Turbulent Scots is a series of posts about radical individuals from history who were either born in, or had an impact on, Scotland. Most of the Turbulent Scots I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been overlooked. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Scots posts are very welcome. Next up is Lady Agnes Campbell, a member of the aristocracy in the sixteenth century who was skilled at politics and negotiation.
We tend to think of aristocratic women in the early modern period as powerless pawns, to be married off for political or financial gain. There are several examples, however, that prove that the situation was not always that simple. Elizabeth I is perhaps the most famous, but I recently came across the story of another, Lady Agnes Campbell.
Agnes Campbell was born in around 1526, the second daughter and fifth child of Janet Gordon and Colin Campbell, the third Earl of Argyll. She was well educated at the Scottish court, learning to speak multiple languages. In 1545 she married James MacDonald of Dunyvaig and the Glens, chief of one of the branches of Clan Donald. Over the next twenty years she had five children. During this period there was a struggle between Irish, English, and sometimes Scottish aristocracy for control of Northern Ireland. The MacDonalds of Dunyvaig had started settling in Antrim, and sometimes worked with the local O’Neill clan against the English, but at other times their interests clashed dramatically. On 2nd May 1565 James and his brother Sorley Boy were defeated in battle and captured at Glenshesk in Ireland by Shane O’Neill. James died from his injuries in captivity in August. Shane was assassinated by the MacDonalds in 1567, and the relationship between Sorley Boy and Shane’s successor, Turlough Luineach O’Neill improved so much that on 5th August 1869 Agnes married Turlough.
Agnes took more than 1000 redshanks (Highland infantry mercenaries who fought for Irish chieftans) to Ulster when she got married. In 1570 and 1571, Agnes returned to Scotland to recruit more redshanks for her husband’s cause. The following year, Walter Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was providing military support to English colonists trying to settle in Ulster. In December Agnes left for Scotland, taking a large number of redshanks with her. The English hoped that Agnes’ marriage was collapsing, but actually she was swapping the men for fresh mercenaries. The Earl of Essex withdrew in 1575, after Agnes had negotiated significant land grants for Turlough. Agnes frequently acted as Turlough’s delegate in negotiations. This may have been because it provided him with distance from any agreements and allowed him to go back on his word if it became convenient later, but it was also widely acknowledged that Agnes was a skilled negotiator. Her support for Turlough was invaluable in driving away the Earl of Essex.
In November 1575, Agnes and Turlough met with Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland. Turlough offered to submit to Sidney’s authority in return for an Earldom, land grants, and recognition of Agnes’ sons claims to the Glens in Scotland (Sorley boy, Agnes’ former brother-in-law, also claimed the Glens). Despite Sidney demanding that Agnes stop bringing redshanks from Scotland to Ireland to fight for her husband, she continued to do so. The English believed she had significant influence over Turlough, and she was also seen as a powerful political force in her own right.
In September 1579, Turlough refused to negotiate with Elizabeth I’s representatives without his wife. Throughout the 1580s, Agnes continued to travel back and forth to Scotland to make sure that support for her husband remained strong. She also supported the interests of her sons; she negotiated land for them, and intervened in disputes. In March 1588 she traveled to Edinburgh to plead with James VI on her son’s behalf. She was back in Scotland in April 1590, but after that she disappears from the records.
The further back in time you go, the harder it is to find information about remarkable women. This is not because they didn’t exist, but because they weren’t considered worthy of being recorded. Lady Agnes Campbell was one such remarkable woman, and we do know a bit about her, probably because of her status as an aristocrat. She played a significant role in Irish resistance to English colonisation, she was a skilled negotiator, and a powerful political presence in her own right.
Sources and Further Reading
Barry, Judy. “Campbell, Lady Agnes. Last modified October 2009, accessed 17th May 2022. Available at https://doi.org/10.3318/dib.006945.v1
Undiscovered Scotland. “Lady Agnes Campbell.” No date, accessed 17th May 2022. Available at https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/c/agnescampbell.html
Walshe, Helen Coburn. “Campbell, Lady Agnes.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 3rd January 2008, accessed 17th May 2022. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/69172 [Subscription required to access].