Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Border Reivers: Part Three

The Warden and his men carried out a vital yet dangerous job on the Anglo-Scottish border – they represented law, order and their respective governments. The problems of policing the border areas brought about a rare act of co-operation between the English and Scottish governments, who divided the border region into six Marches (three on each side of the border).

Each March was overseen by a Warden – very similar in role to that of a US Marshall in the Wild West. The Warden was supported by a system of deputies, sergeants and bailiffs in his fight to keep order in his March. The Wardens were frequently under-funded and under-resourced, and many of the people in their employment were from Reiving families themselves (and therefore open to bribery by friends and blood feuds by enemies).

As well as keeping law and order as best they could, the Wardens also assumed some responsibility for safeguarding the border against foreign invasion, taking action against spies and acting up political rumour. In addition to his house and expenses, a Warden was entitled to half of the value of goods acquired whilst undertaking punitive expeditions against outlaws – which may well have brought into question the morality of some of the Warden’s ‘policing’ actions!

The border region of England and Scotland roughly fills the area north and west of English Newcastle and south of Scottish Edinburgh. Throughout the medieval period, the border changed its line, but roughly followed the north-east/south-west line of the Cheviot Hills. At the time of the Elizabethan Reivers, it was noted that the border folk would sometimes call themselves English, sometimes Scots, as suited the situation. The area encompasses some of the most rugged – and at the same time beautiful – countryside in Britain. Even today, a great deal of the area has changed little from the time of the Reivers. Gentle and steep sloping valleys abound, as do flap topped hills and rugged rocky outcrops. Shallow streams rise and fall into the ground, sometimes overflowing into marshy areas; others flow into the area’s rivers – narrow and forceful streams in the hills that mellow into wider, meandering rivers towards the coast. Wooded areas were often small copses, although some more heavily wooded terrain existed on the edge of the highland areas. Much of the upland areas are barren heathlands. It is a landscape ideal for hiding in, laying in ambush, moving by unseen paths, and populated by isolated homesteads – in other words, ideal guerrilla territory.

The border peoples were renowned horsemen, and were probably amongst the best – if most poorly disciplined – light cavalry in sixteenth century western Europe. Skilled in the art of raiding, ambush, scouting, skirmishing and feigned manoeuvre, the border horse were fearsome opponents, and useful as the eyes of a regular army.

Therefore, one of the most vital pieces of equipment for the border Reiver was his horse or pony. The borderer was ‘born into the saddle’, and his horse needed to display stamina and agility to carry the rider to and from the battlefield, across some of the most broken countryside in Britain. The borderer’s horse was the hackney, known at the time as a ‘hobbler’. Northumbrians referred to their mounts as a ‘nagg’ or ‘bog trotter’, where as the Scots called them ‘galloways’. Apparently, such horses would carry a man from Tyneside to Teviotdale and back in twenty four hours; also they needed little attention or grooming, and were put out to pasture on the heath when not required for riding.

Hobblers would have been similar to modern mountain ponies and other such breeds, commonly coloured dun or roan; the sort of warfare that they were required for was typical of border skirmishing throughout warfare, and the following statement is of interest with regard to the Reiver’s horses:

‘By 1900 the Boer War had revealed that the horses brought out from England were no match for the smaller Boer horses, and in that year Sir Walter Gilbey wrote a book on small horses in warfare, in which he pointed out ‘the peculiar suitability of small horses for certain campaigning work which demands staying power, hardiness and independence of high feeding’.’
(Southern & Dixon, The Late Roman Army, 1992: 170)