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The Border Reivers 1400AD to 1611AD

The Tudor era was an age of culture and discovery, but in Northumberland lawlessness ruled. Constant war forced people to live by raiding and thieving and on both sides of the border. Border Reiver families like the Armstrongs, Robsons and Charltons raided and thieved from each other.

Read more about the Border Reivers here.


From Norman times, Tynedale was a 'Liberty' - an area of land so remote from the centre of power it was allowed a degree of independence - often held by the Scottish Kings. The Liberty was abolished by Henry VII in 1495 and from this time the Tynedale clans or 'Graynes' like Robson, Milburn and Charlton increasingly became a law unto themselves. Even Tynedale priests were described as "evil and irregular" and Thomas Wolsey closed the Tynedale churches in 1524. The Liberty included North Tynedale and South Tynedale but not the lower part of the dale around Hexham which lay within the regality of Hexhamshire.


Northumberland has more castles than any part of England and a list compiled in 1415 found over 100 towers and castles. Fortifications included stone Pele (Peel) Towers with walls 3-4 feet thick and fortified farmhouses called Bastles. Most were inhabited by reivers but Vicar's Peles were inhabited by local clergy. A small scattering of Pele towers can be found in Durham including Ludworth Tower which dates from 1422.


The Charltons often assembled for lunch at Hesleyside Hall in North Tynedale where the lady of the house would bring a salver and dish for her husband and retainers. The salver was sometimes lifted to reveal a dish containing a riding spur. It meant the larder was empty and that they must ride, reive and steal cattle or sheep if they wished to be fed.This practice is commemorated in a famous painting at Wallington Hall near Morpeth.


Thirty members of this mainly Scottish family were hanged at Newcastle in 1532, but it did not stop hundreds of Armstrongs settling in Cumbria in 1549. The most famous reiving Armstrong was Kinmont Willie who invaded Tynedale in 1579. He made off with 80 cattle and 1,000 sheep. Legend says Armstrongs are descended from a Scotsman called Fairbairn who lifted a fallen King of Scotland to his horse during a battle using only one strong arm.


The arch enemies of the Tynedale Robsons were the Grahams of Liddesdale in Scotland. The Robsons once stole scab-infected sheep from the Grahams and brought them into Northumberland. Scab spread through the Robson flock, so the Robsons returned to Liddesdale, caught seven Graham family members and hanged them. They left a note saying:

"The Neist time gentlemen cam to tak their schepe They are no te' be scabbit! "


Charlton, Milburn and Robson are famous footballing names of the 20th Century and it is worth noting that football was a very popular sport among the reivers in early times. In 1599 a six-a-side football match involving the Armstrongs at Bewcastle (just over in Cumbr ia) was interrupted by an enemy raid. A member of the Ridley clan had his throat cut and a Robson was killed. In 1790 a great football match took place between the men of Tynedale and Redesdale at Kielder Castle. Final score: Tynedale 3 Redesdale 2. It is not known who was in the team that day. This was about a century after the days of reiving had ended but since Tynedale was the traditional home of the Charltons, Milburns and Robsons there were probably some reasonably good players in the team.


English people once feared the Borders and were wary of travelling north of the Tees, let alone the Tyne. The Rector of Houghton, Bernard Gilpin who was known as the Apostle of the North because of his evangelical travels through the region around 1557 , had no fear. A formidable man "tall, lean with a hawk like nose" he preached to the Border folk and there is evidence to suggest the Reivers feared him.


Border reiving raids are too numerous to list but include the Raid of Reidswire at Carter Bar in 1575. This was a border fray at a peace-making meeting in which George Heron, Keeper of Tynedale, was murdered. The fray was provoked by the Border warden Jo hn Forster and rivalry between the Crozier and the Fenwick families. Durham generally escaped Border raiding but on December 8, 1569, Tynedale and Cumbrian reivers raided Weardale while the men were away supporting the Rising of the North. Those that rem ained fought off the invaders and the raid was recorded in the ballad The Rookhope Ryde

Find out more about the Border Reivers and their surnames here

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Tangled Worm Border Reiver Print