A Hole Lot of History

Postern gate in Elizabethan walls

There was a recent query on Facebook/Forgotten Berwick about a large hole in the north face of the Elizabethan town walls.  The hole in the wall is an unfinished gateway.

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The unfinished postern gate between Cumberland and Brass bastions.

The Elizabethan walls were, unlike their medieval predecessors, meticulously planned—geometry was everything.  They were designed, with, or despite the “help” from two Italian consultants who actually knew what they were doing.  The detail from the “architect’s plans”, dating to 1561 by Rowland Johnson the master mason, that Cumberland Bastion is halfway between Megs Mount and Brass Bastion.  The unfinished gateway is halfway between Cumberland and Brass despite being offset from the Wallace Green/Low Greens road to Edinburgh—that was doomed to be cut off.  Similarly, if you look closely by the crease in the map, there is a similar feature halfway between Megs and Cumberland.  They are intended to be small secondary gates (called posterns) that allowed troops to easily access the outside fields, here at the narrowest points of the ditch like at the Cow Port.

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Detail from Rowland Johnson’s 1561 map.

The 1561 map even shows a bridge outside a planned postern at the midway point between Windmill and Kings Mount.  There is no evidence of this or the one by Scotsgate having been built.  Indeed, by 1570, the defences were incomplete.  It is wrong to say they were finished in 1570; better that they just halted the project in 1570.

A scathing letter from Lord Hunsdon, the Governor at Berwick to Queen Elizabeth in 1568 reads:–

“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 ha˛s fallen down five places, and palle [wooden palisade] 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…”

And yet a look at two 18th century maps suggest the idea may have been revived.  In one, dated 1751, two dotted lines seem to indicate paths crossing the ditch at these points.

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Detail from the 1751 plan showing the two “pathways” (highlighted).

The other map, from a similar date, shows a more clearly defined access to new external ravelin defences.  (These were never realised; the Georgians made minor alterations along the riverside walls.)

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Detail from the post-1745 plan showing a bridge to a ravelin (highlighted).

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The bottom of the postern gate is elevated from the water-filled ditch which would have been crossed by a bridge, though probably narrower, to this English Heritage interpretation at Cow Gate (above) and the original 1719 plans upon which it is based (below).  This is what the Scotsgate would have looked like originally!

That wasn’t the end of the story, however.  Some may remember when the vandals of the 1960s yet again revisited the idea of knocking a new gate through the walls near the Scotsgate to create a one-way system.  Thankfully, that never happened, but one can’t help thinking sometimes that there might be some merit in completing Sir Richard Lee’s work by finishing the original gate near Wallace Green to act as another route through the walls.

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Detail from 1960s plan for a part of a one-way system in Berwick.

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