The strip of land between England and Scotland was known as the Debatable Land. Raiding and warfare was rife between the English and the Scots, and more than one Scottish clan (and, to be fair, the English Border families did the same) used this chaos for their own merry-making shennanigans. I make good use of these reivers in my medieval romances, but so far only as the villians. I've not yet figured out a way to turn one of these lads in a romantic hero.
My favourite bad lad has to be Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie. He had a protection racket going on long before the Mafia came along. He made a fortune in collecting 'fees' in exchange for not raiding and killing families - this practice was known as Black Rent and earned Johnnie the nickname of 'Black Jok'
Sir Walter Scott gives us a somewhat romantic ballad of the tale of Johnnie Armstrong, when he was summoned by King James. Now, in truth, King James had promised him safe conduct, and ruthly had him and his men attacked and hung as soon as they arrived at the meeting spot. Not very honourable, but then one must assume poor ol' King James had his hands full with these troublesome reivers and was at his wits end.
Here's snippets of Sir Walter Scott's The Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong
So, to start with, King James had been doing a little cleaning up through his devious means (he'd just summoned both Cockburn and Scott and had them executed) before summoning Johnnie, so poor ol' Johnnie should have suspected something
Is there never a man in all Scotland,
From the highest state to the lowest degree,
That can shew himself now before the king?
Scotland is so full of their traitery
But Johnnie had never been before a king before, and he was slightly smitten with the idea
The king he writ a lovely letter,
With his own hand so tenderly,
And has sent it unto John Armstrong,
To come and speak with him speedily
When John he looked the letter upon,
Then, Lord! he was as blithe as a bird in a tree:
‘I was never before no king in my life,
My father, my grandfather, nor none of us three
And it all ends very badly with King James declaring...
Away with thee, thou false traitor!
No pardon I will grant to thee,
But, to-morrow before eight of the clock,
I will hang thy eightscore men and thee
Johnnie, being Johnnie, didn't go down without a fight,
Said John, Fight on, my merry men all,
I am a little hurt, but I am not slain;
I will lay me down for to bleed a while,
Then I’le rise and fight with you again
And perhaps, most surprisingly of all, Johnnie had a wife and son waiting at home to receive the bad news of his death. Seems even the baddest of the bad found some romance in his life
But when he came up to Guiltknock Hall,
The lady spyed him presently:
‘What news, what news, thou little foot-page?
What news from thy master and his company?’
‘My news is bad, lady,’ he said,
‘Which I do bring, as you may see;
My master, John Armstrong, he is slain,
And all his gallant company
The villian in my upcoming medieval is based on Johnnie Armstrong's character and his reiving gang. The borderland history is so full of colourful characters like this to strike my muse. One day, perhaps I'll attempt to turn one of these big bad border boys into a hero