Friday, 9 November 2012

The Border Reivers: Part Five



The lance was the main weapon of the mounted Reiver; such was the general level of skill with this weapon that a Reiver was reputedly able to spear a salmon in a stream from horseback.

Even outside of the borders, the lance was still a common weapon in England and Scotland. Although a number of huge ousting lances still survive, the kind of lance used on the battlefield by anyone other than a fully armoured heavy cavalryman would have been more like a footman’s spear – indeed, the lance would have doubled as a spear in the border’s adaptable armoury.


The sword had, by all accounts, ‘all but vanished by the 1550s’ as a primary infantry weapon (Gush, 1982: 9); as a secondary weapon though, it remained almost universal, and the Reivers would not have proved an exception to this. Cavalry swords were double-edged and straight, sometimes with intricate basket style hilts.


Pikes were common in the sixteenth century – notably in Scottish field armies, where about 70% of the armies at major sixteenth century engagements were so armed. Most pikes were between 13 and 18 feet long, and consisted of an iron head of varying length mounted on a sturdy pole.

The pike actually required a fairly high level of skill to use effectively – anyone who has tried to handle a surveying pole or similar tall pole will understand the difficulty of controlling it; without good drill and constant practise a pike phalanx could fall into a great deal of confusion.  It is reported that the Scots at Flodden had French captains present, who had trained them in the effective use of their weapons.

Pikes were, of course, a weapon only for footmen, and were probably highly unsuited to the sort of hit and run skirmishes fought in Reiver raids. Many Reivers would have left their pike at home, bringing it out only if required to form part of a large local foot muster in times of war.

Bills were widely used until the end of the sixteenth century; in 1584, 2500 English billmen were based around the Scottish border, compared to 2400 pikemen. This was despite the fact that military thinking of the era had come to the conclusion that bills were ineffective, and were better replaced by pikes. Bills were, however, easy and cheap to supply, as most were modified from agricultural implements.


At the side of so many sixteenth century folk, whether on the borders or elsewhere, could be seen a dagger. On the battlefield they were very much secondary (or even tertiary) weapons. Elaborate versions did exist, with sword catching hilts and decorative work, but we can be sure that ordinary – perhaps even multi-purpose – blades were more popular amongst the conservative borderers. Blade lengths would vary between four and twelve inches.