Legend has it that the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed has been at war with Russia for decades. Or if you hear another version of the story, was at war for decades but made peace a while back.
Berwick-upon-Tweed is England’s northernmost town, although if you tune in at another point in the long timeline of English-Scottish conflict, it was Scotland’s southernmost. It changed hands thirteen times in its history.
Its name comes from either the Old English word for barley or from the Celtic word for an estuary confluence. How that’s different from a plain old estuary I don’t know, but you can take your pick on its origins. Both languages are relevant, and we weren’t there so we’ll never know for sure anyway.
When B-upon-T was founded, it was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which became part of England in the tenth century, taking little B-upon-T. with it. (That argues for the barley hypothesis.) Then in 1018, Scotland took the town over. By the middle ages, it was Scotland’s richest port, known as South Berwick to distinguish it from North Berwick, near Edinburgh. (That argues for the estuary.)
If you’re not confused yet, stay with me.
In 1296, the town became English again, and so on back and forth. Some of those changes involved raids, sieges, massacres, and other stuff that wasn’t fun to live through. Or die from. Others involved the town being sold or ceded, which is high-handed but by comparison looks pretty good. Finally in 1482–.
Well, here’s where it gets complicated: The town became English, and legal documents called it a kingdom of England but not within England, and if you understand what that means you’re miles ahead of me. What I can tell you is that it was under English control but–.
But what? I’m not sure, but the but’s important.
The clearest explanation I’ve found comes from the Daily Beast, which says the wording made Berwick, like Wales, semi-sovereign. Any royal decree that didn’t specifically mention it excluded it. That continued until 1746, when the Wales and Berwick-upon-Tweed Act was passed, but the tradition of mentioning it stumbled on anyway.
Before I go on, I might as well admit that most of my information comes from Wikiwhatsia, a source I avoid anytime I can find one that sounds more respectable, but except for a BBC article and the Daily Beast, everything about Berwick is about how to visit the castle, the bridge, the town walls, and all the many, many places to spend your money. Or else they were even less authoritative. So Wikiwhatsia it is.
Back when I worked as a copy editor, I did some work for the branch of Macmillan that published speciality encyclopedias and I vividly remember reading (I’ve forgotten where but probably in the local newspaper, the Minneapolis StarTribune) that on average Wikiwhatsia was at least as accurate as the more respectable encyclopedias. The editor I worked for at the time was less than happy to hear that, especially since the article mentioned the bio of a fictitious person that some pissed-off writer or editor slipped into a thoroughly respectable encyclopedia and that was repeated in subsequent editions.
My sense of humor isn’t universally welcome.
Anyway, the trick with Wikiwhatsia is to catch your entry on an average day, since its wikiness leaves it open to brief moments of complete insanity.
But we were talking about Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Once it settled into English hands, it became a well-defended border town, and in 1551 it was made a self-governing county corporate.
A city or town important enough to be independent of its county. The category dates back to the medieval period,
So Berwick was governed by English law and was its own county, Berwickshire, until 1885, when it was folded into Northumberland. And there things sat until the 1970s, when four separate laws managed to simplify and complicate things. One of them, the Interpretation Act of 1978, says, without cracking a smile, that any reference to England in legislation passed between 1967 and 1974 “includes Berwick on Tweed.” And (for our purposes irrelevantly) Monmouthshire.
The legend that Berwick was (or is) at war with Russia grows out of all this murkiness. In 1853, the legend says, at the start of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria declared war on Russia by signing herself “Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions.” Which is a bit like saying that I’m a citizen of Britain and my bathtub, but never mind.
The snag, according to this legend, is that the peace treaty that ended the war left out little Berwick, meaning it was still officially at war. According to the Daily Beast, the story was reported as fact in a New Zealand newspaper in 1914, then in a local (that means, I think, Berwickian) paper in 1926.
The Foreign Office investigated in the 1930s and again in 1965 (sometimes they run short of things to do and people who work there need to be kept busy) and both times found no truth in the tale, but that wasn’t enough to put an end to it. In 1966, according to legend, a Pravda correspondent visited Berwick, met a town councillor, and the two of them declared peace. The councillor, Robert Knox, said, “Please tell the Russian people through your newspaper that they can sleep peacefully in their beds.”
The Guardian’s supposed to have run a story on it. By the time the tale appeared in other papers, the Pravda reporter had become a Soviet official and the two sides had signed a peace treaty.
Did the papers really carry that story? I can’t confirm it and in a story where so many elements are questionable that would be worth doing. But they ran well before the internet sent its tendrils creeping into our brains and I don’t live where newspaper archives are easily (or even difficultly) available. If anyone wants to search, the original article is said to be in the Guardian of 28 December 1966. The follow-up articles are supposed to be in the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. Your guess is as good as mine on the dates.
A 1970s BBC program went back to the original documents and found no mention of Berwick in the declaration of war, meaning that it’s not at war and making a disappointing end to the tale.
Allegedly. I haven’t seen the documents myself and I don’t know that anyone really did land on the moon. Or that any of you actually exist. You could all be elaborate fever dreams.
So what’s Berwick-upon-Tweed like when it’s not at war against overwhelming odds? The BBC reports that Berwickers feel themselves to be Berwickers first and English or Scottish second. Not English second, you’ll notice, although they’re still oficially part of England. They still feel the choice is open to them, whether or not any particular government agrees.
My thanks to John Russell for giving me a shove in the direction of this story. He also tells me that the Isle of Man is said to still be at war with the Kaiser. It’s roughly the same tale: They were–apparently–part of the declaration of war at the start of World War I but not of the peace. However, the only mention I’ve been able to find is on a discussion forum where someone wants to know whether, since the island’s still at war, he can shoot some random German.
I’d like to think he’s joking, or at least trying to.
I haven’t been able to find anything more authoritative–or more sensitble–than that. If someone can send me a link, I’d be grateful.