Berwick Castle (part I) – Structure

Berwick Castle was one of the most important castles in the borders during the Anglo-Scottish wars.  But what did it look like?

It was sited on a very natural strong defensive position on top of an isolated hill giving good views of the estuary and upriver.  Its relationship to the town is unknown as is that with the village of Bondington,  a settlement to the north where Castle Terrace is now located.  The ravine that forms Castle Vale Park once extended north under what is now the railway station the car park and the railway line.   

The Tappee Loch was a reservoir to the north east, created by the making of a dam to control the flow of water to a water mill, which was operating in 1120.  The main road out of Berwick, through Bondington and on to the borders ran over the top of the dam.  The road to Edinburgh ran due north, crossing Spades Mire at the entrance to Berwick Holiday Camp.   

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Location of Berwick Castle.

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Layout plan of Berwick Castle.

Undoubtedly built by King David soon after his ascent to the Scottish throne in 1124, the first reputable mention of Berwick Castle dates to about 1160.   

Malcolm King of Scots had committed a man to be imprisoned in darkness in Berwick castle, and ordered that no small care be taken for his keeping.  He compassed him about with every vigilance on the part of the servants in whose custody he was, and allowed nothing good to be done to him of any sort…  The King, enraged against him with the fury of a great indignation, also had him constrained with divers bonds of iron.  For he had him thrust into a prison darker than other prisons, and had him shackled with great weights of iron.  For the prison, from its gloomy and tangible darkness was called Cole, because nothing was left there save shame and the blackest horror… 

He has a vision of St Cuthbert and is magically transported through the walls and finds himself in Norham.  Its a great story, and gives the impression of a fairly substantial building.   

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A prisoner in an oublier.

The best early description of the castle is an inventory of contents after the death of one Sir John Potthow in 1292.  Its quite lengthy; it lists each room and its contents and even at this stage one gets the impression that the place is a little shabby around the edges.  It lists everything in great detail.  Notably, at a time when we have so much stuff, it’s interesting to note how little there is in each room.   

This inventory however is a mere snapshot and does not tell the whole story.  It lists all sorts of foodstuffs being stored in the castle.  Berwick was a major link in Edward’s supply chain to his troops in Scotland; it was used as a central storage and distribution point.  But that’s another story for another blog post soon.

After the 1292 inventory, the best written description is made by Christopher Morris and Richard Cavendish in 1538.  It is basically a very long surveyor’s report the like of which you would have done when buying a house.  It takes us around the medieval walls, naming the towers and their dimensions and what condition they are in (usually ruinous) and the distances between them.  It then goes on to do likewise for the castle.  The measurements it gives for the walls tallies with the evidence on the ground. Using this and other sources we can begin to build up a picture of what the castle looked like. 

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Impression of Berwick Castle in the 14th century looking from the east. The Douglas Tower is in the foreground.
(© Jim Herbert)

The Douglas Tower, named after James Douglas, who took the town for the Scots in 1337, later renamed the Percy Tower, was an outer entrance tower that stood at the junction of Railway Street and the top of the road leading down to Castle Vale Park.   

It is first mentioned in 1303 as an external stone turret outside the outer gate.  It was at least three floors high, and connected to the town walls by means of a barbican which enclosed its drawbridge, like that at Alnwick.  Beyond the Douglas Tower was a bridge of some sort, probably timber in which two drawbridges were set at one time.  

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Crossing the east ravine. (© Jim Herbert)

The mediaeval visitor then reached the main entrance known as the Donjon the twin-towered main gate to the castle. Remains of the south tower exist including the lower terminal of an arrowloop at the side.  

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The south tower of the main entrance donjon.

From 1372: 

And in payment made to Master John the carpenter for making a new gate of timber called the Chinggilyat at the entrance to the castle below the constables hall, and making another new gate with boards, namely deals, at the west entrance to the castle, and putting two other gates above the barbican of the same west gate, 60s. for the task. 

The name Chinggilyat may be translated as Chinkle Gill Gate, referring to sound of the stream or gill that ran down the ravine under the bridges. So the Constables Hall was above the main gate.  Above it was the armoury and above that, the ordnance house, all in all, probably five floors high. This accords with other evidence suggesting the walls were about 50 feet high.   

Between 1297 and 1371 there are constant reports of repairs to brattices. Brattices are wooden hoardings that project out from the top of the wall to better defend the base of the wall by dropping things through holes in the brattice floor.  The wooden bratticing was constantly being repaired but after 1371, nothing.

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Reconstructed bratticing at Caerphilly Castle in south Wales.

In 1303, Richard de Bremesgrave is ordered among other things to have a stone brattice at the outer gate of our said castle completed.  This sounds like machicolations at the Donjon; overhanging corbels with gaps between them – a common feature of castle defences, serving the same function as brattices.  It may be that a gradual programme of replacing the timber bratices with machicolation was in progress.   

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Stone bratticing or machicolation.

The best remaining part of the castle is the Constable Tower also known as the Garderobe Tower.   The garderobe, a medieval toilet, is a prominent feature on the outside.  Also seen are the lower terminals of arrowloops.   

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Constable Tower showing the garderobe on the left.

Inside the tower we can see a beautifully preserved medieval doorway that has been blocked by rubble.   Another door leads to a very well preserved spiral stair.  

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Inside the Constable Tower, looking to the garderobe entrance.  Note the corbelling above.

Above the garderobe door is corbelling upon which the joists of a wooden floor rested and from this we can tell how high the floors were – about 2.7m. Another arrowloop can be seen to the right of the door, but can you see how it is facing inside the higher wall behind?   This means the spectacular wall behind Castle Vale House is not original although the castle’s masonry has been reused.   Recent investigations at the base of the south wall have uncovered some interesting features that may or may not be part of the Postern Tower which was east of the Constable Tower.  

East of that, near where the railway viaduct joins the hill, was the Chapel Tower.  From the 1538 survey:

Item, between [the Postern] Tower and the Chapel Tower is the distance of twenty and three yards.  And so sore decayed as at every wind it doth shake so dangerously as no man dare adventure to lie in the lodging of the same of the over part, and by all likelihood will fall to the ground right shortly. 

Next to this tower was (sort of obviously) the chapel.  It was built with a campanile or bell tower, had windows and was roofed using shingles – wooden tiles. It was connected through an arched passage to the Kings chamber.  Inside this room, we are told, Robert the carpenter was employed in 1367 to repair all the defects of the King’s chamber and to fit the chamber with 200 wainscots (oak panels).  The chamber was roofed over with lead.  

West of the Chapel Tower there was a semicircular buttress tower built to support the south wall behind the Black Hall which had kitchens attached to it.  The tower may have been a later addition; the term “buttress” suggests the shoring up of the walls which seem to be constantly in need of repair. 

The Cavendish survey tells us that in the south-west corner was what was known in 1538 as the Captain’s lodgings.  A map from 1561 and a topographic map of a slightly later date show what appear to be residential buildings in this corner.  However, these are part of a rebuild that may have occurred when the West Gun Tower was added in the early 1540s. 

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Detail from a map of Berwick (CPM 1.23) showing the castle. The east entrance bridge can be seen at the top right of the picture.

After Edward I invaded the town in 1296, he built the first set of walls around the town and may have made many modifications to the castle.  After all, this was a mere 20 years after his attack, and consequent programme of castle building, in Wales.  

One addition we know of for sure is the White Wall or Break-y-Neck Steps.  This structure butts up against the south-west corner of the castle.  Halfway down can still be seen protruding corbels.  These supported a small defensive turret which probably also served as a checkpoint for goods and people coming to the castle from the jetty at the bottom. 

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The White Wall looking down to the Henrician Water Tower.  Note the corbels to the left.

The wall was 94 yards long, projecting into the river and terminated in a square tower. It formed both a harbour and a barrier from upstream attack.  It can be seen in this detail of a map drawn by Rowland Johnson in 1561 and some idea of the harbour can be gained from this detail of Samuel and Nathaniel Bucks view of Berwick in 1745.

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Detail from South Prospect of Berwick-upon-Tweed by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, 1745 showing the White Wall extending into the river.

In the early 1540s, Henry VIII thickened the lower part of the wall where it levels out at the river bank and added the Water Tower.  This was part of the same programme of works that saw the West Gun Tower added to the castle and Lord’s Mount in the north-east corner of the town walls.  It retains many features of a gun tower including the smoke vents.  The chambers either side of the Edwardian postern where the New Road passes through are not dungeons, as is often thought, but gun casements.

The semi-circular West Gun Tower built near the top of the White Wall, modified much of the area in the south-west corner of the castle.  The West Wall was thickened on the inside.  A flight of steps leads from the rear of the tower into the Captain’s Lodgings.

The Cavendish survey was surely was what prompted the additions to the defences.  It tells us that: 

…of the same west side and that part of the wall is an iron postern to issue forth of the castle into the fields.  Without the saide postern is a barmekin of stone for the defence of the postern and of that part of the castle.  The most part whereof is decayed and fallen to the ground, and so lieth open. 

The barmkin in the record is probably a refering to a barbican.  The lie of the land suggests that then as now, this was accessed from the slope that runs up the hill under the west wall and so the barbican outer entrance would have been at right angles to the West Postern Gate like one at Beaumaris in Anglesey  Wales.  An arched corridor led from the West Postern to inside the castle.   When the West Gun Tower was built, an intramural passage connected into the West Postern. 

An ordinary looking door from the railway yard in the West Wall leads into a passageway that was the West Postern.  This can be seen on the outside as a blocked arched doorway that now has an iron grill in it.

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West Postern by the West Gun Tower.

Thousands of passengers are under the impression from the sign above the station steps that the platform stands on the site of the Great Hall.   It was however next to the West Postern, described thus in a list of repairs in 1361:  

The kings great hall in the castle which is 100 feet long by the long hundred and 55 feet wide.  [It] used to be roofed with double boards of Estland; but most of the great timber of the roofs is decayed by age and weather. 

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Reconstructed Great Hall at Caerphilly, Wales.  It is a similar size to that at Berwick.

Moving on northwards we come to an angle in the west wall.  The 1538 survey tells us of a wall going down from here to the stank northward.  Because boundaries rarely change, it is likely that the existing wall dividing Coronation Park and Tommy the Miller’s field is this same wall.  This print from 1790 shows the White Wall, the west gun tower, the west postern gate the boundary wall and the stack of stone that still exists; the Bakehouse Tower.  Between the Bakehouse Tower and West Postern is another tower that is something of a mystery.

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View of Berwick Castle 1790 showing the tall stack of the Bakehouse Tower, the wall descending into Tommy he Miller’s field, the mysterious tower in the wall angle the West Gun Tower and White Wall.

There was a small watchtower built in the angle of the west wall in the autumn of 1372, but this is likely to have been a relatively insubstantial affair.  It’s not mentioned in the 1538 survey nor does it appear on the 1561 map or the Gough painting.   It must be a later addition as behind a remaining mass of stone infill protrudes a line of facing stones. Since by this time the castle was almost redundant, the intriguing possibility is that it was added by George Hume, the Earl of Dunbar, who built a palace on the site in 1604.  More about that in another blog post. 

The Bakehouse Tower gives us the location of the bakehouse, brewery (they were always located next to each other) and probably other ancilliary buildings and windmills!

In 1335, two years after the Siege of Berwick and ensuing Battle of Halidon Hill, two windmills and two water mills were brought to Berwick from Newcastle for the use of the garrison and later, in his survey, Cavendish bemoans the lack of one: 

And forasmuch as there is not within the said castle neither brewhouse, mill, garners for keeping of store of corn nor house to keep any ordnance, so as if any hasty danger should come unto the same castle, or that the town should be won, as God forbid, or if the inhabitants should rebel against the captain, all the King’s ordnance saving such as are standing upon the waIls of the castle should be in enemies hands, the mills and brewhouse, and the captain his store of corn, being in garners within the town, barred from the castle, to the great danger of the same and the strength of the enemies.  For the avoiding of which dangers it was very necessary and expedient that a mill with a brewhouse, a garner and a house for the keeping of the ordnance were made and set up within the said castle.

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Pin windmill depicted in a mediaeval text.

In the middle of the north wall was Bonkhill Tower.  It had a 16 foot internal diameter with 9 foot thick walls.   When in Scottish hands, the upkeep of the towers was done using a sponsor-a-tower scheme.  Local villages were responsible for the upkeep of their tower, hence Cympringtour, Hiltontour and Lethamtour along the south wall, Langtontour, Fouldentour on the east and Bonkiltour and Morthingtontour, which are on the north wall.  Bonkhill Tower is the only tower whose Scottish name prevails.   

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Detail of drawing by Francis Place, 1701 showing the north wall of Berwick Castle.  The Bakehouse Tower is on the right and the Bonkhill Tower is in the centre.  To the left is a remaining tower from the Jacobean palace and the wall leading off to St Mary Gate.

Which brings us full circuit to finish at Gunners Tower in the north-east corner.  A wall, uncovered by excavations in the car park in 2002, connecting it to the St Mary Gate, the main entrance to the town.   

The overall impression one gets from the 1538 survey is that the castle is in a ruinous state.  It had far outlived its useful life as a defensive structure.  The walls had been lowered substantially and a countermure earthwork built up behind the west and north walls.  Few of the buildings mentioned in earlier inventories remained; in a topographic drawing from the 1560s a knotted garden has been created where the Black Hall had stood. 

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Topographic view of Berwick Castle from the east c1560-70.  The knotted garden and Captain’s Lodgings are clearly seen.

In the 1550s an attempt was made to build a replacement for the castle – the New Fort or Edward VI Citadel.  This was soon abandoned and the Elizabethan Ramprts built as a solution to the town’s defence.

The castle was rebuilt as the Earl of Dunbar’s palace between 1604 and 1611 but was abandoned once more when he died.  Stone was taken to build Holy Trinity Church in 1650.  More stone was no doubt robbed out for other building projects in town over the years.  So by the time the North British Railway was being planned, there was little of the original castle left.  The only part that was substantially destroyed was the North Wall but one has to have a little sympathy with the engineers as where else would you put the line?  any further to the west and Cow Hill would be in the way.  Further east and you have to demolish houses.  And it has to be the right height to connect to the North Eastern Railway being planned to come around the cliffs above Spittal.

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Chateau de Berwick by Francois Alexandre Pernod, c1830.  A romantic view of the north wall of the castle.  Comparing this to the similar view by Place it is interesting to note how much the castle had deteriorated.  This is what was demolished by the building of the railway.

So that’s the structure of the castle.  Further chapters will discuss the history of sieges and other events, the Jacobean palace and castle life.

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