Medieval history is fascinating with films and documentaries about how people lived back then proving very popular with not just history scholars but also the wider public too. The Border Reivers Gangs are a slice of that history that make riveting reading as they hailed from within a mile of the English/Scottish Borders between the 1300's and 1600's and raided the land around the borders constantly within this time period. There are many books on the market that cover the Border Reivers, while here are our top five books on the subject from our number one read through to number five.
The Steel Bonnets
Our number one choice in our five books is The Steel Bonnets which is the story of the Anglo Scottish Border Reivers. George MacDonald Fraser , the author was an accomplished writer who had a real flair when it came to bringing to life characters from the past in an informative and realistic way. He avoided the temptation to over romanticise what could possibly be viewed as cruel and barbaric exploits especially when it came to The Border Reivers Gangs.
The Steel Bonnets can almost be described as an accurate history book about the gangs as Fraser sticks to fact rather than fiction when relating what the gangs were all about and their methods. The author gets over the fact to the reader that the border gangs were like a separate entity or community who robbed and pillaged one another and seemed in a way not to be part of the wider two countries i.e. England and Scotland.
In this book we learn about the people of the borders and the different clans that lived there, their day today lives, while also learning how brutal the attacks on one another could be in graphic detail. Both England and Scotland could not manage the gangs who seemed to be very much a law unto themselves, a small strip between both countries ruled by thuggery. Fraser also covers the eventual progression of the region to a calmer way of life which happened by the end of the 16th century. The Steel Bonnets is a fabulous read for those of us interested in history and offers an insight into how these battling people coped with life in every regard. Excellent!
Border Reiver 1513-1603
This book, about the lives of the Border Reiver gangs focuses on the years between 1513 and 1603 relating to us in amazing detail just how people of the border communities lived plus how it differed immensely to how people in the rest of Scotland on one side and England on the other side carried on. Written by Keith Durham, who has written a number of books on the subject, while we regard the book as the second best read on our list.
Prior to 1513 thousands of raids along with armies of thousands of men had been killed in long battles along the borders of England and Scotland. These skirmishes and wars went on for hundreds of years and meant the border folk lived among violence for years. This book focuses on what happened after 1513 following the Battle of Flodden Field where the Scottish army lost thousands of men including their own king.
The hundred years that followed this epic battle were filled with unrest and violence and indeed the violence did not cease until England and Scotland were joined as one nation in 1603. Durham's depiction of the Reivers has a slightly more romantic ring to it as he focuses not only on the violence but the emergence of poetry, ballads and how the people became masters in horse riding and its related pastimes. Durham tells us more about the March Wardens who were appointed officials from both sides in the conflict who tried to bring some sort of law and order to the area.
We like the fact that the book is full of amazing illustrations some drawn, while others are photographs of enthusiasts who are dressed in clothing from the era. Those readers who prefer their text to be illustrated will be glad of this as the pictures help us to see what the Reiver gangs would have looked like rather than to imagine. Border Reiver 1513-1603 is a very different depiction of the times to our number one choice but is none the less very much worth reading.
Strongholds of the Border Reivers
Strongholds of the Border Reivers is another Keith Durham offering but this time focussing on the fortresses and castles that were located along the borders. This book is the third choice on our list as we feel if readers have read the first two then they are ready to take a more intimate look at these buildings that included castles, churches, tower houses and farm houses of the time that were crucial in the lives of the people back then.
The book is filled with great illustrations, plans and photographs that offer a sort of guide to people who wish to visit the area in order to take in the history of the Border Reivers and the buildings they lived in and worked to defend. There is a great section in the book that tells us what to expect when visiting the buildings today therefore tourists who take the book along with them when visiting the sites can read about their history in terms of what they looked like hundreds of years ago plus what they were used for too as they stroll around the area.
For those intending to tour these buildings Strongholds of the Border Reivers is a must buy book from Amazon as it holds all the information tourists will need in order to enjoy looking around the ancient castles and fortified churches. The churches of the area are looked at in great detail. These churches were fortified in order to keep people who sought sanctuary in them safe, while many of them hail from as long ago as the thirteenth century. Readers who love medieval history and warfare will enjoy reading this book and will not be disappointed in any way.
Border Reivers Men at Arms
Our fourth choice when it comes to reading about the Border Reivers is the amazing Men at Arms book that tells us all there is to know about what the gangs wore, uniforms, armour, weapons, their campaigns and their military strategies and procedures. The book also shows us where the border lands started and where they ended and sometimes shifted to, while offering superb descriptions of the Marches and the "Debateable" land that was an area which was owned by neither the English nor the Scots.
Border Reivers Men at Arms can be purchased for around £9.99 which is a snip for those of us who live and breathe history in all its forms. Keith Durham, the author of the book, really knows how to tap into the psyche of us history buffs offering an alternative narrative to his previous two novels that we have reviewed ranking them third and second on our list. The book comes at the Border Reivers story from a different angle making ownership of this edition a must in its own right.
Once again the illustrations in Durham's book are superb and include photographs of swords and clothing plus armour worn at the time. Drawings and paintings featured are superb with portrayals of battles and such proving very realistic in their detail. Those who haven't read the previous books on our list will also learn about the Battle of Flodden offering some history grounding for those who don't know the finer details regarding the borders and the gangs who lived there.
The Reivers: The Story of the Border Reivers
This book about the Border Reivers is the fifth on our list but that is not to say that it is not a worthy offering because it really is. All five books on our list are worthy of a read as they all bring something a little different to the table and this book written by award winning author Alistair Moffatt is no exception. Moffatt tells us about some of the families that lived on the borders engaging in bloody battles and skirmishes. Such names include the Maxwells, Fenwicks, Grahams, Armstrongs, Elliots and Careltons who fought and plundered the borders for years.
The book relates how the gangs, stole, blackmailed, raped, and engaged in all manner of dreadful acts in the name of their families, while the English and Scottish monarchs did little or nothing to stop them unless it suited their purpose at the time. This gave the Reivers carte blanche to carry on as they pleased but the book does show us how they did have family loyalty in a strange way that is not dissimilar to how the Mafia families conducted their businesses in more modern times.
Readers may find it of interest to skip to the section of the book that tells us how the descendants of some of the Reivers families have done for themselves. Not too bad by all accounts which may seem surprising to some, as the Reivers gangs were unlawful violent henchmen, but not to others who figure crime does pay for some!
Moffatts account of the Reivers can be a little on the romantic side we think. It’s very often how brutal "freedom fighters" of the past are portrayed by authors who believe in their cause but that said it does offer one point of view of how the Reivers operated and makes easier reading for those who are new to the subject. Readers who are interested in The Border Reivers will find this edition available at Amazon in Kindle form for as little as £2.79.