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Pirate Corner: The Red Reiver

As a proud Scot, fascinated since toddlerhood by all things medieval and all things piratical, it was inevitable that I'd be attracted by a story that connects William Wallace with pirates. But did Wallace's foe-turned-friend, the French pirate Thomas de Longueville, really exist?

Image: Kinfauns Castle.


The epic poem The Acts and Deeds of the Illustrious and Valiant Champion Sir William Wallace, composed by the minstrel Blind Harry in 1477, has had a massive impact on Scottish cultural history. The modernised version produced by William Hamilton in 1722 inspired Burns to write “Scots Wha Hae”, even stealing a couplet almost unaltered; Byron and Scott were also influenced by it, and at one time its popularity in Scotland was second only to the Bible. In more recent times, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart owed far more to Harry than to more reputable historical sources. However, one of its most intriguing secondary characters remains tantalisingly obscure.

As Harry tells the story, Wallace sets out for France to meet with King Philip IV: but, on the way, his ship is attacked by a flotilla commanded by the “Red Reiver”, a French knight whom Philip exiled sixteen years before, and who has turned pirate. Wallace overpowers the Reiver (whose real name is Thomas Langweill, assumed since at least the seventeenth century to be Harry’s rendition of the Norman name de Longueville – Hamilton translated it as “Longoville”); he compels him to return to France, and persuades the King to pardon him. When Wallace returns to Scotland, de Longueville goes with him, and joins the cause of Scottish independence. He is by Wallace’s side when he liberates Perth; he later serves Robert the Bruce, who gives him the demesnes he has confiscated from the Charteris family. De Longueville assumes the name Charteris, and apparently founds a new dynasty of that name. Many versions of this story, based to a greater or lesser degree on Harry’s poem, are still circulating as “history” on the Internet.

The story has a fine swashbuckling plot, but is it true? The kernel of more-or-less undisputed history here is that Wallace did make at least one such voyage to France, probably in 1299. Beyond that, however, there’s no evidence for de Longueville’s existence, for which Harry’s poem is the only medieval source; nor was anything added to his account until Jane Porter’s novel The Scottish Chiefs (1810). There are, moreover, several problems with Harry’s story – unsurprisingly: the minstrel was not a famous respecter of historical accuracy.

One minor slip is that Philip is unlikely to have banished the pirate sixteen years earlier, since he had been King for only fourteen years at the time to which the voyage is usually dated. We can give Harry a pass on this one: even modern historians have failed to pin down the exact date of Wallace’s voyage.

Then there’s the fact that Wallace never did liberate Perth. But Robert Bruce did, in 1312, and the earlier poet John Barbour – a much more reliable narrator than Harry – tells us in The Bruce (1375) that an unnamed French knight fought by the King’s side in that action. Some people have taken this to be a reference to de Longueville – it wouldn’t be the only time that Harry garbled an account of a real event.

Rather more significant, however, is the fact that the Charteris connection doesn’t add up. Harry is sometimes misquoted as saying that de Longueville founded the Charteris family; in fact, the minstrel indicates that the existing family forfeited their lands in the reign of Bruce, and that the Reiver received both lands and name. Neither version is true. Clan Charteris had arrived in Scotland in the twelfth century, and were never dispossessed. Some online Reiver enthusiasts have tried to get round this by claiming that “de Longueville” was in fact the pseudonym, and that he was a Scottish Charteris all along: but this directly contradicts Harry, who is our only source. In any case, the heads of the family in the War of Independence period were named Andrew and William. It is true that both Andrew’s father and William’s eldest son (later Chancellor of Scotland under King David II) were named Thomas: but the former had died in 1290, and the latter was probably not born until after 1300.

So much, then, for the problems with Harry’s account. But what if the Reiver did exist? Who might he have been? There was a Longueville family that had settled in England after the Norman Conquest, and given their name to Orton Longueville in Cambridgeshire: and there appears to have been a Thomas of Orton Longueville alive at the right time, which has led to suggestions that he was the Red Reiver. It hardly seems likely, however, that this friend of Wallace and Bruce could have been an Englishman! There’s no evidence to connect this Thomas with France, Scotland, or piracy: he seems to be a dead end.

There was a County of Longueville in Normandy, but in Wallace’s day the title was dormant. In Harry’s day, however, it had in living memory (1423-40) been held by the Earls of Douglas. This fifteenth century Longueville-Scottish connection is very suspicious: it seems all too likely that Harry invented the name of his Red Reiver to flatter a powerful nobleman of his own time. And if the name is fictional, then even if a real man does lie behind it, it’s hard to see how we will ever discover him.

That hasn’t stopped people playing with the Red Reiver’s story, from Jane Porter to the present day. In The Scottish Chiefs, Robert Bruce actually adopts de Longueville’s identity in order to help Wallace while still officially on the side of the occupiers – the novelist’s way of getting round her second hero’s awkward habit of changing sides! This version, at least, does not seem to be circulating as “fact” today – unlike the supposed Charteris connection and unqualified assertions that de Longueville was with Bruce at Perth. However, a handful of other claims have appeared that derive neither from Harry nor from Porter.

The most surprising is the occasionally seen assertion that the Reiver was killed at the Battle of Inverurie. I’ve never seen a single source cited for this – and, besides, it contradicts the Perth story, since this battle happened four years earlier in 1308.

More intriguing is the claim that he was lord of Kinfauns Castle. Taken at face value, this is impossible: the castle was built in the nineteenth century, and was preceded by a relatively modest country house: but the lordship of Kinfauns did exist in the right period. In the later Middle Ages (though not during the Wars of Independence), it was held by the Charteris family: but, as we’ve seen, their connection with the Reiver appears to be spurious.

It was, however, claimed that, during the construction of the house preceding the modern castle, a fourteenth century tomb was discovered, bearing a coat of arms vaguely resembling de Longueville’s as described by Harry (which, incidentally, bears only superficial similarity to the Charteris arms). A broadsword reportedly found on the tomb was referred to as the Reiver's by the seventeenth century poet Henry Adamson, and was displayed as such in the castle in the Victorian era – a strikingly flimsy attribution, but no doubt one which helped to attract tourists!

At the end of the day, the Red Reiver remains a mystery. We’ll probably never know whether Blind Harry conjured him entirely from his own imagination, or drew on existing traditions; certainly much of what has been written about him is either unprovable or downright false. But what is fascinating is that his legend is still evolving. Modern accretions such as the death at Inverurie, or the idea that a Charteris masqueraded as a French pirate, are the equivalent of the new details that each seannachaidh adds to a folk tale. The Red Reiver may be a myth, but he is a living one, even now.

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