42. Berwick and the Battle of Flodden


On 9 September 1513, the ferocious battle, which later became known as the Battle of Flodden, took place near Branxton, a mere twelve miles away from the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Yet we know very little about the part the battle played and its effect on the town, as, unfortunately, there are very few sources to help us.

Berwick (or at least civilian Berwick) seems to “glide out” of history from about 1503 until sometime in the 1520s, so much of this will be conjecture but based on what information could be gleaned from sources and books – including many of the manuscripts transcribed for the first time in connection with the Flodden 500 project – mentioned at the end of this article.

In 1482, Berwick changed hands between Scotland and England for what came to be the very last time and has remained English ever since. Her “liberator”, the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, was himself killed in battle shortly after, and the new rulers, the Tudors, set about concentrating power in the hands of the king. This power included control of the armed forces directly under the power of the King instead of by each individual lord through the feudal system. The power of dukes and other nobles was reduced so they became more like “tax collectors”. Another innovation was the establishment of permanent garrisons under royal control, of which Berwick was one.

The Treaty of Ayton, 1497, was negotiated with the help of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, whose daughter, Catherine of Aragon, later became Henry VIII’s first wife. It was an attempt to bring peace to the border region with clear-cut stipulations as to cross-border shipping and trade, punishment of criminals, dealings with rebellions and raids, and the establishment of border wardens and arbitration bodies. Berwick was specifically mentioned in the seven-year truce, which was to last until 1504. James IV of Scotland and Henry VII of England agreed to the treaty in 1498.

In 1502, the two monarchs agreed to the “Treaty of Perpetual Peace”, which also stipulated that Berwick was to retain its status quo. A marriage was negotiated between Henry VII’s daughter, Margaret, and James IV. The royal bride progressed to Scotland in pomp and splendour, and passed through Berwick on her way to Lamberton, where she was handed over to the Scots. From then on, there is very little mention of Berwick.

What was Berwick like at the time? We know that there was a general decline in the wool trade, a trade that had helped to make Berwick the richest town in Scotland in the 13th century. We also know that the 1500s were in the middle of the “Little Ice Age”, a long period of global cooling, which in Britain lasted from the early 1300s (many historians regard the severe famine of 13156 as its start) to the mid-1800s (perhaps when the effect of industry was making itself felt on the climate). During this period summers were wetter and cooler and winters very harsh, illustrated by the number of frost fairs that could take place when the Thames froze over (the last time the ice being thick enough for this was 1814). It was a period of recurring famines and outbreaks of the plague. Although these calamities occurred throughout the country, their effect would be exacerbated in areas already depressed. R S Schofield, an economic historian, maintains that the northern half of England failed to even double their wealth between 1334 and 1515, when regions further south had enjoyed on average a three-fold increase in growth. Not only that, the English marches abutting the border were mired in poverty and constantly threatened by Scottish raids – indeed, the area was a sort of anarchic and wild frontier.

With the decline in the wool trade, Berwick’s economy was probably confined to the salmon and herring trade, and to servicing the garrison. In fact, Berwick had a unique position in that it was the only permanent garrison on the British mainland. There were only two such garrisons: Berwick as the northern gateway, and the other, in Calais, as the southern.

The town of Berwick “within the walls” of 1513 was larger in area than it is now. It extended up to the Castle and what is now known as the Greenses, however, probably only the lower part of Castlegate was built up. We do not know the population of Berwick, but an educated guess would be about 3,000, including the garrison. Ideally, the garrison was supposed to consist of 500 men, but it would seem that often this number would not be reached – perhaps because of lack of qualified personnel, or perhaps because personnel abandoned their posts due to unpaid wages. It should be remembered that soldiers in the garrison had to be born outside the area – that is they could not be from Northumberland, Cumberland, Durham or Westmoreland. A survey was made in 1562 for tax purposes, and this gives us some idea, even though it was made 50 years later. The names in 1562 are what we would call “English” – no Homes or Campbells or Douglases among them. Presumably, after the final changing of hands, the Scots would be banned from the town itself, although there is no evidence of a cleansing along the lines of the massacre in 1296 under Edward I. We know from later 16th century documents that Scottish presence and activity in the town was strictly regulated, so it seems reasonable to assume that in 1513 Berwick’s population was overwhelmingly English. Even so, we might also speculate that Berwick’s inhabitants in the early 1500s might be more amenable to the Scots than they were later in the century, as Scottish services and labour were important to the area.

The servicing of the garrison was probably of great economic importance to Berwick. Besides the need for craftsmen – smiths, carpenters, masons, various types of construction workers – there would be a need for provisions, accommodations, drinking establishments and, of course, brothels. As with most garrison towns there was probably a lot of criminality, prostitution, fighting and drinking going on – in fact, as for gender, it is reasonable to assume that men would significantly outnumber women in a garrison town, with some historians estimating one woman for every four men. Furthermore, the civilian population was probably not well-educated. The historian LamontBrown estimates that only one in three of Berwick’s so-called gentry and property owners could be considered literate – meaning that the level of the general population would be even lower.

In his history of Berwick (1799), John Fuller states that after Berwick’s final taking by the English in 1482, the sum of 10,000 merks annually (about £540 or some £270,000 in today’s money) was earmarked for the garrison in Berwick, illustrating how important the town was for the English. Although it is debatable whether this amount ever came through, undoubtedly the upkeep and manning of the garrison provided much of the town’s economic base. In 1508, Henry VII started repairs to Berwick’s walls, putting in charge William Lord Conyers, a well-connected aristocrat, who later took part in the Battle of Flodden. The Master Mason received 8d per day and the Master Carpenter 1s 6d per day (£16.15 and £36.28 respectively in today’s money), as well as providing work for the town’s craftsmen and labourers, but the project was a start and stop undertaking: London’s interest would only be revived when the Scots were deemed a threat. Nor can we ignore a dark side to the situation: fraud and embezzlement was not uncommon.

We now turn to events leading up to the Battle of Flodden, in September 1513, that touch upon Berwick. Sir Thomas Darcy had been appointed Captain of Berwick in 1498, and, in 1501, he also became treasurer and chamberlain of the town, as well as customer (royally appointed customs collector) of Berwick port. We start by looking at his letter to Henry VIII dated 7 August 1512, shortly after the conclusion of the Bensted Accounts giving the amount of £2166 (slightly over £1 million in today’s money) as the cost of the Earl of Surrey’s campaign in the north earlier that year. This was in answer to the King’s letter of 1 August, which had asked Darcy for information regarding the King of Scots’ intentions and intelligence as to the size of his fleet. Darcy informed Henry that his spy was a priest and extremely reliable, and agreed with other spies that James IV had less than 20 ships of his own, and also promised to have information of French intentions. Darcy himself planned to leave Berwick to muster his own tenants in Yorkshire, leaving his son in charge. In praise of Thomas Dacre, the Warden of all the Marches, he claimed that no Englishman knew more of the secrets of the Scots than him. After a brief reminder that he was awaiting the King’s answer to a previous letter concerning pay due, Darcy’s letter closed with a postscript that his “rude and evil ordered letter” should be excused, as he could make “no clerk privy to it”.

Now this letter tells us several interesting things: firstly it would seem there was a lot of intelligence gathering and espionage going on in both directions. Darcy even mentioned that the Scots believed they had sure spies in Henry’s court. Secondly, it tells us the speed with which such news could travel the length of England, especially with the completion of improved roads, news could get from Berwick to the south within a week of hard riding (the King’s letter of 1 August was sent from Portsmouth!). This would also seem to indicate a network of expert riders and horses to convey this intelligence. To be sure, we know that Queen Catherine received James IV’s bloodied jacket on 17 September – eight days after the battle. Little is known of these couriers – who must have been chosen for their riding skills, reliability, and perhaps also for their being unable to read or write.

Therefore, there is much to support Berwick’s position as a centre of espionage in the months up to the battle. Tempting as it might be to regard Berwick as some sort of 16th century Casablanca (as depicted in the film made during World War II), we do not know if this activity was noticeable to the civilian population.

We now turn to the three months preceding the battle. Our main source of the effect of rumours and intelligence is from the correspondence of Henry VIII. Not all of it is from Berwick and the Borders – foreign ambassadors, allies of England, etc, also come into play. But presumably much was based on intelligence and espionage collected in the area. In a letter from 4 June 1513, John Fox (now Bishop of Winchester but formerly Bishop of Durham and much involved in the treaty of Ayton and James IV’s marriage to Margaret Tudor) writes to Wolsey that it was uncertain what the Scottish King intended to do, but there were indications “that James will make no actual war, but rob and spoil the King’s subjects, especially by water”. Another letter, dated 20 June to Henry VIII from Spinelli, one of Henry’s Italian envoys, stated that his intelligence was that “the King of Scots will make no war”, although three French ships were in Scotland. Lord Dacre wrote to the Earl of Surrey on 25 June that he saw no danger from the Scots “and finds them well disposed touching the good rule of the Borders”.

The tone changed in a letter to the council dated 15 July, from Sir Ralph Evers (or Eure), Master of Ordnance in Berwick, Thomas Strangewishe, Master Porter, and four others with close connections to Berwick. They had intelligence that James IV and his lords “purpose to France” and that they have shipped large ordnance and 40 vessels with the intention of besieging Berwick. The writers begged the council to come to their defence as the walls were “ruinous”. They wanted spades and wood and, above all, money, as 20 workmen who had been employed for 12 months under Master Mason William Pawne, had not been paid and had left. The King was to have furnished the town and castle with 500 men and funds were needed to pay them, although Thomas Strangwishe the porter had furnished them well with victuals. They closed with a post-script that they had heard that the Scots had removed their goods inwards from the border in preparation.

On 22 July, Thomas Ruthall, the then Bishop of Durham, asked Darcy to keep him informed of whatever news he had heard from Scotland since he feared for the security of his castle in Norham. A letter from the Venetian ambassador in France, dated 24 July, but received a month later, stated that the Scots had already invaded England, taking four – unfortunately unnamed – towns, and that the King of Scotland in person would invade England.

James IV himself wrote to Henry VIII on 26 July, complaining that Henry had not honoured safe conducts for envoys and had also withheld the legacy of James’s Queen (Henry’s sister) as well as misrepresenting James’s intentions to Pope Julius. The likelihood of war mounted, and on 4 August, Queen Catherine wrote to the Mayor and Sheriffs of Gloucester that writings and news from the Borders showed the King of the Scots meant war and therefore she commanded them to start mustering. In correspondence at the end of August an ambassador stated that the Scots had invaded England with 80,000 men and in another letter that a Scotch fleet of 22 ships was bringing 6,000 men to Honfleur. August ended with an order from Queen Catherine that all property of Scottish subjects except ecclesiastics in the county of Oxford were to be confiscated.

We come to early September and the battle itself. Although it took place twelve miles from Berwick, there seems to have been little initial effect on the town, as those fighting on the English side were mustered through Alnwick. Nor does there seem to be evidence of much participation from the Berwick area – perhaps the priority there was the defence of the town, but it cannot be discounted that close ties and kinship to Scots on the other side of the border could have raised doubts as to loyalty. Darcy himself was in France with King Henry VIII although his son took part in the Battle of Flodden. The Book of Horses shows that one Berwicker, Richard Ogle, was awarded “a white grey trotting nag with a slit in the right ear”.

Before continuing with the effect that the aftermath of the battle had on Berwick, we might ask the reasonable question as to why James IV did not attack Berwick itself. Surely the answer lies in the history of the treaties: in 1482 when Berwick changed country for the last time, the Scots agreed not to take Berwick again, and Berwick’s status quo was also mentioned in the treaties of 1497 and 1502. Also, Berwick was a garrison – although James might not necessarily have known how inadequately it was fortified. Berwick’s geographical position must have also played a role since, situated on a peninsula at the mouth of the Tweed, there were few ways in or out of the town, making it much easier to defend. In contrast, entering England from another area, for example, Coldstream, would enable an invading army to widen their advance. Finally, surely James must have felt that taking a less significant patch of land near the border would fulfil his obligations to France and not be so provocative to the English – a monumental miscalculation that cost him his life.

In contrast, the aftermath of the battle must have been noticeable in Berwick. One can imagine the citizens of the town lining the streets as James IV’s body was brought back to be shrouded and encased in a lead coffin before being taken south.

The Scottish artillery, tents, baggage and other equipment were taken, and much of it must have ended up in Berwick, although, as we shall see, there were problems with some of the heavy ordnance. However, the greatest influence on Berwick was the decision to de-muster all English troops through Berwick. This must have swelled the population immensely, as not only were there troops that needed accommodation, food and other services, there would also be officers and others involved in the de-mustering such as monks carrying strong boxes of cash to pay conduct money and other expenses. Paymasters, scribes and recorders would be necessary as well as personnel to keep the peace – it would be hard to imagine such an influx of victorious soldiers without a lot of celebrating, drunkenness, brawling, etc, going on. Indeed, Henry VIII’s correspondence mentions a bill for conveying 500 tons of beer for the King’s army at Berwick from the south between 2 and 27 October.

We now come to the matter of the Scottish ordnance, described as some of the finest ever seen. Exchequer Accounts in Henry VIII’s correspondence notes various payments made for various brass cannons and firearms brought into Berwick by the Duke of Norfolk, as well as for the costs of a John Cragges for the carriage of 16 pieces of guns of brass, two loads of hagbushes (handguns) and pellets in eight wains from the field to Berwick.

But other, heavier ordnance proved a problem. This was brought to Etal Castle with the intention of its being transported to Berwick. On 17 February 1514, Henry ordered the ordnance by land to Newcastle to avoid the dangers of it going by sea, but this also presented the danger of the Scots taking it back. Meanwhile, the Deputy and Council of Berwick refused to let it be carried over Berwick bridge, as the wooden structure had been weakened by its passage into the town. 100 horses and oxen were procured for the operation, but Berwick lacked much of the necessary equipment and was trying to get this from the Priors of Durham and Tynemouth as well as the Mayor of Newcastle. The King did show some concern for Berwick. In a letter dated 9 March, he stated that William Pawne and George Lawson, who had the oversight and payment of a crew at Berwick, should also have the “rule over the King’s houses, games and mills in the Ness and on Wallace Green”. All this was aggravated by new threats of attack on Berwick. A raiding party had burnt five towns (no mention of which towns) on 10 March and come within two miles of Berwick on 11 March and Darcy wrote they were planning to lay siege to the town.

Although some of the correspondence seems to be missing, Darcy’s letter to the King of 20 March reveals much. Despite the King paying for 50 gunners in Berwick, there were no more than six, and untrained soldiers were used in order to save on wages. Darcy admitted there are not more than 20, but William Pawne, now Master of the Ordnance, had 54 gunners in his retinue, but could not obtain more as they had gone to war. The idea was to train ordinary soldiers to be gunners, but in order to save powder, Darcy would not allow them to shoot. He also added that the Berwick Corporation was too impoverished to provision the soldiers as the King had increased the rent they must pay for fishing rights. Furthermore, in answer to the King’s order to Darcy and Sir Ralph Evers personally to provide 500 men, Darcy said he was unable to do so. The King did promise to send money for victuals and wages, and was also sending gunpowder, hagbushes, bows and arrows, tools, wheat and malt.

Interestingly, Darcy also says that the reason there was a shortage of victuals was that the town porter, Thomas Strangewishe, who had received £500 (about £250,000 in today’s money) for victualing, was, in fact, using it to buy merchandise for his own trading. He had now been told to procure the victuals, “or else”.

But Berwick was rapidly gliding from view. Henry’s real interest was a new campaign in France, and Darcy was to join him with 500 men, including 100 horsemen. He was told not to leave the town in charge of his son George but to Sir Ralph Evers. However, Evers declined because of the cold weather, the sea air (which at the time was considered unhealthy) and his health, and said he would gladly serve the King anywhere else in the world than Berwick! Darcy himself expressed the wish that he would rather be in Yorkshire than shut up in Berwick. By mid-1514 interests were elsewhere. The running thread seemed to be that Berwick only got help when there was perceived to be a threat.

In conclusion, it seems that although the actual Battle of Flodden, a mere twelve miles away, had little influence in the town of Berwick, the events leading up to the battle and then its aftermath, did. Berwick had its significance in that it was one of two permanently garrisoned towns in the realm – serving as the northern gateway. But the town was poor and its fortifications neglected except when the Scots were actually threatening. Before the battle, Berwick was probably at the centre of intelligence gathering, although this may not have been noticeable to the civilian population. It was afterwards that the effect was most felt in Berwick with troops being de-mustered through the town and decisions being made as to what should be done with the spoils of war. Then Berwick’s significance seemed to fade – it was another six or so decades before Berwick would become the focus of an enormous building project – the Elizabethan Walls – but that is another story.

Bibliography and Acknowledgements

As well as the various documents transcribed in the Flodden Project (Book of Horses, Bensted Accounts, Tilney Accounts, Rules of the Garrison, etc), extensive use has been made of Letters and Papers Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 1: 1509 – 1514, J S Brewer (ed), as well as A Generell Survey of all the Quenes Maie[ties] Towne of Barwick uppon Twede (1562), unpublished manuscript available at the Berwick Record Office.

The following books and articles have been consulted:
Campbell, Bruce: “Demographic and Economic Developments in England AD c 1000 – c 1800”, paper submitted to the 14th International Economic History Congress, Helsinki, Finland (2006)
Fuller, John: The History of Berwick (1799)
Gordon, Leonard: Berwick-upon-Tweed and the East March (1985)
Lamont-Brown, Raymond: The Life and Times of Berwick-upon-Tweed (1988)
Ridley, Joseph: The Tudor Age (1998)
Rose, Alexander: Kings in the North: The House of Percy in British History (2002)
Schofield, R S: “The Geographical Distribution of Wealth in England, 1334 – 1649”, in The Economic History Review, Vol. 18, Issue 3, pp 483-510. (1965)
Scott, John: The History of the Town and Guild of Berwick-upon-Tweed (1888)

I would also like to thank Jane Bowen, Jan Ward, Jim Herbert, Alison Hodgson and Lars Rose.