Flodden 1513 has successfully focused attention on the historic slaughter that occurred in a nearby field in Branxton Village, yet how many of us are aware that just over 200 years prior to this, the town of Berwick witnessed carnage on a similar scale?
At Flodden the flower of the Scots nobility and the Scots King himself were amongst the dead. In Berwick the casualties were mostly civilian. No monument honours the memory of the slain. The anniversary date itself remains completely unknown. On March 30, 1296, Good Friday, King Edward I of England overran Berwick with his army and presided over a massacre of the townsfolk lasting two days. Accounts of the slaughter vary but it is clear that women and children were included in the butchery as Scotland’s richest international trading port flowed with blood to an extent that reputedly set the water mills in motion.
Whatever the precise historical accuracy of such details, or the exact numbers to have perished, there is a general consensus that a massacre took place of somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000 inhabitants. As with mass killings and genocides in the modern era the numbers, and responsibility, for the atrocities are contested and denied, diminished or exaggerated according to the biases and intentions of the respective chroniclers or subsequent historians. This phenomenon of disputed numbers itself seems proof enough of a politically motivated mass killing.
The numbers are less significant than the intended effect, and the corresponding one achieved in reality. On this there is no debate.
In the aftermath Edward fortified the town and installed both his barons and an exchequer like that found in Westminster. So began Berwick’s status as a garrisoned English town in Scotland, both a treasury and a hangar for England’s engines of war.
The historian Green puts it thus: “The town was ruined forever, and the greatest merchant-city of Northern Britain sank from that time into a petty seaport.”
In the ensuing wars between England and Scotland these people were forgotten. How could the town commemorate their passing when the perpetual menace of war and retribution hung over Berwick for 200 years?
Remembering such events is often seen as political and controversial. Why is it we continue to forget the thousands murdered in the town where we live despite the fact they still provide regular reminders in the form of skeletal remains? In Fuller’s history he states that it was a common observation in 19th century Berwick that if you were to dig two feet down, anywhere in town, you would be likely to find human bones. Berwick seems to have become a walled tomb of unknown thousands.
It is oft heard that Berwick’s fundamental problem is that of being ‘forgotten’, administratively and politically. Is it not time Berwick commemorated 30 March 1296 with solemnity and grandeur? Perhaps in such an act of remembering we can begin to ensure that Berwick ceases to be forgotten. Those thousands of people and merchant-princes of Berwick deserve to be honoured as much as any Flodden knight.
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