This is the first of a seven part series about the military story of Berwick, written two years ago as an exhibition for Berwick Civic Society. See it, and another exhibition I wrote, at the Main Guard, Palace Street, Berwick. Open every day except Wednesdays from 1st June till 30th September http://berwickcivicsociety.org.uk/main-guard/
Out of the twilight
There is no reliable record of a township at the mouth of the River Tweed before the 11th century, but it is likely that a settlement existed here at least from Roman times.
The name most probably comes from Old English “Bere-wic”, meaning “Barley Farm”. Barley has been a staple crop of the district for hundreds of years and large quantities of barley and malt are still shipped from Berwick each year.
Some 20 miles to the south of Berwick is Bamburgh, royal capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria which, at its greatest extent during the 7th century AD, stretched from the Humber to the Forth.
In 1018 Malcolm II, King of a new, fledgling Scotland, defeated the Northumbrians at the Battle of Carham, a few miles upstream from Berwick. As a result, the region to the north of the Tweed was ceded to Scotland and the river was recognised as the border and any settlement at Berwick became part of the Scottish realm .
A Royal Burgh
Berwick’s importance as a commercial centre was established during the reign of King David I (1124–53), who made Berwick a Royal Burgh in 1136, granting its citizens a high degree of self-government to encourage economic development.
Trading in wool and other goods generated a considerable revenue for the merchants and the Burgh. By 1286, the town was paying over £2,000 each year in customs revenue to the Scottish Exchequer—almost more than that paid by the rest of Scotland—a sum equivalent to a quarter of the customs revenue of all the ports in England.
Many foreign merchants set up homes and businesses in Berwick. Flemish wool merchants traded from their Red Hall and merchants from Cologne had their White Hall in the Bridge Street/Sandgate area.
One contemporary chronicler was so impressed by Berwick’s size and prosperity that he remarked “it might justly be called another Alexandria”.
Making a mint
King David I was the first Scottish monarch to mint coins, first in Carlisle in 1136 but in Berwick soon afterwards. It became probably the most important source of Scottish coinage.
It continued to be used by the three English Edwards in the 14th century and was independent of the Royal Mint in London, using its own dies and punches. It has been estimated that in 1310, some 1,200lbs of metal was used on coin production at the Berwick Mint.
Coins continued to be produced in Berwick as late as the reign of James III (1460–88).
From the time of David I, successive kings of Scotland and England granted charters to the Burgh of Berwick-upon-Tweed.
A Royal Charter brought many benefits to the burgesses, freeing them from feudal dues and obligations, allowing them to hold a weekly market and annual fair, giving them a monopoly over business conducted in the town and enabling them to profit from tolls charged on goods coming through the port and town.
Charters imposed duties as well as giving benefits. For instance, the burgesses were responsible for the upkeep of the port, bridge and town defences.
The Burgh’s merchant and trade guilds were also established under the terms of the Royal Charter, as was the office of Mayor. Berwick was, in fact, the only Scottish town to have a mayor rather an a provost.
At first there were several guilds, as in most towns, but by 1249 these had amalgamated into the one guild, governed and regulated by the Statute of the Guild. This also allowed the Guild to govern the town.
The “ancient arms” of Berwick-upon-Tweed
The “bear and tree” symbol is said to have been first used on official seals in 1212. The earliest known example is on one of the Coldingham charters dated 1250. It is a rebus; a medieval visual pun on the town’s name. The tree is specifically a wych elm, so it reads “bear-wych”.
The Crown of Scotland
Berwick’s “Golden Age” effectively ended with the death of Alexander III in 1286 after a riding accident. After the death of his only descendant, his seven-year-old grand-daughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway, Scotland entered a period of uncertainty.
In 1292, the nobility of Scotland and England assembled in the Great Hall of Berwick Castle to debate who should be the next King of Scotland. This became known as “The Great Cause”. Presided over by King Edward I of England, the council considered the claims of thirteen rivals. In truth there were only two serious contenders for the Scottish throne—Robert Bruce and John Balliol. After much debate, the decision was given in favour of the Balliol.
However, Edward asserted feudal lordship over Balliol who dutifully swore fealty. The Scottish nobility rose against Baliol, who in 1295 signed a treaty with the King of France, the origin of the “Auld Alliance”.
John Balliol swears fealty to Edward I.
This act of defiance enraged King Edward and in 1296, he marched north to invade Scotland, starting with the massacre of the inhabitants of Berwick, on the campaign that gained him the nickname “Hammer of the Scots” and began three centuries of Anglo-Scottish conflict.
The next instalment about the Anglo-Scottish wars to be published soon.