History with a Bang

November is traditionally a time for fireworks and bonfires – a “celebration” of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of November 5th 1605.  From my house near the railway viaduct, a display in Castle Terrace sounded more like a barrage of cannon fire coming across Castle Vale.  So, motivated by this and a recent chance discovery, I give you a brief history of gunpowder in Berwick.

By coincidence, Castle Terrace is on the site of an old mediaeval village called Bondington.  This seems to have disappeared from the record a couple of years after the Siege of Berwick and Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333.  It is said that Berwick was the first British town to be assaulted by cannon during this siege.  A chronicler wrote,

“[the English] made meny assautes with gonnes and with othere engynes to the toune, wherwith thai destroiede menu a fair hous and cherches also were beten adoune vnto the erthe, with gret stones, and spitouse comyng out of gonnes and of othere gynnes

Whether the “gonnes” are cannon or handguns is unknown.

Early mediaeval hand held culverin.

In 1383 100 pounds of “pulveris de gunnes” (gunpowder) was bought in York for Berwick and Roxburgh, at 2s.6d. per pound.  Money possibly not well spent as in 1384, the town was lost to the Scots, the Warden of Berwick having been bribed!  After a brief, unsuccessful siege, the Earl of Northumberland bought Berwick back for 2000 merks.

Thereafter there are many mentions of gunpowder and cannon in Berwick.  Between 1442 and 1446 an extensive programme of works was rolled out repairing and reinforcing the town and castle walls.  They had been relatively impregnable but the use of cannon as an assault weapon changed all that.  The tall, thin walls could not withstand this latest military technology.

A 7–10m wide earthwork called a countermure, was built up behind the existing stone wall.  The open-backed semi-circular towers were filled in and used as gun platforms.  The countermure is what many people think of as an embankment at the Bell Tower and outside the Elizabethan walls to the east of the town.  It is best preserved as the riverside walls walk between Ness Gate and Quay Walls.  This can be thought of as a precursor to the engineering of the Elizabethan walls.

Earthworks near the “Tower Against The Windmills” in the south-east quarter of the town.  This is the countermure.  Behind the swings a path has been worn into it exposing facing masonry from the original walls.

Later developments in the early 16th century included the addition of bulwarks (raised earthwork defences outside the walls) and murderers (stone platforms projecting from existing towers into the ditch).  The murderers are particularly interesting as they provide crossfire along the length of the ditch, another idea refined later as the flankers in the Elizabethan bastions.

Detail from a map of Berwick, 1561.  The “murderer” is the arrow-shape projecting to the right of the Murderer Tower to the south of Lord’s Mount.  Gun ports can be seen either side to scour the ditch (blue hatching).  To the left of the walls and semicircular tower is the countermure indicated by a band of green stippling.  To the left of that is another ditch, probably dug to provide the earth for the new work.

Special gun towers were built at the castle and Lord’s Mount in the 1540s.  Of unknown date, the New Tower (at the north end of Wellington Terrace) was also constructed.  The apertures where the cannon would project show what type of cannon was used.  Lord’s Mount held larger cannon mounted on wheels but the other towers held much cruder, lighter guns.  These were breech loaded by means of a “chamber of iron”, a mug-like section at the rear of the barrel into which the gunpowder would be packed.  This would be wedged in place behind the barrel by means of a forelock.

Early 15th century cannon similar to those used in the castle gun towers.  The “chamber of iron” can be seen with a handle wedged in place by a forelock.  The spike at the bottom would have held it in place in the gun port.

Gun port at the West Gun Tower built in the 1540s to strengthen the west of the castle.

Throughout the centuries, the gunpowder was stored in barrels in the towers and other makeshift stores.  This proved inadequate.  During the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 Berwick was under threat once more.  Luckily for the garrison the Jacobites steered clear of the town, as it was found that all the powder was damp.  It is said that the gunpowder magazine by the Lions House was built in 1749 to keep the powder dry and safe.

The 18th century Gunpowder Magazine.

However, while looking for something completely different, I discovered that a map drawn in 1682 by the prominent military engineer Martin Beckman, shows “The Magazin neer kings mount” on the same site. 

Detail of Martin Beckman’s map, 1682.  The gunpowder magazine is marked “F” (centre).  It is flanked by Windmill bastion (D) and King’s Mount (E).

This substantial looking building appears on other military maps dated 1725 and 1747.  In 1750 our larger magazine is indicated on yet another map but in a different colour to others and labelled “New Powder Magazine Proposed” suggesting it was not yet built.  The work appears to have been completed in 1751.  

Comparison of old gunpowder magazine, 1747 (left) and new magazine, 1751 (right).  It can be seen to be a completely different shape.

Which leaves several interesting questions such as, “What happened to the old one?  Did it blow up?”  As always, more research will have to be done.


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