Tag Archives: 1530s

1530: Johnnie Armstrong, border reiver

Scottish “border reiver” John Armstrong of Gilnockie was hanged on this date in 1530 with his followers at Caerlanrig, without benefit of trial.

The job description of the border reiver was to, well, reave the border. These mounted raiders exploited the wide gaps in sovereignty that opened along the ill-controlled England-Scotland border throughout the 16th century (their heyday) and indeed for centuries prior. They plundered vulnerable* farmers both north and south of the notional line. Sometimes the prize was livestock; other times, the “black rent” due your basic protection racket would suffice.

Their presence left an indelible imprint on the Anglo-Scottish marches, from the farmhouse fortresses called bastle houses to provisions in the “March Law” governing the manner of permissible counter-raiding.

Nettlesome as they were, they also stood useful mercenaries hired out for a number of the era’s battles; notably, English-hired reivers held off a much larger Scottish incursion in 1542. Only with the union of the crowns under James VI of Scotland/James I of England were the reivers finally suppressed.**

Johnny/Johnnie Armstrong, the younger brother of Thomas, Laird of Mangerton, is perhaps the most lasting legend among them — thanks to the signal boost he would later receive from Sir Walter Scott. Chief of a reiver band 160 strong, Armstrong made himself enough of a headache for English-Scottish diplomacy that the Scots king James V resorted to treachery to eliminate him. Having dialed up the frontier “prince” for a meeting, James simply had the sharp-dressed marauder arrested and summarily hanged when the reiver came to call. Thirty-six of his fellow reivers died with him.

Johnny Armstrong is the subject and the title of a notable child ballad (no. 169) whose lyrics can be perused in their entirety here; several renditions of its climactic third chapter can be found in the usual places.

John murdred was at Carlinrigg,
And all his galant companie;
But Scotlands heart was never sae wae,
To see sae mony brave men die.

Because they savd their country deir
Frae Englishmen; nane were sae bauld,
Whyle Johnie livd on the border-syde,
Nane of them durst cum neir his hald.

* “Vulnerable” mostly meant, not in the ambit of a powerful protector or of the reiver’s own clan.

** A subsequent echo of the border reivers — in the same vein and the same region, but clearly distinct from them — emerged later in the 17th century in the form of the moss troopers.

1533: The witch of Schiltach

On this date in 1533, a German woman, nameless to posterity, was burnt as a witch in the town of Schiltach.


Engraving of Schiltach from 1643, a century after the events in this post. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Der Teufel von Schiltach (1930), by Eduard Trautwein. Bottom: Der Teufel von schiltach (1926), by Karl Eyth

This Black Forest idyll had been ravaged by fire on Maundy Thursday, the 10th of April.

We have seen many times in these pages how frightful was the scourge of fire for early modern cities, and the haste by which it was liable to be attributed to a malevolent plot.

In this case, common superstition soon acclaimed the fire an arson by the hand of an unpopular former maid of Schiltach’s mayor, who had recently been dismissed under a cloud of suspected diabolism. (This summary in German of the German book Der Teufel von Schiltach delves into the particulars.)

One problem: upon her dismissal, she had returned to her native Oberndorf. Not being in Schiltach at all during the events in question seemed like a pretty good alibi.

But since witchery was contributing means and motive, why not opportunity as well? Everyone knew that witches could fly. She was proximate, if not spatially then conceptually, to a disaster, and this was reason enough.

The luckless woman was retrieved from Oberndorf to answer the tortures of her disgruntled ex-boss, and consigned to the stake … and, as the images accompanying this post will attest, to local legend.


1533 woodcut illustration (click for larger version with German narrative text) about the Schiltach witch. (From Wikimedia Commons)