Magazine article History Today

Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire

Magazine article History Today

Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire

Article excerpt

* Guarding the lush Severn meadows where the cattle graze in the vale of Berkeley, the castle has been transformed through eight centuries from the frowning fortress where Edward II was brutishly murdered into the civilised home of one of England's oldest and most colourful families. In their twenty-four generations since the castle was built the Berkeleys have been involved in pitched battles, duels, scandals and notorious court cases. They have been army officers, admirals, members of parliament, courtiers, sportsmen and authors. Bishop Berkeley, the famous seventeenth-century philosopher after whom the University of Berkeley, California, was named, came from a junior branch, as did Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-89), the composer, who would have been Earl of Berkeley if his father's parents had been married.

The Berkeleys go back in the male line to Robert Fitzharding, a rich Bristol merchant who helped to finance the future Henry II against King Stephen. His reward was the lordship of Berkeley, where the formidable shell-keep was built in the 1150s. He was probably the grandson of Eadnoth the Staller, master of the horse successively to Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror: in which case the Berkeleys can trace themselves back to Anglo-Saxon roots.

The doings of the early Berkeleys were recorded by their steward, John Smyth of Nibley (1567-1640), who spent his life in the family's service and whose manuscripts were published in 1833-35 by the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society. Thomas, Lord Berkeley in Edward I's time, fought enjoyably against the French, the Welsh and the Scots. Still in harness at the age of seventy, he was captured at Bannockburn and had to be expensively ransomed. His grandson, another Thomas, was lord of Berkeley in 1327 when Edward II was imprisoned there and gruesomely dispatched -- in the room now called the king's gallery, with its horrible dungeon. The king was buried in Gloucester Cathedral, where pilgrims flocked to his tomb and the monks made so much money that they were able to pioneer the Perpendicular style of architecture. (`lt's an ill wind,' as the present Mr Berkeley says.)

Lord Berkeley, in his mid-thirties at the time, was the trusted son-in-law of Roger Mortimer, the leader of the successful coup against Edward. He afterwards pleaded that he had been away from Berkeley at the time of the murder, and so ill that he had lost his memory. John Smyth said his household accounts suggested otherwise, but he was acquitted of blame and his expense account for the black-draped cart used to carry the king's corpse to Gloucester was duly paid. He went on to fight at Crecy and substantially enlarge the castle before dying in 1361. His effigy, looking extremely pious, is in Berkeley church next door to the castle, with other family tombs.

His fifteenth-century descendant, William, was involved in a dispute over ownership of the castle with Viscount Lisle in 1469. They settled it by arranging to fight each other with their retainers at Nibley Green nearby, said to be the last private pitched battle on English soil. The Berkeleys won, Lisle was killed, and that settled that.

The seventeenth-century Berkeleys were closely involved with the court and the Stuart cause, and the castle itself shows the signs of its battering by Parliamentary cannon in 1645. Lord Berkeley of Stratton (died 1678), of the branch of the family settled at Bruton in Somerset, distinguished himself as a Royalist general in the West Country, tried unsuccessfully to mediate between the king and the Parliamentary generals and retired to Paris where he gained an influence with the young Duke of York, the future James II, which was to stand him and his family in good stead. Returning to England in 1660, he married a rich young heiress, ran the Duke of York's household and built himself a magnificent London house in Piccadilly. His descendants laid out Berkeley Square in the grounds. …

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