Berwick—A Garrison Town.   Part 3: 16th Century developments

Countermures and murderers

In 1482, the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) captured Berwick for the last time, but the threat from the Scots did not diminish.  

The Battle of Flodden in 1513 may have been the catalyst that saw a programme of works improving the, by now, outdated medieval walls.  In 1514 an earthwork called a countermure was built up against the back of the masonry walls to reinforce the relatively thin masonry against cannon bombardment.  This was the full height of the walls and 6.5–10m (20–30 feet) wide.  A secondary ditch was dug behind the walls to provide the earth.  

The open backed towers were adapted—the towers were lowered somewhat and filled with earth leaving a vault-covered ground floor which acted as a gun chamber providing lateral fire along the face of the curtain walls.  These were accessed by tunnels through the countermure.  

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

This is described repeatedly (with small variations in detail) in a survey of 1533, A declaration of the circuit of the walls of the town and castle of Berwick­.  A typical description is that of the Broadstairhead Tower on the north wall:

“And the entry into the said tower forth of the town through the countermoore containeth in length 32 foot and in breadth 4 foot and is made of stone and lime, and overheled with timber, which timber is now sore rotten, wasted and fallen down, by occasion whereof the countermoore descendeth, falleth down and stoppeth the entry.  And the same tower containeth in wideness within, where the gunners should occupy their ordnance, 12 foot, and the main wall of the same tower outward 6 foot in thickness, which tower makes no defence but by the ground along the wall of either side, and the over part of the same tower is filled with earth and dampned.”

Where the towers were too small to hold cannon, covered gun platforms called murderers were built forward of the original tower to facilitate this lateral gunfire.


The 1520s saw various piecemeal improvements continue.  The castle walls were countermured and bulwarks­—large earthwork defences upon which cannon would be mounted—were built outside the walls to protect vulnerable areas like gateways and towers; one outside Lord’s Mount, one (now disappeared) outside the Cowgate and, best preserved, the Great Bulwark in the Snook.  Another bulwark, but made of stone, was built projecting into the river outside Coxon’s Tower.  It is possible the New Tower was built about this time as, like the adapted towers and murderers, it was built as a gun chamber providing lateral fire.

Aerial view of the Great Bulwark in the Snook.  
The central depression of the gun platform can still be seen.
Windmill Bastion is to the left.  To the right, the ridge and furrow strip farming of Magdelene Fields is visible.

However, as may be gleened from the description of the Broadstairhead Tower (above), by 1533, these early 16th century adaptations were in a terrible state of repair.  In the early 1540s, probably as a result of the survey, Henry VIII strengthened the castle with the West Gun Tower and the riverside Water Tower, and in the vulnerable north-east corner of the town, built Lord’s Mount.

Lord’s Mount

Lord’s Mount was one of a series of works built in the 1540s.  This mighty emplacement was to strengthen the exposed north-east corner of the town’s defences.  By 1542, 1,000 labourers were at work building the 5m (20 feet) thick walls of this strongpoint.  Though originally designed by Henry VIII himself, Lord’s Mount is an approximation of his plan, redesigned by the mason on site through a lack of funding to match “the King’s expectations”.  It was a self-contained structure containing a well, ovens, a fireplace, latrines and lodgings as well as the six casemates for cannon.

Lord’s Mount

Within 25 years the new work was made obsolete by the construction of the Elizabethan fortifications.  The upper open floor, where the heavier guns were mounted, was removed and the ground floor filled in with earth.  The site was excavated in the 1970s.

The New Fort

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.

Part of the bastioned outer defences of Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, added in 1597.  This gives an idea of what the New Fort would have looked like.

However, 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.

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.

The Bell Tower

In the 1560s there were four bell towers in Berwick, one in each quarter and it is likely that this had always been the case.  Where three of them were located is unknown but in the north, the medieval bell tower was replaced, in the 1540s, by Lord’s Mount.  An existing medieval semi-circular tower was adapted or replaced by a new bell tower which straddled the medieval wall west of Lord’s Mount.  This and the curtain walls were lowered in height from 10m (30 feet) to 5.5m (17 feet) during the construction of the Elizabethan walls.  

The Bell Tower.

Inside our Bell Tower, the remains of its predecessor can be seen.  Outside, doorways on either side indicate the height of the lowered sentry walk.  The present Bell Tower was built in 1577.  

“…the day watch tower is rebuilt in rough stone in eight cantes [sides], 26 feet high above the walls, and 14 feet in timber above the same stone a work, surmounting the old tower six feet in height.” 

This wooden structure can be seen in a 17th century painting in Berwick Town Hall and is undoubtedly the campanile in which the alarm bell was housed.


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