Yes, the Old World Grays were “Border Reivers”: A Brief Synopsis of Frazer’s Book, THE STEEL BONNETS

Larry Pearce

NOTE: To understand the context of this article, you are asked to read its prequel, “Were the Old World Grays ‘Border Reivers’?”

Anglo-Scottish scholar George MacDonald Fraser’s review of 300 years of feud and terror, raid and reprisal, entitled The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, has been continuously in print since 1971. That should say something about his appeal and expertise. I hadn’t read this seminal work when I posed the question in a 2004 article, “Were the Old World Grays ‘Border Reivers’?” Motivation for the piece came from an internet message board post I had stumbled upon accusing my mother’s ancestors of some rather terrible things. So, I felt strongly that a rebuttal was in order. The article began with a definition of the label “border reiver” and after a short history of our Gray family, I concluded that, despite being one of twenty-one English and Scottish tribes containing over seventy families living on the Border, “The Grays were truly caught in the middle,” were “respectable” citizens, and perhaps most naively stated of all:

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.

Other researchers, mostly internet reviews of primary sources, agree. In fact, a short video, produced by a Jonathan Gray found online, offers a good definition and description of “border reivers”:

Border Reivers were raiders along the Anglo-Scottish border from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century. Their ranks consisted of both Scottish and English families, and they raided the entire border country without regard to their victims’ nationality.

This present article, then, with this definition in mind, rebuts my earlier rebuttal. My primary source is Fraser, and while he offers relatively little information on the Grays, and even refers to them as “gentlemen,” he confirms that, indeed, they can be considered “border reivers.” When we quote Fraser, we will often use the archaic spellings and dialect he reproduces from that period.  Although he spells the Gray name simply with an “a,” some writers put an “e” at the end in the archaic tradition, but most historians spell Grey with an “e” when referring to the nobility. More about Lord Earl Grey and the 13th and 14th Barons Grey de Wilton, William and Arthur, a little later, but Fraser places the “gentlemen” Grays in the English East March [or one-sixth territory along the border between Scotland and England].

The web site EnglandsNortheast.Com is helpful in describing our surname as deriving from colors, not unlike Brown, White, Black, or Green. The link “Roots of the Region” says that “Grey” and “Gray” are interchangeable and “is one of the many old Border surnames still found associated with the North. The Greys of Fallodon and Holwick in Northumberland are cited. Descendant Earl Grey was Prime Minister of England from 1830 to 1834. While some of the family may have originated in a place named “Graye,” or the French-Norman “Croy” according to my “Introduction: Gray,” the web site says, “The name Grey is thought to have originated in the south of England and described someone with grey hair rather than a grey personality.” This certainly explains the title for the lines of “Baron de Wilton,” which is ironically an area in Wiltshire, home of the famous Salisbury Cathedral and origins of my 18th century, pre-emigration Pearce family.

The Scottish side of the border also had three Marches, East, Middle, and West. Each March on each side had an appointed Warden, and complaints, called “bills,” of crime within each territory could be filed with the Wardens. Periodically, “truce days” were called between the Marches on either side of the Border. The Wardens supoenaed the plaintiffs and the defendants, and settlements were sought for the various cases. The castle at Berwick, northeast England, where the Tweed River emptied into the English Channel, was the capital of the East March, and place where Fraser says one of the more memorable conflicts between families of the same nationality occurred. The Gray and the Selby families each owned large estates nearby. “This was not a feud in the full-scale family sense,” claims Fraser, “ but it illustrates how even prominent government officials and civilized Border townsmen could be involved in bloody vendetta, even in the walls of Berwick.”

Apparently, in 1597, one of the Gray family servants named George Nevill had stolen cattle from the Kerr family on the Scottish side of the Border. A bill of complaint was filed against him with a Ralph Selby, nephew to the gentleman William Selby who handled such matters. A little later a complaint was filed against that same Ralph Selby for stealing 160 head of sheep. None other than George Nevill went on record then as a witness against Selby. Even though the Grays vowed for Nevill’s character, the Selbys saw the action as “pure spite.” While it’s not clear how the fighting started, one historian claimed “a long borne hatred” against the Grays by the Selbys, and “hot words passed.” According to William Selby, he had invited Edward Gray, the Deputy Warden of the English East March, and his nephew Ralph to “a friendly meeting” to clear the air. They agreed to meet in a churchyard, and supposedly Edward came with fifteen men. According to Selby, they had only talked for a little while when Edward drew a rapier. The elderly Selby reached for his weapon to defend himself when a half dozen of Gray’s men jumped him. Selby testified:

[They] drave me to the church wall, being all alone, ands oppressed with number, defending myself I fell, and being down received two wounds. [The church minister emerged, and] a shoote of women riseing, certeine of my friends of the towne came to my reskew.

 Selby testified that Edward Gray had been hurt and one of his men mortally wounded but that he hadn’t done it. We wonder, if he had been alone then who did it? Selby finished by swearing that he was “an honest man and no brawler.”

The Gray’s version of the story, to the contrary, says that Selby had initially sent a challenge to fight. It was Edward who suggested a friendly meeting in a churchyard, “supposing William [in respect of his years and place] of a temperate disposition.” Gray claimed he showed with only three men and his usual short knife. As the men talked, other Selbys entered the scene at which time William hit Edward in the face, drew his rapier, and “began the affray.” Gray claimed his servants tried to separate the families and even stood back allowing Selby to regain his feet, unhurt “till there came in a company of 6 or 7 of the most notorious common fighters and evil disposed in Berwick and Ralph Selby with 10 or 12 others, all prepared and plotted by the Selbys.” In the end, said Edward, he had been wounded, Gray servant Brian Horsley was “run through the back,” and several of the Selbys were hurt.

This all sounds like a “he said—she said” from a bunch of school children pointing fingers on the playground, but it was deadly serious business. Fortunately for us Gray descendants, our family’s recollection of events is probably closer to the truth. That very day Sir John Carey, Warden of the English East March and Governor of Berwick, saw the Selbys as “chief culprits.” Fraser puts it this way:

He turned out the guard in person, ordered all the Scots in the town into their houses, put armed pickets on all street corners, and took the Selbys into custody. It may have been just as well; William Selby claimed later that bands of Grays were hunting his nephew to shoot him.

 Fraser says that this was such a “very small affair” compared to everything else that was going on in the Border region. Few history students have ever heard the story, but the fight involved “leading officials, the elite who were supposed to keep order and dispense justice among the wicked peasantry.” One can almost hear Fraser chuckling when he says, “It was no wonder the Border was a disorderly place, when its leading men took their gangs behind the church to settle their arguments.” By the way, old William Selby was eventually elected to represent Berwick in Parliament. Not unlike today, citizens have short memories where politics is concerned.

If our Grays were indeed Border Reivers, what was their justification? Fraser calls the Border region “the dividing line between two of the most energetic, aggressive , talented and altogether formidable nations in human history.” He points to geography, movement of race, and almost arbitrary decisions by the mighty Romans as to where the boundary was set. By way of introducing the Barons Grey de Wilton, ancestors of Nine-day Queen Lady Jane Grey and Prime Minister Lord Earl Grey, again let me quote Fraser as to uniqueness of this area that spawned so many great men and women named Gray, or Grey:

In the making of Britain, between England and Scotland, there was prolonged and terrible violence, and whoever gained in the end, the Border country suffered fearfully in the process. It was the ring in which the champions met; armies marched and counter-marched and fought and fled across it; it was wasted and burned and despoiled, its people harried and robbed and slaughtered, on both sides, by both sides. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the Borderers were the people who bore the brunt; for almost 300 years they lived on a battlefield. War after war was fought on it, and this, to put it mildly, had an effect on the folk who lived there.

 Incidentally, there are some ironies that aren’t missed on this genealogist: those words could have been written about the land from which our German-American ancestors came. [Read about their emigration during and after the various wars between France and Germany in the article, “Exodus From Germany”.] The same is true about the land from which our Scot-Irish ancestors came. [Read about their emigration during and after the friction among Catholics, Protestants, and the State-Church of English Ireland on the many Google references.] But, for this article let’s consider a brief history of those famous Greys of the Border region. William Grey (1508-1562) was a Baron, a nobleman, the 13th in the Grey line and the most notable. Several earlier Grey Barons had died in “minority.” After successfully leading troops in France in the mid 16th century, he found favor with King Henry VIII, but promises of royal rewards never came to fruition as Henry died in 1547. The new king, Edward VI, sent him to fight in Scotland. William’s biographer son Arthur (1536-1593) describes his awful wounds in the battle of Pinkie Cleugh (1547):

[William] received a greate wounde in the mouthe with a pyke, sutche as clave one of his teethe, strake hym thowroughe the tongue, and thre fingers deepe into the rouff of his mouthe; yet notwithstondyng hee poursued owte the chase, wheryn, whot the aboundance of blood, heat of the weather, and dust of the press, hee had surely been suffocated had not the Duke of Northumberland, then earle of warwyck, lighted and lyfted a fyrchen of ale too hys head, as they passed thowroughte the Scottische camp.

 William returned to England, recovered, was knighted, and named Governor of the town of Berwick and Warden of the English East March. Shortly after, he again crossed the border, took and fortified a great piece of Scotland, left a garrison of 2,500 men, then burned and laid waste to the country for six miles around the capital, Edinburgh. Was this war or reiving? What example did it set for persons on either side of the Border?

In 1551 William served time in the Tower of London during the transition of political power. He had been on the wrong side. He was released and sent to govern the castle over the English Channel in what is now French Calais. Finding favor again, he and the Duke of Northumberland attempted to place his relative, the young Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. She ruled for only nine days before her execution, but William was pardoned, probably because of his outstanding military skills. Sure enough, not long after the pardon, he was sent again to save Calais from  another French invasion, but in a story that rivals WW II’s D-day epic, this time he failed and had to surrender. William was captured but ransomed. By 1559 William was back at Berwick and once again fighting the Scots. This time he enlisted the help of Sir Henry Percy. [Read about our possible namesake in “Upon This Rock I”.] In yet another incursion across the English-Scottish Border, the Grey’s troops got as far as Leith, where they unsuccessfully laid siege. William decided to attack but in the end, half his officers and 800 soldiers lay dead and wounded. One nobleman wrote, “My Lord Grey is a noble, valiant, painful, and careful gentleman” – there’s that descriptive again from above. William returned defeated and rejected, but remained Governor of Berwick and Warden of the March until his death.

William’s son and biographer, Arthur, met a similar fate, only his was in Ireland where, in 1580 Elizabeth I sent him with 6000 men as Lord Deputy. He was defeated in his first battle there, with casualties of 800. His reputation truly suffered after the Siege of Smerwick, County Kerry, where he is alleged to have massacred 600 Irish, Italian, and Spanish troops after they had reportedly surrendered. The dubious phrase “Grey’s faith” has survived that horrible day. Arthur also had the Irish Chief Justice hanged on what after was found to be a mere rumor that the juror had approved of the Smerwick rebellion.

After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James VI of Scotland assumed the throne of England, becoming perhaps the most famous of all British monarchs, King James I. With that succession at the beginning of the 17th century, Scotland and England became one, and the “Border problem” no longer had any reason to continue, because theoretically at least, there was no longer a strong, defensible border. Indeed, the military border crossings, the reiving, and even the blatant family feuds mostly ceased. What continued, perhaps out of force of habit, James soon “discouraged” with fines, imprisonments, and hangings. Fraser explains:

Early in 1605 a commission of ten (five English, five Scots) was appointed for the whole Borders. Their rule was ruthless. [Old charges were arrested] as often as not, giving short shrift; doubtful cases, in which there might be room for clemency, were officially reported, but invariably the instruction came back to hang. The Borderland [became] a police state which was most barbarously administered.

Reiving families were dispersed, arms forbidden, and only workhorses were permitted, according to Fraser. Only certain saddles on those horses were permitted. Other proposals, though not passed or always enforced, included limiting convicts’ time away from home to 48 hours, blood hounds being kept in Border towns for pursuit of criminals, and informers and searchers being sworn in at every parish. Privy Councils could limit inheritances to the eldest male in a family and even “transport” certain troublemakers as they saw fit.

This was the environment in which King James’ “Plantation” theory and practice took root, in both the Old World and the New. “The Irish Problem,” as the nobility liked to call the “uncivilized creatures” across the waters, would be tamed, James believed, by a one-third mix of Scots, English, and Irish in what is today Ulster, or Northern Ireland. We don’t know exactly from where they came in England and Scotland, or when, but many of our Gray and Pearce septs settled in Northern Ireland. For our genetic forbearers, Ulster was just a relatively brief stopping off point, however, before coming to America. Research into those strains is ongoing, and a visit to the new Public Records of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast is on the agenda. For now, if you’re interested in more about the Grays of the Old World, read Frazer and other compendia on the history of the British Isles.

Works Cited

“Arthur Grey, the Baron Grey de Wilton.”  Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia. 6 Feb. 2013,_14th_Baron_Grey-de-Wilton

Fraser, George MacDonald. The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2008.

“Gray & Grey.” Roots of the Region. 6 Feb. 2013

Gray, Jonathan. “Talk on ‘The Border Reivers.” 3 Oct. 2012. Video. 6 Feb. 2013

“William Grey, 13th Baron Grey de Wilton.” Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia. 6 Feb. 2013,_13th_Baron_Grey-de-Wilton

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