Berwick-upon-Tweed


BERWICK-UPON-TWEED   More generally, Berwick-on-Tweed.

Berwick-upon-Tweed, from south of the river

Berwick-upon-Tweed, from south of the river (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Town in the northeastern corner of England, but at the time of its greatest prosperity, in the southeastern corner of Scotland.

The boundary between the two countries had been fixed in 1018 at the River Tweed, and Berwick, on the Scottish side of the river, became the greatest of Scottish ports and one of the Royal Burghs of Scotland.  It was inevitably vulnerable:  in 1173 the town was sacked, from 1174 to 1189 the castle was in English hands, in 1216 the town was sacked again, but it was the legalism, arrogance and brutality of Edward I that damaged the town so greatly that it never fully recovered.  Berwick, which had stayed loyal to King John Balliol, was besieged in 1296, and when it was taken many of its people were slaughtered for their defiance.

The Scots recovered it in 1318, but the pretender in the 1330s, Edward Balliol, agreed to surrender lands worth £2000 a year, including Berwick, to England.   The garrison did not agree with the proposals, but the defeat of the relieving army on nearby Hamildon Hill in 1333 forced the surrender of the town.   The town, but not the castle, was recovered for Scotland in 1355 but lost the following year, and in both 1377 and 1384 Berwick was briefly in Scottish hands again.    In 1461 Henry VI, in desperate straits, surrendered Berwick to Scotland for help in recovering his throne.   In 1482 Henry’s successor, Edward IV, seized it back, and the yo-yo came at last to rest.

Berwick’s status was peculiar, the one portion of a grant of Scottish territory that did actually pass under English rule, even if only after various vicissitudes.   It was not treated as though it were part of the Kingdom of England, but appeared separately in royal proclamations, declarations of war and Acts of Parliament.   This tacking on of Berwick-on-Tweed to official documents like these led to the story that (in the version I first heard it) Berwick was still at war with Russia because, although it had been included in the declaration of war in 1854, it had not been included in the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Crimean War (the “History Today” Companion of British history [p.77] has another war and treaty, that of Versailles in 1919).   It is only a story.

From 1551 Berwick-upon-Tweed was treated as a county, with its own sheriff, though it remained a military stronghold with its governor, and indeed the greatest of its surviving glories, the bastions of its outer wall, were yet to be built (they began in 1558).   In 1551 England had abandoned the brutal warfare of Henry VIII’s last years and of Somerset’s Protectorate, and adopted a more conciliatory attitude to Scotland (the other border problem of the Debateable Land, in the west, was sorted out at this time).   There was no return to the old warfare so Berwick’s bastions were never put to the test.

In 1746 – the year of Culloden – the Wales and Berwick Act declared that in all legislation for England, Wales and Berwick were deemed to be included, unless expressly excluded.   By an Act of 1836 Berwick was no longer treated as separate from England, but included in it as a separate county:  it thus was regarded as a county corporate, as being a county in itself, like Bristol or York or Poole.

Even though Berwick was not part of England, it sent Members to Parliament from 1482, another example of the ambiguity of its situation.

By the Reform Act of 1884 Berwick lost its status as a parliamentary borough;  the new Berwick constituency covered northern Northumberland.    In the Local Government Act four years later, though remaining a county in itself, with its own sheriff, it was, because of its small population, among the few counties corporate that were not given county borough status.   So, for those matters that were the responsibility of the new county councils, Berwick came under the Northumberland County Council.

Berwick has been added to England and to Northumberland;  nevertheless it has not lost its ambiguous character.   The visitors walking its streets have a strong sense of being in a Scottish town within an English county.

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