While planning an overseas trip, I was searching for a suitable stopover point between Leicester and Inverness. Looking at the map, I thought that Berwick upon Tweed might just be the right spot.  After all, we are going to Leicester to check up on what Richard III is up to these days, and Berwick-upon-Tweed also has a connection with this king.

Berwick-upon-Tweed is not to be confused with North Berwick, a Scottish town approx. 40km north-east of Edinburgh.  We visited North Berwick a few years ago and remember the view of Bass Rock with its abundant bird life with fondness.

However, this post is about the Berwick further south.  Berwick-upon-Tweed is a town on the east coast of Great Britain on the northern side of the mouth of the River Tweed. The border to Scotland is just a few kilometres further to the north.

The town started out as a small settlement in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.  Its name comes from the Old English bere-wīc, meaning ‘barley farm, outlying part of an estate’.[i]

It is a true border town and kept changing hands between England and Scotland for a long time of its history.[ii]

  1. In 1018, after the defeat of the Northumbrians by the Scots at the battle of Carham, the town became Scottish. In 1124, King David I of Scotland named Berwick as one of the first royal burghs and encouraged merchants from the continent to settle there.  He also established a mint.  Because for Scotland, Berwick was the closest port to Europe, it was very important for its trade with the Continent exporting wool, grain and salmon, and consequently became very wealthy.
  2. This lasted until 1174 when William I (the Lion) of Scotland was captured by the English when trying to besiege Alnwick. During battle, he was thrown from his horse, but before he could get up, his horse rolled on top of him and he was caught.  While William I was held at Falaise in Normandy, he had to do homage to the English king Henry II, i.e. acknowledging that he held Scotland only by permission of Henry.  Scottish soldiers had to leave Edinburgh, Stirling, Roxburgh, Jedburgh and Berwick.  These castles were then held by English garrisons, but the Scots had the foot the bill for their expenses.
  3. For the following 13 years Berwick stayed in English hands, but then Richard I (the Lionheart) wanted to go on crusade and needed cash.  He sold Berwick back to the Scots for 10 000 silver marks (a huge sum, approx. one tenth of the total income of the king of Scotland) in 1187 and the king of Scotland did no longer to pay homage, except for lands he held in England. [iii]
  4. In 1216, Berwick-upon-Tweed was burnt to the ground by Richard I’s successor, John, at the end of an unsuccessful invasion of Scotland. The town was rebuilt by the Scots and continued to prosper.  In 1286, it brought a revenue of £2,190, said to be equal to a quarter of the money collected by the English treasury.[iv]
  5. However, the worst disaster came, when at the end of the century, Edward I and the Scottish king had a serious disagreement. In the ensuing war, Berwick was the first town to fall to the English (in 1296).  The town was destroyed and many of its inhabitants – women, children and old men – were killed.  After destroying Berwick-upon-Tweed, Edward I started rebuilding it as a fortified borough and a castle.  To set a good example, he even pushed a wheelbarrow around himself.  His plans involved a stone wall around the town, with a ditch 80 feet wide and 40 feet deep on the north and east sides of the town.  Berwick was to become the administration centre for Scotland. The Scottish nobility had to pay homage to the English king.  A court of exchequer for the receipt of the revenue of the kingdom of Scotland was established.  Later on in the war, Edward took the Scots regalia and the Stone of Scone. [v]
  6. The Scots reclaimed Berwick in 1318, but only until 1333, when it became English once more. This backwards and forwards continued for the next 130 years.
  7. For example, in the beginning of the 15th century, when Berwick-upon-Tweed was English, it got caught up in the revolt of the earl of Northumberland against Henry IV. Northumberland had allowed the Scots to sack Berwick.  In 1405, Henry IV pledged 1,000 marks a year from the town’s revenues to pay for repairs to the fortifications.[vi]
  8. At the end of 1460 Berwick-upon-Tweed was in the hands of the English. After the Battle of Northampton (31 October 1460) and Henry VI’s capture, his queen, Margaret of Anjou, and their seven-year-old son, Edward of Lancaster, fled to Scotland looking for support against the Yorkists.  Mary of Guelders, mother of the eight-year-old Scottish king James III and leader of his regency council, continued her late husband’s policy to play the one side in England off against the other.  Compared to Margaret of Anjou, she was in a position of strength.  She was prepared to support Margaret and the Lancastrians in exchange to the surrender of the town to the Scots, leaving Margaret with not much of a choice.  Mary and Margaret also agreed that their children, Edward of Lancaster and Mary (born approx. 1451), should marry.  However, following Edward IV’s win at Towton, Mary quickly changed sides again, but held on to Berwick.[vii]
  9. Unsurprisingly, the English and Edward IV were not happy with this situation and wanted to get Berwick back for England. For the time being though, diplomacy won the day.[viii] On 26 October 1474, James’ infant son was formally betrothed to Edward’s third daughter Cecily and a treaty was signed between the two countries. For the next few years, relations were quite good.  However, in 1479 hostilities started to flare up again and England demanded the surrender of Berwick.   Edward IV prepared for war and arrangements for victuals and transport were begun.  To make sure that Edward and his inner circle would not suffer when going north, eighty butts of expensive Malmsey wine were ordered.  In spite of these preparations, nothing much happened and Edward dragged his feet.
  10. The situation changed in April 1482, when the English managed to entice Alexander, duke of Albany, a younger brother of James III, to England. He had stirred unrest against his brother and then thought it better to flee to France in 1479.  Edward offered to support his claim to the throne and, in June 1482, a contract was drawn up, which stipulated that in exchange for Edward’s support, Berwick would be handed over to the English – a situation like that of 1461 in reverse.  Edward wanted to lead the army personally and got as far as Fotheringhay, but then changed his mind and returned to London.  Instead his younger brother Richard, duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), was put in charge of a huge army of approx. 20 000 men (mainly from the north).  Faced with this force, the town of Berwick decided to open its gates to the English, without a shot being fired.  However, the castle held out.
  11. Richard moved towards Edinburgh.  His army captured James III en route to the Scottish capital, which they entered in July 1482. Once they arrived, Albany changed his mind and renounced any claims to the throne of Scotland and the Scots sued for peace.  As a pre-condition for any future settlement, Richard demanded that Berwick should return to the English.  He withdrew to Berwick and took the castle after a brief siege on 24 August.  He then disbanded his army, leaving 1700 men to garrison the castle.

The Scotland campaign of Edward IV and Richard had cost an enormous amount of money, but had brought very little except Berwick.  The Croyland Chronicler said that Edward IV was unhappy about having spent so much money “although the recapture of Berwick alleviated his grief for a time”.[ix]

Berwick, Sandgate

Berwick was an ongoing expense, estimated to cost approx. £700 a month in defence.  Richard had big plans, in addition to repairs to castle and town walls he wanted to build 120 new homes, altogether estimated to cost £1,600.[x]

And since then Berwick has been under English authority, which was confirmed in the Treaty of Perpetual Peace in 1503.  Although “perpetual” as far as peace was concerned only lasted 10 years, Berwick remained English.[xi]  Whether all the fighting about Berwick was due to its vital strategic importance or whether it was more a question of prestige, is debatable. Until 1746, Berwick had a unique status as virtually a free town, being mentioned separately in Acts of Parliament.[xii]

So what is there for a tourist to see of all that long history, in particular the medieval Berwick-upon-Tweed?  Unfortunately, not that much seems to be left.

Of the old walls, begun by Edward I, only fragments remain.  They were replaced during the reign of Elizabeth I.  These Elizabethan walls still stand today, but do not follow the earlier ones everywhere and are also considerably shorter: 1.25 miles (just over 2 km) instead of 2 miles (3.2 km).  It is possible to walk all around the town on these walls in approx. 45 minutes (that surely includes photo stops) and the walk is said to offer stunning views.

The castle predates the town walls.  It was probably originally built in the 1120s by David I.  Its earliest mention is from 1165, but nothing of this early Scottish fortification remains today.  After Edward I destroyed the town, the castle was extensively rebuilt and remodelled in 1296-8.  Of Edward’s castle, fragments of two polygonal towers have survived.  One of these was part of a gatehouse, which in turn formed part of an exceptionally elaborate entrance complex.  As the design resembles that of Caernarfon Castle in Wales, it has been suggested that some of the masons, who had worked on the Welsh castle, were moved to Berwick.

Berwick, The White Wall

Once the Elizabethan walls were built, the castle became less important and started to fall to ruin.  The building of the railway in 1847 as well as the building of the Royal Border Bridge in 1850 contributed to much of the old structures being torn down. Today’s station stands approximately in the spot where Edward I’s great hall once was. [xiii]

For our trip, Berwick-upon-Tweed sounds like an interesting place to visit.  After a day in the car, a walk around the town walls would be the perfect opportunity to stretch our legs.


[i] Mills, A.D., A Dictionary of English Place Names.  Oxford University Press, 2003

[ii] Unless otherwise stated:  Simpson, D., ‘Berwick upon Tweed:  The Town on the Scottish Border’, England’s North East – Northumberland (2009).  URL:  [last accessed 22 Feb. 2016]; Jodie, ‘Berwick-on -Tweed: A Town With Identity Issues’, Scottish Scribbles (14 Sept. 2010).  URL: [last accessed 28 Feb. 2016]; Lewis, S., ‘Berwick-upon-Tweed – Braidwood’, in A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland (London, 1846), pp. 124-151.  URL: [last accessed 23 February 2016]

[iii] Somerset Fry, P. and F., The History of Scotland. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005 (originally published 1982), pp.60-1

[iv] Herbert, J., ‘The Medieval Walls of Berwick-upon-Tweed’, Berwick Time Lines.  URL: [last accessed 8 March 2016

[v] Goodall, J., The English Castle: 1066-1650.  Paul Mellon Centre BA, 2011, p.240; Herbert

[vi] Goodall, J., p.344

[vii] Wagner, J.A., Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses.  ABC-CLIO, 2001, pp.28-9; Norman Macdougall, ‘Mary (d. 1463)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 28 Feb. 2016]

[viii] The following is based on:  Ross, C., Edward IV. Yale English Monarchs Series, Yale University Press 1997 (first published 1974), pp.212-3 and pp.278-90

[ix] Quoted in: Dean, K., The World of Richard III. Amberley Publishing Limited, 2015, p.163

[x] Horrox, R., Richard III:  A Study in Service.  Cambridge University Press, 1999 (first published 1989), p.108

[xi] Cannon, J. and Crowcroft, R. (eds.), The Oxford Companion to British History.  Oxford University Press (2nd edition), 2015, p.719

[xii] Pevsner, N. et al, Northumberland.  Yale University Press, 1992, p.171

[xiii] Goodall, J., p.240; Dean, pp.163-4; ‘History & Heritage’, Berwick-upon Tweed.  URL: [last accessed 3 March 2016]

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