No.56: Victualling the North

Berwick Castle and Royal Border Bridge (c) English Heritage Photo Library. With the town cut off and occupied by the Scots, the only viable means of replenishing supplies for the English garrison at the castle was by sea.
Berwick Castle and Royal Border Bridge (c) English Heritage Photo Library. With the town cut off and occupied by the Scots, the only viable means of replenishing supplies for the English garrison at the castle was by sea.

For want of a nail . . .

Every so often one comes across a wreck that had a direct hand in how history played out (rather than being a participant in, a witness to, or a victim of, a historic event, or even a historic event in itself).

Here, then, is another of our occasional forays into wrecks associated with the locations of English Heritage sites. Following their victory at Bannockburn in 1314, the Scots took the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed on 8 April 1318. Berwick Castle held out a little longer, finally surrendering after an 11-week siege in late June 1318.

Inevitably, the castle surrendered because there was no wherewithal to keep going. In the meantime, on 4 June 1318, La Trinite, laden at London on Edward III’s orders for the castle at Berwick “then in his hands” with wheat, 42 “bacon-pigs” and barrel goods of provisions, miscarried on the Gunfleet Sands, off the coast of Essex. She was also laden with iron, for the “munition” of the castle.

Perhaps the outcome would have been the same regardless, but surely the loss of the Trinite contributed to the surrender of the garrison. Perhaps we shall never know, but we can imagine the men at Berwick looking out forlornly every tide for a ship which would never come in, as their resources dwindled to nothing.

As I have written before, most medieval wrecks are preserved in the historic record because the events after the wreck were usually contentious, showing human nature at its worst, scrapping over the remains. In this case, an account of the Trinite survives because the event was a national calamity. Her significance is all the greater because this is the first known Gunfleet Sands wreck in our records: it is over 300 years before another wreck in our records specifically mentions the Gunfleet.

From the dry annals of the Calendar of Close Rolls and the Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous, we see that a wreck influenced the course of English history, and guess at the hidden despair behind historic events. To adapt the rhyme traditionally associated with Bosworth in 1485, for want of 42 “bacon-pigs” a castle was lost . . .

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