By Jon Tait
Ellen Charlton of the Bower
It should come as no real surprise that Ellen Charlton of the Bower was jailed in
Newcastle alongside her son John junior for cattle theft in 1629.
Ellen was the wife of a notorious border reiver called John Charlton of the Bower and
the daughter of one of the most feared reivers of them all – Edward Armstrong of
Wilgavy, near Lanercost in Gilsland.
She was then also the granddaughter of Anthony Armstrong, an outlaw who was
perhaps even more infamous than his son. Anthony, or Anton as he was known, first
came to prominence in the summer of 1528 when he was accused of March treason
Anton was an English tenant farmer of Lord Dacre’s who had sold horses into
Scotland and had committed robberies in England in the company of Scotsmen. When
Thomas Clifford, the deputy captain of Carlisle Castle, was sent to capture
Armstrong, Dacre’s bailiff of Askerton, a man named Thomas Wilson, with others,
resisted and fought him off.
He was involved in a dispute with the Musgraves of Bewcastle after they killed one of
his brothers shortly after and he fled into Scotland for a while where the Scottish
Armstrongs took him in after the murder of seven Fenwicks in Northumberland.
His son Edward had been involved in some heinous crimes along with the rest of the
Wilgavy family such as murdering a pregnant woman on the roadside by cutting the baby from her belly. All of his daughters were married into North Tynedale reiving
families, which saw John Charlton of the Bower senior also slip across into
Liddesdale to be looked after by the Scottish Armstrongs when he was on the run in
During the Pacification of the Borders Edward Armstrong asked and was allowed to
be deported to Ireland on a second boatload of the Grahams who were transported in
1607. It was better than hanging, which had happened for a number of his family at
that time including his brother Jock and son Tom. Edward was the only Armstrong to
be deported on the three official boats that took the Grahams across the water. Two
other boats also sailed over with 140 Northumbrians and 60 Cumbrians enforced to
serve as soldiers in the Emerald Isle.
Others went over as voluntary fugitives, some flitted to avoid justice, and most came
back as soon as they had the opportunity. Some crossed back and forth with stolen
horses, others were banished in ones and twos from the courts and some stayed in
Ireland, so it is not that simple and incorrect to state that it was the border reivers who
were responsible for the Plantation of Ulster. Sure, some spotted an opportunity and
left, but the vast majority stayed put on the borders and they’re still there today; hence
why young John Charlton was stealing cattle in 1629 and getting his mother
implicated in the theft. She’d probably hidden or fenced them for him after.
Ellen’s story also shows the importance of the maternal ties among the reiver families
where the surname was important, but equally those uncles and cousins baring
another name from the mother. The complicated inter-family and cross-border
relations proved a headache time and time again for the authorities who just couldn’t
enforce justice in a place where blood was thicker than water and money had no flag.
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Bio: Jon Tait is a UK-based journalist and the author of the historic true crime book ‘Dick the Devil’s Bairns : Breaking the Border Mafia’ about the notorious Anglo-Scottish border reivers. His book can be found HERE. If you live in England it can be found HERE. If you live in Canada it can bought HERE. If you are in Australia you find it HERE.
The Yard: Crime Blog will be posting several more Historical True Crime articles by Jon, in the very near future. Read Meet The Medieval Mafia #1 HERE. And the Medieval Mafia # 2 HERE.