Longsword by David Pilling

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.


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