Anyone who has read any history at all about the reign of Queen Elizabeth I has heard of at least one of Sir Robert Carey's exploits – he was the man who rode 400 miles in just under three days from London to Edinburgh to tell King James VI of Scotland that Elizabeth was dead and that he was finally King of England.
However, I first met Sir Robert Carey by name in the pages of George MacDonald Fraser's marvellous history of the Anglo-Scottish borders, The Steel Bonnets. GMF quotes Carey's description of the tricky situation he got himself into when he had just come to the Border as Deputy Warden of the English West March. It's fresh and frank, and a cracking tale involving a siege, a standoff and some extremely fast talking by Carey. And it really happened; references in the Calendar of Border Papers suggest that Carey made his name with his handling of the incident.
It's quite surprising then that Robert Carey was the seventh and youngest son of Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon. Hunsdon was the Queen's cousin because Ann Boleyn's older sister Mary was his mother. ("The Other Boleyn Girl" by Philippa Gregory tells her story)
He was also probably Elizabeth's half-brother through Henry VIII, whose official mistress Mary Boleyn was before the King clapped eyes on young Ann. (I have to say that one of the attractions of history to me is the glorious soap opera plots it contains.)
Lord Hunsdon was very much Henry VIII's son - he was also, later, Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain and patron to one William Shakespeare.
Robert Carey was born in 1560, given the normal education of a gentleman from which he says he did not much benefit, went to France with Sir Francis Walsingham in his late teens for polishing, and then served at Court for ten years as a well-connected but landless sprig of the aristocracy might be expected to do.
Then in 1592 something made him decide to switch to full-time soldiering. Perhaps he was bored. Perhaps the moneylenders were getting impatient.
Perhaps he had more personal reasons for wanting to be in the north. At any rate, Carey accepted the offer from his brother-in-law, Lord Scrope, Warden of the English West March, to be his Deputy Warden.
This was irresistible. In anachronistic terms here was this fancy-dressing, fancy-talking Court dude turning up in England's Wild North. The Anglo-Scottish Border at that time made Dodge City look like a health farm. It was the most chaotic part of the kingdom and was full of cattle-rustlers, murderers, arsonists, horse-thieves, kidnappers and general all-purpose outlaws.
Carey was the Sheriff and Her Majesty's Marshall rolled into one, expected to enforce the law with a handful of horsemen and very little official co-operation.
About the only thing he had going for him was that he could hang men on his own authority if he caught them raiding – something he seems to have done remarkably rarely considering the rough justice on the feud-happy Border.
Most remarkable of all, he married for love not money – and was thought very odd for it, since he was perpetually broke (tailors' bills and gambling, probably.)
And that's it, the original man, an absolute charmer I have lifted practically undiluted from his own writings. His memoirs are available online: look for "Memoirs of the Earl of Monmouth." Most of my stories are based on incidents in the history of the Borders. About half of the characters (and most of the bad guys) really lived and were often even worse than I have described.
As George MacDonald Fraser says "Later generations who had never heard of Carey found it necessary to invent him... for he was the living image of the gallant young Elizabethan."