two rectangular plan block houses (possibly with
crowstepped gables). The larger building with storage vaults at basement level
with a hall or barracks level above. While the smaller building almost a lean-to
against the keep may have been a kitchen block with guard room.
It is claimed that the 'Red' Douglases had 3,000 men
stationed here in 1546 when feuding with the Homes over ownership of the Tower.
This figure seems improbable since the castle site today is just so small. But perhaps, like
so many other keeps of the period it was surrounded by a 'Barmkin' wall, with
fortified ditch and an outer/adjoining 'castle-town' village. Which would have
been able to accommodate so many troops.
Originally Cockburnspath was held by the Dunbar family who
raised a stone towerhouse here in the 14th century, likely surrounded by a
wooden palisade with ditch for further protection. Its claimed that this tower
was one of the 'seven war-steeds of Dunbar' (ie seven castles). This list of
seven castles or 'war-steeds' is still very much open to debate. But likely
included Cockburnspath, Hailes castle near East Linton, Byres near Haddington,
Luffness beside Aberlady and Stoneypath near Garvald all in the Lothians, with
Billie castle in the Borders and perhaps Dunbar castle itself.
However, some historians claim the great coastal fortress of
Dunbar castle, astride its five rock stacks, surrounded by the crashing waves of
the North sea, as the principal family seat stood on its own separate from the
'seven war-steeds'. This being the case the possible missing seventh 'steed' may
have been Fast castle near St Abbs. Though this tends to have a stronger
association with the Home/Hume family since they greatly rebuilt Fast in 1521.
Anciently the Dunbars and Homes were kin both being known
originally as Gospatrick. But re-named their surnames after their principal
estates. The Dunbars after 'Dun' (tower or fort) on the rock 'bar' hence
'Dunbar'. Likewise the Homes or Humes as they were later known took their name
from the land around Hume castle on the Merse in the Borders. Interestingly,
because of this family connection the Dunbars and Homes held similar heraldic
arms on their surcoats, shields and banners. The Dunbars a silver/white lion
rampant on red with a flower border. While the Homes had a silver/white lion
rampant on green.
By the late 14th century many of the Dunbar 'war-steeds' had
passed to other vassal families initially by peaceful means. Hailes to the
Hepburns through marriage, Byres to the Lyndsays, Luffness to the Bickertons and
then to the Hepburns and Stoneypath to the Douglases of Dalkeith castle again
through marriage. However in 1400 and 1401 Dunbar and Cockburnspath were seized
respectively by the 'Black' Douglases and then by the 'Red' Douglas in 1434 and
1435,who also appears to have seized Billie castle around the same time.
Originally the Dunbars and Douglases fought unitedly against
the English. At the first battle of Nisbet in 1355, for example Sir Patrick
Dunbar supported William 1st Earl of Douglas's ambush of the garrison of
castle and the abortive raid on Berwick castle. Patrick then traveled abroad to
France with William and his cousin Archibald 'the Grim' (later 3rd Earl of
Douglas) to fight on behalf of the French King John II 'the Good' at the battle
of Poitiers in 1356,against the invading English under 'the Black Prince'.
Although the Scots-French army was defeated and King John captured, these three
Scots knights returned home relatively rich men with French monies paid as
mercenaries. William completed the great red curtain wall of
near North Berwick based on a French chateaux. Archibald, once he'd cleared the
English out of Dumfries as Lord of Galloway, built his grim grey island keep of Threave to protect Dumfries and Galloway. While Patrick chose to use his money
to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy lands where he died in 1357,leaving his son
George to become Earl of March and inherit Dunbar castle.
In 1396,George Dunbar, Earl of March's daughter Elizabeth was
married to Prince David. However, Archibald 'the Grim' 3rd Earl of Douglas
secretly suggested to the weak-willed King Robert III of Scots (1390-1406) that
this marriage should be abandoned in favour of his daughter Marjory. 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 the permission of Pope Benedict XIII had officially been given.
The siege dragged on into February 1397 when George Dunbar
obtained a safe-conduct order from King Richard II of England (1377-1399) for
himself and one hundred of his household (likely evacuating by sea) 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 to be totally
oblivious to Archibald's scheme.
In 1399, Richard II was replaced as King of England by the
usurper, Henry IV (1399-1413) with the aid of the Percy family 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) to storm and burn Lord Grey's
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 insulted Henry by addressing the reply to
the Duke of Lancaster, Henry's original title, refusing to recognize his
Kingship. Consequently, Henry sent orders to muster an army at
York, calling in
reserve forces which, once assembled, he would personally lead into Scotland.
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 Hepburns and
Lauders, divulging his plans to switch allegiance from King Robert to King Henry
IV of England. He commanded them to return to their respective castles and
prepare for war, in case King Robert's forces attacked. George Dunbar then left
his castle defended by his nephew Maitland of Lethington (Lennoxlove tower)
while he and one hundred of his men traveled 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, a
cting 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 a protective
escort. Cockburnspath and Billie were still in Dunbar's hands unlike
castle and Markle castle as their keepers, the Hepburns had sided with the
In reply, King Henry with 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 his camp was heckled by the Master of Douglas and
the Ramsays of Dalhousie castle near Bonnyrigg. At Dunbar's insistence, Henry
sent a task force to besiege Dalhousie, but both sieges of Edinburgh and
Dalhousie were suddenly abandoned when reports came that Owen Glendower, the
self style Prince of Wales had revolted against his 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, recognized 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, originally the present
small Traprain burn was dammed back flooding the castle ditches on three sides
before cascading down on the River Tyne which protected the north side, turning
the castle into a small island surrounded by water. 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 4th
Earl of 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. Some of the remaining English fled to Cockburnspath tower but
this was soon stormed, or more likely abandoned by the Dunbars as the flight
continued to the very town walls of 'South Berwick' (Berwick upon Tweed) where
one knight, Thomas Talbot, tried to make a stand against the pursuing Douglases,
but was unhorsed and his banner taken as a trophy.
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 Dunbar and 'Hotspur'. Because all of these
families aside from the Halyburtons appear to have been 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 honorable surrender. Halyburton of Dirleton and his kin Halyburton of
Dalcove were kept in such detestable conditions before being ransomed that they
both died of "loosing of the bowels" on returning to their respective
homes. 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 led a large
Scots army to sack Newcastle. (Archibald was later known 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.) After looting and
burning Newcastle, the Scots laden down with much booty marched homeward.
However, at Homildon Hill near Wooler, their camp was attacked by Dunbar and 'Hotspur'
with their expert Welsh archers, who completely routed the Scots army. Among the
may hostages taken along with Archibald 'the loser' was George the 'Red' Douglas
who like Halyburton was so ill-treated before being ransomed that he died of a
plague contracted during his captivity.
In 1403,Dunbar even turned on his English ally 'Hotspur'
helping King Henry rout the Percy rebels at the battle of Shrewsbury. But this
action made him unpopular on both sides of the border. In 1408 Stewart, Duke of
Albany acting as Governor of Scotland while King James I of Scots (1406-1437)
was held captive in England, entered into negotiations with the exiled Dunbars
because they had made several attempts to capture 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 George Dunbar was agreeable. So
by 1409 a deal was struck where George Dunbar would give his Lordship of
Annandale to Archibald 'the loser' in exchange for Dunbar castle, Cockburnspath
and Billie. Archibald, held captive in England since 1403 and still awaiting
ransom, through his brother James 'the Gross' Douglas agreed to this. The
Dunbars return to the Scots side was dramatic with assaults on Roxburgh and
Jedburgh castles and the capture of Fast castle from the English in 1410.
In 1424,King James I returned to Scotland but had his own
plans for the Albanys and Dunbars. In July 1433,the 'Red' Douglas met with
Hepburn, Halyburton and Crichton at Luffness castle with the Kings blessing, to
conspire the political overthrow of the Dunbars and the capture of their
castles. In that same month though, because of skirmishes between 'Red' Douglas
and Home forces, war broke out on the borders with England, momentarily
distracting Douglas and Hepburn from their goal of destroying the Dunbars.
In 1434,King James declared George Dunbar,11th Earl of
March's lands and castles forfeit, not only on the basis of the sins of the 10th
Earl of March. But because they had been reinstated without his permission by
the Dukes of Albany (whom James had executed for treason in 1425)and against the
express wishes of his father King Robert III. George Dunbar 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 lands by political means, but was offered the title Earl of Buchan as
compensation, with token northern lands this title held. This was the final
insult, Dunbar immediately sought military means calling on English support in
seizing his castle by force. News of this plot reached the King, so Dunbar fled
to England although his sons appear to have continued to hold Cockburnspath
tower and Billie castle in their father's name.
Eventually in 1435, an English army led by Sir Robert Ogle,
the Governor of Berwick and the Percies marched north from Berwick castle with
the objective of taking Dunbar castle from Douglas and Hepburn. 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 tower. Though Alexander De Elphinstone was killed on the
Scots side, the majority of the English were captured alive and the nobles
ransomed. Likely Cockburnspath fell into the hands of the Douglas Hepburn forces
around this time.
During the reign of King James IV of Scots (1488-1513)
Cockburnspath was among the lands assigned to his consort Margaret Tudor. By
1530,it was in the hands of the Home family under John Home, Abbot of Jedburgh.
But later passed to Sir William Sinclair, who in turn sold it to Sir George
Douglas, brother of Archibald,6th Earl of Angus around 1546. During this
confused, violent time from 1544 to 1549 the English used castle burning to try
and force the marriage of the infant Mary Queen of Scots to the English Prince
Edward. Hence the days were known as the wars of the 'rough wooing'. So the
3,000 Douglas troops stationed at Cockburnspath in 1546 during their conflict
with the Homes were likely there also to protect the tower against the invading
In 1594, Cockburnspath was taken from the 'Red' Douglases by
King James VI of Scots (1567-1603) and given to the Earl of Lennox. Possibly as
a punishment for their involvement in the 'Treaty of the Spanish blanks'. Which
resulted in the battle of Glenlivet in the north, where the pro-Catholic Lords
Hay of Slains and Gordon of Huntly defeated the King's army and awaited the
arrival of Spanish military forces to aid them in their rebellion. But this was
not forthcoming because the Douglas's failed to field an army during this
rebellion their sins don't appear to have been as deep as the Hays and Gordons,
who had their respective castles of Slains and Huntly slighted by the King. So
eventually in 1602,Cockburnspath was returned to the Douglas's. But apparently
as early as 1612 the tower was much disused and by the late 18th century it was
dismantled for building material elsewhere in the district.