Tag Archives: English history

Kith and Clans

Here is the kind of winter morning I love most. Ringed by clear azure skies the patchwork fields surrounding my home sparkle like crystal carpets as dawn gilds the hedges with bronze fire. And not a breath of wind stirs the stillness. There is a sense that nature is holding its breath, preparing for spring and yet not wanting to wake. But the far horizon has begun to melt already. Mist rises, sloughing winter behind a sentinel guard of skeletal oaks.

This landscape has barely altered through time but had I been here five hundred years ago there might have seemed better reason to praise the clear, frosty weather. Living less than twenty miles from the border (with Scotland) meant we’d be in fear of reivers. But reivers liked to pursue their prey under a cloak of darkness and/or dribbling rain.

What is a reiver? Rather a unique figure – he came from every social class and might live anywhere in the region called The Borders. For many generations reiving families formed a state within a state between the two countries of England and Scotland, organizing the region to suit their own rules and boundaries; fighting men who used tracking, ambush, raid and theft as second nature. The Borders were ‘badlands’ where freebooters, rustlers and raiders held sway. This was ‘their’ country and they understood every inch of ground, be it river, marsh or hillside, by day and most particularly by night. The geography of the region was perpetually used to their advantage, as many a traveller complained. Barbarous, crafty, vengeful, crooked, quarrelsome, tough, perverse, active, deceitful – contemporary descriptions vary little when explaining border people. They made excellent soldiers if disciplined but that raw material was hard, wild, and ill to tame.

winter sun

Having grown up in the south of England I knew nothing of reivers until we moved to Cumbria. It’s a parcel of history many historians prefer to ignore (or forget), better known to those who inhabit Britain’s former colonies. Why? Well one of the ‘solutions’ to the inherent problem of reiving was to ‘transport’ whole families (or clans) to populate those colonies. Thus the Grahams arrived in New Holland, with legal charges pending if they should ever return. Being a cagey lot some merely reversed the letters of their surname – Cumbria still contains many a native called Maharg. But the advent of a ‘united’ kingdom meant reiving families were no longer able to slip across the border to evade justice, after 1603 the border no longer existed!

For generation after generation, simmering over five hundred years, no outsider would dare travel unarmed and alone through the rolling countryside which stretches from the Scottish Southern Uplands to the Pennines. In these ‘middle shires’, where mainland Britain narrows between the shallow waters of the Solway Firth and the wild North Sea, where Rome threw up a boundary wall to separate the defeated from the free, few households slept soundly during the winter months. English or Scots, rich or poor, all lived in fear of reivers. This state of affairs gave rise to ‘protection’ being bought from tribal leaders who lived in formidable towers such as Hermitage, a building so grim it was recently described as ‘sod-off’ built in stone. Here was ‘no-man’s land’, where national laws had little jurisdiction. And the control centre of infamy resided in a district called the Debateable Land. Here you find the first use of words like ‘black-mail’ and ‘feud’, and the constant threat of raids, or the retaliatory march of a ‘hot trod’ stamped their hardy souls with a mistrust of all outsiders.


Just north of Carlisle the M6 motorway crosses the powerful river Esk at a place called Metalbridge. The green and pastoral landscape denies the myth that once upon a time this was actually the most dangerous place in all Christendom. Think Khyber Pass, Barbary Coast or Soho on a Saturday night. Across this moss-filled valley, where winter riding was mired in clay, lies the southern boundary of the ‘Debateable Land’. This hostile region stretched north and east for a dozen or so miles, almost up to Langholm and the mouth of Liddesdale, but was never more than four miles wide and twelve miles long. So lawless were its inhabitants neither Scotland nor England wanted responsibility for policing its crimes but pertly used it as a ‘buffer’ zone.

Touching the western limit is Gretna (a cross-border village created after the two kingdoms were joined), where the lesser river Sark marks the official border. Back in Elizabeth I’s reign a Scottish bishop venturing through the region on his way to Glasgow enquired whether the locals were Protestant or Catholic. He received the terse reply, ‘Na, we’se for Armstrongs or Elliots here’.

Hermitage Castle

Hermitage Castle.

Tradition and politics created a mongrel system for regulating the Border. The region was loosely divided into Marches and each March had a Warden nominated by national government – so, for example, there was a Scottish Warden of the West March and an English Warden of the West March. More often than not the Warden came from a major reiving family, inclined to protect his own interests, but the system worked, even during times of war, and so it persisted. But, by the middle of the sixteenth century, even the Wardens agreed the kind of people who called the Debateable Land home were so inclined to rob, burn, plunder and kill that someone had to take charge. After much deliberation (the final decision being laid upon a passing French ambassador) they decided to build a bank and ditch to mark the reach of each nation’s responsibilities. It’s still there, just to the south of Canonbie, and called the Scots’ Dike.

Recently there has been revived interest in ‘reiving’ families, encouraged no doubt by family historians eager to trace their roots. My mother, seeing her maiden name of Tait listed in our local museum, was keen to purchase a beautifully illustrated history of the family, until she read of their exploits. Taits were infamous on the North March, as were Rutherfords (grannie’s surname), for all the wrong reasons. The Privy Council of Scotland drew up an official ‘black list’ of reiver surnames: Armstrongs, Batesons/Beatties, Bells, Burns, Charltons, Crosiers, Dodds, Elliots, Forsters, Glendinnings, Hendersons, Hetheringtons, Irvines, Johnstones, Kerrs, Littles, Lowthers, Maxwells, Musgraves, Nixons, Pringles, Robsons, Routledges, Rutherfords, Scotts, Storeys, Taits, Trotters and Thomsons. Thieves and vagabonds ‘of great clans who encourage obstinacy’.

Further Reading:

The Reivers, by Alistair Moffat

The Steel Bonnets, by George Macdonald Fraser


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Filed under Ancestry, Family, History, Middle Shires, Roots, Tradition, Winter

Downe with the daggle-tayles

This quote is from a document written in the sixteenth century. Words spoken, according to an eyewitness, by Queen Mary Tudor as she watched groups of armed men storm through the streets of London during the Wyatt Rebellion. It was January 1554, Mary had ruled England less than six months and the country was in a state of turmoil.


Finding your feet in a new job is always difficult but imagine how this devoutly Catholic spinster felt. At thirty-seven years of age she inherited the throne against all odds. Her younger brother’s last act was to disinherit her. Henry VIII apparently expected neither of his daughters to reign because Jane Seymour provided him with a healthy male heir. So, at the start of her reign, Mary had to make her position secure and every one of her faithful advisors agreed the answer was to produce an heir, the sooner the better. The pressure was on to find a husband. Unfortunately the man she picked for the job was Spanish. Not a popular choice with her subjects who decided to rebel. 

"Forasmuch as it is now spred abrode and certainly pronounced by the lords chancelour and other of the counsell, of the Quenes determinate pleasure to marry w. a stranger: etc we therefore write unto you, because you be our neighbors, because you be our frandes, and because you be Englishmen, that you will joyne with us, as we will with you unto death in this behalfe, protecting unto you before God, that no earthly cause could move us unto this enterpise, but this alone we seke no harm to the quene, ….

For herein lieth the helth and welth of us al. ….

Lo now even at hand, Spaniardes by nowe already arived at Dover, at one passage to the numbre of an hundreth passing upwards to London, in companies of ten, foure and VI (sic) with harnes, harquebusses and morrians with match light, the formest company whereof be already at Rochester. We shall require you therefore to repaire to such places as the bearers hereof shal pronounce unto you, there to assemble and determine what may be best for ye advauncement of libertie and to bring with you such ayde as you may."

Public proclamation, posted on 25th January 1554

This contemporary document reads like a Tudor broadsheet, whipping up fears for a Spanish Invasion. No wonder ordinary Englishmen, most of them staunch Protestants, felt motivated to march on London. Time’s were hard enough without inviting the Spanish to run the country. For me this is an excellent example of how a ‘first-hand source’ (a piece of written or visual evidence produced at the time) can bring events vividly to life.   


Mary’s adherence to the ‘old’ religion was to be her downfall. Years of starving herself (during specific religious festivals) probably weakened her immune system – royal correspondence refers to her constant illnesses, and she died childless, in November 1558. During the four and a half years she ruled England she pursued one specific aim, to reinstate the Catholic Church. For her devotion the Pope made her a Saint. English people judged her, at the very least, misguided.


My view of Mary I’s reign has always been coloured by her cruelty; after the Wyatt Rebellion one observer told how hundreds of bodies hung from gibbets throughout the country. Latterly she was merciless in the name of religion, earning her the title ‘Bloody Mary’ but I wonder how much of her attitude was based on fear due to the circumstances surrounding those first precarious weeks on the throne?


I love exploring history but it is in reading texts of first-hand sources I get a true sense of period. ‘Down with daggle-tails’ packs the kind of punch only a bystander can deliver. And what is a daggle-tail? According to Webster’s dictionary it means a slovenly woman or someone whose clothes are trailing in dirt or mud.


Here is part of another eye-witness account of Wyatt’s dismal march to London.

Owing to the rain the roads were a mass of mire, dung and great water-filled pits. It took the rebels ten hours to cover ten miles. Their guns, on improvised wooden carriages moved heavily, hauled by mules and dispirited men pulling on ropes, but in spite of every difficulty they crossed at 11pm, leaving Kingston behind them they came to the flat marshy lands of Brentford, rain continued heavily and men began to desert, including many "whitecoats". At Turham Green the naval gun carriages broke down and the guns rolled off into the mud. The rebels were brought to a halt and valuable time was lost trying to retrieve them.

What a picture it conjures of a makeshift army making their way towards the city.  And it becomes easy to see why Mary herself described them as ‘daggle-tails’.

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