By Jon Tait
BLACK WALTER’ SELBY AND THE MITFORD GANG
If you were going to give the Black Walter Selby story the full Hollywood treatment,
you’d want to cast someone like Joe Pesci as the main man. Getting some of that swagger and psychotic stage presence would be essential for the big screen, for sure. Stick him in some chain mail, put the black and gold crest on a tabard and chuck a kettle helmet on. Because Black Walter was a character just like the one Pesci played in Goodfellas, albeit seven hundred years earlier and set in the hills of Northumberland.
To understand men like Walter Selby you have to understand the criminal mindset
portrayed in all of those popular mafia movies – there is no difference. Be it Black
Walter Selby or Sonny Red Indelicato, money, power, influence, respect and
intimidation are all that matters.
Respect especially. What’s the point of walking into a room if you’re not going to
turn heads and cause a frightened hush? You want to be a presence whether it’s in
1970s New York or 1310s Morpeth. No matter.
Black Walter was the chief enforcer in the Mitford Gang headed up by Gilbert
Middleton, the keeper of the castle whose ruined walls still stand today on a mound
above the river Wansbeck.
Northumberland had been devastated by the Scots for a number of years as the Wars
of Independence led to burnings, killings and trampling crops in a series of acts of
attrition designed to demoralise and dehumanise. When the Scottish defeated Edward II at Bannockburn in 1315, it was a trigger for men like Middleton, of Cramlington and Hartley, and Selby, whose property included a fortified tower at Seghill, lands at Felling, Alnham and Biddlestone Hall to start taking their destiny in their own hands.
The gang, including the likes of Middleton’s brother, John, of Swinburn Castle, his
cousin Sir John Middleton, the lord of Belsay, and Selby’s brother John started to
roam the countryside on horseback asking local farmers if they’d like to join the gang.
If they said no or resisted, the gang would destroy their crops, kill or steal their stock,murder relatives and hold them in the dungeons of Mitford until a cash ransom was paid. It was a simple, uncomplicated and effective racket. Black Walter used to hide his cut of the stolen cattle at the rocky crevice known as Selby’s Cove at the back of Simonside.
Gilbert had been incensed when the King arrested his cousin Sir John for ‘speaking sharply with him about the Marches,’ so he raided Cleveland and ‘took all the cattle in Northumberland except for Alnwick, Bamburgh and Norham.’ They attacked Tynemouth Castle in another incident. But the outlaws got cocky and pushed things too far. Later in 1317 they kidnapped a party of church Cardinals at Rushyford in County Durham.
Among them were Lewis Beaumont and his brother Henry. Lewis was on his way to be consecrated as the important Bishop of Durham. The gang took money, goods, horses and hostages back to Mitford, threw them in the dungeon and awaited a big payday for their release.
It didn’t come, however, and Gilbert – who’d probably be played by Robert de Niro
in the movie – was captured along with the bulk of the gang when the King’s forces took the Castle that December. Gilbert Stapleton was one of the crew killed during the raid while Middleton and his brother were taken to the Tower of London and hanged, drawn and quartered. The four sections of Gilbert’s body were sent to Newcastle, York, Bristol and Dover.
David Middleton and John Birden were delivered to the Sheriff of Northumberland,
William Riddell, as hostages by Black Walter in May 1318, possibly as bargaining chips. David had been a hostage in the Tower but was freed and fought in the Scottish Wars on the English side. William Middleton was captured in Mitford Castle along with the others and was imprisoned at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He had been captured by Scots during an invasion but had escaped from them and took sanctuary with a prior before being redelivered to the Sheriff in 1322.
The wily Walter escaped and hid out in Horton pele for a while before flitting into Scotland. He joined up with King Robert the Bruce and when the Scots came burning
and killing in Northumberland again the following year, he took Mitford Castle and left Selby in charge as his army headed South.
Walter was holed up for three long years in the walls before he surrendered to the
Sheriff of Northumberland and was sent down to the Tower of London himself where
he was imprisoned until 1327.
Ironically the Bishop of Durham, took his lands in Felling – held by the Selby family
since the early 13th Century – because his ‘enemy and rebel, Selby, had become a
liegeman of Robert Bruce’ and for his part in taking the Bishop prisoner.
King Edward III pardoned Selby in March 1329 in an agreement with Robert Umfraville, the late Earl of Angus from Harbottle castle, Ralph Graystoke, then baron of Graystoke, and John Eure, that saw his lands reinstated. The Bishop wouldn’t let the matter lie, however, and in 1342 he was accusing Selby of several burnings and homicides near Sedgefield back in 1317 and ‘adhering to the King’s enemies of Scotland.
Selby had spent this time fighting against the Scots and at some points he was in the
service of Edward Baliol. The complicated nature of the Border meant that Scottish nobles such as the Comyns, in Tynedale, the Umfravilles in Redesdale, the Haggerstons, the Hangingshaws and others held land in Northumberland, while Selby himself was awarded land in Roxburghshire for his exploits.
In March 1346 Thomas de Lucy, Peter Tilyol, Black Walter, John Etherington of
Caldecoates and Clement Skelton were ordered to find out who had carried out a huge cross border raid with £1,000 worth of cattle lifted from Scotland.
Selby was placed in command of the Liddell Strength, a wooden motte and bailey
tower at Carwinley in Cumbria, no doubt to curtail the border raids while the King
and the bulk of the English army were across in France at the siege of Calais.
There was probably a low lying mist obstructing the views that October when a
Scottish army of 12,000 attacked. A strange unease among the cattle in the encampment; a couple of arrows hitting men up on the spiked wooden battlements,
then the shouting, the flames and smoke, the moans of dying men and the clash of
When the fortress was taken the Scottish King, David Bruce, had Selby dragged to
him. Probably scarred from fighting, his face flecked in blood and blackened with
soot, his mail clanking as he was dropped to his knees.
It’s said that the old villain begged for his life. To go back to the Hollywood scenario,
you’d have Pesci making some big speech about how he’d fought for David’s father
and Scotland in the past, something atmospheric with crows cackling and a wind rustling trees. Or maybe you’d just get those two seconds of realization that Tommy
has in Goodfellas before he gets whacked. An axe instead of a pistol.
“Oh, no….” Thump. Beheaded.
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. Part 3 can be found HERE. Part 4 can be found HERE.