James V., The King of the Commons—The Story of Johnnie Armstrong
Now that James was free, he began really to rule, and one of the first things he tried to do was to bring order to the Border Lands. All about the Borders lived tribes of fierce, unruly men, who were nearly always at war with the English or with each other. They never thought of tilling the ground or of rearing cattle for themselves, but when they were in need, they rode out against their peaceful neighbours, and stole from them anything they could lay hands upon.
The great lords were often the worst thieves. In one castle it was the custom, when the last bullock had been killed for food, for the lady of the house to place upon the table a dish of spurs. This was a hint to the lord of the castle that it was time for him to gather his men and ride out for more. Then the men would buckle on their armour, mount their horses and ride away.
In the gloaming of a summer night, or when the August moon was shining, some peaceful farmer would be roused by the trample of horses' hoofs and the lowing of cattle. He would awake, perhaps, to find his cattle sheds empty, his barns ablaze, and the thieves already far away. Or, if there was yet time to fight, he might be left dead or wounded beside his plundered homestead, while the robbers rode homeward, driving the good man's cattle before them.
Sometimes these raids were the result of quarrels between two families; they were vengeance for some real or fancied wrong. Sometimes they were mere lawlessness. One man wanted what another had, so he took it. Might was right. It seemed to these Border reivers, that if a man could not protect his goods, they had a right to take them from him. That was quite natural and simple, and so unruly were the times, that it was hard to make these reivers believe that they were in any way worthy of punishment.
But King James meant not only to make laws, but to force the people to keep them. He loved justice, and he set himself to protect the weak from the strong. So, under pretence of a great hunting expedition, he gathered a good company of knights and soldiers, and rode to the Borders. And so quick was the King, that he seized the greatest of the reivers, and hanged them at their own castle gates before they were even aware of their danger.
But one of the greatest of them all, called Johnnie Armstrong, he could not seize. This man was so much feared, that the people far into England paid him money every year to be free from his attack. This was called "blackmail." So long as the farmers paid the money, Johnnie left them in peace, but if it was not paid, he plundered them without mercy.
Johnnie was very rich, and lived in great state. He ruled like a King in his own country-side. He dressed very grandly, and when he rode abroad, was attended by twenty-four men almost as fine as himself.
Johnnie had no fear of James, and when he heard of his coming, he dressed himself in his best, and rode to meet the King, to ask him to dine at his castle.
But James, instead of being friendly as Johnnie had thought he would be, was stern and angry. He was not pleased to see Johnnie so grandly dressed, and followed by such a train. "What wants that knave, that a King should have but the sword of honour and the crown?" he cried. "Take the traitor out of my sight, and let him be hanged."
Then Johnnie begged hard for his life. "My lord King," he said, "I have ever been your true subject. Let me live, and I promise to keep a band of forty true men always ready to fight for you."
"You must die," said James.
I have never hurt a Scottish subject, man or woman," said Johnnie. "It is only the English that I rob. Let me live."
"You must die," said James, hard and stern as before.
"Had I known," said Johnnie at last, "that you meant to treat me so, I should never have come near to you. I should have kept the border side in spite of you, and of the King of England too. For well I know King Harry would give the weight of my best horse in gold, to know that I must die this day."
But all that Johnnie could say was vain. He and his four-and-twenty gallant men were led away to die. No doubt many people were glad to be rid of these Border robbers. Yet although they were a great trouble to their neighbours, they were also the defenders of their country against the English. So, many mourned for their loss, and were angry with the King. But James v. , like James i. , had sworn to bring order into his land, and "make the furze bush keep the cow."