Back and forth in Berwick

Berwick is a small town on the Northumbrian coast occupying the northern shore of the River Tweed. Today it lies 2.5 miles south of the Scottish border and is a peaceful tourist town and local administrative and service centre.

This peaceful existence belies its turbulent past as the epicentre of Anglo-Scottish struggles. Wars, sieges, conquest and raids were Berwick’s lot for centuries. It is estimated that the town changed hands 13 times up to 1482 when it finally reverted to English control.

And, whilst it might have been under English control, it was not technically a part of England until the Reform Act of 1885 specified its inclusion. Until then, it was either mentioned specifically in legislation (as Great Britain, Ireland and Berwick Upon Tweed) or deemed to be included in England under the Wales and Berwick Act 1746.

A wonderful apocryphal story emerged that, as a result of these constitutional quirks, Berwick is still at war with Russia. The story suggests that Britain went to war in the name of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions. The Treaty of Paris in 1856 ended the war, but made no mention of Berwick. This officially resulted in Berwick (population 11,000) being pitted against the Russian Empire and subsequently the USSR.

Unfortunately, and like so many of the best historical ‘facts’, this is not true. It was so famous a story that it was investigated by the BBC’s Nationwide programme, and they found that Berwick was not mentioned on either the declaration of war or the peace treaty, and that the Wales and Berwick Act 1746 ensured any reference to England included Berwick.