Were the Old World Grays “Border Reivers”?

Larry Pearce
12/23/04 rev. 2/27/13

NOTE: For the answer to this question, read the sequel, “Yes, the Old World Grays were ‘Border Reivers.'”

The Internet is a wonderful place to find a wide variety of information in a short period of time. Usually, one assumes that the bits are fairly accurate when one sees them repeated across several sources. For example, I will begin this article in a minute with a brief history of our Gray family, but sometimes one simply stumbles upon things that are completely new. The question then is whether the information is accurate or not. Recently, in reading a message board, I came upon the accusation that the Old World Grays were one of 70-some families who were considered “Border Reivers,” or persons who lived near the English-Scottish border and stole from time to time. The location of the crimes seemed to match my understanding of where the Grays lived, the Northeast corner of England called the East March, so I continued my research. Please note that at this point neither the exact nature of the crimes nor the instances of this behavior can be fully verified. That’s probably a good thing, but let’s begin with a little background. I recommend that you read any or all of the earlier articles in E-Gen: Gray if you haven’t done so already, including “Introduction: Gray,” Other offline articles are available including, “Some Speculation on Gray Family History that goes WAY Back,” and “Scaling the Ladder: The Rise & Fall of the Gray Family 1296-1415.”

Historians say that Viking Chief Rolf invaded France in the 9th century, and to appease the warriors, the French king gave up what is today Normandy, meaning “North.” Rolf accepted the title of Duke and the region’s castle in a town named Croy, which later became Gray. Two-hundred years later, William, who is said to have been born illegitimately of a woman from that town of Croy, or “Gray,” conquered England. The Battle of Hastings, 1066, saw service by knights from the Gray family, including J. de Gray. [“de” means “from” in French, the language of the English court for several centuries after the conquest.] William, the new King of England, bestowed various titles upon the Grays, which are recognized yet today. [See “Lady Jane Grey: Queen for Nine Days” and “The Grays From the Isles to Western PA and Beyond.”]

Naturally, some of the Grays migrated northward. Hugo de Gray was the first family member recorded in Scotland in 1248 as he witnessed a legal contract. Sir Andrew Gray is said to have scaled the rock of Edinburgh Castle in 1312 when it was taken from the British.

King James I, formerly Scotland’s James VI, began colonization of many lands with the dawn of the 17th century, and the Grays were said to be among the earliest Scottish settlers in Northern Ireland, 1606. With religious persecution and hope for new opportunities, the Scotch-Irish Grays began the hard journey to America after 1620. Their names are recorded in Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia: James, William, Robert, and others that are typically Presbyterian, or Church of Scotland. These were also some of the names of our line of Grays in Western Pennsylvania. So, what were the national and ethnic origins of our family? All of the above, with perhaps Viking, French, and of course now lots of American thrown in. Now, for the possibly incriminating part of our story.

On August 27, 2001, Martyn Christie Gray posted the following note on the Gray Family Genealogy Forum:
The Grays of the Scots Borders were Reivers and as such raided on both sides of the border. This is not a matter of legend or stories but comes from the number hanged or deported for stealing cattle, sheet, horses, women or anything else not nailed down. The courts in and around Hexham in Northumberland have heard more than one case of the Gray family.

The fact is that I have been unable to trace [the Gray] family tree more than four generations back, including mine, as the males have all died in their early forties, and my great grandfather and grandfather died at sea or abroad. However, as three of the four generations were born in Sunderland, this suggests that I am descended from the border Grays. If this is so then there is no point being embarrassed by my lineage as I know as an historian that no matter how hard you try, you cannot change the past.

It depends upon where your family originates in Scotland, as in some areas Gray was a made up name to disguise outlawed families. I am sure that not all Grays were bandits, but with a name two thousand years old, I’m fairly sure we’re all related to someone not so nice.

This came as quite a shock, so I began to research more. Let me now explain just who and what “Border Reivers” were, and were not. Deborah Brent says, “The common image of a Border Reiver is one of a Scots Robin Hood, robbing from the rich English to feed the poor Scots. The image is wrong.” She calls them “as savage as the Scots were purported to be.” Theirs were crimes of thievery, rape, and plunder. Often, the victims not only lost possession and livestock, but their homes to fire and their lives trying to protect what was theirs.

If the Grays were involved, there were also many other families, and the wives were equally to blame with the men, so the story goes:
When the family larder was getting low, the women of the house served a special dish: Spurs. She put a pair of spurs in a covered bowl and placed it in front of her husband. This was a silent message that it was time to go-a-reiving.

Several sources suggest that reiving was a seasonal activity and only took place from about 1250 until 1500. From August to November the cattle were their fattest. The nights were longer and provided more darkness for escape. The reivers were known a families who “rode with the moonlight.” They wore “steill bonnets” and carried “lang spears.”

Of all the 7o-some families reported to be involved with reiving, the Grays were truly caught in the middle. According to Andy King, patriarch Thomas Gray of Northumbria was a respectable citizen. His grandfather John had been Mayor of Berwick, on the Scottish side, in 1253. But, Thomas was a friend and defender of English High Sheriff William de Heselrigg. In 1297, Braveheart’s William Wallace killed the sheriff and left Thomas for dead. We know this because his son Thomas was later captured by the Scots and while imprisoned in Edinburgh wrote The Chronicles of Great Britain and The Deed of the English. Other Grays, Sir Robert, for example, rode on the side of Robert Bruce. King summarizes the amazing conflict of loyalties this way:
Four successive generations of Grays spent their adult lives under arms. Thomas Gray fought at Bannockburn in 1314; his son fought at Neville’s Cross, 1346, and possibly Dupplin Moor, 1332; his grandson fought at Otterburn,1388; his great-grandson, John, fought at Agincourt, 1415; yet the only one of them known to have been killed in action was John, killed at Bauge, 1421. The first Thomas Gray survived being shot in the head by a bolt by a springald, and was twice captured by the Scots, at Melrose Abbey in 1303 and at Bannockburn; his son was also captured, in 1355; and his grandson’s family were held for ransom when Wark Castle was sacked by the Scots in 1399. Yet non of this seems to have any significant impact on the family’s wealth and prosperity, or to have hindered in the least their continued scaling of the social ladder. Indeed, of these four generations of Grays, just as many died on the block, executed for treason against the English Crown, as died on the battlefield, in the service of that same crown. (18)

By about 1500 the British and Scottish crowns each implemented a system of defense using the military resources of prominent families known as wardens. The uncontrollable unrest caused each side to render an unusual amount of cooperation, even requiring the wardens to meet at regular intervals and iron out differences. Ironically for this Gray ancestor, one of the three chief wardens in the English East March was none other than Henry Percy, whose forefather also sailed the English Channel with William the Conqueror and from whose house my surname is taken. [Read “Upon This Rock II.”]

To conclude, I find it difficult to believe that a family with the heritage of the Grays could have any “bad apples,” but given the conflict of loyalties and place of residence, perhaps some of the family had their reasons for such crimes: poverty, politics, pride, or prejudice. I have found such deviance in every family I researched. To bring us back to my opening statement, “The Internet is a wonderful place to find information.” Let me qualify: “Sometimes, however, especially in this case, it would be better if we hadn’t found it.”

NOTE: For the answer to this question, read the sequel, “Yes, the Old World Grays were ‘Border Reivers.'”

Works Cited

Brent, Deborah. “Border Reivers.” 20 Oct. 2004

Caron, Linda Bruce. “The Border Reivers.” 1999. 20 Oct. 2004

King, Andy. “Scaling the Ladder: The Rise and Rise of the Gray Family 1296-1415.” 20 Oct. 2004

“My Gray Family History.” 15 Sept. 2004

One Response to Were the Old World Grays “Border Reivers”?

  1. Norbert Armstrong says:

    My sister visited Scotland and as soon as she admitted her name was Armstrong she was treated as a pariah !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.