Berwick and the Bruce

First things first for my American readers--BARE-ick.  Not BURR-wick!  There, I have saved you from my fate of being laughed at in Scotland when I badly mispronounced the name of the town!

Berwick went back and forth between the English and Scots a whopping thirteen times in medieval days.  It has a long and sometimes dark history, in regards to Scotland.  Perhaps the darkest and ugliest was the Sack of Berwick, on March 30, 1296.  Bruce, at the time, was a young man of 21.  The town had been in Scottish hands in the days of the Scottish king John Baliol--a man chosen by Edward I of England, with the expectation that he would be easily manipulated.

However, King John made a stand, allying with the French against Edward in 1295.  Edward stormed north (he excelled, in fact, at storming north, and made a habit of it) with 30,000 men to remind the Scots who was really in charge of their king.  Berwick being where it was, it was besieged by the angry Edward.  The town fell on March 30, 1296.  The slaughter of the town, of men, women, and children, was ruthless, lasting three days with every possible person hunted down and killed.

Estimates of the death toll range wildly, though some modern figures are much lower, based on the known population of the time.  I think, however, that it's easy to get wrapped up in numbers.  The total number, whether it was 2,000 or 15,000 is less relevant than the fact of such total decimation of an entire town, and with such brutality.  Had there been 15,000 living in the town, that would have been close to the number killed.

Among the most horrific stories are that of an English knight murdering a woman (and her child) in the very act of giving birth.  In my novels, I 'identify' this man as Simon Beaumont, Butcher of Berwick.  In truth, history has protected the guilty and not told us his name.

Edward followed up this display of inhumanity by forcing the Scottish nobles--including the young Bruce--to come to see him in Berwick, and to walk through the streets of rotting, dismembered bodies.

Berwick became the place where one of Bruce's brothers would be hanged and quartered by the English, and where one of his fervent supporters, Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, would be forced to live in a cage, on display, for four years.

In the years following Bruce's great victory at Bannockburn, Berwick, however, seemed at first destined to remain in English hands.  On the night of January 14, 1316, James Douglas, Bruce's foremost friend and right-hand man in the war for freedom, led a surprise attack on the town, by land and sea.  A bright moon gave them away, and the attack was called off, although James left behind a body of men to watch the town and cut the supply lines to it.

This led to one of Douglas's hardest fought (by his own estimation) battles: the battle at Coldstream, or Skaithmuir, on February 14, 1316, when the starving Gascons left Berwick to try to find food.

In the early months of 1318, Bruce and Douglas led a joint siege against Berwick.  Accounts and names vary slightly, but it seems a Peter (or Syme) of Spalding, an Englishman, approached the Scots, offering to let them in.  One story says he asked for a bribe of 800 pounds--a story that David R. Ross finds implausible.  Another story, and the one I use in my books, is that Spalding's wife was a Scottish woman, kin to the Scottish Sir William Keith.  This woman was being harassed, and possibly abused, by the English soldiers in Bewick.  For this reason, Spalding was quite happy to turn the town over to his wife's countrymen.

It was on this attempt that Bruce finally regained the town.  In The Battle is O'er, Book Five of The Blue Bells Chronicles, (due out in late 2017) we will see Niall at that siege:

The men on the ponies exchanged looks and shrugged. “We know naught of the people there,” said the first. 
“MacDonald seemed in good spirits?” 
“Niall! The trebuchet!” 
A hail of arrows and rocks erupted from behind Berwick’s walls. The travelers wheeled their ponies and spurred them hard out of shot of the enemy. Niall threw his shield up over his head, ducking under it. A few arrows scattered around him, piercing the earth muddy with March rains. Somewhere, a man screamed. The arrows quivered like flowers, their feathers like a garden of death. He shouted for his men at the trebuchet. They’d already put up a wall of shields, guarding those who rolled another boulder into the machine’s giant palm. A dozen men jumped back, letting the arm fling the rock through the drizzle just starting. It struck the wall too low, doing little damage, and slid into the moat. A shower of smaller stones and a second flurry of arrows came flying back. Men shouted and ducked. 
“Another one!” Niall yelled. “Keep the shields up!” Already, Lachlan and Owen had a massive stone rolling down the slight incline, and Taran and a half dozen others were hauling on the ropes, pulling the arm down against the massive counterweight. In his weeks with the army, Taran had gained bulk. He shouted in a voice deepening into a man’s. “Pull harder, lads!” 
A spray of arrows spattered around them, piercing shields and the soft mud. “Let fly!” Hugh roared, and the second boulder spun out against the gray sky. They backed up as the archers on the wall took aim again. Their stone struck the wall, digging out chunks of masonry. His men cheered, even as they dragged the mangonel back, just beyond reach of the arrows.

Berwick continues in Scottish history beyond this point, but for now, I leave this as part one of the story of Berwick, as regards the Bruce.  Of further interest, you might like another brief overview of medieval Berwick, or Eating Not Quite Medieval: Wrong Century, Wrong Continent, which touches on the question of what may have been eaten during sieges, or the story of the Unfortunate Adam Newton, who had a connection to Berwick.

Information Britain
Berwick Times Tumblr
Wikipedia--James Douglas
Education Scotland
James the Good: The Black Douglas by David R. Ross


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