It was not until the Union of the Crowns between England and Scotland in 1603, the two countries would experience some semblance peace to the otherwise troubled region.
The feuds along the border of England and Scotland continued from the 11th century on escalating in particular during the 16th century.
The law itself had total disregard for the identity of two separate nations with regard to cultures and customs. It only focused on the raiding and plundering which occurred on both sides of the border.
These peoples eked out a living from their bloodshed with each other for centuries, keeping their spoils of war as payment for their actions.
An so they were known as the “Border Reivers”, a group of clansmen loyal to their leader and clan, yet fierce fighters among their enemies.
As late as 1596, murder was not an uncommon crime amongst the peoples of the borderlands. This in itself proved the laws set to govern the borders were ineffective. Not to say the the countries were not aware of the problems but rather incapable of solving them
These problems had been recognized during the 13th century when Henry III ordered the willful border peoples must be controlled. His problem was that he was unaware of the actual placement of the borderline between the two countries.
Notice was sent to the Sheriff of Northumberland and other concerned knights of the region as well as Scottish counterparts to agree upon an actual border between the two countries.
In 1222 these appointed men met to discuss and agree upon the line. The inability to come to terms led to further resentment on the part of the Scots and conflict increased in the area over arable lands. Neither side was willing to back down.
The councils met once again to discuss the same dilemma they had ten years prior. The Border between the two countries would be redetermined and a law would be put into action so that the inhabitants of the border countries would be aware of the exact line and respect it.
Once again argument arose over the exact demarcation of the Border. The Scots more stubborn than the Brits contended each yard of the disputed territory. Nothing was resolved.
In 1249 by orders of Henry the council met again. They finally came to some agreement through bitter contest on both sides. Until now crime on the borderline was unrelenting even to the point of death for one of the opposing reivers. The 1237 law made it easy for an Englishman or a Scot to commit the crime of murder in the opposing country then cross back into his own country and avoid retribution. It was well known that no one from his clan would speak against him and the crime would go unpunished. One of the amendments to the Border Laws had to stipulate that any such serious criminals had to be made aware of the Borders (“knowledge of marche”) and be held accountable for his crimes.
While there is evidence that there were Wardens in place to keep peace at the borders from 1237 on, it was also seen to be ineffective in upholding the laws. This race of border people were so obdurate they were impossible to control.
The council for the 1249 redefining the borderline
For the English
Robertus de Clifford,
Robertus Filius Radulphi,
Robertus de Ulfester,
Willielmus de Burnvile,
Willielmus de Scremerston,
Willielmus de Herington,
Robertus de Glendale,
Sampson de Coupland,
Willielmus de Cookperte,
Henricus Filius Godfridi and
probably the Sheriff of Northumberland.
For the Scots
Adam de Earth,
Radulfus de Boukle,
Willielmus de Northinton,
Robertus Bernham (Mayor of Berwick), Adam de Norham,
Henricus Filius Walden,
Henricus de Brade,
Robertus de Durham,
Aymerus de Elmsley,
Adam de Newbigginn and
the Sheriff of Berwick or Roxburgh.
The Border Laws of 1249
2. All men of England or Scotland according to the customs of the said realms can be called to the Marches for combat.
3. Anyone who shall have fled to the opposite realm wishing to escape from his Lord must be brought back to his own realm.
4. The fourth clause is about the use of ‘pledges’. Any man accused of debt shall provide a pledge for forty-five days. The pledge was another man who would stand for surety until the debt was paid. If the debt was not paid the pledge would be held indefinitely.
5. All accusers should swear for themselves.
6. The knights asserted that no-one could act by attorney in making oath at the Marches in a quarrel where life and limb are involved without the consent of either party.
7. Should a quarrel arise between prosecutor and defendant and that defendant should die within fifteen days, his body should be brought to the Marches, since no man can be essoigned (excused) by death. This happened as late as 1596. In essence the prosecutor and defendant, should they both be alive at the appointed time of trial shall settle the argument by Trial by Combat. (This is a really interesting clause as it goes to the essence of the law that had existed at least since the Viking invasions of England and probably much further back into Anglo-Saxon times. In 1249 it was the mainstay of the Border Law. It was known as the ‘Pledge of Wardshiell’ or Trial by Combat (handwarsil)).
8. Any theft of beasts or gear, should they be found by the real owner, shall be recovered through the Court of the Feudal Lordship.
9. Any one indicted and taken to the Marches on a charge of robbery, theft or murder shall suffer Trial by Combat. Should he be worsted in combat the pledges shall not be liable for more than the prosecutor set forth in his claim. If the defendant was not able to finance the amount claimed he would provide pledges, people who could should he find any who believed in his innocence. Yet he would still be subject to Trial by Combat. The pledges would suffer no other punishment than the cost of the claim.
10. If an evil-doer enters into the other realm and wishes peace he shall have it should he be able to find the High Sheriff or at the first church he encounters. Should he be apprehended before this occurs he shall be led off without any hindrance. I presume, rightly or wrongly, that this clause refers to ‘sanctuary’ as we all know it.
11. If anyone claims that a beast is his yet it is contested, he will be given the delays agreed between the realms to consider his stance. Should he then decide that he does not wish to contest the case further and is unwilling to fight by Trial by Combat he shall send word to the party who claims the beasts and drive them into the waters of Esk or Tweed. If the animal drowns before it has reached midstream (considered the Border Line), he will be responsible for it according to Marche custom.
12. No man whether English or Scots can accuse a member of the opposite realm through the use of witnesses. The contest will always be by ‘the body of a man’, i.e. Trial by Combat.
13. Anyone who claims a debt in the other kingdom where he remains must advise the necessary authority.
The case of *Abraham Thornton vs Mary Ashford brought it to light. A man accused of murder was acquitted. The victims brother appealed the ruling and the case was taken before the King’s Bench. At the retrial Thornton challenged the brother to a “Trial by Combat”. It was at this point the statutes were examined and the found Thornton to be in the right. His opponent immediately dropped the case and the law was repealed.
During the few centuries prior to 1603 the Border Laws were amended many times bringing peace to an otherwise lawless area.
Murder, the most egregious crime continued until the end of the 16th century, this being over three hundred years after they were first implemented. This without a doubt proves how little they meant to “clan or family”, the loyalty of which the Border Reivers strictly followed.
Some of the families you would traditionally find on the Scottish side are:
East March: Hume, Trotter, Dixon
Middle March: Kerr, Scott, Turnbull
West March: Bell, Irvine, Johnstone
For more on my ancestry links to Border Reivers