The Bear and the Tree

A recent question asked about the Seal of the Berwick Guild of Freemen.

Seals were important items belonging to individuals and official bodies to guarantee the authenticity of important documents.  In Berwick, the Guild of Freemen used a seal bearing a bear and tree emblem which has become a well known image in Berwick and is still used by Berwick Town Council.  

This is said to have been first used in 1212.  The earliest known example is on one of the Coldingham charters dated 1250.  The simple bear / tree symbol is a rebus; a mediaeval visual pun on the town’s name.  The tree is specifically a wych elm, so it reads “bear-wych” (geddit!)

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The “ancient arms” of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

How the additional imagery got to be added is unknown.  The king is said by some to be Edward III, who took the town after the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, but the shields either side of the bear / tree are the royal arms from the reign of Henry IV (reigned 1399–1413) onwards.  

Dr Fuller in his History of Berwick quotes from Rapin’s History of England which states that in 1422, the Duke of Bedford was appointed regent to the infant Henry VI and broke the royal great seal, replacing it with a new one showing the infant Henry flanked by the arms of France and England.

As can be seen, there is a strong resemblance (with the addition of the bear / tree emblem).

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The great seal of Henry VI.

Much as we love it, in the 1950s the College of Arms declared that it had never been properly registered and so bore no legitimacy.  The Corporation obtained a grant of arms from the Lyon King of Arms for Scotland, which the College of Arms then ruled illegal in England!  In 1959 a bizarre dispute between the two Heraldic authorities ensued, played in the press and on TV, it even being suggested that Berwick should have two sets of arms.   The situation was only finally resolved with local government reorganisation, a new arms being issued, by the English, in 1977.

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The arms of Berwick Borough Council.


Interestingly, bears are not featured in many British heraldic devices; they are more widely seen in German heraldry.  However the bear has become a symbol of Berwick through the years.

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Cover of a leaflet explaining the story of the War with Russia myth.

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