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The Reivers were the famously lawless inhabitants of this area:

  • The land was laid waste on several occasions between the 14th and the 17th centuries (sometimes by the Scots, sometimes by feuding families) and the need for the locals to look after themselves and their animals was paramount. At the first warnings of a raid – the men would put on their armour or whatever they had; the women would collect up the animals and drive them as fast as possible on to the fells, probably towards Spadeadam. Some of the Reiver families earned money from the Crown to cause trouble on the Scottish side of the border. In 1544 the Croziers occupied Edgerton Castle in Teviotdale and went as far as Melrose – capturing 20 Scottish prisoners, presumably for ransom. The Croziers seem to have been in trouble on many occasions; Thomas Crozier was executed by Lord William Howard in 1592, largely because the family was accused of stealing 60 cattle and a horse and taking Thomas Routledge prisoner. The Armstrongs were also notorious. Children in Newcastleton (just across the border) used to play in a meadow in the village which had a tree called the hanging tree – apparently once used by the Armstrongs!
  • Bastles and pele towers : the local families needed to protect themselves against their enemies, so they built homes which could be fortified. Close at hand are several examples– Woodhead, the Old Rectory, Low Grains, Peel a’ Hill and Askerton Castle. They were mostly farmhouses (bastles) or small castles (pele towers) built for self protection and many are still occupied today.
  • Reiver family names can be identified in Bewcastle churchyard: Armstrong, Noble, Musgrave, Nixon, Routledge, Henderson, Graham, Elliot, Foster, Storie, Sowerbie, Crozier, James, Fenwick, Bell and Tweddle.  They were often at war with one another and some families divided amongst themselves. For example, the Nobles were allied with Nixons – usually against the Armstrongs; the Croziers associated with Elliots and Nixons, but sometimes the Armstrongs! Most of them had coats of arms which you can find on some of the headstones or on some of the local buildings.
  • Kings tried to keep order – perhaps by granting favours to some – Routledges, Elliots, Croziers and Nixons were allowed to pay no rent for their lands by Richard III in return for ‘maintaining the king’s war’
  • The Statute of Winchester 1285 required all men between the ages of 15 and 60 to possess arms according to their wealth. All localities had to have a militia listed in the Muster Rolls which could be called on to serve the local lord for the king. The wealthiest were required to have a long coat of mail, a steel helmet, a sword, dagger and sometimes a horse. Those who had no valuable property were supposed to have a cap, double edged battleaxe or scythe or possibly a long bow. This remained in force until 1829.
  • The Steel Bonnets was the name given to the men in this area who were eligible for military service. It is debatable as to whether they all had steel helmets. At the Muster of 1586 when Elizabeth I feared a Spanish invasion, her chief minister Lord Burleigh decided to call the militias together in the Borders and disarm them. He worried that they might take the opportunity of an invasion in the south of England to cause trouble in the north, or that Spain might try to cause trouble from Scotland. Not surprisingly the men of Bewcastle failed to turn up – they were not going to risk losing their weapons!
  • Musgraves’s Prickers (mounted skirmishers): The Musgrave family seem to have acquired control of Bewcastle castle in the 16thcentury. Jack Musgrave was said to have recruited 30 or 40 horsemen who would fight when required. They paid no rent on their lands for their services.
  • The Battle of Solway Moss 1542: The strength and determination of the reiver families was revealed at the battle. The Captain of Bewcastle, Jack Musgrave, led 300 mounted horse from the Bewcastle area in a force of about 3000 brought together at Arthuret near Longtown. James V of Scotland had invaded to exact revenge for English attacks on Border towns such as Kelso. He brought a force of 17000 but they were taken by surprise at Arthuret – and, thinking there was a much larger English force behind them, they faltered and retreated in confusion. Many Scottish barons were captured and much equipment lost. English casualties were light, ransom money paid for a lot of pele towers and bastles and helped to bring new armaments to the debatable lands! James V died soon after, leaving as his heir a baby girl, Mary Queen of Scots.
  • Lord Burleigh Chief Minister to Elizabeth I: seemed to know a great deal about the reivers. He said “ These lawless people will be Scottish when they will and English at their pleasure and care not what evil actions they take in hand. They are grown to seek blood for they will quarrel for the death of their grandfather and they will kill any of the surname they are in feud with.”
  • The Reivers helped introduce new words into the English language:

Blackmail:  is associated with the Armstrongs – who seem to have invented the technique – linked to their habit of wearing black chainmail. They were also fairly talented in kidnap, ransom, rustling, theft, arson…….

Moonlighting:  arose from the reivers’ nocturnal activities. They were skilled horsemen and could negotiate the difficult terrain without daylight. They were sometimes known as Mosstroopers.

  • 1614 Bewcastle was leased to the Earls of Cumberland
  • 1629 Bewcastle was granted to the Grahams of Netherby who held it until the 20th century
  • 1639 Bewcastle had a garrison of 100 men and local tradition says that Cromwell’s troops destroyed the castle in 1641 from a battery now called Cannon Holes. There seems to be no real evidence of this!

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