Though Britain in the middle ages can't exactly be described as having been a particularly pleasant place to live for most peasants, the relative peace that existed on the main bulk of Britain's land was a stark contrast to the situation on the Anglo-Scottish border. The political struggle between the two countries at the time is probably the most well-documented, but underlying this battle of ideals and ideas was the disturbing of the (still relative) peace around the countries' borders at the hands of famous clans known as the Border Reivers, operating well outside the law.
The hills and valleys of the Anglo-Scottish Border counties including that of Northumberland were in the middle ages subject to a kind of savagery and murderous terror that we can scarcely imagine today. But for all of the murderous savagery and destruction, there exists a number of historical sources in the form of poems and ballads which demonstrate a side of these otherwise caustic individuals that you wouldn't expect from people who were capable of such barbaric actions. This article is a short journey through the history and actions of the Border Reivers and hopes to shed some light on these historically fascinating people.
Who Were the Border Reivers?
The Border Reivers were essentially groups of individual raiders that established a period of pillage, plunder, destruction, and murderous behaviour during the middle ages on the land that surrounds the border between England and Scotland. The level of Barbarism would today be unimaginable to most, but more notable than this is the sheer length of time that the Border Reivers continued their activities for, which was from the late 1200s through to the beginning of the 1600s - that's just over 300 years of destruction, earning them a place in history, albeit one of infamy.
During their time, the Border Reivers saw to it that the entire length of the Anglo-Scottish border was subjected to behaviour that would today be considered terrorism including pillaging, killing, and general destruction of whole villages, towns, and cities.
Was the violent and destructive behaviour of these lawless clans simply lawlessness for lawlessness's sake, or did the motives run deeper? Survival is one of the main motives touted by many historians, and to understand this, one has to look at what it was like to exist around the Anglo-Scottish border at the time.
One has to remember that England and Scotland during the middle ages were frequently at war and the armies of each nation had very little to no consideration for the destruction that the conflict would cause to the residents of each country. Add this sort of uncertainty in everyday life to the inheritance system of gavelkind (land divided equally between the surviving sons of the father), and you have two bordering countries whose residents were subjected to a state of constant uncertainty about the future in terms of financial security as well as their very safety and livelihood.
It was this kind of tension that marred everyday existence that most likely led to the kind of kinship and alliance that was shared by the Border Reivers, allowing them to come together to form clans that robbed and raided towns regardless of the nationality of their victims.
Prevalence and Areas Affected
Though it may be counterintuitive to think that the Reivers weren't nationalistic in their raids (considering the Anglo-Scottish conflict that prevailed in the middle ages), there were clans from both England and Scotland in medieval times, targeting villages, towns, and cities in an impartial manner and on both sides of the border. The only limits to who the Reivers would target seem to be close relatives or people with whom they had connections, nor would they be silly enough to target people that were protected by people more powerful than them.
As for the distance the Reivers would cover, remember that the border's length is around 96 miles - an impressive feat in itself. There are sources that also indicate that English raiders went as far north as Edinburgh and conversely the Scottish raiders were known to venture as far south as Yorkshire. The size of groups taking part in the raids - these would take place at night and were most prevalent in the winter months where darkness remained for longest - varied from as small as a dozen to as large as a few thousand men.
Skilful Horsemen, Mercenaries
Though one would think of such savage behaviour as being carried out by relatively unskilled and untamed thugs, the Border Reivers were actually notorious for their immense riding skill, possessing cavalry skills and formations that were regarded by many as among the best in the whole of Europe. The Reivers could also be found acting as mercenaries, taking part in battles in return for monetary payment, as was the case in some historical battles such as the Battle of Flodden.
The Reivers would mainly arm themselves with lances and relatively small shields as well as a metal helmet of some kind. Some Reivers were also known to be proficient at the longbow and sometimes the crossbow. Swords were also common weapons as were smaller daggers known as dirks.
There is still much debate over the origins of the Border Reivers. Some schools of thought seem to point to them being simply of Scottish descent; clans that have simply made their way into England and inspired a few hundred years of chaos. However, it has also be argued that the Reivers were descended from Vikings, though it seems more likely that due to their surnames they were of Anglo-Saxon descent.