Longsword by David Pilling

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.

Friday, 13 October 2017

A stirring world...

To support the release of the audiobook version of Reiver, here's the first part of a potted biography of Robert Carey, a dashing Elizabethan courtier and fearless Warden of the riotous Anglo-Scottish Borderlands.

The stirring world of Robert Carey

Robert Carey (1560-1639) was the son of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon and Anne Morgan, a gentlewoman of Welsh descent. He may also have been a bastard grandson of Henry VIII: there were rumours (never entirely confirmed or denied) that his father was the old king’s illegitimate son, fathered on Mary Boleyn before Henry switched his affections to her more famous sister, Anne.

The younger Carey was a classic Elizabethan soldier-adventurer-courtier, straight out of the pages of a Rafael Sabatini novel. Or to give a more modern reference, he was Lord Flashheart without the braying arrogance. He is chiefly remembered for his slim volume of memoirs, penned in later life when he had achieved the titles of Baron of Leppington and Earl of Monmouth. His memoir is of passing interest for his description of court life under Elizabeth I and the author’s military service against the French and the Spanish Armada. The middle section, in which Carey describes his exploits on the Anglo-Scottish border, is where it flares into life.

Carey provides us with a unique, if brief, glimpse into the daily trials of a law officer on that blood-soaked frontier, dominated by organised gangs of murdererous thieves - the ‘border reivers’ - who thumbed their noses at the governments in London and Edinburgh and dared the authorities to try and tame them. Many officers, faced with this unmanageable hell and starved of resources, cracked under the strain. Not so Carey, who relished the danger and the hardship:

“I lived with great content (he wrote); for we had a stirring world, and few days passed over my head but I was on horseback, either to prevent mischief, or to take malefactors…”

Carey’s account of his time as Warden of the English East March (among other posts) provides a snapshot of life on the untamed frontier, a precursor to the American West, every bit as wild and disorderly. He gives first-hand accounts of ambushes, bloody skirmishes on stark fells and in the depths of midnight forests, sieges of outlaw strongholds and pele towers. Through him we are also provided with a transcript of the actual speech of a border reiver.

The reiver in question was Geordie Burns, a thief of Teviotdale on the Scottish side of the border. Geordie, with some of his kinsmen, rode frequent sorties into England, taking cattle and goods and slaying any who opposed them. One night he and his gang were unfortunate enough to run into Carey, out on patrol with twenty mounted troopers. The Burns men were driving stolen cattle - literally caught ‘red-handed’, as they said on the border - and heavily outnumbered, there being only four of them. Even so, they made a fight of it. Two were killed including Geordie’s uncle, shot through the head, one escaped and Geordie himself was taken prisoner, ‘bravely resisting until he was sore hurt in the head.’

Bleeding and bound in irons, Geordie was not afraid. He spat at Carey, ‘who it was that durst avow this night’s work?’ Geordie trusted in the protection of Sir Robert Kerr of Cessford, the acting Scottish Warden and Carey’s opposite number. Kerr, known as ‘the firebrand’, was notoriously hand-in-glove with the reiver families on the Scottish side of the border, openly protecting them from the law and taking a share of their profits. A hard, brutal character with several murders to his name, Kerr was the last man anyone wanted to offend. Geordie counted on Carey releasing him without charge, for fear that Kerr would muster the reivers and ‘shake loose the border’ i.e. mount a full-scale invasion of northern England.

Carey, however, wasn’t afraid of Kerr or anyone else. He imprisoned Geordie and wasted no time in having him tried and convicted of March-treason. He then did an unusual thing. After supper that night Carey disguised himself as a soldier of the garrison and went down to Geordie’s cell, along with some other troopers, to interview the condemned man. Carey sat down beside Geordie and told him ‘that we were desirous to see him, because we heard he was stout and valiant, and true to his friends; and that we were sorry our master could not be moved to save his life.’

Geordie, whose earlier bravado had quite vanished, was in the mood to talk. He made a full and frank confession of his misspent life, the content of which seems to have shocked Carey:

’He voluntarily of himself said that, that he had lived long enough to do so many villainies…and withal told us that he had lain with above forty men’s wives, what in England, what in Scotland: and that he had killed seven Englishmen with his own hands, cruelly murdering them; that he has spent his whole life in whoring, drinking, stealing and taking deep revenge for slight offences. He seemed to be very penitent, and much desired a minister for the comfort of his soul.’

This is the true voice of the reiver, captured in a manner that has few parallels - the nearest the sixteenth century could offer to a police interrogation. Carey, somewhat shaken, granted Geordie his minister, one Mr Selby, a ‘very worthy honest preacher’, but there was no question of granting the condemned man a reprieve. The next morning Geordie was taken out and hanged, regardless of the threat of Scottish vengeance. In his blunt letter to William Cecil, the Queen’s councillor, Carey explained that he hanged Geordie for:
‘I should have offended God, my prince, and my country…if I had suffered so wicked a man to live.’

After Geordie’s execution the English Wardens waited nervously, expecting Kerr to storm over the border at any moment with three thousand reivers at his back. The Scottish government in Edinburgh had other ideas. After some tense bargaining, it was agreed that certain hostages would be exchanged for the sake of peace. One of the captives was the firebrand himself, delivered into the safe keeping of Robert Carey.

It seemed the Scots had had their bellyful of Kerr, and wanted the corrupt troublemaker put of the way. Possibly they hoped Carey would do everyone a favour and murder his hostage. Other Wardens, such as the notorious scoundrel Sir John Forster, might have happily cut Kerr’s throat. Instead Carey befriended him: the two men dined and supped together, went hunting three days a week, and became good friends. Thus the peace of the Anglo-Scots border was kept, and Geordie Burns quietly consigned to the dustbin of history.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Reiver on Audio!

After months of recording, REIVER is now available as an audiobook on Amazon and iTunes, narrated by the splendid Mark Topping! Below are links to the new audiobook and the Kindle version.

‘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...'

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Beef!

Below is a piece I wrote a while ago on John 'the Beef' Giffard, one of the colourful personalities of the Second Barons' War in England. This is the second in a series of articles related to my current work in progress. Links to my author pages and Goodreads profile can be found at the end.

John ‘le Boeuf’ Giffard, 1st Baron Giffard, Lord of Brimpsfield (1231-99)

John Giffard was one of those dynamic larger-than-life figures of the high medieval era who seem to owe more to fiction than reality. A complex but not untypical mixture of forest outlaw, royal councillor, baronial gangster and professional soldier, his nickname of ‘le Boeuf’ - the Beef - hints at the kind of man he was. Giffard’s nickname and certain elements of his career may have inspired the character of Sir Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, one of the trio of splendid knightly villains in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. 

As a youth Giffard saw much service against the Welsh, taking part in the royal campaigns of 1246, 1247 and 1248, first as an esquire and then a fully fledged knight. Doubtless hardened by these experiences, he made his mark in the early 1260s as an adherent of Simon de Montfort, the rebellious Earl of Leicester. His antics on behalf of de Montfort earned him a mention in The Song of the Barons, composed by a pro-baronial minstrel. Part of the couplet mentioning Giffard has not survived, but the fragments that remain translate as follows:

‘Sir John Giffard ought well to be named, who had scarcely a…in this riding-bout…and he was always forward…valiant and wise and active…and of great renown….’
Giffard’s deeds in this era are the stuff of balladry. In early 1263 a dispute between the two rival sheriffs of Gloucestershire, the Montfortian William de Traci and the royalist Maci de Besile, spilled over into violence. De Besile went armed into the court at Gloucester where de Traci was sitting in session, seized his rival by the hair and dragged him through the streets to the castle. In response Giffard and Roger de Clifford stormed Gloucester Castle, released de Traci, seized de Besile and carried him off prisoner into the Welsh marshes. They also found time to kill a carpenter who had shot two of Giffard’s esquires, raid de Besile’s estate at Sherston and steal his cattle.

For Giffard’s next trick, he descended upon the Hundred Court at Quedgeley, where the Royal Constable had summoned him to answer charges of treason. Giffard came, but in full armour and with troops at his back. The Constable and jury scattered in panic, followed closely by Giffard, who slew a few of them before arriving before the walls of royalist-held Gloucester. Here it was decided to take the city by stratagem. Along with his ally, John de Balun, Giffard disguised himself as a Welsh wool merchant. Carrying woolpacks and wearing a distinctive style of long Welsh cloak, they deceived the porters into letting them through the gates. Once inside they threw off their disguises, slew the guards and admitted the rest of the baronial army. The city was overrun but the garrison of the castle held firm. Enter Prince Edward, who came hurrying up with royal reinforcements and attempted to storm the walls. Repulsed, Edward hopped into an empty boat moored beside the Severn and rowed across with some men to reinforce the garrison. Not to be outdone in terms of theatrical heroics, Giffard launched an attack on the abbey by climbing the wall of the abbey orchard - no doubt stopping to gather a few apples on the way. Eventually a truce was brokered by the Abbot of Gloucester and Bishop of Worcester, whereby Giffard and the other rebels agreed to withdraw.

We next hear of Giffard at the Battle of Lewes, where he was unhorsed during the first savage cavalry assault led by Edward. Taken prisoner and carried off to Lewes Castle, Giffard must have scarce credited his good fortune when news arrived that the royalists were defeated. Soon after Lewes he broke with de Montfort after a dispute over ransoms for Richard of Cornwall (Henry III’s brother) and other prisoners taken at Lewes. Giffard fled to join forces with Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. Together they blocked de Montfort’s tour of Gloucestershire, took Gloucester and destroyed all available shipping, ruining de Montfort’s hopes of crossing the Severn. At the ‘murder of Evesham’ in 1265, where the Montfortian cause was exterminated in a spate of noble bloodletting unseen since Hastings, Giffard played his part: chosen as a member of the death-squad instructed by Edward to hunt down de Montfort on the field, he was with Roger de Mortimer in the last moments, when de Montfort fell to his knees and was skewered through the neck by Mortimer’s lance.

Giffard’s later career was mostly concerned with Wales, where his expertise and knowledge of Welsh warfare proved invaluable to Edward I. A bachelor until he was 39, Giffard chose a wife in his own distinctive idiom - as John Cleese might say - by illegally abducting a widow named Maud de Longespee and spiriting her off to Brimpsfield Castle. He was eventually allowed to marry her by paying a fine of 300 marks for marrying without consent. The lady’s thoughts are unknown, but the marriage seemed happy enough. Maud bore Giffard two daughters and possibly conspired with him in an extremely murky incident that still baffles historians to this day.

In 1282 the Welsh rose in revolt under their prince, Llewellyn ap Gruffydd. Giffard had served against Llewellyn in the first Edwardian war of 1277, and was now summoned to arms again. In the winter of 1282 things were going badly for the English. The Earl of Gloucester’s defeat at Llandeilo was followed by a more serious reverse at Moel-y-don on the Anglesey strait, where Luke de Tany and some 300 bannerets were drowned. King Edward withdrew to Rhuddlan to summon reinforcements from Gascony, while his commanders elsewhere were forced onto the defensive.

To make things worse, Roger de Mortimer, Edward’s most able captain in Wales, died in October 1282. His command in Montgomery was given over to Roger l’Estrange, while Builth was turned over to Giffard. Thus l’Estrange and Giffard, along with the late Mortimer’s kinsmen Edmund and Roger de Mortimer of Chirk, were on the scene when Llewellyn advanced into the region at the head of 7000 men. What happened next, the details of how precisely Llewellyn was lured to his death and the flower of his army destroyed by the Marchers at Irfon Bridge, is a perhaps unknowable mystery. At least fourteen sources, English and Welsh, give slightly differing accounts of the prince’s demise.

One later poem describes Llewellyn meeting a mysterious gentlewoman in a tryst (his wife Eleanor de Montfort would not have been happy). A few days after Llewellyn’s death John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to Giffard’s wife Maud de Longespee in response to her entreaty that her late cousin - she was kin to Llewellyn - be absolved of his excommunication and buried in consecrated ground. This was impossible, he replied, unless there was evidence of his repentance before death. He therefore asked Maud to fetch ‘any of those who were present at his death’ to bring evidence of his penitence. This is a strange request, to say the least: presumably the only persons present at Llewellyn’s death were the soldiers who killed him. Pecham does also mention that Llewellyn  asked for a priest to absolve him before he died. Perhaps the tale of the tryst stemmed from Maud’s involvement in the affair, which in turn gives rise to a suspicion that she played some part in luring the last native Prince of Wales to his doom: after all, her husband was a commander on the English side, and she was a blood-relation to Llewellyn. After 1282 Giffard stood high in favour with Edward, and was constantly re-granted presents of Welsh land despite losing them in various rebellions. This, as John Morris, suggests, argues that Giffard had done some great service to the crown, the most obvious being the killing of Llewellyn in a ruthless gangland-style assassination.

Even in his latter years ‘the Beef’ continued to play a vital role in Edward’s Welsh campaigns. When the whole of Wales rose against English rule in 1294 under Madog ap Llewellyn, Edward managed to get himself trapped by a Welsh army inside Conway Castle. The Earl of Warwick hurried up to his aid and broke Madog’s army in an engagement at Maes Moydog in Powys, where longbowmen were used in tandem with the English cavalry. Shortly afterwards Edward proclaimed he wished to ‘show his gratitude to John Giffard, has taken him under his special protection and defence on account of his bodily infirmity; and also because quite recently he and his men have powerfully aided the king in the king’s Welsh campaign’. This remarkable entry suggests Giffard was wounded in the fighting against Madog and possibly advised Warwick on his strategy at Maes Moydog. If so then Giffard was present at Lewes, Evesham, Irfon Bridge and Maes Moydog, making him one of the most important English soldier-barons of the period.   

By this time Giffard’s wife Maud had died without male issue. He twice remarried and at the age of 54 finally managed to father two sons, John and Edmund, by his third wife Margaret Neville. He was twice summoned to Parliament in 1295 and 1298 and appointed a member of Prince Edward - later Edward II’s - council in 1298 when England briefly threatened to collapse into civil war. Men who live by the sword are generally said to die by it, but this maxim didn't apply to Giffard. The old warrior expired peacefully on 29th May 1299, aged 68, at manor of Boynton in Wiltshire. He was buried in the Abbey Church at Malmesbury.

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Friday, 6 October 2017

The Robber Knight

I'm going to post a series of articles relating to my next novel, set during the Second Barons' War in 13th century England. The following concerns Sir Adam de Gurdun, one of several Robin Hood-type characters who infested the forests and highways of England during this period. Below the article are links to my author profiles and Goodreads account.


Sir Adam de Gurdun was a minor Hampshire knight who rose to brief fame during the Second Barons’ War in 1260s England. For three years he led a popular rebellion in Somerset, comprising peasants and clergymen as well as local knights, before taking to the forests at the head of a band of outlaws. He was finally tracked down and defeated in single combat by the Lord Edward and delivered into the custody of Edward’s mother, Eleanor of Provence. After a period of imprisonment, he was able to redeem his freedom and his estates after paying a severe fine, and spent the rest of his long life as a loyal Crown servant.

Adam hailed from a minor Hampshire landed family, though he rose in the world via military service and an advantageous marriage. A career soldier, he served Henry in Poitou (1242), Gascony (1253-4) and Wales (1257). On the latter campaign he served alongside Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, who was to prove Adam’s friend and nemesis in the future. In 1255 Adam married Constance, a member of the Venuz family in Hampshire. This connection brought him estates in Hampshire, Dorset and Gloucestershire, as well as a life-grant from his father-in-law of the lucrative keepership of Aliceholt and Woolmer forests.

Constance was an unlikely match for an obscure country knight. Her first husband, Robert de Pont de L’Arche, had died in 1246. His brother and heir, William, was an outlaw on Lundy Island wanted for the murder of a royal clerk. On Robert’s death Henry III seized the dead man’s estates after allocating dower lands to Constance, and in 1247 granted custody of the inheritance to his Poitevin half-brother, William de Valence. In 1252 William de Pont de L’Arche was finally captured and ‘received into the king’s peace’, only to sell his entire inheritance off to Valence at a knock-down sum under the most suspicious of circumstances. Valence paid William 1000 marks for the estate, though it was easily worth over £200 per annum. Land at this time normally sold for ten times its annual value, so Valence had clearly secured a tremendous bargain from William, who immediately vanishes from the record. Clearly unimpressed with the shady deal, Constance refused to remarry for ten years. King Henry had granted overlordship of her dower lands to Valence, and ordered Constance to take an oath of fealty to him ‘as her lord’ and swear not to marry without his consent. Despite this, Constance married Adam in 1255, apparently without Valence’s consent. Whatever secret history lies behind the unsanctioned wedding remains buried.

Adam was probably familiar, thanks to visiting Constance’s manor in Dorset, with local complaints since the 1250s over the king’s fiscal exactions and the tyranny of the Poitevins. These included the notorious Elias de Rabayn, Sheriff of Somerset and Devon and Keeper of Corfe Castle, and Aymer de Valence, William’s brother and bishop-elect of Winchester. Adam threw in his lot with Simon de Montfort and in 1263 was probably among the rebels who ‘rode with flags flying through the country plundering loyal subjects’. In mid-1263 he seized Dunster Castle, a hilltop fortress on the fringes of Exmoor. Dunster had been in the possession of Eleanor of Provence, Henry’s queen, since 1258, but was remote and probably undefended. Thus it made an ideal stronghold for rebels, and Adam was to garrison it for the next three years.

From Dunster, Adam launched attacks against royalists in Somerset. Some of his deeds have survived in the various court rolls. He broke into the manor of Sir Ralph de Bakeputz at Cheddar, smashing doors and windows and plundering goods and livestock to the value of £100; he raided the manors of Thomas de Audeham, another wealthy royalist, at Chiselborough and Norton, cutting down his woods and taking goods to the value of 200 marks. He also attacked and kidnapped royalist knights in person: one Walter de Matteresdune later complained that Adam had taken his armour and weapons, while the Somerset knight Sir Philip de Cantilupe was captured and ransomed.

Adam’s followers hailed from all over Dorset and Somerset and as far away as South Devon, possibly the result of him touring these areas in person to whip up support. After the Battle of Lewes government in the south-west was thrown into confusion, and uneasily divided between a type of military governor (Brian de Goviz), the sheriff (William de Staunton) and the Montfortian keepers of the castles at Bristol, Corfe and Dunster. Local peasants later complained that they had been forced into the service of Sir John de la Warr, the keeper of Bristol, and Sir Robert de Verdun, keeper of Corfe. No such complaints were lodged against Adam de Gurdun at Dunster, and it may be significant that his followers were described as his personal following rather than followers of de Montfort.

The presence of so many peasants in Adam’s company contrasts with the lack of wealthy and influential knights. A few, such as Sir Robert de Bingham, did spend time in his retinue but either strayed from it or were seconded by Adam back to the main Montfortian forces: Bingham, for instance, was captured by the royalists at the Battle of Northampton. Released after Lewes, he returned briefly to Dunster only to desert Adam’s service again, this time for good. Adam enjoyed greater support from the lesser gentry in Somerset, but more remarkable is the depth of his support from the peasantry and minor clergy. Amongst the poor men of his following we find the likes of Henry, son of the smith; William Herberd, whose worldly goods only amounted to 12 pence per annum; John Brun the potter, Thomas son of Hugh the cobbler, William the Carter - etc. The commoners of Minehead, Milverton, Chiselborough and Norton appear to have volunteered to join Adam, and fought for him with enthusiasm. One band of Milverton peasants slogged over forty miles west to fight for Adam in Devon at Barnstaple. Two priests were also later accused of ‘abetting’ Adam’s men, while his raiding band at Chiselborough and Norton included one ‘Robert le Clerc’, probably the local priest. The explanation for such loyalty may lie in Adam’s personal charisma, allied to his support for the Provisions of Oxford and the Montfortian reform movement. Records of Dorset government demonstrate the Provisions brought genuine relief to Somerset: the shrievalty was reformed, financial exactions reduced, legal reforms implemented. These were all good reasons for the local peasantry to rise in arms under an experienced fighting man who knew how to lead and organise.

Adam’s big moment came in June 1265, when the Montfortian regime was tottering. On 16th June he was appointed Keeper of Lundy Island and on 28th was ordered in the king’s name to repel rebels ‘raising new wars wherat the king is not a little moved and angered’. The crisis became acute when William de Valence and John de Warenne landed in Pembrokeshire with a force of mercenaries, and King Henry’s heir, the Lord Edward, escaped custody at Hereford to link up with Gilbert de Clare and Roger de Mortimer at Wigmore. In desperation, Montfort turned to Adam in the hope that he would be able to raise a fleet and prevent Valence from sailing down the Bristol Channel. In the event Adam was required to deal with a raiding force of Welshmen led by Sir William de Berkeley, a knight of ‘evil’ reputation. On 1st August these men came across the Bristol Channel from Glamorgan and plundered Minehead. Adam rode out from Dunster to meet the raiders and drove them back into the sea with great slaughter, drowning their captain. His victory did the Montfortian cause little good. Montfort was already set on his disastrous course towards Evesham, and Berkeley’s raid may have been intended as no more than a distraction to prevent Montfortian forces leaving Somerset.

In the wake of the royalist victory at Evesham, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore came thundering into Somerset to retake Bristol, shore up his interests at Bridgewater and crush local rebels. One of his first targets was Dunster Castle, and by 22nd August the stronghold had fallen. No details survive of the battle or siege, but it seems Adam abandoned the castle in the face of superior forces. Mortimer promptly seized Adam’s estates, while the outlaw and the remainder of his company retreated into the forests of Berkshire. They spent the next few months roaming between Berkshire and Bedfordshire and the Peak Forest in Derbyshire, before descending into Alton Wood near Hampshire. This was Adam’s old stamping ground, near his family estates.

His final defeat is recorded by several of major chroniclers of the day. By the spring of 1266 he had been joined by another Montfortian knight, Sir David de Uffington, and their company numbered eighty men. On 10th May they raided the manor of Shortgrave and then returned to their hideout at Alton via the Chilterns, carrying away ‘all that they could’. They were betrayed by one Robert Chadde, a former follower turned spy, who had informed the Lord Edward of the location of Adam’s headquarters. Edward followed the raiders and attacked them in camp at Alton Wood. Sources differ on the precise details, but all agree that Edward engaged Adam in single combat. The Flores contains perhaps the most realistic account, stripped of chivalric gloss:

‘Who immediately the son of the king when encountering attacked alone, fighting manfully with the same Adam. But finally Adam surrendered wounded, his boldness commended him to Edward, ordering catchforms [blood catchers or bandages] to be placed near to the stabbed wounds, not thinking of him as the enemy, but he led him away just as a guest. Truly his companions he ordered to be hanged in the oaks of the wood.’

The fate of Adam’s followers was to be hanged en masse while their master was led away to honourable captivity. This was the punishment reserved for penniless commoners rather than aristocrats who could buy their way out of trouble. Edward sent his prisoner gift-wrapped to Eleanor of Provence, whose castle at Dunster the outlaw had occupied for so long. After a spell in prison Adam was able to redeem his estates for a hefty fine, and spent the rest of his days as an unremarkable Crown servant. He appears to have patched up his differences with Roger Mortimer, since the two appear together on a charter in 1270. Adam later served under Mortimer in the Montgomery command during the Welsh war of 1276-77. In 1280 he was made a Justice of the Forest, and in the 1290s made custos of the seashore in Hampshire and a commissioner of array in that county. He died in 1305, aged somewhere between 65 and 80.

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