Reclaiming Berwick

A nice alliterative title would have been Berwick Betrayed, but as I'm on the Scots' side, and as Edward I originally took it from the Scots (in a most bloody and brutal way), I'm not crazy about that title.  Furthermore, some accounts suggest it was not only one man who was fed up with the way the English were treating the Scots.

The history can be found elsewhere, telling of the events leading to Edward storming north and subduing Berwick on March 30, 1296.  Good Friday.  At least for Edward.  Not so much for the people of Berwick, brutally slaughtered.

There's an even longer story behind why Edward I felt Berwick might justifiably be called his and why Scotland might justifiably feel otherwise.  It's as bad as trying to sort out fights among children!  On a serious note--considering the swords and trebuchets, much worse.

The years after the 1296 Sack of Berwick saw, among all the other battles and historical intrigue, the repeated attempts to reclaim Berwick.  The death of Edward I, in July 1307, was a great boon to Bruce and Scotland.  From then onward, he steadily reclaimed all that Edward had taken.  Berwick, alone, seemed destined to remain in English hands.

Bruce's attempts to regain Berwick:

  • 1312: Bruce attempted to reclaim Berwick by scaling the walls with ladders.  The barking of a dog warned the town, thwarting his attempt.
  • January 14, 1316: James Douglas attacked the city by land and sea both.  This time, a brilliant moon exposed the Scottish army.  Many sources suggest that Douglas more or less guarded the town for some time after this, making it difficult for the people to feed themselves.  One such story is that of Douglas's fight at Skaithmuir.
  • September to November 1317: Bruce besieges Berwick, but does not succeed
A new siege was begun some months later.  What must Bruce have felt of his chances of success after more than five years of failure?  The Castle, by Edwin Muir, could have been written about the attempts to take Berwick:

Our gates were strong, our walls were thick,
So smooth and high, no man could win
A foothold there, no clever trick
Could take us, have us dead or quick.
Only a bird could have got in.

It rang true of Berwick.  Bruce and Douglas had certainly tried, to repeated failure, even from these two brilliant commanders.  Muir's poem continues:

What could they offer us for bait?
Our captain was brave and we were true....
There was a little private gate,
A little wicked wicket gate.
The wizened warder let them through.

It's like he was there.  Or perhaps it's only that it's an old story, being sold out from within.  Peter, or Sym, Spaulding (or Spalding, or de Spaulding--because one moniker is never enough) contacted the Bruce probably in late March of 1318, offering to let the Scots army in, on his night guarding the Cow Gate.  Some versions of the story say he wanted 800 pounds in payment.  Most versions, and the one I prefer and lean toward, say that his wife, a Scottish woman, a relation to one of Bruce's men, was being harassed by the English soldiers, leading him to quite happily hand the town back to the Scots.  Some sources imply a more widespread discontent with English treatment of the town's Scots.

Peter (or Sym) let a group of Douglas's men in on the night of April 1, 1318.  (Or April 2, according to a few accounts.)  Despite the Scots' concern it was a trap, Peter was true to his word.  The small group spread havoc and chaos in the town that night.

In the morning, the English soldiers made one bold foray against the Scots while they were still few in number.  It nearly succeeded, as Douglas had lost control of his men and many were off plundering and looting.  The small group remaining was rallied and encouraged by the bold actions of Sir William Keith, newly knighted, and drove the English back into the castle, where they remained, under siege, until hunger forced them to give up.  Most accounts say the siege lasted eleven weeks, with the English giving up in 'late June.'  Eleven weeks from April 1 puts us at June 17, and Michael Penman, in The Kingship of Robert I, tells us that the Bruce was likely back at Stirling by June 24.

Some sources say six days.  Ah, the fun and frustration of historical research!  For several reasons, I tend to believe the eleven weeks.

In writing of Niall at the re-taking of Berwick, it becomes necessary to know more than accounts of the incident tells us.  It becomes necessary to be able to 'see' medieval Berwick, to see the place, the people, the things happening around Niall.

As a side note, which I hope to be able to write about later, I stumbled across one of these little known stories associated with the 1318 siege of Berwick Castle: the wreck of the La Trinite, an event that may--or may not--have turned the history of Berwick.

The La Trinite set off from London on Edward II's orders, bound for Berwick with:
  • 166 quarters and 5 bushels of Spanish wheat
  • 42 bacon-pigs
  • 10 quintals of iron
  • 1 quintal of steel
  • 40 iron-bound barrels of victuals
On (or possibly about) June 4, 1318, she instead 'miscarried' on 'the Gunfleet,' or 'the Gunfletsond,' a sandbank described as 12 miles south of Harwich and 5 leagues off the coast of Essex.

We are not told what became of the ship masters, Walter de Donervico and Walter de Donewico, or any of their men.  But we do know that, without these provisions, the English faced starvation inside Berwick Castle and surrendered about June 17. 

from: Berwick Time Lines
This story brings us back to 'seeing' medieval Berwick.  Provisioning by sea was the way to go because then, as now (big surprise, the sea hasn't changed!), the town is largely surrounded by water.  It sits on England's east coast, with the River Tweed coming in along one side.  The castle is roughly in the northwest corner of the town, with its 'white wall' jutting out into the river to form a protected jetty where ships might pull in to provision the castle.

On the castle compound's east walls, we find the donjon--the large gate that leads to a bridge across a deep ravine, which leads into the town via the Douglas Tower.  The Douglas Tower is another source of fun and frustration.  Although James Douglas's father, William le Hardi, was in command of Berwick's garrison in 1296 when Edward I sacked and murdered, and although James Douglas was instrumental in re-taking the town in 1318, the tower is actually named after a future James Douglas who again took the town for the Scots in 1337.

However, one source tells me that this Douglas Tower was actually originally called Hogs Tower, and is the place where William le Hardi, patriarch of the Douglas clan, was imprisoned after the 1296 sack of Berwick.  And just to keep us on our historical toes, it was later called Percy Tower.

This map was found at Berwick Time Lines, one of the most thorough sources I have found on historical Berwick.  It shows the layout of the castle and medieval town, with what exists today.  The castle complex, by other depictions, does not appear to me to be the small 'keep' that some sources have described the English retreating to.  So it is interesting to see the size of the medieval town in comparison.  

Once again, sources vary greatly, but accounts of the 1296 sack of Berwick speak of 5,000, or 7,000, or15,000, or even 25,000 townspeople being murdered by Edward's troops.  Many others point out that, given the size of other large towns and cities of the time, Berwick is unlikely to have had a population even as high as 5,000.  Some sources guess at a population closer to 2,000.

In considering these things, we can begin to imagine James Douglas and his few men moving stealthily through the town by night.  We can begin to imagine the English troops charging from the castle--they may have had to come over a bridge single file to reach the town.  However, they were, by reports in the town by the time Douglas's men saw them.

Around the town walls are a number of towers and gates, among them, the Cow Gate, halfway down the east walls of Berwick.  This is the gate guarded (or not, in this case) by Peter Spalding on the night of April 1, 1318.  We are told Douglas gathered men in the dark in Duns Park, and only then told them of Spalding's offer and what they were doing.  To date, I have found no information on what or where Duns Park was, but we can see from the map that Niall (who of course, was there) would have moved south on a strip of land between the sea and the city walls.

[This map, too, is from Jim Herbert's Berwick Time Lines.  He offers tours and other services related to Berwick, in addition to having a dream of building a full scale model--ie, a re-creation--of Berwick Castle.  His pages are a wealth of information.  I highly recommend looking into his work and his tours if you're ever going to Berwick--which I think you should!  I have added the labels directly to the map.  Note that not all gates and towers were necessarily already there in 1318, but the Cow Gate was.]

In writing fiction, we add to the historical details and we think: what is it to be in this position, knowing your otherwise successful commanders have tried repeatedly to take this town and have failed?  To know there is no way of knowing if you are walking into a trap or if Peter Spalding is really on your side?  To be trapped between walls and sea, knowing there's only one way out if the enemy suddenly leaps from hiding, knowing that way out will almost certainly be blocked if this is a trap?

How wide was the land between the sea and the walls?  While no scale is given on the map, the proportions suggest--not very.  Having been to Berwick, I can make some guesses based on personal experience.

And once again, due to length of post and time pressures, I will end this post here and hopefully tomorrow discuss the hours, days, and weeks after Bruce reclaimed Berwick.  Because the real question I have been studying this past day or two is: What was Niall doing between April 1 and the dramatic ending sequence at Holy Island?  [Ba ba BAHHHHH!!!!]

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Medieval Berwick, St. Fillan and Dalrigh,
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