The anniversary of the sacking of Berwick by Edward I in 1296

An article in the Berwick Advertiser this week reminded me that today is the anniversary of arguably the most significant event in Berwick’s history; the sacking of the town by Edward I in 1296.  It might be said that had it not been for this and the ensuing Anglo-Scottish wars which saw the demise of the town’s economy, Berwick might have become the capital of Scotland.

One might say that Berwick, or at least the land north of the Tweed, became “Scottish” when Malcolm II won the Battle of Carham in 1018 and brought the area of Northumberland north of the Tweed into his fledgling nation.

Berwick famously changed hands some thirteen times during it history but not always by force.  In 1174 Berwick Castle (along with those at Roxburgh, Edinburgh, Stirling and Jedburgh) was handed over to the English as part of the Treaty of Falaise, the ransom demand to return William I to Scotland after his capture at the Battle of Alnwick.

In 1189,

Richard King of England surrendered to him Roxburgh and Berwick castles, freely and absolutely; and he quitclaimed to him and all his heirs for ever, for himself and future King’s of England, all allegiance and subjection from the realm of Scotland.  And for this recovery of his castles, and the quitclaim of fealty and allegiance for the realm of Scotland, and for having the King’s charter for this, William King of Scots gave Richard King of England ten thousand marks sterling…

The word quitclaim is important here.  Basically Richard is selling Berwick and Roxburgh (near Kelso) back to William for about £6,666 and saying that any claim of overlordship he or any future king of England had over Scotland is no longer valid.

The idea of Scotland being subservient to England had been longstanding.  in 937, Athelstan defeated Constantine II of Scotland. 

Constantine is said to have “grovelled” before Athelstan, recognizing him as overlord.  It is suggested that Constantine’s brother Malcolm, came to a similar agreement upon his succession in 943.  Thirty years later, Edgar of England forced an admission of subservience from Kenneth II.

So this history would have been at the forefront of Edward’s mind when in 1291 (following the deaths of Alexander III and Margaret) the Guardians of Scotland asked for his help in settling the dispute between the claimants to the Scottish throne.

At first Edward refused to have anything to do with it unless his overlordship was recognized.  Indeed, he demanded that the Scots prove him wrong!  This dispute became known as the Great Cause.  Between 1291 and 1292, Edward held court at Norham Castle listening to the different claims.  There were 14 claimants in all, including Edward I, but in truth there were only three serious contenders; John Comyn, John Balliol and Robert Bruce.


Norham Castle


On 17th November 1292, Edward announced his decision in the chapel at Berwick Castle.  This was John Balliol who clearly had the better claim.  The Bruce campaign subsequently called this into doubt saying that Edward had chosen Balliol because he was a weak charater who would be easy to manipulate, but in truth, the Scottish throne would have come with strings attached, whoever had won.

John Balliol pays homage to Edward I

Edward styled himself as Lord Paramount of Scotland and demanded homage from Balliol.  This repeated humiliation led the Scots nobility to form a new panel of Guardians and entered what was to become the Auld Alliance with France.

And it is this that infuriated Edward and led to his invasion of Scotland, starting with Berwick.

Berwick Castle as it might have appeared in the 14th century.

Stevenson, in Documents Illustrative of the History of Scotland describes the army as consisting of five thousand horsemen and thirty thousand footsoldiers crossing the Tweed  on Wednesday 28th March at Coldstream and camping at the priory.  He summoned the burgesses of Berwick to attend him and discuss the town’s surrender.  No-one came.  By Friday 30th March Edward was encamped near the nunnery at the foot of Halidon Hill.  Twenty four ships were anchored in the estuary.  Thinking they had seen the signal to attack, they entered the harbour and fighting ensued.  Four ships were burnt and the rest escaped on the turning tide.  Their plight triggered the attack from the north.  

We are told that Edward entered the town with ease crossing a defensive ditch that had been made which may (or may not) be Spades Mire.  (This one’s a whole different story!)

The numbers of people slaughtered vary from 7,000 to 25,000.  These figures are greatly exaggerated.  Berwick had been the most important town in Scotland, with more money entering the Scots exchequer than that from all the other Scottish towns combined, but that was from exports.  It has been estimated that the other important towns at the time – Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Perth would have had populations of only 2,000.  It may be that Berwick had a higher population, perhaps 5,000, but then, it is unlikely everyone was killed.

Edward stayed in Berwick for a month.  He ordered a stone wall to be built encircling the town with a ditch 80’ wide and 40’ deep on the north and east sides of the town.  This was to have an embankment surmounted by a quickly erected wooden palisade which would be replaced in time by a stone wall encircling the town.  However it was many years before this was completed, ironically, by Robert Bruce (grandson of his Great Cause namesake).

Section of Edward’s walls and ditch The Bell Tower is a later modification dated 1577.

Today many people view such an act as barbarous.  And indeed, it was, but one cannot compare such a thing to massacres of modern times where the perpetrators know about different rules like the Geneva Convention.  One must remember that, by the rules of war in Edward’s time, he had no option but to attack Berwick.  He had offered the burgesses an opportunity to surrender the town; they declined to take up that offer.  What was Edward to do? Walk away? Perhaps not be quite so nasty?  Perhaps that, but these were generally violent times anyway and the massacre in Berwick was to send a signal to the rest of Scotland.

And thus began the Scottish Wars of Independence.  Berwick continued to exchange nationality but the Scots were never able to retain it for long; 15 years until the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333 and between 1461 and 1482 during the Wars of the Roses.

So perhaps we should take a moment today to reflect on what happened and what might have been, perhaps discover the remains of the castle or the mediaeval walls that Edward built but let us not hold grudges.  This happened 700 years ago and as they say, the rest is history.

Happy Easter.


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