Middle Ages – Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers

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Border Reiver Surname Map

Frontiers were different in the middle ages. Far more porous and less formal, they also depended on local relationships as much as national, either with individual lords or corporations like the great abbeys. And the Anglo-Scottish border made less sense than most. It divided people who were essentially similar, spoke the same language, farmed in the same way and for centuries had formed part of the old kingdom of Northumbria. It was the magnetic ambitions of the Gaelic-speaking kings in the north and the dynasties to the south which had pulled this polity apart and eventually drew a frontier line along the Tweed and the Cheviot tops.

The battle of Carham in 1018 is seen as a convenient watershed for the history of the border. In a bloody fight by the Tweed near Kelso, the spearmen of Northumbria were cut to pieces by Malcolm II of Scotland’s axemen. The Scottish annexation of the Tweed Basin was never seriously in doubt after that date and even though all sorts of anomalies (to say nothing of long-term English occupation in the future) remained, kings in the north gradually asserted themselves over the Borders.

In the later eleventh century William the Conqueror and his sons had difficulty in gaining control of the north of their new kingdom. It lay far from their power-base around London and still attracted the ambitious attention of the Scandinavian dynasty which had ruled England in the first half of the eleventh century. But the Norman kings moved to meet the expansiveness of the macMalcolm dynasty and William Rufus reclaimed Carlisle, making it a plantation town. Communities of Flemings, Normans and Irish settlers were given land in the old Roman city, the castle was rebuilt and the walls repaired. At the eastern end of the Hexham Gap, on the site of the fort on Hadrian’s Wall known as Pons Aelius, William Rufus’ brother, Robert Curthose, built a new castle. Rising on the high ground to the north of the Tyne Gorge, the Newcastle protected the lowest crossing point over the river. In this way Northumberland and north Cumberland were also understood as potential areas of dispute and conflict. This status was confirmed throughout the twelfth century by the macMalcolm kings’ claims on both areas. Often they were successful (due in large part to English distraction and weakness) and David I controlled much of the north of England. In 1153 he died in Carlisle Castle. But by 1157 the northern counties were back in English hands.

Control on either side of the border depended on a series of interlocking relationships of obligation. The church played a clear and progressively determinant role in drawing the Borders into Scotland and the northern counties into England. The bishops of St Andrews and Glasgow claimed independence from the Archbishops of York by maintaining pressure on the papacy in Rome, and they insisted on making all the important ecclesiastical appointments in the Borders. The jurisdiction of the Prince-Bishops of Durham extended right up to the Tweed (and in places beyond it) and they built a powerful castle at Norham to protect what they owned. As much as any other agency the church helped make the border a political reality.

In 1235 Alexander II married Joan, sister of Henry III of England. Two years later he agreed to the terms of the Treaty of York. In return for lands in Cumbria and the right to hang on to the old Liberty of Tynedale (as vassals of the English king), Alexander surrendered all of his claims to the earldom of Northumbria. The line of the Anglo-Scottish frontier was at last settled on the Tweed in the north-east and the Cheviot watershed, the Liddel Water and the little River Sark in the south-west.

This consolidation persuaded kings and their counsellors to organise. To cope with wrongdoing by Englishmen in Scotland and vice versa, the neighbouring jurisdictions needed a special legal mechanism. In 1248 six Scottish knights met with six English knights to discuss the formulation of what became known as the ‘laws of the marches’, and the following year these were codified and promulgated. In essence they insisted on the return of fugitives from justice, the recovery of debt and the regular production of accused parties at the ancient trysting places on the border line. Some of these, like the Reddenburn near Kelso, were well established and well known. Between 1249 and 1596 the laws of the marches were reviewed and recodified eight times.

Broadly the central transaction was simple. If an Englishman committed a crime in Scotland, for example a robbery, the Scot who had been robbed complained to the Scottish authorities. They in turn passed on the case to their English equivalent, who then investigated. If the charge was found to have substance, the English authorities were bound to produce the accused at a trysting place to answer for it. When it was followed through, this principle could work well and fairly. But it was not always followed through.

This comparatively civilised spirit of international cooperation did not last long. After the death of Alexander Ill’s only close heir, the little Maid of Norway, and the harassed and miserable reign of King John, war clouds began to gather over the Borders. In 1296 Edward I arrived on the banks of the Tweed at the head of a huge army, probably the largest to invade Scotland since Agricola’s legions marched north. While English armoured knights took Berwick in a matter of hours, riding right over the top of flimsy defences, no more than ‘a ditch and a barricade of boards’, a Scottish army mustered at Caddonlea near Galashiels. Less than half the size of Edward’s force, the Scots had no intention of moving east to confront him. Instead they adopted a strategy which would become standard. In their council of war at the camp at Caddonlea, the seven earls who led the Scots decided to attack England’s western frontier, advancing as far as Carlisle, and – redoubling the misery of ordinary Borderers – to burn, steal and kill in the countryside around. There was no escape, it seemed.

Between 1296 and 1328, what became known as the Wars of Independence trailed destruction in their wake, and on both sides of the border as armies crossed and recrossed. After the dreadful summers of 1315 and 1316 and the failure of the harvests, and the frequent passing of rapacious regiments of soldiers, ordinary Borderers must have despaired. These 34 years of destruction, the span of almost two generations, were another turning point, a time when the fundamental nature of society changed – and for the worse.

What did farmers and their families do in the face of an approaching army or raiding party? The sources are scant, almost silent. Chroniclers recorded the burning of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of farms, villages and towns, the beseiging of castles and the outcome of battles, but they have little or nothing to say about the people caught in this incessant crossfire. They must have fled. When Edward I returned to Berwick in 1298, it was said that the town was deserted, and when the Scots were mustering to raid into north Cumberland after Bannockburn, the English king’s officers assisted in moving farmers and their stock south and out of the way. This was almost certainly a general pattern. Quickly gathering up what was valuable and portable and driving their beasts before them, farmers and their families must have retreated to remote places and hid and sheltered as best they could. Perhaps they made for the summer sheilings up on the high pasture. Foraging parties will have found some but at least there was a chance of survival.

In 1308 Edward II was at York, ordering his sheriffs of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland to raise ‘posses’ to repel and pursue raiders, but not lead their men into Scotland unless absolutely necessary. This was most likely a measure to discourage the desperate, bands of riders looking to lift cattle after their own had gone. Government papers carried reports that English borderers were forming criminal alliances with Scots raiders, becoming ‘their companions and guides’, and sharing in plundered goods and stock. Simmering under the surface was a question of loyalty. Were Borderers more likely to be loyal to their surnames and their neighbours than to their nationality? It seems so.

In November 1315, after the first sunless summer and its unripened harvest, Edward II wrote to the Bishop of Durham asking that he forbid his tenants on the border from making local truces with their Scots neighbours. So that some sort of subsistence agriculture could go on, it appears that landowners had been reaching accommodations with each other, people they knew well. ‘The calamitous and helpless state’ of the people had driven them to ignore the state of war between England and Scotland and ignore their king’s wishes. And no wonder.

Famine had one thing to recommend it. It had at least prevented Edward II from reinvading Scotland in pursuit of revenge in the year following Bannockburn, but it probably encouraged more raiding across the border. Edmund de Caillou, the Captain of Berwick and a Gascon serving in the English army, led an expedition up the Tweed as far as the mouth of Teviotdale and Jedburgh. Returning with many head of cattle and much plunder, he was intercepted by Sir James Douglas. As a deliberate tactic the Scots commander sought out the Gascon and fought him in what amounted to a single combat. Douglas’ force was much smaller and he needed to decapitate the English raiders if he could. And he did.

A familiar pattern of raid and reprisal began to establish itself. Sometimes it baffled outsiders – and locals. In July 1317 two Italian cardinals were sent by the new Pope, John XXII, to England and Scotland to attempt to broker a peace and gather support for a crusade. Travelling through Northumberland, John de Ossa and Luca de Fieschi were ambushed by ‘banditti’. When confronted by two urbane Italian princes of the church in their scarlet skullcaps, the ‘banditti’ were somewhat nonplussed. Of course they robbed them of everything worth having, but failed to see the potential for a large ransom. Instead they abducted two local lords and left the cardinals, no doubt dazed but relieved, standing in the road.

No medieval community could survive a perpetual state of war and after another abortive English invasion in 1319, the terms of a truce were hammered out at Newcastle. Local contact between English and Scottish borderers was forbidden but the general heads of agreement look very much like a restatement and reinstatement of the laws of the marches. For the first time the appointment of officers to administer them is recorded. Known as ‘Conservators of the Truce’, two were drawn from Cumberland and Westmorland and four from Northumberland. They were bound to hear complaints about truce breakers, investigate them and seize and detain whoever was believed to have serious charges to face. So far so familiar. But 1319 saw an early organisational structure created to complement the old laws of the marches. These Conservators sound very like versions of the later March Wardens, the royal officers who would become central figures in sixteenth-century reiver society. No record of matching Scottish appointments survive, but for the reciprocal arrangements to work at all, these were likely to have been in place.

The arrangements did not work in 1322 when the truce was shattered by Edward II and his invading army. His men wasted the countryside as far north as Leith, but a year later negotiations resumed. Contact between Scots and English was again expressly forbidden – although one concession was made to practicality. The Conservators might meet their opposite numbers and hold ‘truce days’ to transact business. These could be held at the ancient trysting places along the border – at Kershope, Carter Bar and Reddenburn and elsewhere. By 1327 a famous name appeared on the scene. Henry de Percy was appointed as ‘the Principal Keeper of the Truce’ and paid 1,000 merks to maintain 100 men-at-arms and their ‘hobelars’ or ponies. The institutions of reiver society were slowly taking shape.

Another famous Border name emerged in the early fourteenth century. The Douglas family had been steadfast supporters of Robert de Bruce and tradition holds that the red heart in the centre of their coat of arms represents the great king’s. After his death from leprosy in 1328, Bruce’s heart was cut out of the hideous, decaying corpse and taken on crusade against the Moors in Spain by the Douglases. For many years the king had been under sentence of excommunication for his murder of John Comyn at the altar of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, and even in death it seems that Bruce’s remains were employed in penitent works.

After Bannockburn, the Douglases received more material rewards, taking over ownership of the forests of Selkirk, Traquair and Ettrick in 1321-22. By the end of the fourteenth century, they had built up a wide patrimony which included estates in Teviotdale, Eskdale, Lauderdale and around Kelso. Over in the west a closely related branch of the family became powerful in Wigtownshire, the wonderfully named Archibald the Grim taking the old title of Lord of Galloway. This was all a deliberate but dangerous royal policy. To buttress the border, Scottish kings needed bulwarks, concentrations of substantial military capability, and so on the Scottish side, the Douglases grew mighty – and as war rumbled wearily on they became mightier still.

Robert de Bruce and his immediate successors were forced to contend with a serious dynastic complication. Edward Balliol had a legitimate claim to the throne of Scotland, and as the son of King John, it was in some ways a better claim than Bruce’s. After the hideous murder of his father, Edward III of England and his counsellors took over the simmering war with Scotland, and they found Edward Balliol a very handy political pawn. And because of geography and Balliol’s own claims to family property, much of this fascinating political subplot was played out across the Borders landscape.

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