Leadup to the Capture of Berwick

The events leading to the Capture of Berwick begin with the death of the Norwegian-born, Margaret, Maid of Norway in 1290, the heir to Scotland. At the age of seven, she succumbed to illness on her way to Scotland, before she could be inaugurated. Her death ignited fierce competition for the Scottish throne, though the rivalry effectively lay between Robert the Bruce (grandfather to ‘the’ Robert the Bruce) and John Balliol. King Edward I of England was appointed as chief decision-maker in settling the dispute (in the hopes of avoiding a civil war), favouring John Balliol – on one condition: he swore allegiance. Edward I saw an opportunity to destabilise and challenge Balliol’s rule, and exploit Scotland as a vassal state for England. Friction grew amongst the Scottish people over the next three years over divided loyalties between their humiliated king, Balliol, and Edward I, which ultimately led to Balliol being “let go” and the newly appointed Council of Twelve (the top dogs in Scotland at the time) taking back the reins of Scotland. Accounts of Balliol aren’t terribly kind; he was generally disliked and pitied, and was mockingly referred to as “Toom Tabard” – meaning “empty coat”, after the arms of Scotland were unceremoniously ripped from his coat – he later had a short stay in the Tower of London, before being expelled to France.

In response to King Edward I’s increasing demands and to defend against an imminent plot to overthrow Scotland, the Scots formed an allegiance with the French in 1295. The Auld Alliance (or “Old Alliance”) affectionately refers to the long-lasting relationship between the nations. The agreement clearly favoured the French; their only role was to continue their conflicts with England in the French province of Gascony, and it was agreed any costs resulting from battle between the English and the Scots was to be solely borne by Scotland. Despite the terms and their already impoverished state, Scotland now held an important alliance with a powerful European nation who shared their desire to bring down their English rivals.

Early Days of the First War of Scottish Independence

The conquest of Cumberland and united attack of the city of Carlisle by the French and Scottish saw the beginning of the war between England and Scotland. In retaliation for these strikes, England launched their conquest of Scotland in 1296. Followed by an estimated 35,000 men, Edward I crossed the river Tweed and marched on to Berwick. At the time, the border town of Berwick lay on royal Scottish lands, was one of the most populous and affluent towns in the country, and was key to Scottish trade – so the English were certainly motivated. Disputes over this territory would continue for hundreds of years, Berwick was central to the border conflicts between England and Scotland and possession repeatedly changed hands. It now lies four kilometres south of the Scottish border.

The Scottish troops, led by Sir William Douglas, had the castle well-fortified. Commanded by Robert de Clifford, England launched their assault by sea but had to change tack, being forced to attack from land after three ships were burnt and the rest blocked. It’s believed his men infiltrated the castle disguised under Scottish banners, before unleashing the carnage that would mark the rise of the First War of Scottish Independence, and the next twenty years of conflict in Scotland that would earn Edward I the affectionate name, “Hammer of the Scots”.

The Capture of Berwick

On Good Friday of 1296, English troops mercilessly lay waste to the town of Berwick over two days. The casualties, mostly civilians, included numerous women and children – with total estimates ranging from 7,000 to 15,000. A dramatic account by Scottish historian, Walter Bower, illustrates that “for two days streams of blood flowed from the bodies of the slain”, so much so that it set the water mill into motion. In response to the overwhelming raid by the English, the Scottish garrison surrendered, and were allowed to withdraw from the castle with their lives. William Douglas was however imprisoned and stripped of his estates. The town was then fortified and established as an English stronghold, though much of the town was destroyed and even the churches were ransacked and used as stables for the cavalry.

Legend has it that the Flemings (successful traders with a factory, the Red Hall) showed great courage and loyalty during the siege, with 30 men standing firm against the English army from within the building. Determined to defend the hall at all costs, they fired their arrows into the enemies below. There they remained through the night, increasingly irritating the English until the army set the hall on fire, destroying the building and those inside. It’s been said that as the fire took hold, they hurried to the roof “discharging their last arrows on their besiegers, and waving their swords around their heads with a shout of triumph”.

The massacre that took place during the Capture of Berwick has gained notoriety as a brutal chapter of British history, and offered a preview into the vengeance Edward I was prepared to inflict upon Scotland.