Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Border Reivers; Part Seven

In peacetime, the size of a Reiver party would have depended upon the raid which was being undertaken. Although the borderers were the most warlike of all sixteenth century Englishmen and Scotsmen, able bodied men were kept in training across the country, for want of a standing army:

‘All eligible were compelled to muster for inspection at varying intervals (up to twice a year in times of danger.’
(Gush, 1982: 33)

This muster was organised on a county by county basis. In 1573, Trained Bands started to appear; these were picked for their skill from the General Muster. The Scottish government held its own equivalent of the muster, called the Wappinshaw.

A wartime footman company varied between 100 and 400 men. In Elizabeth’s campaign in Ireland in 1558, English companies were organised with fifty longbowmen and fifty arquebusiers in each. In wartime, such companies may have been seen on the borders, but outside of war, a warden or a clan headman would have been unlikely to muster this many firearms – longbows, crossbows and polearms would have been more common.

Henry VIII organised his horsemen into cornets of 50-100 riders, but Reivers would probably not have stood by such hard and fast rules. In the late sixteenth century, ‘Northern Horse’ was still the most common light cavalry in English armies. In 1586, the English government had raised troops of Petronels, who were light cavalry equipped with firearms, but these did not oust the Reivers from their majority.

The homes of those living closest to the border were subjected to the constant threat of raiding throughout the medieval period, and on into the Reiver years. Farmhouses were no longer seen purely as places of residence, and most became increasingly well-defended. Most borderers lived in simple stone built dwellings of rectangular construction, with thatched or slate roofs; some farms were less well built, and used mud or wooden building materials. Animals could often be found living inside dwellings, or in lean-tos attached to the main farmhouse (the heat generated for buildings in close proximity to farm animals in winter far outweighed the associated unpleasant smells!). Defences on such buildings might have consisted only of a sturdy door and small (almost loop-holed) windows.

Those borderers with a little more money – and perhaps a little more worth stealing – would construct bastle houses. A bastle house (corrupted from the French word ‘bastille’, meaning ‘fortified place’) could come in many forms, as the name was an all-inclusive title for any such fortified dwelling. However, a typical bastle might be a stone-built, two-storied rectangular house (perhaps 35 feet by 25 fee by 20 feet high), with ground-level basement for holding livestock, and an upper storey for the family to live in. Entry would usually be through a heavy door into the basement, and a ladder into the upper storey from within, with no means of access once the ladder had been withdrawn. Again, windows would be small and often barred, and slate or stone roofs were naturally preferred to thatch. Outside of the bastle, the surrounding courtyard was often enclosed by a ‘barmkin’ stockade for added defence.

Better still, available to those with enough money, were Peel Towers, which were effectively upgraded bastles. Often these were taller and wider, and the stone walls could be as thick as ten feet. The doorway into the ground-level basement could also be defended by a small gatehouse, or an iron latticed door known as a ‘yett’.

A fair amount of research has been carried out into fortified dwellings in the border region, and many can still be visited today. The terms ‘peel’ and ‘bastle’ are quite often interchangeable on modern sites, and some are even referred to as ‘castles’.