Who were the 'Border Reivers?'
‘Reive’ is an early English word meaning "to rob",
Border Reivers were raiders along the Anglo–Scottish border from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century. During this time, England and Scotland were frequently at war and the area was lawless, godless and often decimated by opposing armies.
A tough area breeds tough people. The families who lived there – on both sides of the border – grouped together in clans for protection and survival. Loyalty to a feeble or distant monarch or reliance on the effectiveness of the law, were not good survival strategies for the people of the borders. Instead, they sought security through their own strength and cunning and set out in large mobs to raid other families. ‘Reiving’ - raiding for cattle and sheep (and whatever else which could be transported) was the only way to survive and it became an established way of life, a profession, which was regarded with no discredit amongst the Borderers. The Reivers moved only at night, taking advantage of their intimate knowledge of the remote and rugged terrain, to spirit away their ill-gotten plunder.
Their heyday was perhaps in the last hundred years of their existence, during the time of the Stuart Kings in Scotland and the Tudor Dynasty in England.
The attitudes of the English and Scottish governments towards the border clans alternated between indulgence and encouragement. Secure in their rule in the majority of the two countries, the authorities in England and Scotland were happy to let the Reivers battle it out for supremacy in the narrow hill country between the two nations. These fierce families served as the first line of defence against invasion and it suited authorities to have gangs of outlaws harassing the enemy on the border. However, the royalty of both countries would only travel through the region with a large and heavily armed escort. Even they were afraid of the Reivers.
As soldiers, the Border Reivers were considered among the finest light cavalry in all of Europe; they were outstanding horsemen. Living on the frontier between two warring nations sharpened their soldiering skills. Many worked as mercenaries abroad.
Of course, the notion of Scottish Clans is now legendary around the world – mostly thanks to Sir Walter Scott and his ballads. What is not so well known, perhaps, is that on the English side of the border there were also large, unruly English clans like the Charltons, the Armstrongs, the Milburns, the Robsons, the Fenwicks and the Dodds.
The only thing which was guaranteed was that those who were raided would quickly seek revenge.
The Charltons were one of the biggest reiving families on the English side of the border, particularly in the North Tyne Valley, now the area of Keilder water. ‘Charlton’ means ‘free peasant’ - or peasant of the free town. There’s a hint in the name, perhaps, that even the rigid feudalism of the Plantagenets had failed to subdue this this clan.
An anonymous document in Hexham Museum tells us that in the 14th century there were ‘six hundred Charlton men without hoss in the North Tyne Valley.’ The document does not mention how many Charlton men there were who did own a ‘hoss’ (horse) or how many women or children there were, but the number must have been considerable. It is amazing to think of the large population which must have survived in this very remote region seven hundred years ago, scraping out a living on those windswept fells.
There is a famous painting of this scene by Sir William Bell Scott in Wallington Hall.
Topping was imprisoned at Hexham - until the rest of the Charlton boys decided to come and break him out. Once the gaolers heard the Charltons were on their way, they fled and left the gaol unguarded. Topping’s adventures with English prisons did not end there. A few years later he was captured again and imprisoned further away in the more secure stronghold of Berwick castle. According to the legend, Berwick castle was devastated by the plague. Everyone died – except Topping Charlton – who apparently walked over the dead bodies of his gaolers and out of the open gate.
This story really struck home with us. Nearly one hundred years ago my husband’s grandfather, William Charlton, walked out alive after surviving four years in the trenches of WW1. ‘The luck of the Charltons’ has been a saying we’ve often used in our family over the last three generations, following William's miraculous escape from death in Flanders. Topping’s story suggests that this phenomenal good fortune was present amongst the Charlton’s many centuries ago.
Sadly, the luck of the Charltons – and the other border clans – did run in short supply after James VI of Scotland became James I of England and the two countries were united with Wales to become Britain. James I ordered the border region to be cleaned up and it was – brutally. In an exercise similar to ‘ethnic cleansing,’ the authorities clamped down on lawless behaviour. Families were burnt out and separated, many ring leaders were transported to either the Americas or to Ireland. After three hundred years, peace finally settled over the region. It’s bloody history only remaining in the architecture of its scattered castles, Pele towers, fortified farmhouses, in the many border legends and lively, haunting beat of its folk songs.