James V had come to the throne as a boy as a direct
result of his father being killed by the English at Flodden in 1513. His
first years of office were under a Regent and Council, who held him as a
minor under the tutelage of Angus and Douglas, which amounted to little
more than imprisonment. His Guardians had ensured that his education was
minimal, attempting to ensure that when he reached his majority he would
still be dependant on them. After several attempts to escape the Guardians
he at last succeeded in the summer of 1528 arriving disguised in Stirling.
The Country rose in his support and after a brief campaign Douglas was
defeated and Angus escaped to England.
In 1529 James having set up his own Council in
Edinburgh, was annoyed that the disorganised state of the Borders
represented a weakness in the governance of his kingdom and avowed his
intention to reduce them to order, no doubt remembering that Douglas
originated in the Borders. Before this could be achieved he had to remove
those powerful Border lords whose influence might thwart his plans, so he
commanded the imprisonment of the Earl of Bothwell, Lord Home, Lord
Maxwell, Scott of Buccleuch, Ker of Ferniehirst, and other powerful Border
chiefs. It is unlikely that James a mere youth of seventeen without
political education strategised a complex political plan to crush the
nobility, it is more probable that he resented the outrages these men had
committed against him during his minority and he was determined to remove
this disrepectful band from his court and the public purse.
In June 1529 he commanded the remaining Lords, Barons
(and freebooters) to accompany him well-armed, with a months provisions
that were guid" to go hunting
in Meggatdale and proceeded into Eskdale and Teviotdale with a force of
8,000 men to do justice on the Reivers. Indeed they did go hunting as the
record notes that they took "eighteen score of deer"
during their stay at St mary’s Loch. However James soon got down to real
business of his Border Pacification: Cockburn of Henderson and Scott of
Tushielaw, two notorious offenders were said to be hanged before the gates
of their own castles (actually they were removed to Edinburgh and executed
at the Tollgate), but the fate of Johnie Armstrong, of Gilnockie, near
Langholm, produced a much deeper impression, although not unmingled with
some commiseration, on the Reivers.
Johnie was undisputed "King of the Borders"
and it was said that "....from the Scottis bordour to Newcastell
of England, thair was not ane of quhatsoevir estate bot payed [blakmeale]
to this John Armestrange ane tribut to be frae of his cumber ....and
albeit that he was ane lous leivand man, .....he was als guid ane
chieftane as evir was upon the borderis...." James wrote "a
lovyng letter in his ain hand sae tenderlie"
inviting Johnie to hunt with him at Carlenrig, but Johnie and his men
turned up to the meet so splendidly dressed and equipped that the young
King took offence. The Balladist describes Johnie’s attire as having "a
bespangled with gold and his hat with it’s nine targes each worth three
hundred pounds; all that he needed to make him a king was the sword of
honour and the crown" James was incensed and remarked "Quhat
wantis yon knave thet a King shuld have"
At first Johnie tried to talk his way out of trouble, offering half his "blakmeale"
takings which were considerable as it was said that most of Northumberland
paid "Blakmeale" to Johnie, but when he realised the
futility of trying to bribe James, he then famously insulted the King, by
saying proudly: "I am but a fool to seek grace at a graceless face!";
Johnie and his men were promptly "....all
hangit apoun growand trees....".
It is recorded that all Johnie’s estates were awarded to the imprisoned
Lord Maxwell after this incident, rather suggesting that the whole thing
had been a plot from the start, with Maxwell appearing to have nothing to
do with it.
James V may have believed that his authority was well
stamped on the Borders by this raid into the Reivers heartland, but he
underestimated Johnie’s place in the scheme of the Borders: Johnie may
have been one of the worst brigands to ride "....a
heilk moon....", but he was an
Armstrong which was one the largest and most powerful families on the
Borders. Reivers could feud amongst themselves, even to the death, but
they had a habit of allying together against outsiders. Maxwell was never
forgiven by the Armstrongs and James had broken his "given" word
to a Reiver. "Revenge is a meal best eaten cold" and the Reivers
certainly waited for it to be well-cooled by the time their opportunity
came around some 12 years later at Sollomoss.
The Ballad of Johnie
Armstrong of Gilnockie
Johnie wore a girdle about his middle,
Imbroidered ower wi’ burning gold,
Bespangled wi’ the same metal;
Maist beautiful it was to behold.
There hang nine targets at Johnie’s hat,
And ilk ane worth three hundred pound.
"What wants that Knave that a King should have,
But the sword of honour and the Crown?"
"Grant me my life, my liege, my King!
And a brave gift I’ll gie to thee -
All between here and Newcastle toon
Sall pay their yeirly rent to thee."
"Away, Away, thou traitor strang!
Out o’ my sight thou soon may’st be!
I grantit nevor a traitors life,
And now I’ll not begin wi’ thee."
"To seek het water beneith cauld ice,
Surely it is a great folie -
I have asked grace at a graceless face,
But there is nane for my men and me.
Had I known, Sirrah, your base intent,
I should still have lived at Gilnockie.
King Harry would down-weigh my horse wi’ gelt
To ken you condemned me, this day, to dee."
Johnie was murdered at Carlenrigg,
And all his gallant cumpanie;
But Scotland’s heart was ne’er sae wae,
To see sae mony brave men die -
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