Berwick-upon-Tweed, the British Town at War With Russia
Did an administrative oversight really mean a bucolic English town ended up at war with Russia? Whatever, the locals still like to re-enact it.
For the first half of the 20th century, residents of a small town straddling the border between England and Scotland believed they were engaged in a long-simmering war with Russia.
Thanks to a bureaucratic mistake, it appeared that all 12,000 residents of Berwick-upon-Tweed were excluded from the 1856 peace treaty between Russia and England that Queen Victoria announced after the Crimean War.
This omission was made possible by a 1502 treaty between England and Scotland that succeeded in ending hundreds of years of land arguments over the tiny border town—it had already switched sides 13 times. But the agreement also greatly confused its classification by defining Berwick as “of but not within the Kingdom of England.”
So, throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Berwick, along with Wales, was considered a quasi-sovereign area under the jurisdiction of the British kingdom. Royal decrees were forced to specifically include Berwick by name otherwise the town would be exempt.
This practice ended in 1746 with the Wales and Berwick-upon-Tweed Act, which declared that any proclamation would automatically include both regions. But the confusion didn’t end there, and the town continued to be called out in official documents—including, residents came to believe in the early 1900s, a mention in the declaration of war that launched hostilities between England and Russia. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except then a rumor began that while the war included Berwick, the peace treaty did not.
In April 1914, a small article about the discovery appeared in a New Zealand newspaper. “A well-known economist, Archdeacon Cunningham, has just discovered that the town of Berwick has been at war with the Empire of Russia for nearly sixty years,” it reads. “It seems that on the outbreak of the Crimean war, Berwick, under some old custom, declared war independently of the United Kingdom…the city on the Tweed has never formally concluded peace.”
It was concluded that omission from the Treaty of Paris had left the town in a long-running state of war. It’s not hard to see how the story seeped into accepted history from there. In 1926, a local paper reported on the war as fact, saying that the omission had never been rectified—apparently an Oxford professor had recently shared this information with his students.
A decade later, another article quoted a Bristol headmaster telling a group of pupils this same story. The ongoing war was reported in the Western Daily Press as “nothing to get alarmed about.”
These legends were investigated by the British Foreign Office in the 1930s and again in 1965, but both times confirmed there was no written evidence to support the stories.
Adding to the local lore is a tale that in the 1960s a Soviet official came to visit Berwick and finally signed the long-forgotten peace treaty that ended 100 years of war. Then-Mayor Robert Knox was said to declare: “Tell the Russians they can sleep easy in their beds.”
According to a town historian, this account has been repeated by Berwick’s older residents, but couldn’t be corroborated by written record from the time.
This year marks Berwick’s 900th birthday. And while the hidden war with Russia may not have been simmering below the surface for a chunk of those years, it’s intrinsically woven into the town’s mythology.
In fact, the town’s official website includes this dubious history, writing that Berwick’s independence had “never been felt more than when the town was included in the declaration of Crimean war…but omitted from the 1856 peace treaty, creating a wonderful story that Berwick was still at war with Russia!”
Berwick’s residents have embraced the tale. In 2006, the town hosted “Berwick’s War with Russia Weekend,” in which they investigated the origins of the myth, with activities like a “what if” reenactment.
It imagined what the so-called Battle of Berwick would look like using the 19th Regiment of Foot, the only group that stages the Crimean War. “Who are we to put down a good myth?” an organizer told a UK culture website.