The mediaeval defences at Berwick are often overlooked because of their more obvious counterpart, the Elizabethan bastions. But that is a shame, as these are the walls that actually saw some action and when we look at their development we can see the evolution of the bastioned fortification system.
Today we think of Berwick as being a quiet, insignificant town, but in the middle of the 13th century it was a quite different story. Berwick was once the most important town in Scotland, being its closest port to Europe. Much of Berwick’s wealth came from the taxes raised on the export of wool and grain that came from the Border abbeys’ in the Tweed valley.
It would have been extremely cosmopolitan; merchants from the north of Europe were trading in Berwick. The town grew prosperous during the late 13th century; more money was raised at Berwick than almost every other Scottish towns put together. At the end of Alexander III’s reign in 1286 the revenue gained was £2,190, said to be equal to a quarter of the money collected by the English treasury.
Berwick is, of course, the most disputed town in Britain if not Europe; during its history it exchanged hands thirteen times. The importance of the town as a port was the incentive for the Scots but for the English, it was a foothold in Scotland. Once north of the Tweed there was no major natural barrier before Edinburgh.
The earliest known fortification in Berwick is the castle, sited on an isolated hill north of the area of the town then occupied, and south of a now lost village called Bondington. It would have given excellent views both down to the port and up the Tweed valley.
Artist’s impression of Berwick Castle in the 14th century looking from the north-east. (© Jim Herbert)
Though not mentioned until 1165, the castle was probably built in the 1120s by King David of Scotland who had adopted it as one of his most important centres in his “Principality of Cumbria”. In about 1135, David confirmed the growing importance of the town to Scotland by making the town a Royal Burgh and establishing a mint.
In the late 13th century, the burgesses of Berwick were ordered to build a ditch on the north and east sides of the town. This is generally believed to be Spade’s Mire, a ditch in two parts crossing the peninsula but there in truth, there is little evidence to substantiate this and many reasons to doubt it; it may be of a later date.
East section of Spades Mire looking west.
West section of Spades Mire looking west.
That there was a ditch there is in no doubt however as we know it was found wanting when Edward I crossed it when he attacked the town in March 1296 in response to John Balliol’s failure to pay homage in 1295. It is said that as many as 25,000 were killed by Edward, but while the slaughter was bad even by the standards of the day, this number is wildly exaggerated, as there cannot have been more than 5,000 inhabitants in Berwick at the time.
Edward stayed in Berwick for a month and ordered a stone wall to be built encircling the town with a ditch 80 feet wide and 40 feet deep on the north and east sides of the town. It may well have just been an enlargement of the previous Scots ditch. 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.
Hugh de Cressingham, Edward’s treasurer in Scotland, was put in charge of the works but because his hold on the purse strings was so tight, the stone wall took some time in being made. He might have come to regret it had he not been killed by Wallace at the battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297.
During the following twenty years, the building of the walls was progressed, but they were far from complete. In 1316 Bruce attempted to take the town, “between the castle and bridge where the walls were not yet built”. Two years later, Bruce finally took the town. Barbour’s poem The Bruce tells us “a man with a sper mycht stryk ane othyr wp in the face”. Bruce recognised the strategic importance of the new walls and rather than destroy them, he set about raising the walls.
Eventually the walls reached 20–30 feet, defended by seventeen towers and seven gateways. Typically, the towers appear to be semi-circular, built projecting forward of the curtain wall, having 4–6 feet thick walls with an internal diameter of about 8 feet.
1. Douglas Tower; 2. St Mary Gate; 3. Broadstairhead Tower;
4. Tower (later Bell Tower); 5. Wallace Gate;
6. Bell Tower (later Lord’s Mount); 7. Murderer Tower; 8. Middle Tower;
9. Red Tower; 10. Cow Gate; 11. Tower; 12. Tower; 13. Tower;
14. Conduit Tower; 15. Windmill Tower; 16. St Nicholas Tower;
17. Black Watch House Tower; 18. Watch House Tower;
19. Plommer’s Tower/Fisher’s Fort; 20. Coxon’s Tower; 21. New Tower;
22. Water Gate (later Shore Gate); 23. Briggate
16th century defences
a. New Fort; b. Meg’s Mount; c. Scotsgate; d. Cumberland Bastion;
e. Brass Bastion; f. Cowgate; g. Windmill Bastion; h. King’s Mount;
i. Cat Well Wall; j. Covert Way; k. Redoubt
The towers were open backed as can still be be seen at the Black Watch House Tower overlooking the estuary. Similarly designed towers are extant at Conwy and Caernarvon in North Wales.
Open backed, half-round tower at Carnarvon, North Wales, similar to most towers in Berwick. The stone “bridge” is a 19th century addition, replacing a loose wooden gangplank that could easily be removed thus isolating a section of wall if overrun by the enemy.
The siege of Berwick by Edward III is thought to be the first time a town in Britain was besieged using cannon. However, these may not have been more than hand held guns but the new technology was here to stay. Gunpowder is first recorded in Berwick by 1384.
In June, 1405, the Earl of Northumberland literally handed over the town keys to the Scots, who plundered the town, burning all buildings except the religious houses.
A document from the Earl of Westmorland to the Henry IV illustrates the transition from old siege engines—trebuchets—to the new ordnance:
“Item, particularly because Berwick castle is held by main force….it would be good if our said lord were to have engines, cannon, artillery and other things necessary for attacks on castles taken north by sea, both to strike terror into the disobedient and for use should the need arise…”
The coming of cannon meant a new way of countering the threat was required and through the ensuing years, alterations were made to the defences to accommodate the new technology.
In 1482 the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, took Berwick for the last time, but the threat had not diminished. The Battle of Flodden in 1513 was a wake-up call and in 1514, the walls were strengthened in many places with a countermure. This is the first step in the evolution from mediaeval fortification to bastion. This earthwork was built up behind the masonry to withstand enemy bombardment.
The countermure is visible in many places; by the Bell Tower and outside the Elizabethan ramparts between Cow Port and King’s Mount. Many people assume the earthwork that can be seen is the embankment mentioned in connection with the initial work by Edward I but it is this massive, later addition. It was about twenty to thirty feet high and wide and a ditch was dug behind the walls to provide the material.
A section of medieval wall to the west of the Bell Tower (1577). The countermove can still be seen behind it.
It is now seen slumped forward following the degradation of the facing stone wall, giving the appearance of an embankment behind the ditch upon which the masonry is built but there is probably a great deal of masonry remaining, preserved within the slumped earthwork.. The most intact section of the countermure is at the riverside walls—the path we walk on today—consolidated by a rear wall in 1799.
The open backed towers were filled in to provide an elevated gun platform for defensive ordnance and a gun chamber created at ground level with gun ports either side allowing lateral fire along the face of the curtain wall.
Cross-section through modified medieval tower and countermure.
1. 13th century ditch; 2. 13th century semi-circular tower;
3. Outline of town wall; 4. Gun chamber with lateral gun ports;
5. Countermure backfilling tower; 6. Access tunnel;
7. Access bridge over secondary ditch.
Where this was not possible, projections called murderers were added to serve the purpose. These are shown on a map of 1561 to be at Tower 3 (now the site of the Bell Tower) and the Murderer Tower south of Lord’s Mount, though there may have been others. This is part of a description of the Murderer Tower taken from a survey of 1538.
And the same murderer is made of lime and stone and joined unto the tower clear without the wall, which tower doth serve for no defence, but for an entry into the said murderer
By the 1520s, another substantial programme of building was underway: the addition of bulwarks, large forward defences built to protect vulnerable areas like gateways. In Berwick there are three earthwork bulwarks: that outside Lords Mount; one now disappeared outside the Cowgate; and best preserved, the Great Bulwark in the Snook. These large earthwork gun platforms can be compared to the main body of the Elizabethan bastion; the murderers and converted towers serving the same purpose as the flankers.
Comparison between bulwarks and bastions (yellow). The combination of towers on the medieval wall (red) providing lateral cross fire and the bulwark providing outward defence for them is a similar arrangement to the flankers within the bastion on the Elizabethan wall (blue).
Another “bulwark”, but this one made of stone, was built outside Coxon’s Tower. In the 1538 survey it is known as the Tower Within the Stone Bulwark of the Sands. Inside the tower, two original medieval cruciform arrowloops once overlooked the river. Careful examination of the stonework shows the transformation of a internal casemate from having an arrowloop to having a doorway knocked through to gain access to the bulwark. Erosion from water action forced the defenders to retreat back into the tower, blocking up the doorway. The whole is now encased in an additional six feet of Georgian masonry.
In the early 1540s, Henry VIII strengthened the castle with the riverside Water Tower and the West Gun Tower, and in the north-east corner of the walls with Lord’s Mount. It is said that it is called Lords Mount because it was designed by the king himself, but in reality, the mason in charge took it upon himself to “modify” the original plans, possibly because of rising costs. It was eventually a powerful self-contained strongpoint with its own well, latrines and ovens. Six cannon were housed within it and more would have been positioned on the open platform roof above.
The continual collapse and patching of the walls, especially at the castle was becoming too onerous and it was decided to abandon the castle. Work on the New Fort (or Edward VI Citadel), built across the south-east walls, began in 1550.
This was to be a huge rectangular construction with arrow-shaped bastions in each corner, towering over the town. By 1553 it was only half-complete yet thought usable: officers were appointed and ordnance supplied. Work continued and by 1557, nearly £20,000 had been spent on raising the fort.
The eastern bastions can be seen in the earthworks outside the Elizabethan walls and the path from the walls curving past the Lion’s House to Ravensdowne follows the line of the south-west bastion.
However, with the threat offered from a new French fort at nearby Eyemouth and the loss of Calais in France, work was abandoned and plans were initiated to start afresh with a new set of walls—the Elizabethan fortifications.
Sir Richard Lee was placed in charge of the new works, “assisted” by two Italian consultants, Giovanni Portinari and later, Jacopo a Contio. Master Mason, Rowland Johnson’s 1560s plans, show Lee’s original design—a completely new circuit, joining King’s Mount to Meg’s Mount via another bastion halfway up Hide Hill, thus cutting off the harbour and lower town. There was constant disagreement between Lee and the Italians.
The ambitious plans ran over budget—the total cost eventually amounted to nearly £128,650 making these the most expensive works ever undertaken by the Crown—and by the late 1560s, the diminished threat led to a lack of interest in Berwick. This resulted in a compromise being reached by incorporating the medieval walls around the estuary.
Today everyone admires Berwick’s Elizabethan bastions, but they were heavily criticised at the time:
“Concerning Her Majesty’s new fortifications at Berwick, he must confess the main-wall is marvellous beautiful, but the town as it now remains is very weak and out of order. It is weaker than before by reason that the bell-tower and the fortifications, which were very strong, are pulled down, the old wall has fallen down five places, and palle set up instead of wall, and the rampire of the old wall taken away. The new work is in no order, either with rampire, gates, posterns or bridges. Thinks the Queen has small pennyworths for so much money, and cannot tell why the Castle and other places were pulled down.”
“the main-wall is marvellous beautiful”. The Elizabethan walls looking east to Brass Bastion.
It is possibly just as well these defences were never put to the test. Much of the medieval wall was destroyed during the building of its replacement but there is evidence that the old walls were still being used in the early 17th century.