Berwick : The Border Town
Five miles north of Holy Island we reach the mouth of the River Tweed and the historic town of Berwick upon Tweed. This is the most northerly town in England and perhaps no other town in North East England has had a more eventful history than Berwick.
There is no doubt that Berwick can claim the distinction of being the Border Town, as it has changed hands between England and Scotland thirteen times. Its history is inextricably tied up with the struggle for the Anglo-Scottish frontier. An old legend is said to explain the fascinating history of Berwick:
“During the temptation while the Evil one was showing to the Holy one all the kingdoms of the earth he kept Berwick hidden beneath his thumb, wishing to reserve it as his own little nook”
Berwick, with an English name meaning ‘Corn Farm or trading place’ began as a small settlement in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, in which it remained until the Battle of Carham of 1018 when it was taken by the Scots.
From then on Berwick became a hotly disputed territory. In 1174 Berwick was retaken by England in a ransom following the failure of a raid into Northumberland by the Scottish king, William the Lion.
The town returned to the northern side of the border in the reign of Richard I (1189-1199), who sold it to obtain money for the Crusades. At the beginning of the following century Berwick returned once more to England, after Richard’s brother, King John, sacked the town, but Berwick continued to change hands until 1482 when the town finally became part of England within which it still remains.
Berwick : English or Scottish?
Today the visitor to Berwick can be forgiven for believing it to be a Scottish town, as after all it stands on the northern bank of the River Tweed, an entirely Scottish river and in some respects it does seem to have a rather Scottish appearance.
Berwick is also the name of a large Scottish Burgh and the old county of Berwickshire (of which Berwick was not part) was in Scotland. Furthermore Berwick, is a little bit more closer to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, than it is to the North East’s regional centre of Newcastle upon Tyne.
The belief that Berwick is Scottish is also reinforced by the fact that some of the commercial banks in the town are Scottish and that the local football team plays in the Scottish league. Dialect also leads to the belief that Berwick is Scottish as to most Englishmen the local ‘Tweedside’ accent spoken in Berwick has a Scottish sound to it, although to most Scots it sounds like a Northumbrian dialect.
The Scottish claim for Berwick is certainly strong but the English influence upon the area is also very significant. Berwick as already stated began as an English or at least an Anglo-Saxon settlement, in the Kingdom of Northumbria and although for four hundred years it regularly changed hands between England and Scotland it has remained in England for the past five centuries.
Berwick’s policemen and laws are therefore English and its most senior councillor is an English mayor not a provost as in the Scottish system of local government. Until recently Berwick town also had an important status as the administrative centre for the Northumberland County District of Berwick upon Tweed, which included the Farne islands, Lindisfarne and the Northumbrian villages of Wooler, Bamburgh and Belford. The distant edifices of Lindisfarne Castle and Bamburgh Castle can be clearly seen above the rooftops from Berwick.
Independent town, prosperous past
It is hardly surprising that given Berwick’s curious Anglo-Scottish location, the local residents tend to regard themselves as independent ‘Tweedsiders’ or ‘Berwickers’ rather than English or Scottish.
In fact until the Reform Act of 1885 Berwick did have a considerable degree of independence with the status of a ‘Free Burgh’ meaning that it had to be mentioned separately in Acts of Parliament.
Berwick’s status was such that even the Crimean War had to be declared in the name of Great Britain, Ireland and Berwick upon Tweed. Strangely after this war, when the peace treaty was signed Berwick’s name was omitted and for many years the town was said to be technically still at war with the Russians.
It is hard to believe that a town with such a turbulent history as Berwick was once one of the most prosperous merchant towns in Britain and was worth to Scotland an annual customs value of £2,190, which was then equivalent to about one quarter of the customs of the whole of England.
In the thirteenth century the wealthy town was described as:
“So populous and of such commercial importance that it might rightly be called another Alexandria, whose riches were the sea and the water its walls”
Berwick: walls, buildings, bridges
In the fourteenth century Berwick became a walled town when King Edward I fortified it against Scottish attack. His defensive walls supplemented the stronghold of Berwick Castle which stood on the site of the present railway station. Some of the town walls can still be seen today, dating mainly from the later Elizabethan period. They are among the finest of their kind in Europe.
Berwick is one of the most picturesque towns on the region’s coast, mainly because of its attractive red roofed houses, pinkish grey Georgian buildings and the fine seventeenth century bridge, which spans the River Tweed.
Most notable of the town’s buildings are the spired town hall of 1754 in Marygate and the Berwick parish church, called Holy Trinity which is one of only a few built in England in Cromwellian times.
For an historic parish church it is unusual, in that it has no steeple, tower or church bell. Instead a bell in the Town Hall is used to summon people to the church services at Holy Trinity. It is no wonder that many visitors to Berwick mistake the Town Hall for the parish church.
The artist L.S. Lowry (1887-1976) was a regular visitor to Berwick and the town features information panels as part of a ‘Lowry Trail’ Marygate and its Town Hall was one of his subjects.
The River Tweed at Berwick is almost as well known as the Tyne at Newcastle for its bridges. There are three here, namely the Old Bridge, the Royal Tweed Bridge and the Royal Border Bridge.
The Royal Tweed is the most recent. Built in 1925 it carries the former A1 through the town. Through Berwick this road is now the A1167, as a more modern road bridge of 1984 (the A1 Tweed Bridge) now bypasses Berwick a mile to the west.
The Royal Border Bridge is an impressive nineteenth century railway viaduct. Opened by Queen Victoria in 1850, it was built by Robert Stephenson, creating an important rail link between London and Edinburgh.
The ‘Old Bridge’, also known as ‘Berwick Bridge’ dates from 1611. It is a fine red sandstone structure with fourteen arches. Until the nineteenth century it was the main crossing point of the Tweed at Berwick, but did not as might be expected link Northumberland to Scotland. It in fact linked the Norhamshire district of the County Palatine of Durham to the county burgh of Berwick upon Tweed. County boundaries are perhaps a little more logical today.
There’s an interesting old poem that describes Berwick and its bridge. There’s more than one version but the second, less complimentary verse given here is attributed to Robbie Burns.
“Berwick is an ancient town
A church without a steeple
A pretty girl at every door
And very generous people.”
“A bridge without a middle arch
A church without a steeple
A midden heap in every street
And damned conceited people.”
Northumberland north of the Tweed
Berwick itself is of course north of the Tweed in England but the border in fact extends further to the north still. It departs from the River Tweed just over two miles west of the outskirts of Berwick where it extends northward to the A6105 near a village called Clappers on the Scottish side.
Retaining a distance of just over two miles it then makes its way north east to reach the coast north of Marshall Meadows Bay, terminating at a rocky point on the shore near the main east coast railway line at the most northerly point in England.
The course of the border creates a significant parcel of land north of Berwick that has long formed part of England. It is an area of small farms and hamlets. A principal natural feature of this area is the Whiteadder Water that joins the Tweed to the west of Berwick near the modern A1 road bridge (1984), the A1 now being a road that bypasses the town. Further upstream this small river is joined in Scotland by a tributary river called the Blackadder.
The A1 heads north to follow the coastal route onward to Edinburgh but at the heart of these English lands north of Berwick, just off the A6105 is Halidon Hill. In times past this was the scene of a number of skirmishes between the English and Scots but most prominent was the great Battle of Halidon Hill of 1333.
Battle of Halidon Hill
The Battle of Halidon Hill of 1333 was the biggest battle between the Scots and English since the Battle of Bannockburn that had proved such a disaster from the English point of view, when Robert the Bruce had been so conclusively victorious over Edward II. Bruce ravaged the English countryside in the years that followed Bannockburn and in 1319 captured the town of Berwick from the English.
Edward II besieged Berwick in an attempt to take it back but was repulsed and Bruce began strengthening the town’s defences and issuing charters there in the name of the Scottish king.
Later, in 1327, in a series of events elsewhere in England, King Edward II was deposed, murdered and succeeded by his son, Edward III. In Scotland Robert the Bruce died in 1329 and his son, David, who was still a boy, succeeded with Scotland’s rule entrusted to the regent, Lord Archbold Douglas.
Like his father, the new English king Edward III spoke French as his first language and was a member of the powerful Plantagenet dynasty. He was, however, a far more formidable and ruthless ruler than Edward II. Edward soon set his eyes upon reclaiming the prize of Berwick. In February-March the English cut off and blockaded Berwick by sea, seeing off a squadron of French ships there to support the town. In March the ousted claimant to the Scottish crown, Edward Baliol, supported by Edward III arrived to harry the Borders and successfully cut off Berwick by land.
The siege of Berwick by the English began in earnest on April 12, 1333 under the leadership of Sir William Montague who was joined by King Edward himself in May. The siege proved to be long and brutal. Siege engines and catapults were deployed, that had been shipped up from Yorkshire via Hull. In a first for a siege, cannons were also used against the town. Other onslaughts involved catapulting the carcasses of rotten animals into the town to spread disease.
It was clear that the siege was going to be a long one and sections of the English army harried to the north in the Lothians and Perthshire under Edward, capturing Edinburgh Castle but returning to find that Berwick had still not capitulated. Much of the town was in ruin by the end of June.
Berwick Castle was defended by Patrick of Dunbar, the Earl of March while the town itself was defended by Sir Alexander Seton, the town’s warden and governor. On July 11 Seton requested a temporary truce, which King Edward granted in exchange for hostages that included Seton’s son, Thomas.
Edward agreed that if Berwick was relieved from Scotland within five days, then the siege would end and Scottish control acknowledged. The following day, a group of Scottish troops under Sir William Keith managed to make their way into Berwick after crossing into the town across the ruinous bridge from Tweedmouth on the English side of the river.
Sir William Douglas, who had assembled a large Scottish army requested that Edward now end the siege as part of the agreement to the truce, threatening to raid and harry across north Northumberland if Edward did not do so.
However, King Edward did not accept the arrival of Sir William Keith as the relief of Berwick on the technicality that Keith had entered Berwick from England rather than Scotland. To make a point about what he saw as a breaking of the terms and a a truce and force Berwick into surrender, King Edward set up a gallows just outside the defences of Berwick at a place later called Hang-a-dyke-Neuk.
Here he hanged the most prominent hostage, Thomas Seton as his father looked on from the town walls. Edward threatened that other hangings would follow. It was a great tragedy for Alexander Seton who had recently lost two other sons in engagements with the English.
Taking command, Sir William Keith agreed a fresh truce with Edward on July 15 agreeing to surrender the town if it was not relieved before July 20. Douglas in the meantime responded by besieging Bamburgh Castle where Queen Philippa was staying. However, Edward was confident that Bamburgh was secure and he would not be drawn away from Berwick.
Instead, King Edward moved the majority of his forces to Halidon Hill in preparation for battle while Douglas realising the futility of the Bamburgh siege with the deadline of the truce approaching, moved his army to Duns in the Scottish Borders, about 10 miles to the west.
On the day of the battle, July 19, the Scots approached from the north west and assembled on a neighbouring hill. The English were somewhat hemmed in on their hilltop setting with the rising tide of the Tweed to the south between them and the Scottish army but also to the south Berwick was still under siege and the deadline for surrender approaching.
Before the battle ensued, a man-to-man fight is said to have taken place between a young English knight of Norfolk called Sir Robert Benhale and a Scottish ‘giant’ by the name of Turnbull – a border surname – with the giant assisted by a mastiff dog. The giant was no match for the swordsmanship of the agile young knight and both the giant and dog were slain, with the giant losing his head.
After a long stalemate it was the Scots who eventually broke the deadlock and attacked. They formed four units: the first under John the Earl of Moray and the second under Sir James Stewart who represented the Scottish king. They faced the English units of Baliol and King Edward of England. The third Scottish unit was commanded by the Earl of Douglas and a fourth by Hugh, Earl of Ross.
The Scots soon found their march fatally stalled by boggy marshes at the foot of the hill just in the same way as they would at the Battle of Flodden Field two centuries later. As a sitting target they were showered with arrows from the skilled English bowmen. Although many Scots fought bravely, others fled as it became apparent that it would be a rout. Thousands of Scots were slain, including Sir Achbold Douglas, along with the Earls of Atholl, Carrick, Lennox and Sutherland.
The Scots who had held Berwick for fifteen years of course now surrendered the town to Edward, who appointed Lord Henry Percy as the new Warden of the town with Thomas of Bamburgh taking on the important role of Berwick’s Chancellor. Scottish merchants were expelled from the town with English ones taking their place.
Today a car park, easily accessible from the A6105 offers an opportunity to visit Halidon Hill. There is an exceptional view of Berwick to the south, with views of Bamburgh and Lindisfarne beyond as well views of the Tweed Valley, Cheviot Hills in England and the Eildon Hills near Melrose in Scotland to the west.
Returning to the coast and Marshall Meadows the land north of the border onwards to Edinburgh, was of course once a part of the Kingdom of Northumbria but lost to Scotland many, many centuries ago at the Battle of Carham. Of course Northumbria’s history does not end at the Scottish border. Just seven miles north, near St Abb’s Head is the village of Coldingham.
Coldingham was the site of a Northumbrian monastery founded in 655 AD by St Ebbe (or St Abbe), sister of Oswald, King of Northumbria. Like St Hilda’s monastery at Whitby many miles to the south, Coldingham was a home to both nuns and monks and was frequently visited by St Cuthbert, a friend of St Ebbe.
During his visits, St Cuthbert often wandered the seashore in the night arousing the curiosity of a Coldingham monk who spied on him from a distance. What the monk witnessed is remembered in the famous legend of ‘St Cuthbert and the Otters’. The monk saw Cuthbert walk into the sea until the freezing water came up to his neck, after a while Cuthbert left the water and on the shore he began to pray. The monk’s delightful story is told by St Bede:
“immediately there followed in his footsteps two little sea animals, humbly stretching themselves on the earth; and, licking his feet, they rolled upon them, wiping them with their skins and warming them with their breath. After this service had been fulfilled and his blessing had been received they departed to their haunts in the waves of the sea”