The beautiful coastal border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed has had a turbulent history, having changed hands between England and Scotland at least thirteen times, the last time being in 1482 when it came into English control where it has remained ever since. Even then it remained semi-independent for a long time, referred to in legal documents as being of the Kingdom of England but not within it.
This legal ‘loophole’ led to one of history’s unusual ‘wars’ when in 1854 Britain declared war on Russia igniting the Crimean War. When war was declared it was apparently done so on behalf of ‘Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British dominions’. However, when hostilities ceased in 1856 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, no mention was made of Berwick-upon-Tweed which meant technically that the town was still at war with the mighty Russian Empire and remained so until a further ‘peace treaty’ was signed in 1966.
However, was Berwick-upon-Tweed really at war with Russia for over a hundred years, or is it just one of those quirky historical stories that has grown into legend?
The Start of the War – 1853 – 1854
This story begins over 2,000 miles away from Berwick-upon-Tweed in the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Tsar, Nicholas I had long had designs on the Ottoman Empire which was viewed as ‘the Sick Man of Europe’. The Tsar hoped to acquire some of their territories with the support of the major powers of Prussia, Austria and Britain. However, these countries were alarmed by Russia’s intentions as none of them wanted to see Russia control the strategically important Dardanelles. As a result Britain, along with France, voiced their support for the Ottoman Empire hoping that Russia would back off.
However, this didn’t put the Tsar off who instead gave the go ahead for his army to invade the Ottoman territories of Moldavia and Wallachia (roughly modern day Romania and Moldova). Quite naturally the Ottoman Empire were furious, however the Great Powers felt that a diplomatic solution rather than a military one would be the best way to solve the problem.
The Ottomans didn’t.
Instead they declared war on the Russians in October 1853. Russia retaliated the following month by destroying a squadron of Turkish ships at Sinop, a port in the Black Sea which annoyed the British no end. Not because they had the Ottoman Empire’s interests at heart. No. The British were more worried about their trade links with the Ottomans and their trade routes through to India which a stable Ottoman Empire would be able to protect. The French too were annoyed with Russia. Again not because they had the Ottomans’ interests at heart, but rather they wanted to gain revenge for France’s defeat at the hands of the Russians during the Napoleonic Wars in 1812. As a result, Britain and France demanded that Russia leave the occupied Ottoman territories by March 1854 or matters might become a lot more complicated. And fiery.
The Russians didn’t.
Therefore Britain, along with France (and later Austria) had no option but to declare war on Russia in March 1854. When Queen Victoria signed the Declaration of War she was alleged to have done so on behalf of “Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions”.
So what part does Berwick have to play in this war with Russia. Why did this town on the border between England and Scotland get singled out for special treatment? Well because of a 1502 treaty signed between England and Scotland which ended centuries of conflict between the two nations over the town, Berwick was given the status “of but not within the Kingdom of England”. This confusing classification meant that during the 16th and 17th centuries Berwick, along with Wales, was treat as a quasi-sovereign area within England. Any royal decrees that were made were forced to include Berwick by name. If it didn’t then Berwick would be exempt from the royal decree.
This practice should have ended in 1746 with the passing of the Wales and Berwick-upon-Tweed Act which decreed that any proclamation issued forthwith would automatically include both of these regions. However, this didn’t stop Berwick from being named in official documents after 1746, including allegedly in the declaration of war with Russia in 1854.
THE TREATY OF PARIS
For two years the Crimean War waged on with heavy losses on both sides. Over time, the tide turned against Russia following heavy defeats at the Battle of Alma and the Battle of Balaclava. When a massive naval gathering threatened to attack St. Petersburg, the Russians sued for peace and accepted a Austro-French initiative to begin negotiations to end the war.
A Congress involving all the major powers was held in Paris in 1856, from which the Treaty of Paris was signed. This treaty required Russia to recognize the independence and territorial sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire and return any seized territories back to the Ottomans. The Black Sea was also neutralized, with all warships both Russian and foreign, being forbidden from entering its waters. Most importantly it also brought about the end to the War which had been costly for both sides – over 200,000 Allied soldiers had lost their lives on the battlefield, whilst the Russians had suffered over half-a-million casualties.
However, one key event allegedly happened at the signing of the Treaty which completely slipped under the radar – Berwick hadn’t been mentioned at all. Did this mean that the town of Berwick was still technically at war with Russia?
A BLOODLESS WAR – 1856-1966
Well if they were no one seems to have noticed. In fact it wasn’t until the spring of 1914, with the threat of another war looming over Europe, that the diplomatic anomaly was discovered, and only then in a small article in a New Zealand paper. The article stated that a “well known columnist, Archdeacon Newton has just discovered that the town of Berwick has been at war with the Empire of Russia for nearly sixty years” noting that Berwick had been included in the declaration of war, but not in the peace treaty that followed.
The Archdeacon then went on to say that this could account for why Russian warships had fired on British trawlers at Dogger Bank in thr North Sea in October 1904 killing three fishermen and almost leading to a war between Britain and Russia. What the Archdeacon failed to mention was that the trawler fleet were from Hull, not Berwick, and that the Russian ships had mistook the trawler fleet for Japanese warships as the two nations were at war at the time. In no way were the Russians looking to settle scores with Berwick by firing on a trawler fleet, especially when the Russians had no clue about this so called ‘war’ with Berwick.
Although people started to believe that Berwick was at war with Russia because of this article, nothing more was said about it until the story was picked up by a local paper in 1926, who reported the war as fact, stating that the omission from the treaty had never been rectified.
Fast forward another nine years and the Daily Telegraph picked up on the story in December 1935 alleging that the Foreign Office had discovered the “state of war” in October 1914 but then had hastily arranged a treaty between Berwick and the Russian Imperial Government to bring the sixty year war to an end. This was completely untrue. What the Foreign Office had in fact been doing through the 1930’s was to raid their Library to see whether the story had any foundation in fact but they couldn’t find anything. Still the belief that Berwick and Russia were at war lingered on.
THE ‘TREATY OF BERWICK’ – 1966
Another thirty years passed and in 1965 the Foreign Office was formally consulted as to whether Berwick and Russia were still at war. The Foreign Office confirmed that they had investigated the matter thirty years previously and found no evidence then to suggest that the two were still at war and therefore it should be deemed that there was no conflict between Berwick and Russia.
To ease all further doubts a Soviet official reportedly visited Berwick in 1966 and signed a ‘peace treaty’ with the then mayor of Berwick, Robert Knox to bring an end to the elongated war. The mayor was supposed to have humorously remarked to the Soviet official “please tell the Russian people that they can sleep peacefully in their beds”. However, there is even a lot of doubt about whether this meeting actually took place. There is no contemporary newspaper accounts of the meeting, and no copy of the ‘peace treaty’ exists. Plus Robert Knox could well be said to be exceeding his mayoral powers by signing such a treaty with an official from another country. So did that mean that Berwick and Russia were still at war?
The matter was finally concluded in the 1970’s when the BBC programme Nationwide investigated the story and stated that whilst Berwick hadn’t been mentioned in the Treaty of Paris, it also hadn’t been mentioned in the declaration of war either. The 1746 Wales and Berwick Act had already made it clear that when England was referred to in official documents this also included Berwick, therefore the town would have had no special status at the start or the end of the Crimean War.
Also, no one seems to have looked at the text of the declaration of war very closely. In the text Queen Victoria is simply referred to as “Her Majesty” and in a published declaration to neutral powers she is referred to as “Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. No mention of Berwick at all. The same happens in the Treaty of Paris which uses the French translation of Queen’s Victoria title – ““la Reine du Royaume-Uni de la Grande-Bretagne et d’Irlande”. Again no mention of Berwick. Case closed.
However, this hasn’t stopped the people of Berwick embracing the tale. In 2006 a “Berwick’s War with Russia Weekend” took place in the town which included a re-enactment of the ‘Battle of Berwick’ which imagined what could have happened if Berwick and Russia had indeed been at war in 1856 and had fought a battle. Presumably the Russians would have won a comprehensive victory!
THE THREE-HUNDRED-AND-THIRTY-FIVE YEAR WAR
The story of Berwick and Russia’s extended war is one of my favourite historical quirks, however it is not the only war that has been extended due to diplomatic irregularities, nor is it the longest. In 1986 a ‘peace treaty’ was signed by the Dutch Ambassador to Britain on a visit to the Isles of Scilly bringing about the end of a bloodless war which had lasted 335 years. The ‘war’ started in March 1651 when the Dutch Navy, allied to the Parliamentarian side during the English Civil War, declared war on the Isles of Scilly which was hosting the Royalist Navy at the time. The Dutch Navy had suffered significant losses at the hands of the Royalist Navy stationed in the Isles and so a Dutch admiral landed on Scilly demanding reparations for these losses. Getting no satisfactory answer he decided to declare war on the isles.
Three months later the Royalist Navy surrendered so the Dutch fleet left the islands without firing a shot. However, due to the obscurity of the declaration of war no peace treaty was signed so the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly technically remained at war until the Dutch Ambassador was invited to Scilly in 1986 to sign a peace treaty. The Dutch Ambassador had a similar sense of humour to the Mayor of Berwick and quipped that it must have been harrowing for the residents of Scilly “to know we could have attacked at any moment”!