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The History of Berwick Upon Tweed

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Oh, Berwick-upon-Tweed is a lovely town, sitting on the shoulder of Northumbria, all that fresh air and looking out to the North Sea. It’s quite the charming locale. Historically wealthy, a centre for trade; Berwick has always been in the middle of things. And that is why taking up residence in Berwick has historically been a mixed blessing. In the Middle Ages living in Berwick must have been maddeningly disorientating. After all, are Berwick’s denizens English or Scottish? Well, since the 1707 Act Of Union Berwick has been part of England, governed by the laws of England and Wales. But goodness, if a sock blew off the washing line it could end up north of the border – not to mention the conflict between Scotland and England that saw the town’s nationality see-saw back and forth for a few centuries. Before the dawn of the 16th Century the town would have changed hands between the English and the Scots no less than thirteen times. Not forgetting, of course, the existence of North Berwick in East Lothian, which must have added to Berwick’s attendant identity crisis.
At its inception in the 7th Century or thereabouts, Berwick (which also answers to South Berwick, particularly in Scotland), was something of an Anglo-Saxon shangri-la. Wealth and Christianity, with the latter arriving via Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne ; these would stabilise Berwick and Northumberland at large, at a time Dark Age barbarity prevailed throughout the country. But low, Scotland was on the march and Berwick would fall into Scottish hands in 1018, after the Battle Of Carham saw the Northumbrians defeated at the hands of a Scottish army under King Malcom II of Scotland. It wouldn’t be the last time that the northernmost English town would be taken by force.
In 1173, there was mutiny in England. It had been brewing in the years since Thomas Becket ’s murder, in 1170 . The revolt against King Henry II kicked off when his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was joined by three of his sons (Henry The Young King, Geoffrey and Richard), and a cadre of rebels. His sons took umbrage at their father betrothing all and sundry to their brother John’s aspirational wedding plans. Henry would quell much of the rebellion in Normandy, and while nursing a perilous status in England, with King William I allied to the rebels, the English monarch’s luck would change. William was captured at Alnwick , Northumbria. Returning to England his hand was strengthened. Scotland was held to ransom; she would trade castles for her King. Berwick was now in English hands.
Not for long. Henry II’s successor just happened to be one of his rebellious offspring, one who had fought against his father while still an adolescent. This young upstart with a precocious military career in Poitou, fighting his father’s loyalists, had become a man: Richard The Lionheart , and a fearsome warrior he was. But he wasn’t as affluent as he was aggressive. When the Third Crusades began to drain his war chest, Richard was in the mood to talk terms with the Scots. William I’s freedom was sold to the Scots, and they could have Berwick while they were at it.
The First Wars Of Scottish Independence saw Berwick’s bloodiest handover. The year was 1292, Scotland was on its knees as two legitimate claims to the throne ferried the nation to the brink of civil war. Balliol or Bruce was the question that scared the Scottish nobles to invite King Edward I to mediate over the succession of the Scottish throne. John Balliol, the weaker man, was chosen by an English king whose countenance lit up at the prospect of a Scottish king swearing fealty to him. When Balliol took a deep breath and defied him the war came following. The Scots reached out to the French. Edward looked to Berwick. On 28th March 1296 , with an army in the tens of thousands, he marched on Berwick and went berserk. Around 17,000 people were slaughtered. The streets ran thick with blood. Edward I became the Hammer Of The Scots. Berwick was a portent of the darkest days for Scotland, soon after the Stone Of Destiny would disappear south from Scone.
In the years that followed, England’s ire was for all to see at Berwick. A quarter portion leftover from William Wallace ’s execution was put on display there, just to remind the Scots where rebellion would get them. In 1306, Isobel MacDuff, Countess Buchan, was jailed for six years in Berwick. But not just thrown in a cell, she was held captive in a wooden cage above the castle’s ramparts. Concerned by Stirling Castle ’s prolonged siege, Edward marched out of Berwick in 1314, en route to defeat at Bannockburn . Four years later it was liberated by Bruce’s forces. By 1333, it was reclaimed by King Edward III after victory at Halidon Hill . In the early 1460s the Scots grabbed it back. Not for too long, though, in 1482 the Duke of Gloucester put an end to the ridiculous saga once and for all. Quite an achievement for anyone but… well, he would become King Richard III of England – that’s quite something in itself.
With ownership now settled, the English wisely decided on fortifying the town. After the ordeal to capture the town, why let it slip out their grasp once more? Elizabeth I commissioned walled fortifications and spared no expense – almost £130,000 were spent in the biggest civil engineering project of its time. A bit of a waste in some respects, after the Union Of The Crowns in 1603, Berwick saw little military action. Even Cromwell ’s visit saw a minimum of bloodshed. Indeed, the Holy Trinity Church (Berwick’s Parish Church) became a collector’s item, having been one of the few churches built during Cromwell’s era of the Commonwealth. True to the Puritan doctrine, it has no steeple, no ornate appointments.
Contemporary Berwick bears few of the scars of warfare. Old Bridge has been rebuilt through the centuries; still standing is its 17th Century incarnation, once on the main route between Edinburgh and London , the road bridge is enjoying a more sedentary dotage, taking traffic one-way over the River Tweed . Berwick’s expensive walls are still evident but are largely ruins, surrendered not to an army but to the advance of industrialism. Parts of the curtain wall can be seen by the Royal Border Bridge, a 28-arch railway bridge crossing the Tweed, designed by Robert Stephenson and completed in 1850.

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