The glories of Berwick are celebrated in a little verse which runs;
Berwick is an ancient town
A church without a steeple
A pretty girl at every door
And very generous people
although there us another version attributed to Robert Burns which is slightly less complimentary;
A bridge without a middle arch
A church without a steeple
A midden heep in every street
And damned conceited people
The town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, or Berwick-on-Tweed as it sometimes called, stands at the mouth of the river Tweed some sixty-seven miles north of Newcastle and is the most northerly town in England. The Berwick is pronounced 'Berrick' and is dervived from the Old English 'bere' for barley and 'wic' meaning farm or settlement; the 'upon-Tweed' is simply to distinguish it from the other Berwick, now known as North Berwick, which lies further north close to the Firth of Forth.
According to Brewer's Britain and Ireland its inhabitants regard themselves as Berwickers or Tweedsiders rather than Scots or English, although a local councillor by the name of Mike Elliott has qualified this statement by claiming that 25% of the town consider themselves English, 25% Scottish and 50% Berwickers. The Scots of course, like to think of Berwick as a Scottish town that has unfortunately fallen prey to English imperialism, forgetting that at one time the borders of England, or at least the preceding kingdom of Northumbria, once stretched as far north as Aberdeen, and that in truth Berwick is simply the last remaining piece of English territory north of the Tweed which has not fallen prey to Scottish imperialism.
Despite this, from time to time various attempts have been made to 'reclaim' the town for Scotland; the Scottish Tourist Board has been known to use the issue to obtain a little publicity, and the occasional ultra-nationalistic Scot has been inspired to relocate the border signs southwards to the other side of the river bank. Along the way the town has given its name to the former Scottish county of Berwickshire, whilst the town's football team Berwick Rangers plays in the Scottish League. (It currently languishes in the Scottish third division.)
Little is known of the town's history prior to the Norman Conquest, and although there may well have been a settlement there for centuries before, the town itself was probably established sometime in the eight or ninth centuries by the rulers of Northumbria but later came under the rule of the King of Scots as a consequence of the battle of Carham in 1018.
The town first rose to prominence during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when the river Tweed began to be regarded as the dividing line between the respective territories of the Kings crowned at Scone and Westminster. David I of Scotland granted the town its first charter after which it became one of the four royal boroughs of Scotland and one of the most important towns in the kingdom fashioned by king David. It was after the death of David I that Berwick-upon-Tweed began its career as a territorial football, with control alternating between the Scots and English in line with the fortunes of war.
Under the Treaty of Falaise the Scots were forced to hand Berwick over to Henry II in 1174 as part of the price for the freedom of William the Lion; it was subsequently restored to Scotland by Richard I under the Quitclaim of Canterbury in 1189. Having been effectively razed to the ground by King John in 1216, it was then taken by Edward I in 1272, and the town was chosen as the location for John Baliol's coronation as King of Scots in 1292. The subsequent rebellion of John Baliol forced Edward to retake the town in 1296 at which time he felt obliged to massacre the inhabitants. Edward later sought to make the town the capital of his new Scottish government, but the town fell to William Wallace in 1297, although the castle remained with the English. Edward I subsequently took the town once more in 1302 and was thus naturally chosen as the location for the display of one of the severed quarters of William Wallace after his execution on the 5th August 1305. In the following year Isabel, Countess of Buchan was allegedly suspended in a cage outside the castle walls as punishment for her part in the crowning of Robert the Bruce as king of Scots.
In 1310 Edward II chose to spend the winter in the town and it was later the location where the English army mustered prior to the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. As an indirect consequence of the English defeat at that battle, it was captured by Robert the Bruce on the 1st April 1318, an event which triggered the fall of the government of Thomas of Lancaster back in England. It was later the location of the wedding celebrations of Bruce's son David, later king David II, to Edward's daughter Joan in 1328. It was then retaken by the English after the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 after which time it has largely remained in English hands except for a brief periods. In 1353 the town was taken by the Scots once more but subsequently retaken by Walter Mauny, Baron Mauny in the following year, and once more in 1377 when seven Scotsmen managed to scale the town walls and held out for eight days against an army led by Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland. Henry Percy subsequently held the town against Henry VI in 1406, but promptly surrendered on hearing what was reputedly the sound of the first ever cannon fired in anger in England.
The Scots under Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany attempted but failed to take the town in 1422 when they were driven off by Robert Umfraville, and James II made similarly unsuccesful attempts in both 1455 and 1457. They had to wait until 1461 when Margaret of Anjou, surrendered the town as the price for Scottish support for her husband Henry VI, after defeat at the battle of Towton. James III was particularly pleased at this development and even moved the royal mint there. The Scots however promptly returned the town in 1482 when Richard, Duke of Gloucester turned up with an army large enough to frighten them into submission, despite a staunch defence led by Patrick Hepburn, 1st Earl of Bothwell. Thereafter the town remained in English hands although James IV once offered to meet the Earl of Surrey in single combat to decide the issue, whilst Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus used the town as his base when conducting his raids into Scotland during the 1530s.
It was however Elizabeth I who ordered the building of the town walls to protect the town from further Scottish raids and they remain the most complete set of Tudor town walls in Europe. Soon afterwards, Berwick's status as 'the little door to the House of England' was rather undermined by the accession of James VI of Scotland as James I of England in 1603 who arrived at the town in the 6th April 1603 enroute to London. Although the town's fortifications were kept up, and a garrison continued to be maintained there for some years afterwards, the town became of less practical military significance.
Along the way Berwick was often the location for various discussions between the two countries regarding the current state of hostilities and thus various Treaties of Berwick were signed between the English and Scottish including those of 1354, 1357, 1526, 1529, 1560 and 1586, as well as the Peace or Pacification of Berwick signed on the 18th June 1639 which ended the First Bishop's War between Charles I and the Scots.
The status of Berwick
It is perhaps understandable in the circumstances that Edward VI and Mary, Queen of Scots decided in 1551 that Berwick should be designated as a free burgh, that is neutral territory, which was not officially part of neither England or Scotland. This gave rise to what was termed the county or liberty of Berwick, commonly called Berwick Bounds, which included not only Berwick itself but the nearby towns of Spittal and Tweedmouth on either side of the river mouth. This somewhat anomalous status was finally ended by Act of Parliament in 1855 which formally incorporated the town into the county of Northumberland. Notwithstanding the above ever since 1482 the burgesses were allowed to send two members to the English parliament at Westminster.
It has been claimed that at the beginning of the Crimean War, war was declared on Russia in the name of the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Berwick-upon-Tweed', but that the peace treaty was subsequently signed only in the name of the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,' thus leaving the town of Berwick technically in a state of war with Russia. Sadly there appears to be no truth in this suggestion, if only because the lawyers had already thought of this one and under the Wales and Berwick Act 1746, determined that any reference to 'England' in legislation was taken to include both 'Wales' and 'Berwick'.
The present day town of Berwick has a population 13,500, although if one includes the settlements of Spittle and Tweedmouth and the rest of the territory that falls within the boundaries of Berwick-upon-Tweed Borough Council, this rises to almost 26,000. The town attracts many thousands of visitors a year to its shops, beaches and other facilities including the Berwick Barracks Museum and the Maltings Arts Centre, as well as a total of more than two hundred and fifty listed buildings, claimed to be the greatest concentration of any comparably sized town in Britain. Much of the Elizabethan fortifications still survive and visitors are able to walk around the Elizabethan ramparts. Markets are held in the town on every Wednesday and Saturday, with the Berwick Farmers Market taking place on the last Sunday of every month.
The modern town features three bridges across the Tweed; the Old Bridge, built on the instructions of James I who was disatisfied by the condition of the previous structure which no longer survives; the Royal Border Bridge which was designed and built by Robert Stephenson between 1847 and 1850 and carries the main London to Edinburgh railway line; and the Royal Tweed Bridge, built in 1925 to replace the Old Bridge, which at only seventeen feet wide was not designed to cope with the demands of motorised transport.
- John Ayto and Ian Crofton, Brewer's Britain and Ireland (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2005)
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for
- Berwick-Upon-Tweed at
- Rachel Kerr A tale of one town
- Extracts from:-
John Bartholomew, Gazetteer of the British Isles (1887)
John Marius Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72)
- Population information from