Glendale Local History Society

'Keeping the Past Alive'

2017 February: The fortifications of Berwick-upon-Tweed

The Fortifications of Berwick upon Tweed

Derek Sharman

The talk, illustrated with maps showing the different plans of the ramparts as they were built, re-designed, allowed to fall into disrepair, were re-built, strengthened and altered over the last millennia, gave a detailed insight into the strategic importance of Berwick as a bulwark between England and Scotland.

Not only were we informed about the walls themselves, but also of the weaponry, military developments, sieges and changes of power which led to the need for advances in protection.

The current walls are largely Elizabethan, but fortifications have been present since before the 12th century. We know that there were wooden walls and a castle even before King David l of Scotland in 1124 made considerable improvements to an existing castle.

When Edward l (The Hammer of the Scots) pushed north in 1296 he overwhelmed the forces of the Scots at Dunbar and ordered a deep moat to be dug at Berwick, added a palisade ‘a spear height’ above the walls and enlarged the site considerably. The following year William Wallace recaptured the town for the Scots briefly, and over the next 9 years power fluctuated between Scots and English until Wallace was decisively beaten in 1305.

Edward II managed to maintain some control in Scotland until 1314. He added 14 towers to the walls and held on to Berwick until 1319, but after Bannockburn (1314) there was no longer any real chance of succeeding in the north. The walls fell into serious disrepair until after Homildon Hill (1402).

In 1408 John of Gaunt spent £6000 over 14 years to rebuild and defend the ramparts.

We were told that although one cannot be certain how many times Berwick changed hands, at least 13 can be accounted for. It continued to be fought over during the Wars of the Roses, with Henry IV being defeated but Richard of Gloucester recapturing it in 1482.

Henry VII improved defences as artillery power required stronger protection against cannon fire; thus Coxon’s Tower was built as a great bulwark guarding the entrance. Henry VIII added a tower at the foot of the White Wall, and at Lords Mount, gun emplacements and a self-contained edifice with kitchen and latrines.

The later Tudors continued improvements, until Elizabeth developed, with Italian
designers, a 20-foot-high rampart with a parapet of 17 feet. Six bastions were designed to completely surround the town, but only two-thirds were completed. There were brass demi-cannons, heavy mortars, Venetian cannon and breech loading guns. The Bell Tower was erected and the whole project was the most expensive of Elizabeth’s reign. A huge moat can be seen on a contemporary map.

When James VI of Scotland marched south in 1603, a cannon was fired symbolically and the garrison reduced to 100 men. He was crowned James I of England, an event re-enacted colourfully in Berwick recently. There was no longer a need for a barrier between the countries.

Although improvements to weaponry continued to be made, and even in WWII defences were added - this time to protect the coast, the walls were never again breached.

Berwick has a unique place in British history, its ramparts a fascinating reminder of conflicts in times past.