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King of the Gypsies

The title King of the Gypsies has been claimed or given over the centuries to many different people. It is both culturally and geographically specific. It may be inherited, acquired by acclamation or action, or simply claimed. The extent of the power associated with the title varied; it might be limited to a small group in a specific place, or many people over large areas. In some cases the claim was clearly a public relations exercise. As the term is also used in many different ways the King of the Gypsies may be someone with no connection with the Romani people. In the early 1970s, it was decided, at the First Annual Romani Meeting that the term Gypsy would no-longer be used to describe themselves. They voted for the term Roma to be used.

It has also been suggested that in places where they were persecuted by local authorities the "King of the Gypsies" is an individual, usually of low standing, who places himself in the risky position of an ad hoc liaison between the Romani and the gadje (non-Romani). The arrest of such a "King" limited the harm to the Romani people.

Johnnie Faa of Dunbar was leader of the 'Egyptians', or Gypsies, in Scotland. Faa was granted a letter under the Privy Seal from King James IV in February 1540, which was renewed in 1553. It was addressed to "oure louit Johnne Faw, lord and erle of Litill Egipt" establishing his authority over all Gypsies in Scotland and calling on all sheriffs in the country to assist him "in executione of justice upoun his company and folkis", who were to "conforme to the lawis of Egipt".

He is resurrected in fiction in S. R. Crockett's The Raiders and in Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials.

Son and successor of Johnnie Faa, Johnne Wanne was granted Royal authority over all "Egyptians" in Scotland in May 1540. Records showed that by 1612 the Faa family had extended as far as Shetland. However, the initial tolerance of Gypsies did not last. In 1623 eight leaders of the Gypsies were hanged on the Burgh Muir, six of whom were of the Faa line. In the 1650s they were amongst those transported to Virginia.

Will Faa, "King of the Gypsies", died in Kirk Yetholm on 9 October 1847, aged 96. He was the son of William Faa I. Gypsies may have lived at Yetholm since before it became a permanent settlement, as the border location between Scotland and England made travel and avoidance of persecution easier. Settlement was encouraged when the laird built houses and a school for the Gypsy community during the 18th century. William Faa was an innkeeper (owned "The Queen") and footballer who lived at "The Gypsy Palace" off the Green, and entertained visitors there. The "Kelso Mail" carried his obituary entitled "Death of a Gypsy King", which said he was "always accounted a more respectable character than any of his tribe, and could boast of never having been in gaol during his life." His house continued to be a tourist attraction, and there was reportedly an "Old Palace" on the other side of Kirk Yetholm Green. William died without issue in 1847 when the 'Crown' passed to his sister Esther's husband Charles Blythe (1775-1861). Charles was an educated man who did much to live up to his role. On his death in 1861 there was a tussle between his many children for the right to be monarch. The role went to his daughter Esther Faa Blythe who reigned until 1883 when the gypsy culture was in serious decline. Following a gap (interregnum?) of several years in 1898 one of her sons Charles Rutherford was persuaded to accept the office and a ceremonial Gypsy Coronation was held in 1898. By this stage the role was largely an attempt to boost tourism. Charles died in 1902 and the title has not been re-established. An Edinburgh housewife is now thought to be the present 'Queen'.

  • Angus Fraser (1995) The Gypsies, 2nd ed., Oxford,


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