George de Dunbar, Earl of Dunbar and March, returned to his castle of Dunbar on the 8th of May, 1400, after a secret meeting with representatives of the English King, Henry IV.
George de Dunbar, the Cospatrick (Gospatrick), 10th Earl of Dunbar, 3rd Earl of March, 12th Lord of Annandale, Lord of the Isle of Man, and Warden of the East March, was one of the most powerful Scottish Nobles of his time, and the bitter rival of the Earl of Douglas. The title, Earl of March, derived from the ‘marches’ or boundaries of the border, which were held by great feudal families possessing lands in those districts. The Scottish Earls of Dunbar and March were descended from Crinan the Thane of Atholl and his wife, Bethoc, daughter of Malcolm II. Bethoc’s grandson, the first Gospatrick, who was nephew to King Duncan I and married to Aethelreda, a Princess of England, was granted the Earldom of Bernicia by the cash starved William the Conqueror, in exchange for a large sum of money, in 1067. After participating in uprising and the 1069 invasion by Danes, Scots and English against the Conqueror, Gospatrick was eventually deprived of his Earldom in 1072, whereupon he fled to Scotland. The King of Scots, Malcolm Canmore, granted him the castle and lands of Dunbar, in the then Scots-controlled northern part of Bernicia, which subsequently became the Earldom of Dunbar.
That early patronage by the Norman is part of the key to the equivocal nature of the Dunbar family throughout the medieval period in Scotland and England. At various times, they held lands in both countries, which undoubtedly led to split loyalties; a factor that also significantly affected the likes of the Bruces, amongst others. Despite Patrick, the 7th Earl of Dunbar, being a claimant in the ‘Great Cause’ of 1292, during the First Scottish War of Independence and the Scottish Civil Wars, the Dunbar Earl was a frequent changer of sides. With the marches and the merse being where they were, on the eastern route into Lothian, perhaps it’s not too surprising that pragmatism won the day.
Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, in the first history of Scotland to be written in Scots rather than Latin, entitled ‘The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland’, states that George de Dunbar, who was born in 1338, was a son of John de Dunbar of Derchester and Birkynside, and his wife, Isabella, a daughter of Thomas Randolph, the 1st Earl of Moray and a kinsman of Robert the Bruce. Besides Randolph, Robert the Bruce had another famous Lieutenant, Sir James Douglas, whose descendants became Earls of Douglas. By the time George became 10th Earl in succession to his uncle, the rivalry between the descendants of Douglas and Randolph, the Earls of Douglas and Dunbar/March, had become a fierce struggle for power and influence. By the late fourteenth century, Douglas controlled the middle marches, whilst Dunbar and March were squeezed to the east.
In 1395, the Duke of Albany, acting as Regent for his ineffective brother, King Robert III, advertised that his nephew David, then Earl of Carrick and heir to the Crown, would have to be married, in order to maintain the succession. The privilege of becoming Queen apparent was to be assigned to the highest bidder. The first out of the blocks was the Cospatrick, George de Dunbar, who got his daughter, Elizabeth, betrothed to the handsome Prince. This was undoubtedly a coup, being a prestigious and politically influential match. Now, this is where it gets really innerestin’. By August, 1395, the Bishops of St Andrews and Brechin had been given a Papal mandate for the marriage. However, there was no indication that Robert III had supplicated the Pope on behalf of the couple or that he supported the marriage. What happened was that the ceremony was rushed through before the dispensation became known in Scotland; the couple were married before the Papal mandate arrived in August.
Late in 1396, King Robert made a startling intervention in his son’s affairs, initiating an attempt to invalidate the union by besieging Dunbar Castle. George made himself scarce in the family’s old territory of Bernicia, now Northumberland. Simultaneously, Walter Trail, Bishop of St Andrews, started ecclesiastical proceedings against Carrick and Elizabeth for not waiting for the Papal dispensation. That led to David and his bride applying for absolution to Benedict XIII, evidence that Carrick at least favoured the match at the time. On the 10th of March, 1397, the Pope issued a dispensation granting that they should be allowed to ‘remarry’ after a period of separation.
That gave Archibald ‘The Grim’, the 3rd Earl of Douglas, the opportunity for which he had been planning through his influence with Albany and the Prince. Early in 1400, Dunbar saw the benefits of his prize match disappear with the betrothal of David, now Duke of Rothesay, to Mary Douglas, the daughter of his greatest rival in the borders. Rothesay, true to the morals of the time, had no intention of being faithful to either bride and received the daughter of Douglas are readily as he did the heiress of Dunbar, five years previously. Now, the most powerful magnate in the borders was decidedly linked with the fortunes of the heir to the throne.
Dunbar approached the King and demanded that “the marriage between the lord of Rothesay and his daughter be [fully] carried through, or he should at least repay to him the money which had been handed over.” The King told him where to go and Dunbar issued his threat to “arrange for something unheard of and unusual to be done in the kingdom.” The rejection of his daughter, and the insult thus heaped upon him, drove Dunbar into the hands of the enemy. Getting a further safe conduct to travel into England, in March, 1400, Dunbar asked the English King, Henry IV, for “holp and suppowall fore swilk honest service as I may do efter my power to yhour noble lordship, and to yhour land.” Dunbar journeyed to England and met with the Earl of Westmorland, returning to Dunbar Castle on the 8th of May, 1400.
The alliance between Dunbar and Henry was very dangerous for Scotland as Dunbar’s eastern march was a gateway to Lothian for any English Army seeking to invade, which Henry Bolingbroke was keen to do. This led to the Earl of Douglas marching on Dunbar Castle, whereupon Dunbar fled to England and the protection of Henry IV. Douglas seized Dunbar’s lands, giving him control of all three marches and over all approaches to the south of Scotland. After the death of Robert III, Dunbar negotiated a return to Scotland. He was restored to his Earldom by Albany, although at a price. Later, the power of the Earls of Dunbar and March was broken and finally extinguished during the reign of James I, with George’s son being the 11th and last Earl of Dunbar.