Myth Or Reality? Berwick Revisits Its 'War With Russia'

By Graham Spicer | 24 July 2006
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drawing of a small bear with berwick written on it roaring at a larger bear with russia written on it wearing a crown

Berwick may not have really been at war with Russia but the legend persists. Photo courtesy Berwick Museum

Berwick-upon-Tweed, England’s most northerly town, is technically at war with Russia. Or so the local legend goes. The town’s Borough Museum is planning to sort myth from reality at its forthcoming Berwick’s War With Russia Weekend.

Jim Herbert from the Berwick Borough Museum, joint organisers of the event, explained how the story originated:

“The myth started because the Treaty of Everlasting Peace [between Scotland and England in 1502] stated that Berwick was of England but not in England, so Berwick was always mentioned separately in Acts of Parliament.”

Using this logic, it was claimed that Britain’s declaration of the Crimean War against Russia in 1853 mentioned Berwick separately but that the 1856 Treaty of Paris that ended hostilities did not. A local myth thus developed saying that the market town of some 25,000 people was still technically at war with Russia.

photo of a group of men dressed as victorian era red jacketed riflemen firing a volley of shots on a lawn

The Berwick War With Russia Weekend will see a 'what if' enactment of the 'Battle of Berwick'. Photo courtesy Berwick Museum

The reality is somewhat different, however, and the forthcoming events in Berwick on September 9 and 10 2006, 150 years on from the end of the Crimean War, aim to both educate and to celebrate the legend itself.

“The declaration of war never actually mentioned Berwick at all,” explained Jim. “We think the myth was started in the early 20th century – a vicar was giving a lecture or talk and mentioned it and it started from there. And who are we to put down a good myth?”

The churchman was one Archdeacon William Cunningham (1849-1919), also a knowledgeable historian, and it is still not known why such a respectable figure should start such a story.

Like all good stories Berwick’s ‘war with Russia’ tale has grown over the years and it was claimed that a Russian diplomat finally signed a ‘peace treaty’ with the mayor of Berwick in the 1960s.

photo of a man playing the violin

Acclaimed Russian group Koshka will be playing on the Saturday night of the War With Russia Weekend. Photo courtesy Berwick Museum

“There was supposedly a peace treaty made out at the time but we haven’t been able to find any sign of it,” said Jim.

The only evidence that it happened is from the accounts of older residents. “We can find nothing about it from local newspapers of the time,” he continued.

The then mayor, Robert Knox, is reputed to have said, “Tell the Russians they can sleep easy in their beds”, but there is no record of this in the council’s minutes either.

Whatever the exact details, the legend certainly adds to Berwick’s rich history. Along with an exhibition the Borough Museum will be showing a specially made film. There will also be an imaginative staging of ‘The Battle of Berwick’ and a Russian band will play at Berwick Parish Church.

For more details about Berwick’s War With Russia Weekend call the museum via Berwick Council on 01289 330044.
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