Berwick—A Garrison Town. Part 4: The Elizabethan Walls

Following the fall of Calais, England’s last foothold in France, in 1558 and the more immediate threat posed in 1557 by a fort being built just nine miles up the coast in Eyemouth by the Scots aided by French troops, English military minds turned to the continuing problem of Berwick’s defences.

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Aerial view from the north east of Berwick’s Elizabethan fortifications, showing Brass Bastion in the foreground.

No more piecemeal improvements:  Berwick’s new fortifications would incorporate the most modern military design from Italy—bastioned fortification.
The total cost eventually amounted to nearly £128,650 making these the most expensive works undertaken by the Crown in the whole of Elizabeth’s reign.
Despite the huge amount of effort and money expended, the defences were never completed.  According to the town’s Governor in 1598 they were, “a meere showe and opinion of a stronge thinge”.  It was perhaps fortunate that this unique defence system was never put to the test.
Whereas the medieval walls were built in an “organic” manner, the positions of towers governed by changes of terrain as much as anything else, the Elizabethan walls demanded a higher degree of geometric planning to be effective.
Construction of the new fortifications was supervised by Sir Richard Lee, the most eminent military engineer in England at the time.  In 1560, Giovanni Portinari, and later, Jacopo a Contio, both renowned consultant Italian engineers, were brought in to advise.  There were constant disagreements between Lee and the Italians about the details in construction which probably led to the many mistakes in construction.
The Italians recommended building the north wall out to the cliff to prevent incursions down the east flank but the expense was prohibitive.  In 1565, a compromise ditch, the Covert Way, was dug from near Brass Bastion to the cliff, terminating in a raised earthwork redoubt.
Lee intended the curtain rampart to continue across the town, linking King’s Mount with Meg’s Mount (the Cat Well Wall) but by 1570, the original threat of attack had diminished and the costs were spiralling well above budget.  As a cost-cutting measure, the design was altered; King’s Mount was moved slightly further south than originally intended, and joined on to the medieval riverside walls.
In truth, the walls were never completed and many believe that, for all their formidable appearance, they would have proved ineffective had an attack by the Scots been mounted.

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Schematic cross-section through Elizabethan walls as originally conceived by Sir Richard Lee (not drawn to scale). 

1. Counterscarp; 2. Ditch; 3. Cunette; 4. Masonry curtain wall with sentry walk; 5. Raised earthwork with sentry walk.

Curtain Wall

The stone curtain wall was to be over 6m (20 feet) high with 7m (20 feet) of earth piled up against the inner side, consolidated by internal buttresses.  A cobbled sentry path ran inside the top of this wall, a short stretch of which can be seen above the west flanker of Brass Bastion.

Inside of the sentry path, an earth rampart should have risen another 5.5m (17 feet), topped by an earthwork parapet to protect the defending soldiers from enemy fire.  This height was never reached.

The Counterscarp

Another wall, or counterscarp, should have been built on the outer side of the ditch.  Its purpose would have been to protect the masonry of the main rampart from direct enemy cannon fire such that any shot landed in the earthwork above the sentry path.  This was never begun thus leaving the main masonry wall vulnerable to bombardment.

The Ditch

Outside the walls on the northern and eastern side of the town there was a water-filled ditch approximately 60m (200 feet) wide.  This would be filled from nearby springs to a depth of about 1m (3 feet).  Not hard to cross it may be thought, but a hidden trench called a cunette, 4m (12 feet) wide and 2.5m (8 feet) deep, was dug in the middle part of the moat to further hinder an enemy wading across or bringing siege equipment close to the walls.  The water was kept in place by stone dams—batardieau­—one of which remains in place at the north-east angle of Brass Bastion.  Like their medieval counterparts, it is thought that sluice systems could control water levels between the sections of ditch.

The Bastions

The bastion, an arrow-head shaped strongpoint, was a type of fortification developed in Italy early in the 16th century.  Though not the first examples to be built in England, Berwick had the most technologically advanced and comprehensive set of rampart and bastion defences in the Kingdom and are the only example of bastioned town walls in Britain.

Fire could be directed against the enemy from a bastion’s outer faces, while artillery mounted in the bastions’ flankers provided covering fire for the outer faces of, and the curtain wall between, the bastions.  This would be “grape-shot”, carefully aimed so as not to hit the opposite flanker!

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West flanker of Brass Bastion looking towards Cumberland Bastion showing direction of lateral defensive cannon fire.

The flankers were to have been two storeys high, with guns mounted at both levels.  Spiral stairs in the flankers lead to the upper floor but this was never completed.  Indeed, the flankers had to be extended and widened to allow more room for the guns.

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Plan of part of the walls showing direction of defensive cannon fire.

Gunpowder and shot were stored in recesses in the stonework beside the gun platforms in the flankers.  The large, brick-arched recesses at the rear of the flankers in Brass Bastion were merely “bridges” to widen access to the main bastion upper level (this having been narrowed due to a last-minute reorientation of the bastion position and shape.

Four of Berwick’s bastions are topped with earth mounds, called cavaliers, which were added during the period of the Civil Wars in the 17th century providing higher-level artillery positions.

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