Keeping order in the 16th century

Buck's view of Widdrington Castle
Buck's view of Widdrington Castle

In 1593 Sir Robert Carey married Elizabeth, Lady Widdrington, without the Queen’s permission.

He was deputy to his brother-in-law, Lord Scrope, the Warden of the West March, so: ‘After I was married, I brought my wife to Carlifle, where we were fo nobly ufed by my Lord, that myfelfe, my wife, and all my fervants were lodged in the caftle, ... our diet for ourfelves, our fervants and horfes provided for as his owne were.

‘Wee had not long lived thus, but a fodaine occafion called mee up to the terme, which then was at St Albans, by reafon of a great plague that yeare at London.’

Robert’s brother William, like himself sometime MP for Morpeth, defrauded him of an estate in Suffolk and left it instead to his wife.

William died, and Robert sued his sister-in-law. His eldest brother, George, who stood to benefit at her death, supported her. He didn’t think Robert would dare to appear in person. But he did, and won the case.

‘Having ended my bufineffe I meant to retourne to Carleil againe. My father wrote to me from Windfor that the Queene meant to have a great triumph there, ... Hee gave mee notice of the Queen’s anger for my marriage, and faid it may bee, I being fo neere, and to retourne without honouring her day, as I ever before had done, might be a caufe of her further diflike, but left it to myfelfe to do what I thought beft.

‘I came to court, and lodged there very privately, only I made myfelfe knowne to my father and fome few friends befides. I here tooke order and fent to London to provide mee things neceffary for the triumph: I prepared a prefent for her majeftie, which with my caparifons coft me above four hundred pounds.

‘I was the forfaken Knight, that had vowed folitarineffe, but hearing of this great triumph thought to honour my miftreffe with my beft fervice, and then to retourne and pay my wonted mourning.”

In today’s money, £400 was at least £80,000. But it all went well, and Robert was able to mix freely with his friends again.

The Queen still did not acknowledge him, however, until yet another circumstance arose. His brother, Sir John Carey, was Marshall of Berwick. King James of Scotland asked him to carry a message to the Queen. Wanting to know her wishes, Sir John wrote to his father, and Lord Hunsdon showed the letter to the Queen.

‘She was not willing that my brother fhould ftir out of the towne, but knowing (though she would not know) that I was in court, fhe faid, ‘I heare your fine fonne that has lately married fo worthily, is hereabouts; fend him if you will know the King’s pleafure’. My father anfwered, hee knew I would be glad to obey her commaundes.

‘No (faid fhe) do you bid him go, for I have nothing to do with him.”

Robert protested: ‘If I go to the King without her licenfe, it were in her power to hang me at my retourne, and for anything I fee, it were ill trufting her.’

‘My father merrily went to the Queene and told her what I faid.’

She gave him a safe-conduct, and with that he left for Scotland, pausing briefly at Carlisle to see his wife.

The King received him kindly, and he returned with letters and a verbal message.

The Queen at first demanded that Lord Hunsdon should deliver them, but Robert refused.

‘With much adoe I was called for in; ... Our firft encounter was ftormy and terrible, which I paffed over with filence.’ He then told her that: ‘feeing fhe was the chief caufe of my misfortune, I would never off my knees till I had kifs’d her hand, and obtained my pardon.’

He got it.

Robert resigned his post about a year later and they lived at Widdrington for several months before moving to London.

Lord Hunsdon was Warden of the East March and Captain of Norham Castle. He made Robert his deputy, with possession of Norham and all its revenues, and the reversion of it when he died. Brother John’s consent, however, was also needed, which he refused until Robert transferred property to him worth £700 a year.

His opposite number was Sir Robert Carr of Cessford. Robert wrote to him with a view to ‘quieting the borders’.

Carr replied courteously. But that very night: ‘hee and fome half a fcore with him gott to horfe, and came into England to a little village. There hee broke up a houfe, and tooke out a poore fellow ... and before the doore cruelly murthered him, and fo went quietly home, and went to bed.’

Carey’s response was swift. He sent the Berwick garrison out at night to catch Scotch cattle thieves, and when caught, tried and hanged them directly. One of these was Carr’s friend, one Geordie Bourne.

‘I had moft of the gentlemen of the March come to mee, and told mee, that now I had the ball at my foote, and might bring Sir Robert Car to what condition I pleafed, ... if upon any condition I would give him his life.’

Robert delayed Bourne’s trial, but Carr did not appear. So, much to the terror of his own people, he tried and hanged him.

Carr was now bent on revenge, but thanks to Robert’s vigilance: ‘hee never drew drop of blood.’

A year later, an agreement between James and Elizabeth resulted in Scott of Buccleuch and Carr of Cessford becoming state prisoners.

‘Sir Robert Car (contrary to all mens expectation) chofe mee for his guardian, and home I brought him to my own houfe, after he was delivered to mee.’

‘My own house’ must mean Widdrington. On the strength of Carr’s word to be his true prisoner, he set no guard over him and treated him so well that they became friends and had good respect for each other ever after.

Robert was then made Warden of the Middle March, and again hanged or beheaded several notorious offenders.

‘Amongst other malefactours, there were two gentlemen theeves, that robbed ...travaylers in the high-wayes, (a theft that was never heard of in thofe parts before). I gott them betrayed, tooke them, and fent them to Newcaftle jayle, and there they were hanged.’

Robert, with Lady Elizabeth and the children, removed to Alnwick Abbey. But he kept up Widdrington Castle and held several Scottish gentlemen there who hunted in his March without leave, again treating them well and gaining their friendship and respect.

‘After all things were quieted, and the border in fafety, towards the end of five years ... I refolved upon a journey to court, to fee my friends, and renew my acquaintance there.’

l Acknowledgement: We reproduce the portrait of Robert Carey, 1st Earl of Monmouth (1560-1639), British (English) School, © National Trust/Simon Harris, by kind permission of the National Trust. It is on view at Montacute House, Somerset. For more information, visit