Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Reiver - the Sword's Edge

The sequel to Reiver is now available on Kindle! The cover, as ever is by the lovely folks at MoreVisual.

‘Now the thieves will ride…’

1570 AD. The March lands between England and Scotland are a place of terror, where outlaw bands and broken men rob, pillage and murder in open defiance of the law. Here, deadly blood-feud is a way of life. Families of robbers, known as Border Reivers, live via blackmail and terrorism. No man sleeps safe in his bed, and the sound of hoofbeats on the tops is a herald of death.

Richie Reade, otherwise known as Richie o’the Bow, is on the run in Scotland from his own countrymen and that most fearsome of reiver families, the Armstrongs of Liddesdale. When war erupts along the March, and Elizabeth of England sends her armies into Scotland to destroy her Catholic enemies, Richie finds himself drawn into the conflict. Captured in a skirmish, he is forced to work as a double agent, carrying secret messages to and from the treacherous Earl of Westmoreland.

Meanwhile the Armstrongs have declared blood-feud on Richie, in revenge for his slaying of their chief, Nebless Will. The dead man’s cruel and capable son, known as ‘Red’ Rowy, gathers a band of outlaws and broken men to hunt down their foe. As Richie fights for his life in Scotland, Rowy plots to lure him back to the Border and a bloody fate at Armstrong hands…

Reiver: The Sword’s Edge is the second novella in the Border Reiver series by David Pilling, author of the Caesar’s Sword trilogy, Leader of Battles, The White Hawk, Soldier of Fortune and many more tales.  

Friday, 24 November 2017

Release day!

My new novel, LONGSWORD, is released today on Kindle! Paperback to follow...

England, 1266 AD. The kingdom lies in ruins after years of bitter civil war. Simon de Montfort is dead, slaughtered in battle, and his surviving followers fight on with the fury of despair. Known as the Disinherited, these landless men infest the forests and highways and prey on the common folk.

Hugh Longsword, a common soldier, fights for the King against the rebels who threaten to destroy England. He is taken into the service of the Lord Edward, King Henry’s eldest son, and made to work as a spy. Edward sends him into the wild north country, home to the most dangerous rebel captains: men such as Sir John d’Eyvill and his savage cousin Nicholas, known as the Beast for his cruelty.

While Hugh spies on these cut-throats, the King gathers all his forces to attack Kenilworth Castle, greatest of the rebel strongholds. Though hopelessly outnumbered, the defenders hurl defiance from the walls and refuse to surrender. One assault after another is repulsed, even as the north country slides into chaos and another band of Disinherited seize the Isle of Ely in the fens of Cambridgeshire. From their watery fastness they ride out to attack the Jews of Lincoln, burning deeds, slaughtering innocents and kidnapping the wealthiest for ransom.

One of those taken captive by the rebels is Esther, a widowed Jewess. She is carried away to Ely, where the Jews are treated with inhuman cruelty. Esther is rescued by Hugh, and they are hunted through the marshes by teams of soldiers and wolfhounds. Together they must survive all the dangers of a war-torn land, where law and justice are fallen away and only the strongest can hope to prosper.

Longsword is the latest historical adventure novel by David Pilling, author of Reiver, Soldier of Fortune, The Half-Hanged Man, Caesar’s Sword and many more novels and short stories.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Longsword on pre-order!

My new novel, Longsword, is now available on pre-order! The book will be released on Friday 24 November and can be ordered in advance on Amazon - see the link below. 

"England, 1266 AD. The kingdom lies in ruins after years of bitter civil war. Simon de Montfort is dead, slaughtered in battle, and his surviving followers fight on with the fury of despair. Known as the Disinherited, these landless men infest the forests and highways and prey on the common folk.

Hugh Longsword, a common soldier, fights for the King against the rebels who threaten to destroy England. He is taken into the service of the Lord Edward, King Henry’s eldest son, and made to work as a spy. Edward sends him into the wild north country, home to the most dangerous rebel captains: men such as Sir John d’Eyvill and his savage cousin Nicholas, known as the Beast for his cruelty.

While Hugh spies on these cut-throats, the King gathers all his forces to attack Kenilworth Castle, greatest of the rebel strongholds. Though hopelessly outnumbered, the defenders hurl defiance from the walls and refuse to surrender. One assault after another is repulsed, even as the north country slides into chaos and another band of Disinherited seize the Isle of Ely in the fens of Cambridgeshire. From their watery fastness they ride out to attack the Jews of Lincoln, burning deeds, slaughtering innocents and kidnapping the wealthiest for ransom.

One of those taken captive by the rebels is Esther, a widowed Jewess. She is carried away to Ely, where the Jews are treated with inhuman cruelty. Esther is rescued by Hugh, and they are hunted through the marshes by teams of soldiers and wolfhounds. Together they must survive all the dangers of a war-torn land, where law and justice are fallen away and only the strongest can hope to prosper.

Longsword is the latest historical adventure novel by David Pilling, author of Reiver, Soldier of Fortune, The Half-Hanged Man, Caesar’s Sword and many more novels and short stories. .."

Friday, 17 November 2017

Another sneak preview

...of the sequel to Reiver! I hope to have two new stories out before Christmas, and Reiver: The Sword's Edge is the second. Below is the cover for what will be a novella rather than a longer work. Again, more details to follow soon...

Sunday, 12 November 2017

A sneak preview...

...just to (hopefully) whet a few appetites, here is the cover for a new book I hope to have out before Christmas. More info to follow soon!

Monday, 6 November 2017

Book review

As a change of pace, here's my review of a new book by Dr Sean Davies and published by Pen & Sword Books on the Welsh wars of Edward I. Regular readers of this blog will know of my interest in Edward's reign, and this book is an interesting, though not wholly successful, attempt at tackling a big subject.

Dr Sean Davies’s new book on Edward I’s so-called conquest of Wales is an interesting addition to a thorny subject that continues to ignite emotions to this day, 700 years after the fact: witness the recent controversy over the proposal to erect a giant ‘iron ring’ artwork in Flintshire to commemorate Edward’s castles.

Unfortunately the book is a mixed bag and suffers from its brevity. Just 183 pages is inadequate to cover the full gamut of Edwardian campaigns in Wales, with a lengthy introduction that seeks to provide the backstory of English-Welsh relations from the advent of the Saxons in Britain. Davies manfully attempts to address everything, but in such a short work, covering such a lenthy period and detailed subject, is bound to fall short. For more in-depth analysis of the original source material, John Morris’s 1901 masterwork The Welsh Wars of Edward I (from which this book heavily draws upon) is still essential reading. More recently, the books of Paul Martin Remfry build upon Morris’s study and provide detailed analysis of Edward’s military campaigns, their organisation and implementation. In this last respect, Davies’s claim to have produced the ‘first scholarly account’ of the conquest of Wales in 100 years is questionable.

Unlike recent popular histories of Edward I’s Welsh affairs, Davies makes an effort to approach the subject in an even-handed manner. Yet as the book progresses a certain noticeable bias does creep in. Davies claims the princes of Wales treated their opponents in a ‘chivalrous’ manner absent from their ruthless English counterparts. This might reasonably be said of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the sense that he did not kill his treacherous brothers. Otherwise he showed little mercy in disinheriting Rhodri, imprisoning Owain and doing nothing for Dafydd after 1263. Welsh princes in general were not kind to their enemies: the Welsh chronicles, Bruts and Annales Cambriae, are littered with examples of Welsh noblemen mutilating their kinsmen in order to bar them from succession. This custom was practiced elsewhere, of course, notably among the Byzantines, but the blinding and castration of one’s relatives does not amount to the medieval concept of chivalry.

Davies also makes the unfortunate claim that Llywelyn and his brothers desisted from attacking church property during their wars against Edward, while the English pillaged and destroyed with abandon. The author appears to be unaware of (or has deliberately omitted) the charges laid against Llywelyn and Dafydd of plundering religious houses in North Wales and Staffordshire. Davies also provides the reader with an incomplete picture of the relationship between Dafydd and the future Edward I. In 1264 forces under their joint command attacked the estates of Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby and Edward’s most hated rival at this time. The author’s decision to omit Ferrers altogether leaves a gap in his narrative, especially since Ferrers and Dafydd later became brothers-in-law.   

Elsewhere Davies is on more solid ground, and provides some compelling arguments. His account of Llywelyn’s early military success is excellent, in particular the Welsh prince’s effective siege operations against the Mortimers of Wigmore. Davies convincingly argues against the view of Edward I’s most prominent recent biographer, Michael Prestwich, that Edward was mistaken in using such large numbers of native Welsh troops in his Welsh campaigns. Davies makes the point that the alternative - small numbers of English levies and foreign mercenaries - had failed time and again and would surely have proved disastrous. Davies does not indulge in hero-worship of Llywelyn, though he clearly finds him an admirable figure. The complaints laid against Llywelyn’s lordship in Gwynedd, his extortionate taxes and breaking of native custom, are acknowledged if hurriedly passed over. Llywelyn’s political errors, specifically his failure to perform homage to Edward, are also discussed, though in general criticism of the prince is rather muted. Davies frequently quotes chunks of poetry, composed in praise of Llywelyn by contemporary Welsh bards. The poetry is nice to read, but again leaves the reader in no doubt as to the author’s sympathies.

There are some factual errors. Davies mistakenly names Edward I’s brother, Edmund of Lancaster, as commander of military operations against Rhys ap Maredudd in 1287. In reality it was Edmund of Cornwall, Edward’s cousin, who led crown forces against Rhys. Davies repeats John Morris’s claim that Edward’s Gascon mercenaries suffered 30-50% casualties in the final months of the war of 1283. This highlights a key weakness of the book, namely Davies’s tendency to parrot other authors without checking their sources. Morris gave no reference for these casualty figures, and there is little in the Welsh Rolls or other sources to support them. Davies also sometimes struggles to maintain his objectivity when assessing the character and actions of King Edward, and it was a mistake (in my view) to publish the unsupported allegations of Matthew Paris. Chapter headings such as ‘Crushed under the heel of Longshanks’ also do little to maintain a tone of professional disinterest.  

With regard to Edward’s campaigns in Wales, Davies is careful to acknowledge the king’s military competence; his skill at organisation and logistics and ability to react swiftly to a crisis. Davies’s account of the wars is heavily influenced by John Morris, that inescapable source, complemented by Prestwich and Marc Morris and quotations from the Ancient Calendar of Correspondence. To his credit, Davies does quote correspondence in full, though again he has a slightly annoying habit of referencing other scholars instead of giving his own opinion: the text throughout is larded with ‘According to Professor Rees-Davies…’ or ‘According to Dr Marc Morris…’ and so on. Davies noticeably resorts to this method when he has something contentious to say, particularly with regard to Edward’s methods of raising finance. A degree of bias is again demonstrated by the author’s unquestioning acceptance of the various complaints against royal administration submitted by Welsh lords after the war of 1277. Petitions from this era were always driven by vested interests, and cannot be fairly credited without due analysis: J Beverly-Smith, in his seminal study of the career of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, makes this point. Davies simply takes them all at face value and encourages the reader to do the same.

This leads on to Davies’s startling use of the term ‘apartheid’ to describe post-conquest conditions in Gwynedd. The use of such a modern, emotionally and politically loaded term in a serious study of medieval history is not acceptable. The alleged policies of racial segregation inside Edward’s new bastide towns are not mentioned in any surviving legislation from the reign: they are first outlined in the Record of Caernarvon, which dates from the mid-14th century. Petitions dating from Edward’s reign and afterwards provide a muddled view, with some evidence of the English king deliberately encouraging English-Welsh intermarriage inside the bastides. The subject of precisely when and why the ‘apartheid’ policies were introduced is well worthy of study, but Davies makes no effort to do so. It is true that a policy of displacing Welsh communities was employed in the new lordships created for Reynold de Grey and Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, but these were administered separately to Edward’s royal demesne lands in Gwynedd. A more in-depth study of the relevant sources, such as the Survey of the Honour of Denbigh, would have been ideal.
Ultimately, for all its positive elements, this book relies too heavily on second-hand interpretation and previous accounts of Wales in Edward I’s time. Primary sources are extensively quoted, but there is little sign of any original research. This is a shame, since a great deal of primary source material relevant to the subject remains to be accessed and interpreted.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Subtle traitors, part 3

...and third and last!

SUBTLE TRAITORS, part 3 - by David Pilling

While Lord Hunsdon and Sir John Forster scrambled to muster their forces, the rebellious Leonard Dacre gathered his own troops at Naworth. The Border had been in turmoil for a month. Starting on January 26th, and continuing every night for four weeks, the Scottish reivers hit England with one foray after another. Among them was the Earl of Westmoreland, recently fled into Scotland after his failed rebellion. He and his allies Ferniehurst, Scott of Buccleuch and Johnston, sought to provoke war between the two kingdoms. When the north slithered into chaos, they intended to ride south, liberate Mary Queen of Scots, and topple Elizabeth Tudor from her throne.  

Westmoreland and his crew were not equipped to realise these high ambitions. Their attack on Wark Castle was beaten off, and they had to content themselves with burning corn and stealing sheep belonging to the captain of the garrison, Rowland Forster. On January 30th they rode as far as Morpeth, where they were rumoured to have allies. On other occasions they targeted Kirknewton, about six miles from the Scottish border, where they roughed up local tenant farmers and carried a few away as prisoners. More seriously, they attacked Learmouth, though this town also proved too well-stocked and garrisoned to be taken. The English ambassador in Scotland, Thomas Randolph, carefully monitored events and sent a detailed report to Queen Elizabeth in London. He described the raids themselves as mere pin-pricks; worryingly, however, they had the full support of the Marian party and might lead to a full-scale rising in northern England. Elizabeth was warned by other agents of “whispering and mutiny” in the northern counties.

The English and Scottish confederates invested their hopes in Dacre. He had proved a fickle ally in the past, but only he had the power to raise enough men to threaten the north. Elizabeth was alive to the danger he posed, and ordered her wardens to arrest him. Lord Scrope, Warden of the West March, appreciated the danger of simply riding to Naworth and seizing the culprit: the Dacre family was far too popular in the north country and his tenants would resist any such attempt. Instead Scrope tried subtlety and invited Dacre to Carlisle on false pretences. Dacre refused to walk into such an obvious trap. He pretended he was too ill to travel and was suffering from a “contagious ague” as well as a sore leg. At the same time he sent a secret message to the rebels in Scotland with apologies and promised “he would soon show himself openly their friend.” His brother Edward, always true to the Marian cause, reassured Westmoreland of Dacre’s support:

“My lord of Westmoreland, he hath assured me, upon his honour, by giving his hand unto me, that if he might have the certainty of your handwriting, that you would maintain the Catholic faith and the Queen of Scottish action, he would with like parts, be yours, til death.”

Leonard now set about putting his fine words into action. He openly gathered forces from among the English and Scots borderers, until he had 3000 riders under his command. To anxious queries from royal officers, he explained that he needed these men to defend his lands against rebel raids. To his tenants, he claimed that Queen Elizabeth meant to seize his rightful inheritance. In reality Dacre meant to use these men to help Westmoreland depose the Queen and install Mary in her place.

For all his cleverness and scheming, he had reckoned without Elizabeth’s loyal wardens. Hunsdon and Forster rode hard through the night with about 1500 men and arrived at Naworth on the morning of February 20th, intending to arrest Dacre. On the way they had witnessed hundreds of men, horse and foot, scrambling to join the traitor’s army. Naworth was too strong to attack, so the wardens decided to push on to join Lord Scrope at Carlisle. They had to move quickly: Dacre’s forces were swelling by the hour, and another 1500-2000 men under Westmoreland and Buccleuch expected to cross the border at any moment.  

Had Dacre sat tight at Naworth and waited for reinforcements, Anglo-Scottish history might have taken a very different course. As it was, the little army marching across his front proved too tempting a target to ignore. He led his men out of Naworth and shadowed the wardens for four miles, until Hundson and Forster arrived at the banks of the Hell Beck, a river flowing through one of the loveliest parts of Cumberland. Here, amid a landscape of beautiful woodland and rocky river gullies, Dacre chose to offer battle. He seized a ridge of high ground above the Beck, unfurled his red steer banner and ordered his men to send up the old war-cry:

With their backs to the rushing water, Hunsdon and Forster had little choice but to fight. Hunsdon’s men hurriedly formed up, even as Dacre’s entire force spilled down the moor in a headlong charge. Lord Hunsdon was impressed by the valour of the rebels: it was, he later wrote, “the bravest charge upon my shot I ever saw.”

Brave but futile. Dacre’s mixture of tenant farmers, Border riders and outlaws were up against trained soldiers, who calmly unleashed a volley of caliver and pistol fire into their ranks. The rebel line staggered, but still the red bull banner flew, and the survivors tore into Hunsdon’s troopers. At this crucial moment, with the fight raging all across the moor, a trumpet sounded: old Forster came plunging into the rebel flank at the head of five hundred horse, laying about him with pistol and sabre like a man half his age. The impact of his wild charge shattered Dacre’s army, and the battle dissolved into a chaotic series of duels and melĂ©es, fought up and down the length of the Beck. According to one chronicler, Dacre had summoned a number of women to fight alongside their menfolk: “there were among them many desperate women that gave the adventure of their lives and fought stoutly.”

In the end, the rebels were slaughtered. Three to four hundred were left dead on the field, many other seriously wounded, and over two hundred taken prisoner. Dacre himself was nearly caught, but was rescued and hustled off the field by a band of Scots. He left his red bull standard behind him, promptly seized by Hunsdon as a trophy of war. Hunsdon begged the Queen for permission to keep the banner and display it in his hall (“which I trust the law of arms will allow me to bear”).

The rebel cause lay in ruins. Hopes for a cooperative rising between Scots and English, to liberate Mary and revive the Catholic faith in England, had failed utterly. Even so, Dacre and Westmoreland remained free to cause further trouble, and the borderlands were far from settled. Lord Scrope offered a full parson to any who chose to submit, but later reported that only five hundred or so had agreed to come into the peace. Thousands more wandered the March or went into southern Scotland, where they were greeted and openly maintained by Scotsmen who held fast to the Marian cause.

For the time being, at least, the Border was secure from invasion. After their victory Hunsdon and Forster rode on to Carlisle, where Hunsdon spied a company of Scottish riders approaching from the north. This was the advance guard of Westmoreland’s army, arrived just too late to join Dacre. In his letters Hunsdon thanked God for the deliverance, and remarked that in another three hours Dacre would have been reinforced by hundreds of Scots. “If we had tarried,” he reflected, “Dacre would have been past dealing with.” For her part, Elizabeth sent back a reply full of unusual warmth and gratitude, in which she referred to Hunsdon as “my Harry.”

As so often on the Border, it had been touch and go.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Subtle traitors, part two...

SUBTLE TRAITORS, Part 2 - by David Pilling

The red bull of Dacre

After the collapse of their rebellion, the Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland fled for safety into Scotland. The ‘bankrupt earls’, as they were called, were desperate enough to look for shelter in Liddesdale, that dark valley in the Scottish West March and home to the most dangerous of reiver families. In the depths of a foul December, the worn-out riders pushed through the Debateable Land and finally reached the outskirts of the valley. By now they had dwindled to just a handful: the earls themselves, Northumberland’s Countess, Lady Anne, her attendants and about forty mounted soldiers. This exhausted bunch of fugitives was all that remained of the great rebel army that had swept through northern England and threatened York.

They were met by two of the most infamous reivers of Liddesdale, Black Jock Ormiston and Jock of the Side. Ormiston is mentioned in government correspondence as an outlaw and ‘principal murderer’ who once rode with Bothwell, Queen Mary’s ill-fated lover. Jock of the Side is more difficult to identify, since there were so many Scottish reivers of that name. He may well be the same Jock mentioned in the ballads of Hobbie Noble, a semi-legendary English outlaw. According to the ballad, Jock rescued Hobbie from prison in Newcastle, and was famous in his own right as a ‘great thief’:

“He is weil kend, John of the Syde,
A greater thief did never ryde.”

All in all, these two rough characters were not the sort of delicate company Lady Anne Percy was used to. She had to make the best of it, for her husband agreed to leave his wife and her attendants in Jock’s tender care. Even in Liddesdale, there was no safety for the earls; Moray, the Scottish regent, offered the reivers a reward to hand over their guests, and at the same time sent a band of soldiers to threaten them if they refused. Faced with Moray’s wrath, Ormiston informed the earls they must be out of Liddesdale within twenty-four hours. Northumberland and Westmoreland were forced to take to the road again. Too exhausted to go any further, Lady Anne was left behind at Jock’s house, described as a ‘cottage not to be compared to any dog kennel in England.’

The earls now made their way to the house of Hector Armstrong of Harlaw, who cheerfully agreed to take them in. On Christmas Eve, in true reiver style, Hector betrayed Northumberland to Moray’s men in return for cash. Westmoreland bravely tried to rescue his ally, but was driven off by the regent’s soldiers. Poor Simple Tom remained a prisoner of the Scots for two years, until he was bought by the English and handed over to Lord Hunsdon. After a further spell of prison at Berwick, he was taken to York and beheaded. His head was spiked over the gates of the city he had once dreamed of capturing.

Queen Elizabeth’s troubles were far from over. Westmoreland remained at large, now a guest of the Scotts of Buccleuch, and Crookback Dacre had yet to make his move. On 23rd January 1570, the fragile peace was shattered by the assassination of Moray, shot in the stomach at Linlithgow by one James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh. Moray was the one man in Scotland able to keep the Borderers in check, and with his death their last restraint fell away. Walter Scott of Buccleuch, that old scoundrel, gleefully informed Westmoreland that “the regent is as cold as my bridle bit.” As was his habit when excited, the earl tore off his bonnet and threw it into the fire. Within hours he and his Scottish allies, joined by exiles from England, were in the saddle and tearing over the border to loot, raid and destroy.

Their aim, apart from wanton destruction, was to stir up a new war between England and Scotland. Fresh trouble in the north, so soon after the recent rebellion, could only serve Queen Mary’s ends. Their chief ally on the English side was Crookback Leonard Dacre, now fully committed to the rebel cause. Unlike the earls, Dacre cared little for Mary, and was chiefly motivated by the loss of his inheritance: his nephew, heir to the Dacre barony, had died after falling off a vaulting-horse in 1569. Leonard, a Catholic, had expected to inherit the baronetcy, but instead Elizabeth chose to give it to the Protestant Howards. Enraged at being passed over, Dacre threw in his lot with the rebels. From his manor at Naworth, he gave orders for 3000 riders to muster under the famous red bull banner of the Dacres. Leonard’s ancestor, Thomas Dacre, had carried the red bull (pictured) to victory over the Scots at Flodden in 1513, and it would now be unfurled against the Queen of England.

With Dacre’s assistance, the allies threatened to overrun the entire line of the March. Lord Scrope at Carlisle wrote a bleak message of the Queen, warning that his city stood in danger. The defence of the north lay in the hands of Lord Hunsdon and the ubiquitous Sir John Forster, who had done so much to crush the revolt of the earls. Fortunately for Queen Elizabeth, these two were as tough and capable as they come. Together they scratched together a force of Borderers and Middle March riders, and set out to hunt down Dacre before he could be joined by his allies from Scotland. They rode hard from Hexham at the dead of night, their way lit by bale-fires burning all along the frontier. There was a nightmarish quality about the scene: “Every hill was full of horse and foot,” Hunsdon later wrote, “crying and shouting as if they had been mad.”

More to come in Part 3…

Monday, 30 October 2017

Subtle traitors, part one

Part One of a series of articles about the little-known Rising of the Northern Earls against Elizabeth I in 1569, and the cruel aftermath...


In the winter of 1569 northern England exploded in revolt against Elizabeth I. The heart of rebellion lay on the Border where Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, had the main strength of her support. Mary languished in prison at Tutbury in Derbyshire, but the leaders of the revolt meant to topple Elizabeth from her throne, liberate Mary and proclaim her Queen of England and Scotland. As ever in this period, religion was crucial. Many of the Borderers, English and Scottish, still held to the old Catholic faith, and for that reason wished to see the back of the Protestant Tudors.

The leading lights of the revolt on the English side made an unlikely triumvirate. They were Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland and the latest in a long line of rebels to stem from that troublesome family; Charles Neville, Earl of Westmoreland and ‘crookback’ Leonard Dacre of Naworth, once deputy Warden of the English West March. All three of these men had savage character flaws. Percy was known as Simple Tom after his trusting and guileless nature - a polite way of saying he was a bit dim - while Westmoreland was reckless and hot-headed, with a habit of hurling his bonnet into the fire when in a rage (it must have cost him a fortune in bonnets). As for Crookback Dacre, so-called after a physical deformity, he was regarded as devious and treacherous: Queen Elizabeth referred to him as a ‘cankered, subtle traitor.’ He does seem to have been the most intelligent of the three, and was in London when trouble broke out in the north.

Word of the intended revolt had somehow reached Elizabeth, who summoned the two earls to London to explain themselves. Percy and Westmoreland didn’t dare go south: they had already been in treasonous correspondence with the Spanish, and had asked the Duke of Alva to land in northern England with an army. Still Percy dithered, reluctant to take the final step into armed rebellion. He was finally persuaded when Westmoreland held a loaded pistol to his head and threatened to blow out his brains (such as they were) unless he grew a spine. With this difficult conversation out of the way, the earls raised the standard of revolt and summoned their tenants to arms. At first their prospects seemed bright. They were joined by the English reivers of Tynedale and Redesdale, some of the best light cavalry in Europe. It was also feared that the riders of Cumberland and the reiver families on the Scottish side would also join in the revolt. In the event most of the Cumbrians stayed at home, and the Scots were held in place by the Regent Moray, Mary’s half-brother, who had recently cowed the Armstrongs with two murderous raids into Liddesdale.

Regardless, the rebel army swept south from Westmoreland’s seat at Brancepeth, picking up more supporters on the way, and marched into Durham. Here they sang a Mass in the cathedral, tore up the Bible and threw prayer books into a bonfire. At first the rebels took no spoil on the march and paid for all they took, but this changed as the need for money became acute. Those who aided them were left alone, but those who did not, especially Protestant gentlemen, were stripped and shaken down for all they had. One unfortunate nobleman, Lord Latimer, was literally stripped of most of his clothing and paraded about on horseback wearing nothing save his hose and doublet. The earls themselves had little ready money to hand. Northumberland, for instance, was obliged to pawn for £60 the golden collar he had receieved when invested with the Order of the Garter.

The rebels moved on into Yorkshire, where they took a string of towns and arrived at Boroughbridge on 20th November. So far they had met with no resistance. To the south, the Earl of Sussex was trying to raise an army at York and not having much success. Many of the citizens secretly sympathised with the Catholic rebels, or had friends and kin among them. Sussex himself was under suspicion, due to his kinship with the Catholic Duke of Norfolk and constant pleas that the rebels should be treated with mercy. Elizabeth was not in a merciful mood. She sent Lord Hunsdon, the hard-nosed Warden of the East March, up to York to kick Sussex into action and remind him of his duties. The Queen’s councillors then gave orders for two enormous armies to be mustered in the south: one, projected at 10,000 infantry and 800 horse to guard the Queen, while another of 20,000 foot and 2500 horse to be sent north to crush the rebels. Elizabeth’s commissions for these armies urged them to “invade, resist, subdue, slay, kill, and put to execution by all ways and means.” Gloriana could not have been more explicit.

The Queen’s knife-edge temper was not improved by the news that Hartlepool, on the East Yorkshire coast, had fallen to the rebels. She insisted on it being retaken immediately, and despatched ships and 500 soldiers to assist in the task. Sussex, who didn’t regard the loss of Hartlepool as terribly important, nevertheless sent a few ships under Sir Henry Percy (Simple Tom’s brother, who had chosen to remain loyal) to assault the town by sea. Bad weather drove Percy’s ships onto Flamborough Head, and poor Henry achieved nothing save the capture of a small fishing boat. Since the fishermen inside it were not rebels, even this was a dubious truimph.

While Elizabeth’s captains dithered and fumbled, the rebel earls were doing no better. Perhaps surprised by their own success, they hesitated before marching on York. The capture of the greatest city in the north would have been a great prize, but the earls doubted their scratch army was up to the task. Instead, after much arguing, they decided to attack Barnard Castle, a small fortress some 25 miles southwest of Durham on the River Tees. Barnard was held by a loyalist garrison under Sir George Bowes, and might have posed some threat to the rebels if they had continued south. Even so, the decision of the earls to abandon ‘the enterprise of York’ was sheer folly, and blew their only real chance of victory.

Elizabeth owed much to two men. The first was Moray, who prevented the Scottish reivers pouring over the border to overrun her flimsy northern defences. The second was Sir John Forster, the infamously corrupt Warden of the English Middle and a most unlikely hero. Forster was about 70 years old, and his name a byword along the March for shameless corruption and negligence. Yet, when push came to shove, he held true to the Queen. As soon as word reached Forster of the revolt, he raised his March riders and moved fast to seize the Percy castles at Alnwick and Warkworth. This done, he swung about to attack the rebels at Durham. En route he was joined by the loyalist Henry Percy, and on December 13th they engaged and routed the rebel advance guard.  

After taking Barnard Castle, Percy and Westmoreland had decided to make for Newcastle. Repulsed by Forster, they turned back towards Durham, only to receive news of the massive loyalist army coming up from York. Chivvied by Hunsdon, Sussex had finally got himself into gear, and set out from York at the head of 12,000 men. The army was large, but the troops of poor quality, and the rebels might have done well to stand their ground. Later Hunsdon himself sneered caustically at the southerners under Sussex’s command. He wrote:

“This lusty southern army would not have returned laden with much spoil, nor put their noses over Doncaster Bridge; but others beat the bush, and they have the birds.”

As it was, the fragile morale of the earls evaporated like dawn mist. They had already pleaded to Leonard Dacre, their erstwhile ally, for sanctuary, and met with a cold reception. Dacre had his own plans, and wanted nothing to do with this half-cocked rebellion. Leonard’s brother Edward was more amenable, and tried to take Carlisle Castle for the rebels. His attempt failed dismally when the Bishop of Carlisle got wind of it and strengthened the garrison. After this failure, the earls decided to cut and run. On the night of 20th December, with Westmoreland’s loyal wife in tow, they abandoned their army and rode hell-for-leather into Scotland.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Medraut in paperback

After months of delay, the fifth and final novel in the Leader of Battles series is finally available on paperback. Please see the link below to the book on Amazon!

"All the world's wonder, no grave for Arthur..." Britannia has been at peace for six years. With his enemies defeated, Artorius reigns as High King over a golden era of peace and prosperity. Yet his doom is near. A new generation of young warriors has reached manhood, who care little for the victories won by their fathers. To them Artorius is a relic, an ageing symbol of a bygone era. These restless young men find a leader in Medraut, the High King's youngest son.

Since his return from the East, Medraut has bided his time at Caerleon. Now he steps out of the shadows to take advantage of the growing resentment and unrest against his father. When the Yellow Plague hits Britannia, a lethal sickness that sweeps across the land and spares neither young nor old, Medraut seizes the chance to make his bid for power. All the while, the ever-present threat of the Saxons under their formidable leader, Cerdic, looms in the background.

 Leader of Battles (V): Medraut is the fifth and last installment in the Leader of Battle series. A lonely figure, surrounded by enemies, Artorius will ride out to battle one last time and leave the memory of a deathless legend..."

Thursday, 19 October 2017


Those who have enjoyed my recent articles on the Border Reivers might like to give my reiver tale, titled (appropriately enough) Reiver. It is currently available on Kindle and audiobook - enjoy!

‘If Jesus Christ was amongst them, he would deceive them…’

1569 AD. The March lands between England and Scotland are a place of terror, where outlaw bands and broken men rob, pillage and murder in open defiance of the law. Here, deadly blood-feud is a way of life. Families of robbers, known as Border Reivers, live via blackmail and terrorism. No man sleeps safe in his bed, and the sound of hoofbeats on the tops is a herald of death.

Richie Reade, known as Richie o’the Bow, finds himself dragged into this dark and bloody world. One night his village is raided by a gang of Armstrongs, the most dreaded of the reiver families. After he slays two of the gang, Richie is declared a dead man walking: the Armstrongs and their allies will not rest until they have his head. Betrayed by the law, Richie is forced to flee into the wilderness. He and his fellow outlaws begin to forge a reputation as Richie’s Bairns, killing the Armstrongs wherever they find them.

Meanwhile the Border is threatened by war. The rebellious northern earls plan to depose the Protestant Queen of England, Elizabeth I, and replace her with the Catholic Mary Stewart. Many of the reiver families rise to join the rebellion, and the earls march south under the Banner of the Five Wounds. Civil war threatens to break out in England, even as fresh murder and conspiracy raise havoc in Scotland.

With the north in turmoil, and the Border in a state of bloody flux, Richie and his outlaws do what they can to survive. As his fame grows, Richie finds himself drawn inexorably into the war for England’s soul. When the final battle looms, above the rushing waters of the Hell Beck, he must choose his fate. 

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The keen Lord Scrope

A post on the keen but unlucky Lord Scrope, another of the charismatic Wardens of the turbulent Anglo-Scottish frontier:


Thomas Scrope, 10th Baron Scrope of Bolton (1567-1609) was Warden of the English West March from 1593 until the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603. Considering his miserable time in office, he may have wished the union came about much earlier. Scrope was fated to be remembered as the Warden who in 1596 failed to prevent the escape of ‘Kinmont’ Willie Armstrong from Carlisle Castle. This stunning jailbreak, perhaps the most famous of Border Reiver tales, spelt endless humiliation for Scrope, lampooned in the Ballad of Kinmont Willie as ‘the keen Lord Scrope.’

Judging from his letters, Scrope was a nervous and highly-strung character, convinced that everyone was out to get him. In fairnesss, he wasn’t far wrong: his own deputies, Thomas and Lance Carleton, were a shameless pair of rogues who more or less openly connived with reivers on both sides of the border. Scrope evidently inspired little respect among his officers, and made the problem worse with his lack of savvy and political intelligence. At one time or another he quarrelled with most of his fellow Wardens, and complained of their lack of cooperation. It didn’t help that Scrope was the son of Henry Scrope, one of the most famous and effective of English Wardens. Comparisons were inevitable, and Scrope had neither the ability or temperament to live up to his father’s reputation. In many ways Scrope is a tragic figure. His failure as Warden was not down to want of trying, and he was personally brave to a degree that alarmed contemporaries. Robert Carey, himself a valiant fighter, remarked that Scrope was “careless of himself”, and took no precautions against assassins.

Like other Wardens, Scrope frequently rode out at the head of his soldiers to tackle gangs of reivers. The ballad Hughie the Graeme tells of how ‘Gude Lord Scroope’ hunted down Hughie for stealing a horse, and engaged in single combat until both men were sorely wounded: ‘But as they were dealing their blows so free, And both so bloody at the time, Over the moss came ten yeomen so tall, All for to take brave Hughie the Graeme.’ The ballad may well have a kernel of truth, for Scrope loathed the Grahams like poison. He also hated the Lowthers, who in turn resented him as an upstart, and of course the Carletons. Other than his natural paranoia, much of Scope’s hatred stemmed from the Kinmont Willie affair.

‘Kinmont’ Willie Armstrong was one of the Armstrongs of Liddesdale, probably the most feared and notorious of riding surnames. He was a famous reiver, who led destructive large-scale raids into northern England, with his own pele tower and band of followers. On 17th March 1596, after attending a truce day, he was ridden down and captured by a band of English reivers. Why he was taken is a mystery. Lord Scrope later came up with a list of official excuses, none of which convince. Willie was taken to prison at Carlisle Castle, where he was kept for several weeks in relatively mild conditions. The likelihood is that Scrope was embarrassed by his prisoner, and didn’t know quite what to do with him. Carlisle, the chief stronghold on the English side of the border, was considered impregnable. Over the centuries it had withstood one assault after another. Scrope must have thought his prisoner was quite secure, and had no inkling of the humiliation in store.

On the morning of Sunday, April 13th 1596, a gang of eighty Scottish reivers managed to break into the castle, liberate Willie and take him back to Scotland. This incredible hit-and-run raid was carried out with speed and efficiency and a minimum of violence: Scrope later claimed that two of his garrison were left for dead, but no fatalities are reported. The raid on Carlisle, while skilfully done by the Scots, only succeeded thanks to their secret friends on the English side. Scrope’s crooked deputies, the Carletons brothers, were involved, as were the English Grahams. As ever, ties of kinship were involved. Thomas Carleton was related to the Grahams by marriage, and through them a kinsman of Kinmont Willie himself. Scrope had recently sacked Thomas from his post as deputy and land sergeant of Gilsland, proving another motive to connive with the Scots. As for the Scottish raiding party, they included some of the most famous (and feared) names on the frontier: ‘Auld Wat’ Scott of Harden, Willie Kang Irvine, Christie Armstrong, Will Redcloak Bell, and others.

From Scrope’s point of view, the raid was a catastrophe. His reputation lay in ruins, and none of the letters he sent to London, justifying his conduct, cut any ice. Elizabeth I was furious, though (fortunately for Scrope) much of her rage was directed at the Scots instead of her hapless Warden. While she sent angry letters to James I, demanding the heads of those responsible, Scrope set about plotting vengeance. For the next year he obsessively collected evidence for the raid, wrote endless letters maligning the Grahams in particular, and seems to have gone half out of his mind; the tone of his correspondence is increasingly hysterical, and at one point he swore to have his revenge or die:

 “It shall cost me both life and living, rather than such an indignity to Her Highness, and contempt to me, shall be tolerated.”

Scrope’s rage overrode his humanity. In the winter of 1596 he sent one Captain Carvell, a hardened veteran officer, to raid the Scottish West March at the head of 2000 riders. Carvell’s men lifted 700 beasts, burnt Annan and Dumfries and then ravaged Liddesdale. Here, they took 3000 head of sheep and cattle, destroyed twenty-four buildings, and captured a number of prisoners. These, the Scots alleged, were stripped naked and tied together in pairs. They were led back into England on leashes, and more than sixty women and children died in the snow. Scrope vehemently denied these charges, but it was clear his men had done some rough work. He was gently reprimanded by Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s secretary of State, who warned Scrope that he “should not too suddenly use that kind of force…that course would be kept for the last extremity.”

Ultimately, Scrope never had his revenge on the perpetrators of the Kinmont Willie raid. The accesssion of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 heralded the end of the Border Reiver era, and Scrope’s release from office. Scrope must have viewed it as a blessed escape, though he didn’t live much longer to enjoy his freedom. In 1609 he died at the village of Langar in Nottinghamshire, far away from the accursed Border, aged just 42. A magnificent memorial to him and his family can still be seen inside the village church.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A medieval nightmare...


Inside a little glen on the old Scottish West March can be found the roofless shell of Hermitage Castle. Like an ancient tree, this menacing Border stronghold refuses to fall down, unbroken by the barrage of time. Hermitage was built to guard the valley of Liddesdale, home to some of the most unspeakably dangerous criminal gangs in Anglo-Scottish history. Something of the region’s bloodsoaked past can be sensed in the gaunt lines of the castle, a forbidding lump of stone with no frills or pretence to comfort or decoration. A strange quiet hangs over the surrounding valley, broken only by the gurgle of the stream: well might George MacDonald Fraser, a prominent Border historian, have described Hermitage as a ‘medieval nightmare.’

Hermitage was supposedly built in the mid-13th century by one Nicholas de Soulis, in a regular Norman motte and bailey pattern. It remained in the family until about 1320, when his descendent William de Soulis was accused of witchcraft and the attempted regicide of King Robert I of Scotland. According to legend, William was a powerful magician whose flesh could not be harmed by steel or rope. His tenants, an enterprising bunch, seized hold of their master and boiled him alive inside a pot of molten lead on the Ninestane Rig, a nearby megalithic circle. The tale is a gruesome one, and perfectly suited to the castle’s sinister reputation, but untrue; in reality William died a prisoner at Dumbarton Castle. Even so, one of Hermitage’s many ghosts is said to be Redclap Sly, the restless spirit of William de Soulis.

The castle then fell into the hands of the Douglas family, who added their own grim history. Sir William Douglas, ironically known as the Flower of Chivalry, had his former comrade Sir Alexander Ramsay imprisoned and starved to death at Hermitage. Thereafter the castle passed into the custody of the Dacres, then back via inheritance to the Douglases. The 14th century remains that can be seen today are the work of John Lewin, master mason at Durham Cathedral, employed by Earl William Douglas to build a new stronghold on the site of the earlier. Earl William’s heirs split into two branches, the Black (or Earls of Douglas) and the Red (Earls of Angus). By the late 15th century both strands of this troublesome and ambitious family had annoyed the Scottish kings beyond endurance. As a result the castle was granted to the Hepburns of Bothwell, who became Keepers and lords of Hermitage.

It was a Bothwell who triggered the most famous incident in Hermitage’s history. In 1566 James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell and lover of Mary Queen of Scots, came to Hermitage to exercise his duty as Keeper of Liddesdale. Brave and arrogant, he aimed to teach the local reivers a lesson, while Mary did the same to rebels at Jedburgh. At first Bothwell was succesful, and managed to capture a number of Elliotts, one of the chief riding surnames of Liddesdale. The earl sent them to Hermitage for safe keeping and ventured out again, eager for more action. He soon found it in the shape of Little Jock Elliott of the Park, a famous reiver and a worthy feather in Bothwell’s cap. Throwing aside all caution, Bothwell recklessly charged at Jock and engaged him in single combat. After a tussle, Bothwell shot Jock from the saddle and then dismounted to check the man was dead. This proved a terrible mistake: Jock leaped up and stabbed Bothwell three times.

While the reiver was left to die, Bothwell’s soldiers lifted their wounded master onto a cart and took him back to Hermitage. They arrived to find that the Elliotts had escaped from prison, overcome the garrison and taken over the castle. To add to his humiliation, Bothwell was forced to negotiate with the Elliotts before he could gain admittance. The news of his injuries prompted Mary to ride at breakneck speed to Hermitage, a famous romantic dash that ended with her blundering into a marsh. She very nearly died of a cold, and the two damaged lovers must have wished themselves anywhere but the godforsaken Border. As for Little Jock Elliott, who apparently died of his wounds, his embarrassment of Bothwell inspired a famous rhyme:

Fierce Bothwell I vanquished clean, 
Gar'd troopers an' fitmen flee; 
By my faith I dumfoondert the Queen, 
An' wha daur meddle wi' me? 
Alang by the dead water stank, 
Jock Fenwick I met on the lea, 
But his saddle was toom in a clank, 
An' wha daur meddle wi' me? 
Wha daur meddle wi' me? 
Wha daur meddle wi' me? 
Oh, ma name it's wee Jock Elliot, 
An' wha daur meddle wi' me?

The refrain ‘Wha daur meddle wi’ me?’ - who dares to lay a hand on me, essentially - expresses the Border spirit of defiance against outsiders.

In 1594 James VI of Scotland granted Hermitage to Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, direct ancestor of the poet and author of the same name, famous in his own right as the ‘Bold Buccleuch’. As well as Warden of the Scottish West March, Keeper of Liddesdale, and a thorough-going scoundrel, Scott also helped to mastermind the famous rescue of Kinmont Willie from under Lord Scrope’s nose in 1596. After the Union of the Crowns in 1603 the castle lost its purpose and slowly fell into ruin. Some repairs were carried out in the 1800s, and this enduring monument to the high era of the Border Reivers is now in the care of Historical Environment Scotland. 

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Wardens of the Border

A more general essay on the Wardens of the Border, those unfortunate men given the impossible task of keeping the Border Reivers in line...

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.