16 October 2012

Executed: Johnnie Armstrong, King of the Borders

Today, RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR, the first book of my new trilogy, is scheduled to hit the shelves.  Set on the Scottish-English Borders in the early Tudor era, it was actually inspired by the story of an execution of a famous Border Reiver.

The story is told, or sung, more accurately, in “The Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong.”  Now Johnnie Armstrong, or Johnnie of Gilnocke, as he was also called, was one of the most notorious reivers on the Borders.  Reivers basically stole for a living – cattle, sheep, whatever they needed.  And there were plenty of tales of arson and murder, too.  Despite the presence of special Wardens of the Borders, lawmen assigned to keep the peace, for nearly three hundred years, the only law on the Borders was that made by a sword, a dirk, or a crossbow.

Finally, King James V of Scotland came to the Borders in a desperate attempt to restore order to what was the most lawless ground on the island.  Some suggest he did it because he had something to prove to his uncle, King Henry VIII of England.  At the top of King James’ list was Johnnie Armstrong, also called the “King of the Borders.”

Of course, history is written, or rewritten, by the storytellers.  To the king and the people he preyed on, Johnnie Armstrong might be a despicable man.  But to the songwriter who penned the “Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong,” his hero was a gallant thief, protecting Scotland from the English, and just trying to make his way in the world. 

Johnnie's Gilnockie Tower, with reivers returning from a raid.
According to the balladeer, Johnnie was not lawfully tried and convicted, but basely murdered when he was lured to a meeting with the king by a “loving letter” that insisted he come unarmed.
He did exactly that, along with forty retainers, dressed in their finest splendor to honor the king, expecting to be welcomed with open arms and royal hospitality.

Instead, he and his crew were seized by the king’s men labeled traitors, and fitted with hanging nooses.  Armstrong bargained for his life, and that of his men, with everything he could think of. 

He offered the king all manner of gifts, including “four and twenty milk white steeds” if he were spared.  His final offer was that the king should receive yearly rent, more accurately, the “blackmail” from all dwellers in the area of the Borders where Johnnie held sway, from “Gilnockie to Newcastleton.”

The king had no sympathy and was not open to a bribe. 

Facing death, Johnnie made an impassioned speech, claiming he had never harmed a Scot, but only the English.  The truth of this claim might be open to dispute.  To the local people he had preyed upon, Johnnie’s death might have been a welcome relief.  Indeed, a few years after, Sir David Lindsay, King James’ in house playwright, made mention of it in one of his productions. 

But it is also hard to summon sympathy for the king in the ballad, so deceitful that he tricks his subject into a trap.  The song also suggests the king was jealous of Johnnie’s fine clothes, another less than admirable trait, and perhaps even his title of “King of the Border.” 

Finally, as he realizes he is to die, Johnnie says

“I have asked grace at a graceless face,
But there is none for my men and me.
I would have kept the Border side
In spite of thy peers and thee.”

So poor Johnnie and his men were hanged and lived no more.  Neither, legend has it, did the trees from which they swung.

I wanted to rewrite the story.  I wanted Johnnie Armstrong to have a happy ending.

And so began the story of the Brunson Clan.

I’ll be talking about that more, and sharing an excerpt, November 1 and 4.

Blythe Gifford has been known for medieval romances featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket. Now, she’s launching a new series set on the turbulent Scottish Borders.  The Chicago Tribune has called her work "thee perfect balance between history and romance."