Is Berwick-upon-Tweed at war with Russia?

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.

Irrelevant photo: After last week’s orange berries, we’re moving on to red berries. I really do need to get out and take some new pictures. There’s an entire world out there–or so they tell 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.

Mostly.

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 what?

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.

96 thoughts on “Is Berwick-upon-Tweed at war with Russia?

  1. I took your information as to when the article was published, added some spices and searched. It’s not that I didn’t believe you, but sometimes, searches from other places turn up different things. Anyway, my search on “war with Russia Guardian of 28 December 1966” returned a story about how “Putin shrugs off Trump’s threat to cancel G20 meeting” – I guess I should have included “Berwick” – are they part of the G20? Maybe it should be G21. Anyway, I didn’t see anything about Putin shrugging off Berwick’s threat.

    BTW, don’t you live in a separate country inside of England?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Even the same searches can turn up different things if Lord Google decides your interests run in different directions. So it’s always worth a try. If you don’t get additional (or contradictory) information, you can at least have a good laugh. I’m not sure how Putin and Trump got into a headline with a 1966 date, but nevermind. Lord Google works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

      Berwick will join the G20 any day, making it the G20 and 1/16th.

      Many Cornish people consider Cornwall a separate country. It’s contentious, on a low level. A friend has changed the lyrics of a song he sings from “Cornwall is a county…” to “Cornwall’s not a county,” since being a county would make it English. We are still covered by English law and politics. If it becomes separate (don’t hold your breath, but stranger things happen every day lately), we’ll be a separate country within Britain. Unlike little Berwick whose status I still don’t understand.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. About 15 years ago I worked in a department whose senior manager was from Berwick. For someone who comes from what used to be part of Scotland, he sounds very English when he speaks. I’ll be seeing him in a couple of weeks. If I remember, I’ll ask him if he considers himself to be at war with Russia.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An interesting story, that shows how mucked up we are. Another interesting fact about Berwick (well, it is to me) is that Berwick Rangers are the only football team in England that plays in the Scottish football league. As all Englishmen know, Scottish football is vastly inferior to ours, so they must have figured they could do better up there. It isn’t going well: they are currently next to last in the lowest division.

    I hope for their sake that this story doesn’t spread. Trump is sufficiently stupid to send an invasion force in solidarity with his pal Vladimir – the Trumputin Alliance, as it will be known. He might take in a trip to Hadrian’s Wall if, for once, he could overcome his bone spurs and visit his troops while they were there. It’s a beautiful wall and is nowhere near the actual border between England and Scotland, so it should be a perfect template for his plans for his own erection.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure he’s deeply worried about his own erection (don’t complain; it was your joke) and Hadrian’s Wall would either make him feel much better or discourage him so much that he’ll build his own between Ohio and North Carolina. Which are nowhere near each other.

      Where were we? Berwick. Somehow it seems absolutely perfect that the town would be in Scotland and play in the Scottish league. What more could we want?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Are you suggesting that we should give the town back to the Picts so that they can live and play football in the same country? That’s just too logical ever to happen! But it could be a good debate to occupy politicians when Scotland separates from the UK after Brexit – let’s face it, they know as much about that as anything else they are supposedly managing.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You know at least as much as most Americans, who think football is a game played by an army of millions only two of whom actually put a foot near the ball. Time to get you onto understanding the offside rule, I think 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One of the Native Peoples (the Seminoles, I think, but I admit I am not sure) has never signed a peace treaty with the United States. Some of us may appeal to them to annex us.There is also an unverified report that, after all the turmoil in Richmond, Virginia is asking to unite with West Virginia again.
    Just to make the townspeople of Berwick-on-Tweed feel a bit better, the town of Winchesster, Virginia (so far) change hands multiple times during the American Civil War. Mercifully, that was from 1861-1865, not several centuries, as for B-on-T.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Scotland was anti-Brexit and there’s speculation about whether it’ll leave the UK if the UK leaves the EU. (Sorry for all the initials.) I’ve never seen B-on-T broken out separately. In fact, until I heard the tale of it being at war with Russia, I’d never heard of it at all. It doesn’t get mentioned much.

      Like

  6. Interesting bit of history. The history of the borderlands between England and Scotland is interesting. Part of the US history comes from the people that lived on those areas. They were independent from givernment and still want to be. I think I grew up with some of them in Southern Appalachia.

    As for the US borders, I think the border with Canada is settled, but some people in Mexico are still upset that parts of the Southwest are now in the US.

    Some states in the US have fudputed borders. One us between Georgia and Tennessee. The surveying party marking the line were frightened by Indians and marked it too far south. Indians were moved to Oklahoma in the early 1800’s. Should be able to get an accurate survey now. Georgia is also in a disputed with South Carolina over ownership of an island in the Savannah River.
    Maybe someday we can get our borders settled. Maybe we should build a wall.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am forever amazed and amused by how seriously some people take their history. I like the drama from afar, of course. Now, should I ever get back to the UK, I want to visit Berwick-upon-Tweed, which leads me to wonder if this whole story isn’t some long con to get tourists to visit this current city/ former maybe country. 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve traced the NZ newspaper reference to the Christchurch Press of 16th Oct,1914. It’s a quote from an article by a Sir Henry Lucy in the Sydney Morning Herald. It covers the separate entity issue but doesn’t mention war with Russia.
    “Claimed by the Scots as theirs, since it stands on their side of the river, it was in 1333 annexed to England. After being captured and recaptured in a succession of desperate fights, it was, in 1482, ceded to England. Seventy years later the quarrel for possession bursting forth again, it was finally settled that the town should be independent of both kingdoms. The nearest parallel to this unique position of aloofness is found in the city of Washington, U.S.A. This, the seat of the Government and Legislature of the United States, holds the position of a separate State.”
    By the way, you didn’t mention, just to confuse the people even more, that it’s pronounced Berrick.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Stumbled across your blog recently. Deliciously irreverent, funny and giving a quirky view of life in the UK. Love your word skills, turn of phrase etc. A joyous read – can’t wait for next post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve started working on one–a drop-in guide to English history. As always, I’m not sure anyone will want to publish it. That’s always the snag. Right before you hit the snag about anyone wanting to review it and anyone wanting to buy it. Anyway, I’ve lost track of what we’re talking about here. Probably not that one. Sorry, I carry on too many conversations at once and get lost sometimes.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. This was an interesting read, and I like your sense of humor. My sense of humor is dry, sarcastic, and hyperbolic all at once and is generally not welcome or understood.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know the feeling. There are still people out there who don’t know I have any sense of humor. And twice now other blogs have taken something ridiculous seriously and linked to it. It’s guilt-inducing, embarrassing, and also very funny.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve got no links (somehow, in my brain, I said that with a sad British accent, or maybe something Sean Connery-esc) – I’ve got not links, but I do think the Seminoles will annex anything that doesn’t look like Florida swamp land. One further note: I’ve always wanted to be an elaborate fever – could we make that official? Try not to cut my ear off in the ceremony, though, okay? (Cool post, Ellen!)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Now I know why I don’t want to go to the Isle of Man…. ;-). Berwick only ever came to my attention via the good old autocorrect. My last name used to be “Berwing” which autocorrect either changed into “brewing” or “Berwick”. Ah, good old days… ;-). Great post and thanks for the education. Just in case I ever do the test to become British (not very likely with Brexit and all that …) I will be well prepared reading your blog!!!!!! :-))

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, I passed the test and I can testify that not a thing I’ve written here came up on it.

      I do love autocorrect (which a reader has taught me to call autocorrupt). It keeps the experience of writing from being predictable.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Two languages? Oh, that’s just inviting trouble.

          Actually, I kind of suspect autocorrupt’s a language of its own. A blogger I read was publishing poems based on her phone’s predictive text. They were bizarre and, I thought, very funny. And after a while, the phone became obsessed with otters. I think you had to be there. Unfortunately, I doubt I could find them anymore.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I know. Of course I could skip Grammarly and go for a German keyboard plus their autocorrect but where would be the fun in that? I had nothing to complain about and a Twitter friend of mine could not call me “Bezwingerin Des Autokorrekts” (Conqueress of autocorrect) anymore 😁.

            I love that idea with the poems and an obsession with otters? I am sure there is worse… 🙋

            Liked by 1 person

              • I feel the same though 😁. There are words that just have a different aura in different languages if that makes sense. I think “la lune” expresses much better what the moon means than “the moon” or “der Mond” and I have no logical reason for it. Even though I don’t think everything in languages is logical… 🙋🐝

                Liked by 1 person

              • Logical? Certainly not English. I know Spanish fairly well and it seems much more rational than English. You can pretty nearly know how to spell a word by hearing it (who ever thought of such a thing?!).

                Liked by 1 person

  13. Hello! What a funny and interesting post. Living in Russia for the past 12 years, I’m always interested in reading what other people have to say about Russia. Your research is above and beyond the call of duty :-) Like you, I don’t know if everything I read, hear or see is actually real – more often than not I select what I like and discard the rest. Thank you for an entertaining and informative read. Visiting from Esme’s Senior Salon. :-)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not usually so unsure about what’s believable and what isn’t, although I do like to get confirmation and I’ve made a fool of myself a couple of times by not bothering to. I’m reasonably sure that B-on-T never was at war with Russia, but I’ll confess to enjoying the uncertainty since we’re dealing with a topic that has no real consequences.

      Glad you stopped by. And I’d be fascinated to know where you’re from and what you’re doing in Russia if you feel like writing about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Ellen, thanks for your reply. You’re right, it’s a lovely little stress-free topic :-)

    In answer to your questions, I’m Australian, and left Australia at the end of 2006 to live in Moscow and teach English. Apart from a small break to get married and travel a little in 2008-2009 I’ve been here ever since! I’ve written a bit about it in my blog, if you’d like to pop over for a visit I can give you the link if you haven’t got it already. Thanks for showing an interest :-) Enjoy the rest of your day.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. We passed through Berwick several times on the train, then one day got off the train there and on to a lcoal bus that took us back and forth across the border until we arrived in Melrose.The Borders are well worth exploring and it’s all borders up there including Hadrian’s wall, which is going to be rebuilt after Brexit and Scottish independence. Berwick is having a referendum to decide once and for all which side they will be on.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes Ellen, it was a fashionable war.
        With that Battle of Balaclava, and of course,
        Lord Cardigan leading the charge of the
        Light Brigade. Two important pieces of
        clothing for fighting in the cold Crimea 😎

        I get all my geopolitical updates from my
        good friend, Dracul Van Helsing. For there’s
        no news like fake news . . .

        https://wp.me/p4Z4o-1Kw

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sorry to ignore you, but this got lost in the spam folder, among the cures for hemorrhoids and depression and the bible thumpers trying to get me excited about Donald Trump and Jerusalem and–well, I didn’t read any further but probably the coming apocalypse or rapture or something. I’ll have to check out your link later (that’s probably what got you dumped in the spam folder), once I have this firmly relocated in the comments section. In the meantime, I’d missed the cardigan connection to the Crimean War. Thanks for reminding me to pay more attention to fashion. I always do need reminding.

          Like

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