A complete history of the Border Reivers would justify an entire book in itself; George MacDonald Fraser has done just this in his book The Steel Bonnets, and I recommend that all readers buy a copy of that book for a wonderfully written analysis of the period. The following history of the period is painlessly brief, and I hope that it provides a solid background for your games.
The classic era of reiving was in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods – roughly AD1500 – 1600. However, the violent nature of life on the border of England and Scotland meant that reiving was already a centuries old occupation by that time. Throughout the early medieval and high medieval periods, the inhabitants of England’s northernmost counties and the Scottish lowlands had the misfortune to live in a self-perpetuating region of continual warfare. Of course, that is not to say that these folk were innocent victims; the victim would no doubt be turning Reiver in the coming weeks, in an attempt to retrieve their property – with interest.
When looking at Reiver history, it is important to consider the differences between actions fought as acts of war, and actions fought as acts of robbery under civil law – or as close to civil law as the borders ever attained. It is important to distinguish between military and civil actions wherever possible. Donald Featherstone sums the general history of the borders succinctly:
‘The sixteenth century was that of the Tudors, dominated by larger-than-life Henry VIII and his colourful daughter Elizabeth I, who found time to carry on sporadic wars with Scotland whilst establishing the foundations of the great maritime empire of the future.’
The main period of border reiving took place at a crucial time in European history – a time that saw the change between medieval lifestyle and what we would now perceive as the modern world (in an historical sense). Militarily, armies were becoming hi-tech (by sixteenth century standards), replacing bows and spears with handguns and cannon – yet the warriors either side of the Anglo-Scottish border often remained loyal to their earlier military heritage, fighting in a distinctively medieval manner unless required to do otherwise in times of all out war.
Cursed by officialdom as ‘evell desposed people … inclined to wildness and disorder’, the border folk mostly lived their own lives as their ancestors had throughout the medieval period, whilst the Wardens and government officials attempted to strive towards some form of civil order – if only to keep the area from becoming too militarised and potentially troublesome. Wardens were often locally-recruited men who were, in some instances, not adverse to turning their own men to reiving.
Scotland was perhaps even more inclined towards violent behaviour than England, and this was not even restricted to the border region:
‘The Scottish borders remained turbulent, as did Scottish politics, while the highland clans remained Catholic and steeped in a culture based upon warfare and vendetta. Scotland, too, was the scene of a long-lasting and probably more intense witch-craze than England … the ultimate success of Tudor policy towards Scotland preserved national security on England’s northern border till the Bishops’ Wars of 1639-40, an achievement comparable to that in Wales.’
(Thomas, 1999: 66)
Finally (and perhaps most intriguingly for wargamers), it should be noted that, although the actions of the Border Reivers are best remembered, much of the British countryside suffered from sporadic civil disturbance throughout the Tudor era, not least caused by the large number of wandering mercenaries present in the country. A Somerset Justice of the Peace, named Edward Hext, wrote in 1596:
“I do not see how it is possible for the poor countryman to bear the burdens duly laid upon him … [they say] that the rich men have gotten all into their hands and will starve the poor. And I must justly say that the infinite numbers of the Idle wandering people and robbers of the land are the chiefest cause of the dearth … the most dangerous are the wandering soldiers and other stout rogues of England.”
(quoted in Thomas, 1999: 56)
There is, then, little need to restrict your studies and games to the borderland of England and Scotland. Any rural scene would be a suitable backdrop – from Wales to Cornwall to the fens of East Anglia.