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28 October 2014

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You are in: Cumbria > History > History features > The Border Reivers

The pele tower in Carlisle Cathedral grounds

The pele tower at Carlisle Cathedral

The Border Reivers

For over 150 years the border lands of England and Scotland were held in the grip of the some of history's most ruthless clans - the Border Reivers

In the last two decades of the 16th Century, England and Scotland were officially at peace. However the border between England and Scotland was in constant dispute between the two crowns.

In the last quarter of the 16th Century organised lawlessness had increased to such an extent that by the late 1580's and 1590's there existed what can fairly be described as a reign of terror.

The downward spiral into lawlessness in the border region can be explained by the particular history the border area had endured. Raids, rebellion and war between England and Scotland were bitter and long-drawn out. The border region was the playing field of this upheaval. War, physical hardship and repeated devastation had shaped the border people and their country, and left the legacy of gang warfare and organised crime.


Reiv - means to steal. The Reiver period is roughly categorised as 1450 - 1610. The movement came to its height in the late 1500's and ended around 1610. The Reiver history is a mixture of fact and folklore. The English crown destroyed almost all of the documentation relating to Reiver life and so the Reiver's story has passed down through oral history and folk traditions, rather than formal documentation. As a result, it is hard to untangle the mythological from the material when describing the Reiver movement.

The Reivers were clans who lived in the border territories. The Armstrongs, the Humes, the Watsons and the Grahams were some of the 200 or so clan families who occupied the border areas. Due to this constant upheaval border life was fast and furious.

The clans were pragmatic survivors who would turn any circumstance to their advantage. Some historians would say that the Reivers lifestyle developed as constant violent upheaval of the border meant that people were pushed into Reiving as a retaliation for their lands being invaded, and pillaged by enemy armies.

However, others say that the clans were just gangs who deliberately cultivated a lifestyle of reprobates.

last updated: 01/05/2008 at 15:54
created: 13/09/2006

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