WARDENS OF THE BORDER, Part One - by David Pilling
The Anglo-Scots border of the 16th century was a dangerous place, plagued by gangs of criminals or ‘riding surnames’ remembered as the Border Reivers. From their pele towers or bastles, these families rode forth to steal, rob, murder and conduct savage blood-feuds, thumbing their noses at the law. To be a Warden in this region, one of the chief law officers appointed by London or Edinburgh to keep the borderlands in some kind of order, was a hellish task. None of the Wardens can really be said to have succeeded at their task, though some tried manfully. Others sank under the weight of office, or connived with the reivers in taking a share of their ill-gotten gains.
The borders were divided into Marches, three on either side of the border. Each March had its Warden, invested with the authority of life and death over every person inside his jurisdiction. There was an also an unofficial seventh Warden on the Scottish side, based at Hermitage Castle and known as the Keeper of Liddesdale. This special office was necessary since Liddesdale, a dark valley in the Scottish West March, was the very mouth of Hell: here dwelled the Armstrongs and Elliots, the most dangerous of the reiving families. Hermitage, described by one author as ‘a medieval nightmare’, is a squat grey lump of a fortress, and the Keepers who manned it had to be hard men, able to ride and fight at a moment’s notice.
To be effective, a Warden had to be a potent mixture of judge, lawyer, fighting soldier, detective, administrator and intelligence agent. He also had to a shrewd politician, able to keep his masters in London or Edinburgh happy, as well as strike a balance between the factions inside his March. The reiver families on both sides of the border were often related, and the complex web of kinship groups is virtually impossible to untangle. There was no national bar: an English Charlton might wed a Scottish Elliot, or vice versa, and nobody thought anything of it. Blood relations inevitably led to other alliances: the reivers were Borderers first, Scottish or English a distant second. At the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, for instance, the reivers of both armies were seen to be amiably chatting to each other. When spotted, they made a half-effort pretence at fighting. National badges were worn lightly - as though a ‘puff of wind’ might blow them away - so they could be torn off if necessary. This happened at Ancrum Moor in 1545, where English reivers threw aside their St George arm-bands and joined in the pursuit of the English army.
Any effort to apply normal law and order to the Marches was doomed to failure. Instead they were governed by a body of local law and custom, including such features as blood-feud, hot trod and red hand; these terms themselves give some idea of the rawness and savagery of the region. It was the job of the Wardens to impose this law, keep his March in a state of defence, and generally prevent chaos. In peacetime his most important task was to guard the land against reivers. He had powers to arrest reivers from his own March who raided the other country, and co-operate with fellow Wardens in punishing offenders and compensating victims. This was the theory; in practice Wardens were often jealous of each other and refused to co-operate. Sometimes they conducted their own private feuds, such as the feud between Robert Carey and Robert Kerr of Cessford in the 1590s. Carey’s decision to execute Geordie Burn, one of Kerr’s followers, in 1596 led to fears of a general invasion of the English Marches. In the parlance of the time, it was dreaded lest Kerr should invade in force and ‘shake loose the border.’
As might be expected, the Wardens included some eccentric characters. Perhaps the most famous was Sir John Forster, Warden of the English Middle March, whose epic lifetime (he lived to be 101) encompassed the entire classic reiver era. Forster, described by Alistair Moffat as the ultimate reiver lord, was technically an officer of the law, loyal to Queen Elizabeth I. In reality he was an utter scoundrel who for decades shamelessly abused his office. He took bribes, released condemned men and executed the innocent, connived with the enemy, dealt in stolen goods, dealt in every kind of villainy. At the same time Forster was vital to the defence of the Marches. As brave and intelligent as he was corrupt, Forster had his finger on every pulse, and missed nothing. In 1569, when Crookback Leonard Dacre led a revolt against the Queen, Forster played a vital role in crushing the rebels. Thirteen years later, with England threatened by Spain and France, Forster intercepted a French agent attempting to travel through the Middle March. The agent carried a mirror, which Forster discovered to contain secret letters written in code. When deciphered, the letters turned out to a blueprint for the invasion of England. Forster immediately sent the agent and his letters to Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, and can perhaps be credited with delaying the Spanish Armada.