Border Reivers

From Academic Kids

Border Reivers were raiders along the Anglo-Scottish border (Border country), for nearly three hundred years from the late 13th century to the middle of the 16th century. They were English and Scottish, and raided both sides of the border impartially, forcing the inhabitants to live in a state of constant alert, and giving rise to the building of fortified houses, such as the bastle houses and Peel towers which are characteristic of this area and period. Smailholm is one of many surviving Peel towers.

The Border Reivers were mounted, and specialized in rustling livestock. They were considered the finest light cavalry in all of Europe, and after meeting one Reiver, Walter Scott of Buccleuch, had broken a prisoner out of Carlisle Castle, Queen Elizabeth I is quoted as having said that "with ten thousand such, James (VI) could shake any throne in Europe." Many Reivers served as mercenaries, both in the Low Countries or in Ireland; such service was often handed down to captured raiders as punishment in lieu of death.

The Reivers also served both English and Scottish kings as soldiers; Flodden Field and Solway Moss were battles where Border light cavalry played an important part. While they were, as mentioned, excellent light cavalry, they were difficult to control, and there were always questions about how loyal they were. Many Borderers had relatives on the other side of the Border, despite laws forbidding international marriage, and at the time, they were described as being English or Scottish, whichever happened to be more advantageous.

In the unsettled conditions of the late-medieval Anglo-Scottish Border, a special body of law, known as Border Law, grew up to deal with the situation. Under Border Law, a person who had been raided had the right to mount a counter-raid, even across the border, to recover his goods, and any person meeting this counter-raid was required to ride along and offer such help as he could, on pain of being considered complicit with the raiders. Both Borders were divided into "Marches," under a "March Warden," and the respective kingdoms' March Wardens would meet at appointed times along the border itself to settle claims against people on their side of the border by people from the other kingdom. These occasions, known as "Days of Truce," were much like fairs, with entertainment and much socializing, and the threat of violence to spice things up---many reivers resisted being taken by force.

The reivers' activities, although usually within a day's ride of the Border, extended both north and south of their main haunts. English raiders were reported to have hit the outskirts of Edinburgh, and Scottish raids were known as far south as Yorkshire. The true reivers didn't care which side of the border they raided, so long as the people they hit had no powerful protectors and no connection to their own kin. Many reivers collected tribute from more peaceful folk to spare them from attack; this was called "blackmail" or "black rent," and this is where the term "blackmail" entered the English language.

By the death of Elizabeth I, things had come to such a pitch along the Border that the English government looked into re-fortifying and rebuilding Hadrian's Wall. Upon his accession to the English throne, James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England) moved hard against the reivers, abolishing Border Law and the very term "Borders" in favor of "Middle Shires," and dealing out stern justice to many known reivers, who could no longer duck into the other kingdom until things cooled down. By the end of James VI/I's reign, the Borders were fairly peaceful; such surviving thieves as existed did not have the infrastructure behind them that their ancestors would have had.

Long after they were gone, the reivers were romanticized by writers such as Sir Walter Scott, although he got some things wrong---the term "moss-trooper" more correctly refers to one of the robbers that existed after the real reivers had been put down. Many of their poems and songs were collected in the "Border Ballads."

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