Border Reivers

A fortified farmhouse in North Tynedale

A fortified farmhouse in North Tynedale

First published in Border Warfare

The constant warfare that ravaged Northumberland and neighbouring counties on both sides of the border forced many people to live by lawlessness.

Here 'Border Reiver' families like the Armstrongs, Robsons, Milburns, Charltons and Grahams raided and thieved from each other in a constant cycle of feud and revenge. Most significantly, the allegiance of the reivers was first and foremost to family rather than to nation.

Since Norman times, Tynedale in Northumberland had been an independent Liberty and was often held by Scottish Kings. Henry VIII abolished this 'Liberty' in 1495 and from this time Tynedale clans like Robson, Milburn and Charlton increasingly became a law unto themselves.

In 1518 Lord Dacre, a Guardian of the Borders arrested ten principal thieves in the area but by 1524 was begging relief from the office due to poor pay and horrendous conditions. It was a dangerous place to reside and even Tynedale priests were described as 'evil and irregular'.

Border reiving families lived on both sides of the border and their raids are just too numerous to list. Blackmail, raiding and revenge were a part of their life. Grudges were held between families over long periods of time. Like ancient warriors they glorified their raids in elaborate and often highly poetic ballads. Sometimes Scots would raid against fellow Scots and Englishman against Englishman, according to family rivalries. It was all about survival not political allegiance. This was demonstrated very clearly in 1513 in the year of the region's bloodiest battle.

The Battle of Flodden Field took place on September 9th 1513. This was no Border reiving feud but a major conflict between the English and Scottish crowns. However it was a Border Reiver murder that provided an excuse for King James IV of Scotland to invade England.

James claimed that he was seeking revenge for the murder of Robert Kerr, a Border warden murdered by a member of a reiving clan called Heron in 1508. In truth James invaded England in support of France where King Henry VIII was then at war. The battle at Flodden proved to be one of the most devastating events in the history of Scotland. King James would lose his life in this battle but the Scots also lost twelve earls, fifteen lords, an archbishop and a number of clan chiefs. It was the bloodiest battle ever fought against the Scots on English soil and was commemorated in a Scottish ballad called 'Flowers of the Forest'.

Amidst the slaughter at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 it is interesting to note the attitude of the Border Reiver families in both the English and the Scottish armies. As the fight progressed the reivers from both nations, notably the dales of Tyne and Teviot gathered under the leadership of Lord Home and stripped the slain of possessions and plundered the baggage of both armies as the night of fighting continued. National pride was seemingly a low priority for the Border Reivers.

The death of James IV and so many influential Scots at Flodden in 1513 may have helped to curb the Scottish threat for a time. However it was a later successor King James VI of Scotland who brought a real chance of peace to the border country in 1603 when the English royal line of succession fell to him. South of the border James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England. James continued to rule in Scotland and although England and Scotland remained separate nations a single monarch allowed a greater degree of political control. Law and order could now be brought to the borderlands and there was no escape for the lawless.

Of course the Border people did not immediately adapt to a new lifestyle and in 1606 James resorted to the transportation of many border families to military service in Ireland. Newcastle Keelmen (who transported coal on the Tyne) assisted members of one banished border family called the Grahams to return the following year, but commissioners at Carlisle continued to round up a hundred of the worst criminals for Irish transportation. Reivers who dared to return were hanged at Newcastle.

In 1611 Elliots and Armstrongs of Liddesdale raided Tynedale against the Robsons and this is sometimes called the last Border raid. However in 1649 a Newcastle man recorded that men from the border dales regularly raided the town to steal livestock and that it was impossible to retrieve it once it had been stolen unless you were acquainted with some master thief.

Some eighteenth century members of Border society continued to live by the old ways. A horse thief described in 1701 how the Keeper of Tynedale encouraged raiding in Durham or Scotland to reduce crime in his area. In another incident in 1732 horse thieves called John and James Graham were executed at Durham.

As the Border way of life ended in the seventeenth century, Border people sought work in the coal mines of Tyneside and Durham and a great many became Keelmen ferrying coal on the Tyne and Wear. It was a far cry from 1554 when Newcastle merchants banned Tynedale men from working there. Keelmen formed a community outside Newcastle's walls at Sandhill and wore distinctive clothes including Border-style blue bonnets as recalled in the famous 'Keel Row' ballad.

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