The Wardens of the Marches

The relationship between Scotland and England wasn’t always as amicable as it is today.  From the late 13th century to the 16th century, Scotland and England were constantly at war with each other.  This created a lawless environment where crime soared, people from both sides of the border would live more like outlaws, taking advantage of the constant fighting.

In 1249 in an attempt to deal with crime an agreement was signed between both nations, a system began called the ‘Laws of the Marches’ this was to be carried out by the ‘Wardens of the Marches’ who were appointed by their respective monarchs.

Borders area showing the different marches

Borders area showing the different marches

Sir Robert Carey,  Lord Warden of the Marches, and a contemporary of Elizabeth I and James VI.

Sir Robert Carey, Lord Warden of the Marches

The border lands on each side divided into three marches: an east, middle, and west march.  Each march had its own warden, who was responsible for the security of the area and its people Each Waarden answered to the Lord Warden. The Scottish wardens were familiar with their territories, and knew the people from the marches, and this gave them the opportunity to get involved in questionable dealings in order to further their position. However, the English wardens were not as familiar with the area and the ways of the Borderers, and often went about creating more problems than they solved when trying to administer any justice.

Examples of some of the families you would traditionally find on the Scottish side are: Hume, Trotter, Dixon in East March; Kerr, Scott, Turnbull in Middle March; and Bell, Irvine, Johnstone in West March.

Wardens of The March

Wardens of The March

Wardens from both sides of the border would meet monthly in peace on the day of truce. They would assess the complaints from either side, and administer the appropriate justice. The Wardens had to bear in mind that both countries valued things differently, and this created many difficulties when trying to solve these grievances. Many of the crimes would range from cattle rustling to murder.

To explain about how the Wardens of the Marches worked; if for example you were English, and went north of the border to Scotland and stole some cattle, it used to be quite normal to get a a pat on the back back in England, because you had committed a crime in the opposite realm.  You would go unpunished.  The purpose of the Wardens was to prevent this from happening. The Wardens were expected to talk to their foreign counterpart. So if someone went across the border to steal something, then the warden whose land was plundered would tell his counterpart, and the issue would be resolved on the day of truce. The task of solving each person’s grievance was a taxing and thankless task, which usually provided solutions that left no-one happy.

Those who were accused of a crime were supposedly tried by six honest Scotsmen and six honest Englishmen. However it has been said that this could never have happened because you would not have been able to find any honest men from either side of the border.

The ‘Calendar of Border Papers’ has recorded a large number of complaints that were made to the Wardens of the Marches. They go into some detail as how many of these people were wronged by raiders both sides of the border. The papers are still available to read to this day.

By 1603 the role of Warden of the Marches became unnecessary, after the union of the crowns when James VI & I, in his attempt to permanently put an end to the Border Reiver clans, got rid of the name “Borders” to represent that area, and renamed it the “Middle Shires”. Over the following 100 years you saw a gradual change of the borderers putting down the sword and picking up the plough.


Related Posts

5 thoughts on “The Wardens of the Marches

  1. tom moss

    Good article.

    The Border Laws were amended many times down to the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when they were abolished by the new king of England, James Vl and lst.

    In the sixteenth century there was more than one way to try a criminal at the Day of Truce. Yes there was that of assize where six honest men of each of the nations of England and Scotland (they did have a sense of humour!) would try the felon brought to the Truce. But there were others ways. The man on trial could be tried on the word of the March Warden, where the Warden would swear to the guilt or innocence. Then there was trial by Avower where some-one would stand up and certify guilt or innocence. This was a brave man indeed given the feud and bloodfeud that prevailed. I would suppose there were few takers to this scenario. A fourth method was that of compurgation where a group of men would pronounce guilt or innocence. This method went back many centuries into religious law. Again I suspect few takers.

    It is interesting to note that often, on the inaugeration of a new March Warden, he would wipe the slate clean and not be party to any crime that had been committed before the commencement of his Wardenry.

    And so it went on, justice even at a Day of Truce, was hard to come by.

    And the crime rolled on!

  2. Tom Moss

    A good book to read about the Wardens is ‘Lord Wardens of the Marches’ by Howard Pease. Pease lived at Otterburn Tower in Northumberland. It is now a hotel.

    In the book he cites the original Border Laws of 1249 and goes on to list the various amendments that were made to them down to 1596.

    He also describes the form of a ‘Day of Truce’ as well as the custom which accompanied the Border Law down the centuries.

    It is still possible to get this book. A trawl of antiquarian booksellers on the internet usually turns it up.

    Howard Pease was an academic but this book is both readable and enjoyable.

    Another book on Border Law is ‘Leges Marchiarum’ by Bishop Nicolson of Carlisle. Written in the 18th century, much of it is in Latin. The latter part, I think, is in English.

    If anybody knows where to get a relatively cheap copy of this book, I would be very interested.


Leave a Reply to tom moss Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *