Leading the Charge?: Leadership in war in late medieval Scottish burghs

Town governments in Scotland in the late medieval period were commonly dominated by a merchant elite who prioritised the stability, security and trading privileges of their burgh. A burgh council was usually led by an alderman, later known as a provost, and a number of burgh baillies (in Aberdeen there were four) elected annually. When the burgh was threatened, the aldermen and baillies took the lead in defensive preparations.[1] However, a brief entry from the council registers of the burgh of Aberdeen encourages an examination into the role these men played in offensive expeditions as well. The entry from 28th September 1485 noted that the town’s council elections for that year were to be delayed until ‘the aldirman and baillies that now ar[e] into thare officis… thare hamecuming fra the [h]oist quhilkis ar[e] now to pas[s] to the asseging [sieging] of berwick.’[2] Four days earlier an order had been proclaimed to tax the burgh inhabitants to cover the expenses of those who ‘passis to the asseging of berwick.’[3]

Fig. 1: Knight effigy in St Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen – often attributed to be Robert Davidson but more likely to be the effigy of Alexander Chalmers, a close relative, probably the father, of the man elected as alderman in 1484. For more information see M. Cochrane Scott, ‘Dress in Scotland, 1406-1460’ (Unpublished PhD, University of London (Courtauld), 1987): 105.

Missing in Action?

Admittedly, further investigation suggests that the burgh officials’ involvement in conflict in 1485 may have been more limited than this extract initially implies. Very little is known about any action around Berwick, a town on the border between Scotland and England, that year. The town had been re-captured by the English in 1482 and an English Crown commission, dated 15th October 1485, warned that a Scottish attempt to retake Berwick was suspected.[4] However, wider evidence suggests that the threatened siege never materialised and Scottish resources were instead diverted to nearby Dunbar Castle which was re-taken by the Scots by mid-1486.[5]  Indeed, additional evidence from Aberdeen’s burgh records suggests that while the alderman and baillies may have left the burgh to go to the site of the gathering of a host it is unlikely they made it to Berwick. The burgh baillies were certainly present in the burgh court on 26th September and appear again to be present on the 3rd October, with the, only slightly delayed council elections, being held the following week.[6] With the option of travel by either sea or land, and the location of the hosting site in 1485 unclear, the possibility that the councillors did, at the very least, leave the burgh cannot be ruled out. However, the limited window of time available, combined with a lack of evidence for conflict around Berwick in 1485, makes any participation by an Aberdeen contingent in conflict that year highly unlikely.

Fig. 2: A section of an early seventeenth century map of Scotland, by Jodocus Hondius. Aberdeen and Berwick are both marked on the east coast of the map. Hosts for royal armies to fight England commonly mustered south of Edinburgh. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Taking the Lead?

What is clear, however, is that, in 1485, Aberdeen’s aldermen and baillies were expected to lead a representation from the town to war. Indeed, this is a view supported by wider evidence. In 1411, Aberdeen’s alderman, Robert Davidson, was killed at the battle of Harlaw while in 1547, two burgh baillies were granted an exemption from attending an army raised by the Scottish Regent but were expected to send their sons in their place. [7] Meanwhile the Edinburgh records make clear that in the early sixteenth century the burgh provost and baillies were all part of the force sent to the battlefield at Flodden in 1513, appointing interim office holders in their absence to maintain urban government.[8] This role for burgh leaders is perhaps not unexpected – all men within Scotland were, at least in theory, expected to fight in this period if required to by the monarch. However, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that those who led in urban communities in Scotland during times of peace were also expected to lead in times of war.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank the SGSAH, and the UKRI, for their financial support for my PhD project from which this research is drawn.

[1] i.e. ACA/1/9, p. 294; ACA/1/12, p. 130.  

[2] E. Frankot, A. Havinga, C. Hawes, W. Hepburn, W. Peters, J. Armstrong, P. Astley, A. Mackillop, A. Simpson & A. Wyner (eds), Aberdeen Registers Online (ARO): 1398-1511 (Aberdeen, 2019) <https://www.abdn.ac.uk/aro> [22/02/2021].

ARO-6-0934-01. The individuals elected in 1484, were all re-elected as general council members in 1485 and either they, or a relative of the same name, held office as either an alderman or baillie again later in the 1480s or 1490s (ARO-6-0935-02; ARO-7-0079-04; ARO-7-0141-02; ARO-7-0465-02).

[3] ARO-6-0933-01.

[4] W. Campbell, Materials for a History of the Reign of Henry VII, Vol I (1865): 579.

[5] N. Macdougall, James III (Edinburgh, 2009): 200, 312; RPS 1484/2/31; A payment for the building of a boat from Berwick by the Scottish Exchequer was made in 1486, which may relate to the conflict. However, the context of the entry ensures this cannot be definitively proved (G. Burnett (ed.) The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland Vol IX (Edinburgh, 1886): 434).

[6] ARO-6-0933-01; ARO-6-0933-03, ARO-6-0934-02; ARO-6-0934-04.

[7] S. Boardman, ‘The Burgh and the Realm’ in E.P. Dennison, D. Ditchburn and M. Lynch (eds), Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History (East Linton, 2002): 213; ACA/1/19: 222, 391.

[8] J. Marwick (ed.), Extract from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh Vol I 1403-1528 (Edinburgh, 1869): 142.

War and Medieval Scotland’s Urban Communities – the case of Berwick-upon-Tweed

Fourteenth-century Scotland was dominated by the Wars of Independence. In this conflict, Scotland’s towns were a key element of control for both sides. What effect this had on their inhabitants is somewhat difficult to ascertain, due to a lack of detailed evidence from the towns themselves. But English record evidence, for periods when these communities were under occupation, provides some insight into the participation of townspeople in the war going on around them. Berwick-upon-Tweed is perhaps the best example of an English-held town, due to its endurance as an English possession. Captured in 1296 by Edward I of England, it was not returned to Scottish allegiance until 1318. It only remained Scottish for another fifteen years before it fell to Edward III. And evidence for the period after 1333 provides quite detailed material on the experience of war for the Berwick townspeople and their martial involvement in the town’s defence.[1]

Berwick Castle
Founded by David I in the twelfth century, this once mighty fortress changed hands several times during the prolonged and often bloody fighting between Scotland and England in the medieval period. Warfare, neglect and ultimately, the construction of the station and the railway bridge, reduced the castle to the ruin we see today. The fragment of the castle seen in the picture is known as “the White Wall”.

Keeping Berwick Safe?

The English, upon the town’s capture, were concerned about the loyalty of its Scottish inhabitants. Although the town’s garrison contained Scots who supported the alternative English-backed Balliol regime in the kingdom, the political affiliation of the townspeople was more dubious.[2] As a result, Edward III encouraged English people to settle in Berwick, sending letters to nineteen English towns and offering inducements to encourage such a move.[3] As late as 1337 Edward III remained worried about a lack of Englishmen and reissued his appeal for more migrants as ‘delay is dangerous.’[4] Those who did move may have recognised a need to participate in urban defence.

Richard Colle of Norham petitioned the king for a messuage in Berwick as a reward for good service in the Scottish wars, ‘so that he can henceforth have a certain income [to contribute to the] strength and defence of the town.’[5] And Henry Chesham petitioned the king to town land for a reduced rent so that he ‘could build on it and incur expenditure and live on it to the strengthening of the town.’[6] However, by 1342 such men may have grown tired of dependence on their efforts. For in this year Edward III sent orders that the burgesses of Berwick should no longer be retained in the defence of the town. This appears to have been in response to an appeal by the burgesses that they should not be required to provide military service. The Berwick administration’s response, however, only exacerbating the burgesses’ disquiet.

For felons were utilised in place of the townsmen as a means of replacing the lost manpower. This upset Berwick’s burgesses and merchants once again who duly complained to Edward III. But in this instance their protestations found a less sympathetic ear and the king rebuked the townsmen and ordered them not to interfere with the work of the king’s ministers. Indeed, it may have been the king himself who ordered the recruitment of felons for Berwick’s defence as orders of January 1343 suggest.[7] But local discontent with the town’s administration and defence may have been of longer standing. In 1341, the keepers of the town gates were accused of extorting merchants and stealing their produce. Edward III ordered Berwick’s constable and his ministers to desist such activity and ‘conduct themselves honourably.’[8] But such examples emphasise that relations between townsmen and administration were often fraught.


Berwick-upon-Tweed was a vital base for English forces in Scotland, as well as a political and economic prize. And yet, English efforts for its defence were often half-hearted, underfunded, and created tensions with the town’s populace. As late as 1349, the townsmen of Berwick were writing to Edward III complaining that they:

have often shown the king and the council the misfortunes and perils of their town, daily hoping that some remedy might be sent for their salvation, but they have found no relief, and are now abandoned and forgotten. Since all their earthly hope of recovery rests in the king, they inform him that the town was never in such peril since it came into his hands, because it is totally lacking in men and victuals. The Scots are greatly cheered because of the [Black Death]; they daily do all the injuries they can by land and sea, and capture victuals coming to the town from England. They have made ladders and other engines to come to the town, to try if they can to take it. The writers cannot resist their malice […] and they ask that help be quickly sent.[9]

Although likely an exaggeration of their situation, any threats to the town were a blow to English strategy and English pride. And in 1355 such fears were realised as the town’s walls were overcome by a surprise Scottish attack that, though ultimately unsuccessful, demonstrated weaknesses in Berwick’s defence. The townsmen of Berwick, therefore, likely had every right to be fearful and to consider that their safety remained insufficiently protected.

[1] For more on this period of conflict, and on Berwick in particular, see Iain A. MacInnes, Scotland’s Second War of Independence, 1332-1357 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016); J. Donnelly, ‘An open economy: the Berwick shipping trade, 1311-1373’, Scottish Historical Review, 96.1 (2017), 1-31; J. Donnelly, ‘An open port: the Berwick export trade, 1311-1373’, Scottish Historical Review, 78.2 (1999), 145-169; A. Tuck, ‘A Medieval Tax Haven: Berwick upon Tweed and the English crown, 1333-1461’, Progress and Problems in Medieval England: Essays in honour of Edward Miller, ed. R. Britnell and J. Hatcher (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 148-167.

[2] These included several Lothian-based knights and their followers, including Thomas Bisset, David and John Marshall, and Henry and John Ramsay (The National Archives, London, E101/22/9, f. 1).

[3] Rotuli Scotiae in Turri Londinensi et in Domo Capitulari Westmonasteriensi Asservati, ed. D. Macpherson et al. (London, 1814-19), i, p. 258; Tuck, ‘Medieval Tax Haven’, pp. 149-150.

[4] Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland: Supplementary volume v, ed. J. Galbraith and G.G. Simpson (Edinburgh, 1986), no. 767.

[5] Northern Petitions Illustrative of Life in Berwick, Cumbria and Durham in the Fourteenth century, ed. C.M. Fraser (Surtees Society, 1981), pp. 20-21.

[6] Northern Petitions, p. 27.

[7] CDS, v, no. 796.

[8] Rot. Scot., i, pp. 613-615.

[9] CDS, v, no. 810.

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