Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hidden History – Women of the Border Reivers by Blythe Gifford

Welcome back to History Undressed, guest author Blythe Gifford! Today she's written a fascinating piece for us about Scotland and England. Enjoy!

Author Blythe Gifford
Photo by
 Jennifer Girard

Hidden History – Women of the Border Reivers

 by Blythe Gifford

Most of us nod wisely and cluck our tongues about the paucity of information about women in history  Unknown, unsung, unreported, it is always a challenge to discover enough about how real women lived to spin an authentic historical tale.
But I had no idea how true this was until I started writing in the era of the Border Reivers.
For those who don’t know, the Reivers (pronounced Reevers) were basically raiders on both sides of the Scottish/English border.  Loyal to family above king, these folks had feuds that rivaled the famous Hatfields and McCoys  They were beyond the law of either government, and usually even beyond the reach of the special Border Laws that were developed in a joint English-Scottish effort to bring order from the chaos.  For nearly 300 years (roughly 1300-1600), they “made a living” by stealing from others, or, alternately, by collecting “blackmail” from those who wanted to be left alone.
My new historical romance trilogy features the three siblings of a reiving family I call the Brunson clan.  I started to research the lives of women of the era, but information was so scarce about this macho society that I could barely find any information about how they dressed, though there are pictures aplenty of what the men donned to ride a raid.
The first story a researcher always finds about the women of the Borders is this:  When the larder ran low, the woman of the house would bring her man a set of spurs instead of supper.  That meant it was time for him to go “riding” again. 
The second thing I found was a prevailing opinion (from the English side of the border, to be fair) that Scottish women were “comely,” but “not distinguished by their chastity.” 
Hints, but not much to go on.
Beyond stealing sheep and cattle, there was arson and even murder aplenty on the Borders, and many women were left widowed and orphaned.  Later written histories claim that even women and children were not safe from atrocities during these raids.  Yet there’s a tension in the stories of this culture between the ones that claim Reivers honored women and preferred not to kill and the ones that label them vicious and cruel and ruthless. 

Modern litanies of the Reivers’ sins typically list rape among them.  In actual historic accounts, however, I was unable to find a specific report of one in the history.  (I am not alone in this.  The book Government, religion, and society in northern England, 1000-1700 mentions the “notable absence” of rape from the list of transgressions.)
Is this because it did not happen, or because women did not make it public?  The answer, as so much of women’s history, is hidden.  Yet there was a law passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1525 which gave the king’s officers the right to punish “particular faults and crimes that occur.”  On the list was “ravishing of women.”  A tantalizing clue.
Yet amidst the harsh reality, I discovered softness and beauty.  This was not a society that had leisure for art and culture, but the Border Ballads, rediscovered and popularized by Sir Walter Scott at the turn of the 19th century, remain hauntingly beautiful today. 

In his book FOLK SONG IN ENGLAND, A.L. Lloyd writes of the border dwellers that “they prized a poem almost as much as plunder.”  The narrative songs they created tell rip-roaring stories of war and love, like the one that begins:

My love he built me a bonny bower,
And clad it a' wi' lilye flour;
A brawer bower ye ne'er did see,
Than my true love he built for me.

Alas, the title of the ballad is “The Lament of the Border Widow,” and the final verse goes like this:

Nae living man I'll love again,
Since that my lovely knight is slain;
Wi' ae lock of his yellow hair
I'll chain my heart for evermair.

So where is a romance writer to find a happy ending?  Well, it turns out that love conquered all during the era of the Reivers, just as it always has. 
It seems that there was a law forbidding marriage across the border (upon penalty of death) unless one had special permission.  This was intended to make it easier for the kings to keep control of the population by preventing marriage/family ties that might dilute national allegiance.
Despite the best efforts, not only did such marriages occur, they were a near epidemic, to the extent that in some regions, the list of those that did NOT have cross border marriages was shorter than the list of those that did.
So in the end, I had a head full of ideas for my trilogy, confident that no matter how difficult the existence or strict the prohibition, men and women fall in love and get married.  There was all the validation I needed to write Border Reiver romance.
Cover Art used by arrangement with Harlequin
 Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. ®and T are trademarks of
Harlequin Enterprises Limited and/or its
affiliated companies, used under license.
Copyright 2012
What do you most wonder about the lives of women in history?  Leave a comment and one lucky person will win a copy of RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR, first book in The Brunson Clan trilogy.  Here’s a brief description:


Once part of a powerful border clan, John has not set sight on the Brunson stone tower in years. With failure never an option, he must persuade his family to honour the King’s call for peace.

To succeed, John knows winning over the daughter of an allied family, Cate Gilnock, holds the key. But this intriguing beauty is beyond the powers of flattery and seduction. Instead, the painful vulnerability hidden behind her spirited eyes calls out to John as he is inexorably drawn back into the warrior Brunson clan…
Harlequin HistoricalsTM

Blythe Gifford has been known for medieval romances featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket. Now, she’s launching a trilogy set on the turbulent Scottish Borders if the early Tudor era, starting with RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR a November release from the Harlequin Historical line. CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD will follow in January 2013, and TAKEN BY THE BORDER REBEL in March 2013.  The Chicago Tribune has called her work "the perfect balance between history and romance." She loves to have visitors at www.blythegifford.com,"thumbs up" at www.facebook.com/BlytheGifford, "tweeps" at www.twitter.com/BlytheGifford, and followers at www.pinterest.com/BlytheGifford. You can also find her on Goodreads.


Cathy MacRae said...

Wonderful post, Blythe! I had occasion to briefly study the border reivers and found the period fascinating. I look forward to your book!

Warrior Woman Winmill said...

I love my highlanders but as you say it was a very macho era. Although when the men were away raiding the women must have been strong enough to keep everything flowing properly. Historical romance is my favourite.

Blythe Gifford said...

Cathy, thanks! And Petula, you're right. I think those women were very strong. They had to be!

Kira D said...

Although their history is hidden more often than not, the women of this time had to be as strong or stronger than the men. Left to fend for themselves, the tales they could tell. Thanks for a wonderful giveaway and I loved the post.

Keena Kincaid said...

Love the post, Blythe.

I found the lack of reported rapes interesting and well within the possibility that few rapes occurred. It was a fact pointed out in one tour I took of Castle Carlisle (the town reportedly could reduce a herd of cattle to meat, leather and shoes within 30 minutes). The explanation was: Reiving went both ways. What one side did, the other would do in retaliation. Plus the reivers likely knew the reived. These two facts worked to lessen the instances of murder and rape.

Ally Broadfield said...

Fascinating. I love to read romance set in this time period, but I know very little of the history. I'm looking forward to reading Return of the Border Warrior.

Lyn Horner said...

Ever read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books? She gives some good descriptions of female clothing in the 1740s era. I don't know if they're completely accurate, but she makes it all seem real.

I agree, women back then had to be strong to hold their own.

bn100 said...

I wonder what they really thought about the fashions.


Margaret Mallory said...

Blythe, thanks for a wonderful post. I loved it!


Fraoch said...

Excellent post. Got to love those Border Reivers and you are so right about the lack of historical records of women. Can't wait fo your book to come out. Will passon the link to my friens over Border Reivers group on FB.

LilMissMolly said...

Sounds great! I love historical fiction stories and this seems perfect for me!

Eliza Knight said...

And the winner is... Keena Kincaid!

Thank you so much for visiting with us!!!