Saturday, August 24, 1482, is the anniversary of Berwick changing hands between the English and the Scots for the 13th and last time, falling to Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III).
So what led up to this? It’s a classic tale of everyday treachery and self-interest on all sides.
The Wars of the Roses started in 1455 and Henry VI asked James II of Scotland for assistance in exchange for which, Berwick and Northumberland would be theirs. James had been raiding across the border and threatened to take Berwick, but withdrew to attack Roxburgh in 1460, where a cannon exploded and killed him.
After the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Towton in March, 1461, Henry VI and his wife Margaret of Anjou retreated to Berwick. Henry, it is thought, was afflicted by mental illness and it was Margaret who, in April 1461, negotiated with James II’s widow, Mary of Gueldres, over the gift of Berwick for Scottish assistance against the Yorkists. Mary, having gained Berwick, saw which way the wind was blowing and sided with the Yorkists. Henry had to leave his refuge in Berwick and was eventually captured and murdered in the Tower of London.
In 1474 a treaty was made between Edward IV and James III in which Cecilia of York was betrothed to the young Scottish Prince James. There was to be a 45 year truce between the nations.
The peace was broken six years later by the Earl of Angus and the Earl of Northumberland raiding across the border. The situation escalated and in 1481 Edward IV prepared for a major campaign against Scotland. He sent a large navy to blockade the Firth of Forth and James raised a large army to defend the border.
No sooner had he done this than he withdrew the army! He had received word from the Pope calling for peace between the nations and assumed that Edward had received and would obey similar entreaties. Edward had, but ignored them, and continued his harrying of the Scottish coast. Berwick was besieged throughout the winter of 1481–82.
Meanwhile, James’ brother Alexander, Duke of Albany, who had been suspected of treachery and had fled to France but now returned, prepared to make a deal with Edward.
It was agreed that, in exchange for Edward’s help in putting him on the Scottish throne, Albany would break the “auld alliance” with France and give Berwick and other border lands to England within a fortnight of arriving in Edinburgh and would pay homage to Edward.
In July, the Scottish army, led by James, was raised once more to counter the advance on Berwick of Richard and Albany. But the discontent towards James within Scotland was growing as the naval blockade was ruining the economy.
The English reached Berwick and took the town with ease but Lord Hailes held out at the castle. The English army split up; 4,000 men were left to maintain the siege while Gloucester marched on Edinburgh.
The Scottish army marching to relieve Berwick never reached further than Lauder. A conspiracy led by the Earl of Angus resulted in many of the Scottish nobility being hanged at Lauder Bridge. James was captured and held prisoner in Edinburgh Castle.
Gloucester and Albany took advantage of this and were encamped outside Edinburgh at the beginning of August. Richard reckoned there was no need to take the town by force as Albany would, when King, be a vassal to the Yorkist cause. They were to meet with government representatives who, it was thought, would hand over Edinburgh and the crown to Albany.
However, news of Albany’s treaty with Edward had already reached Edinburgh and support for the pretender had waned. Richard did not have a sufficient force to take the city by force and Albany got cold feet, not wanting to reveal his true intentions of kingship and so pretended he was there to claim land from which he had been disinherited. A compromise was reached on August 4 whereby Albany’s previous treason was pardoned and his lands restored.
It suited Albany not to have the stigma of giving Berwick to the English. Richard rejoined the siege of Berwick Castle on August 11. Albany made a pretence of leading an army to relieve Berwick but this only reached the Lammermuirs. The defenders of Berwick had held out well against the English but saw that they had been betrayed and the castle fell by August 24.
The campaign was dismissed as being a waste of time and money; King Edward was grieved at the “frivolous expenditure”.
In a final twist to the tale however, it has been suggested that Richard, being the excellent commander that he was, knew all along that it would not be possible to take Edinburgh by force. For him the main objective were the forays into the borders and the taking of Berwick to strengthen his hold on his northern dominions.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the dispute over Berwick. The Scots attempted to take it back again but these amounted little more than raids. Richard III proclaimed himself king in 1483 but died at Bosworth on August 22, 1485.