Berkeley (pronounced Barkley) Castle in Gloucestershire is Britain’s oldest inhabited castle (although the Tower of London is technically an official residence of the Queen, she has never actually lived there). Built in 1153, the castle has a long and colourful history; King Edward II was murdered here in 1327, many monarchs have visited the site and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed here. Today, the castle remains a popular tourist attraction, all the rooms are fully furnished and it hosts many events throughout the year.
How to get there
To get to the castle from London by car, take the M4 to Bristol, exiting at Junction 20. Then, take the M5 north to Junction 14. Taking the A38 north, follow the signs to Berkeley, and then follow the brown tourists signs to Berkeley Castle. The journey should take around two hours depending on the traffic.
If you are travelling form the North, take the M5 and exit at Junction 13. Follow the signs to Berkeley, and then to the Castle. It can be found about half a mile from the Prince of Wales Pub.
If you are travelling by train, travel to Bristol, and there is a taxi service that will take you to the castle in around three quarters of an hour.
Construction and the First Lords (1117-1326)
1117:, King Henry I of England orders the construction of Berkeley Castle in an effort to ward of Welsh invasions. The site chosen is an old nunnery close to the Severn Estuary. The man who stood to own the castle was Lord De Berkeley.
1154: Henry II ascends to the throne of England. De Berkeley had fought against Matilda, Edwards mother, and, as punishment, Henry stripped him of the now completed castle, that done, the King passed the new fortess on to Robert The Son of Harding (sometimes known as Robert Fitzharding), a grandson of the King of Denmark and a great contributor to Matilda’s cause. Robert later took the title of Lord Berkeley.
1170: Robert dies and is succeeded by his son, Maurice. Maurice becomes the first resident of the castle, and the second man to hold the title of “Lord Berkeley.” He died nineteen years later in 1189.
1211-1220: Maurice’s son, Robert, inherited the title. Robert is conspicuous in the castle’s history because he was one of the key players in the Baron’s struggle against King John. In 1211 the King seized the castle and had its occupants imprisoned in the castle’s own dungeons, but was forced to leave. In 1216, the Barons met at the castle to discuss the terms they would be putting in their Magna Carta before travelling to London to present it to the King. Once they had left, the King attacked again and took the castle from the Berkeleys. Still, in July of that year the King relented and signed the document. Magna Carta is in effect the only written constitution of England and guarantees amongst other things that the King is not allowed to raise taxes without the consent of Parliament. Robert died in 1220.
1220: King Henry III stayed briefly at the castle (then a Royal residence).
1223: Henry III returns the castle to the Berkeley family and Robert Lord Berkeley takes up residence.
1243: Lord Robert was succeeded by his son, Maurice, Maurice spent most of his time away from the castle, fighting in the wars against Scotland and Wales.
1281: Maurice is succeeded by his son, Thomas. Thomas is often regarded as the most benevolent lords of his age, putting large sums of money into the village of Berkeley and ensuring the well being of the peasants that tended his lands.
1307: Maurice Lord Berkeley is made Bishop of Worcester.
1321: Maurice dies and is succeeded by his son, yet again a man named Maurice.
The Death of Edward II (1326-27)
Maurice Lord Berkeley, along with much of the country was unhappy with King Edward II; the King had failed in his wars and was known to extend much power to his homosexual lovers. He was also attempting to purge his court of all treachery, one consequence of which was that Berkeley’s own son, Thomas, was imprisoned in 1321. After conspiring with the Lords Audley and Mortimer to assassinate the King, Berkeley was tricked and captured his lands and property were confiscated and he was thrown in jail, where he dies later that year.
Maurice is succeeded as Lord Berkeley (in name only, as the King still possessed his lands) by his son, Thomas III. After attempting to avenge his father’s capture by vandalising the manors of the King’s favourites, Thomas had been captured in 1321 and imprisoned in the Tower of London it is known, however, that he escaped but was recaptured and imprisoned in the castles of Berkhamstead and later, Pevensey. However, in 1326 Queen Isabella returned to England having fallen in love with one of the rebellion’s leaders, Lord Roger Mortimer. Due to the fact that if Edward II died, her son, Prince Edward would become King, she agreed to ally herself to his plan.
Thomas Lord Berkeley returned to his home of Berkeley castle and upon arriving, was instructed by the Queen to hold the King there as prisoner. Berkeley, however, took pity on the unhappy monarch and treated him with kindness, as a guest. Queen Isabella disapproved of this gentle treatment of a man she saw as guilty of treason and ordered Berkeley to "use no familiarity with Edward the late King." She then preceded to had the responsibility of the King’s custody to Lord Maltravers and Lord Gournay. Berkeley, sickened by the idea of treating the man who, despite his shortcomings, was still in his eyes the King of England, with anything other than the utmost respect, decided to leave the castle.
Maltravers and Gournay received coded orders from the Queen that they were to kill the King and make it look like an accident. These instructions lead the King being discretely tortured to weaken him, in addition to being thrown in one of the castle’s dungeons amongst dozens of rotting corpses in the hope that the fumes would kill him. It was during these dark and miserable times that Edward wrote this poem:
En temps de iver me survynt damage.
Fortune trop m'ad traversé:
Eure m'est faili tut mon age.
Bien sovent l(e)ay esprové:
Pener me funt cruelement —
E duint qe bien l'ai deservi.
Lour fausse fai en parlement
De haut en bas me descendi.
A possible translation of this may run:
In the season of winter I have been hurt.
Luck has been against me:
You have trapped me for an age.
I have been much abused:
My fate seems cruel to me —
This is far from well deserved.
Brought about by the falsehood of parliament
I have descended from greatness to the depths.
However, despite his suffering, the King refused to die and ultimately the gaolers were forced to put an end to him in what has to be one of history’s most gruesome deaths:
On the night of the twenty seventh of September, 1327, they hid in the space below the privy that the King was known to use. When Edward walked in and positioned his bare anus above the hole, one of the men thrust a hollow tube of ram horn up into his bowels and through that pushed a red hot iron poker. This method of killing the King was chosen for two reasons; the first was that it was the only practical way of killing the man without leaving any visible marks since the heat of the poker would cauterise the wounds instantly and secondly, the King was known to be a practising homosexual, and this was felt to be a fitting punishment.
It is said his shrieks were audible from the village, although given the thickness of the walls of the cell in which the killing took place, this is highly unlikely. In another account of his murder, the King was laid out face down on a table and filled with molten lead through a pipe thrust into his rectum. However, this story did not appear until well after the original and so is likely to be untrue.
The word that the King had been murdered spread through the village, and despite the fact that the authorities claimed that Edward had died a natural death of a seizure, backed up by the fact that whilst the body’s face was the contorted mask of a man in hideous pain, it had no visible marks or wounds, rumours that the King had been unlawfully killed prevailed.
In an attempt to curb the mounting suspicion amongst the people of England that Isabella had had the King murdered, her son, Edward III issued and arrest warrant for Berkeley. Berkeley was tried before a jury of twelve knights, but was ultimately, acquitted of all but some minor negligence charges, and was released from custody after paying a small bail. It should be noted however that Isabella did continue to fuel speculation that Berkeley was indeed responsible for the murder in an effort to keep suspicion away from herself. Berkeley never entirely lived down this claim
It has been speculated by some historians that the King in fact escaped the castle with the help of Berkeley and went on to live out his days in an abbey. The body shown to the towns people, they claim, was that of a local man, made up to resemble Edward.
Lords of the Fourteenth Century (1327-1405)
1327:Thomas Lord Berkeley once again takes up residence in the castle.
1338: Lord Berkeley’s son is knighted, aged seven.
1340: The Great Hall is restored in place of the twelfth century original.
1360: Thomas Lord Berkeley dies and is succeeded by his son, Maurice who, after spending five years fighting in France, is wounded badly enough to return home. He dies of his wounds in 1368.
1368: The fifteen-year-old Thomas Berkeley, inherits the title and lands. Thomas is married to Lord de Lisle’s daughter, a marriage that would cause many problems over the next two centuries.
1383: Lord Lisle dies, the inheritance double’s Berkeley’s estate and he becomes one of the most wealthy men in the kingdom.
1387: Berkeley sponsor’s the first ever translation of the bible into Norman French and allows the translators to make use of his castle’s rooms. He is accused of heresy, but never charged.
1388: Richard II dines at Berkeley. The plague of Black Death has killed one third of the population of the country, and it is only through his unusual wealth that Berkeley is able to pay for his servants. The King remarks that the visit was most pleasant.
1393: Berkeley’s wife dies, and, in an attempt to find solace and pray for her soul, Berkeley departs for a year long pilgrimage.
1399: Rebellion breaks out against King Richard, once again, the King of England had been bestowing too many gifts and too much power upon his favourites. At this point the Richard was in Ireland and the Duke of York was regent. Realising he had no hope of quelling the Duke of Lancaster’s forces, York met with the rebellious noble at Berkeley castle, and there they conspired to overthrow the King upon his return. Soon after the meeting, they rode south to Bristol and took the castle there and following that took Chester. When Richard returned and learned of his situation, he quickly signed an official abdication, to which Berkeley was a witness.
1405 In recognition of his successes in the wars in France, Richard IV makes Berkeley a Privy Councillor and a Lord of the Marches. He died in 1417
Property Feud (1417-1480)
With the death of Thomas Lord Berkeley, his nephew, James, was set to inherit, however, at this time, James was in Dorset and unable to return for several weeks. However, his cousin, Elizabeth, the Countess of Warwick and daughter of Lord and Lady Berkeley was residing at the castle with her husband, the Earl of Warwick. Seizing the opportunity, she claimed ownership of her mother’s lands and of the castle and barony of Berkeley. For the next three years, James attempted to assert his rights over his land, but found that no one respected his authority over the higher-ranking Earl and Countess. However, in 1420, he succeeded in raising support amongst the other nobles of the kingdom and re-entered his lands.
While he was able to take possession of the castle, later that year the Earl and Countess laid siege to it, but, barracking himself in, the Lord managed to work out a settlement with the aide of his friend the Bishop of Worcester. For the next nineteen years, he successfully conducted his affairs within the estate, however there were still many arguments and fights between servants and sympathisers of the two factions.
This lasted until 1439 when the Countess’s husband died and the feud broke out once again. The heirs and heiresses of the Earl and Countess attempted to assert their claims to Berkeley and in 1340 sent a messenger named David Woodbourne to subpoena Berkeley. Berkeley demonstrated his refusal to be overruled by first having the messenger beaten up, and then forcing him to eat the parchment on which the document was written, including the wax seal!
Over the next ten years, Berkeley resisted several more attempts made by the Warwicks to legally to take over his lands. Then, in 1449, the law fell in their favour. Once again Berkeley was forced to seal himself into his castle, which he had spent the decade converting into a stronghold for just such an event. For the next fourteen years, each side raised its own armies and sent them against each other in small battles and sieges. The castle’s defences were tested many times and they did not always hold; indeed there were long periods in which the Warwicks held the fortress. The most notable instance of this was in 1452, when Lord Lisle, one of the Warwicks successfully infiltrated the castle and took lord Berkeley and his son’s prisoner and managed to hold them for eleven weeks.
Over the next decade, yet more battles were fought, during which much of the surrounding town of Berkeley was destroyed. In 1457, Berkeley took the sister of the Earl of Shrewsbury as his third wife, his second having died in Gloucester Castle five years earlier. The effect of this was to unite Berkeley with nearly half of the Warwicks, and over the following six years, the fighting largely died down. In 1463, both factions finally agreed to lay down their arms, but Berkeley sadly] died just over a month later.
Unfortunately, the peace between the two families did not continue for very long. Upon his inheritance of his father’s title and estates, William Lord Berkeley accused the Countess of Shrewsbury of illegally holding his manors in the surrounding villages. Almost at once a new legal battle broke out between the two nobles, William claiming that the countess was attempting to steal his castle out from under him by corrupting his servants and even going so far as to accuse her of attempting to have him assassinated. Of course the Countess denied all these claims and made her own accusations against the Lord.
After five years of writing and petitioning, the Countess died. Her heir, Thomas Talbot, Viscount Lisle, found two men within Berkeley’s staff, willing to betray their master and deliver the fortress to the Viscount in return for high status positions in his staff. They were Thomas Holt, the keeper of the castle, and Maurice King, the porter of the castle, King, however, had no intention of handing Talbot the castle, and instead, informed Berkeley of the plot. Holt, fearing for his life, fled to Talbot and relayed the tail to him. In response, Talbot issued a challenge to Berkeley: to meet him the next day on Nibley green, to do battle for the Castle and title. The two nobles each raised a private army of roughly one thousand men apiece and met at dawn on Nibley green. From the start it was clear that Berkeley had the stronger force, and within a very short time, Talbot took an arrow to the face and a dagger to the body. The day was won by Berkeley with relative ease and with the battle over, he took repossessed his manors. This battle was the last private battle ever to take place in England.
Under Tudor Rule (1485-1603)
1485: Henry Tudor becomes King, and, not knowing that Berkeley had backed his enemy as well as him, gifts Berkeley with lands and the title of Earl Mareschal of Berkeley, and later progressively, Baron, Viscount, and Marquis of Berkeley, Earl of Nottingham, and Great Mareschal of England.
1492: Berkeley dies, having sold off his lands and disinheriting his family. The castle passes to the Royal Family.
1495: Henry VII spends Christmas at the castle. Wotton Manor is torn down and salvaged material is used to build the roof of the castle’s Great Kitchen.
1553: Mary I returns the castle to the Berkeleys.
1558: Mary I instructs Lord Dudley, the heir to the Earldom of Shrewsbury to re-open the inheritance case. The policy is continued by Elizabeth, who ascended to the throne that year when Mary died.
1560: In an effort to bankrupt Berkeley and so repossess the castle, Elizabeth forces him to pay her huge taxes on his lands. She also visited him frequently, forcing him to pay for her entire household’s stay.
1560-1565|65: The old moat is drained and the newly available land is converted into lawns for the Queen to bowl on.
1573: Whilst on one of her visits, while Berkeley was away, a suitor of the Queen who wanted her to gift him with the castle, had twenty seven of Berkeley’s prized red deer slaughtered. Berkeley returned, and, believing the Queen was responsible, asked her to leave, and then, as her procession was crossing his gates, insulted her by riding out of his castle whilst she was still present.
1595: William Shakespeare comes to Berkeley Castle, where he writes and directs the first ever performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
1609 With the death of Elizabeth some six years previous, Henry Lord Berkeley finally resolves the issue of who owns the Castle and its lands by paying the disputers large sums of money to officially drop the issue. This ended the longest litigation on English legal history. It had gone on for 192 years.
The English Civil War (1642-1645)
Gloucestershire was one of the most fought over counties in the English Civil War. Whilst the public were strongly parliamentarian the same could not be said for the county’s nobles, and as such, Berkeley Castle became one of the most important royalist strongholds in the country.
In 1642, Berkeley castle was captured by parliamentarian forces, lead by the Scotsman, Captain Forbes. George Lord Berkeley, understandably annoyed by the loss of what he considered to be his home, requested that the House of Lords do something about it. The Lords responded by demanding that Forbes return the castle, but Forbes was determined to keep his prize, and so, in July 1643, a royalist force was sent to take it back. After a short siege, the castle was surrendered, and rather than fight an army that severely outnumbered him, Captain Forbes retreated to the parliamentary stronghold of Gloucester.
On his way to take part in the siege of Gloucester in August 1643, the King, Charles I, stayed briefly at the castle. After the siege failed, the King ordered that Berkeley be garrisoned against Cromwell and Fairfax’s forces, and for two years, the castle served as a base, sending detachments of troops to fight the parliamentarians who were garrisoned in nearby Frampton-upon-Severn and in the town of Slimbridge. In January 1645, Colonel Poore, the commander and governor of the castle during this time was drowned, he was replaced by Sir Charles Lucas
After the defeat of the royalists at Naseby that June, the parliamentary forces under the command of Fairfax were sent into Gloucestershire. Although briefly distracted by conflicts in South Wales, their forces successfully took the town and castle of Bristol in September, leaving Berkeley as the only castle in West Gloucestershire that still bore the arms of the King. Fairfax sent one thousand men to lay siege to the castle; when he commanded the governor, Lucas, to surrender, he was told that Lucas would resort to cannibalism before he gave up the fortress. A heavy bombardment ensued in which the outer walls of the castle were completely destroyed, as was the gatehouse and the drawbridge. Despite his tough words, Lucas agreed to a surrender after only three days of the siege. The terms of surrender were that the governor would be allowed to leave the castle, taking with him his arms, three horses, no and more than fifty pounds. Field officers were allowed two horses each, and a maximum of seven pounds, foot captains were allowed one horse each, and their swords, lieutenants and ensigns were allowed their arms only, or, if they had none, they were allowed five shillings each. In all, five hundred men were forced to leave the fortress.
Lord Berkeley himself did not participate in the civil war, preferring, as was the habit of his family, to appear neutral. He was, however accused of high treason in 1648, but nothing came of the matter and he died in 1658.
The Castle Today
Like many English Castles, after the Civil War ended, Berkeley saw no more use as a fortress, and has since served as a stately home. However, Berkeley is an unusual case, since an act of Parliament made shortly after the Civil War, prohibited any reconstruction or altering of the building, lest it be once again used as a bastion against the people of Britain. This act was never repealed and because of this, one of the most prominent features you notice if you visit it is a thirty five foot hole in the keep’s wall, caused by a cannon barrage more than three hundred years ago.
Berkeley Castle has been described as “looking as if it grew naturally out of the Earth.” Indeed, this was the impression I had as I drove towards what from a distance looks very much like a large rock protruding from a green hill in the English countryside. The reason for this is its unusual design. Rather than build the outer wall around the bottom of a hill that was to as the bailey, the architects that designed it opted to construct the keep on the side of a gentle slope and to wall off three quarters of the way around, creating a natural looking ring of stone on the side of the hill with the keep acting as the jewel.
The castle is currently owned by Mr and Mrs Berkeley, descendents of the original family (the lordship having lapsed earlier in the twentieth century) and is in fact lived in. However, it is open to the public and guided tours are available. Walking around the castle, there is a strong sense of security; the walls are thick and the windows are high, giving the impression of impregnability. Paintings of previous lords adorn many of the walls, and the Great Hall contains an impressive collection of eighteenth century artwork. The windows of the Great Hall are also worth a glance or two since they depict many of the stories associated with the castle.
The dungeon of the castle, located within the keep is one of the oldest areas. It is of course on the tourist trail, and when we were shown down there, the tour guide described to us some of the methods of torture used through the ages. Although this is obviously slightly sick, and a reasonably common feature of castle tours, it did enhance the foreboding and oppressive atmosphere that prevailed in those dark rooms.
Walking outside, the Elizabethan bowling allies are still to be seen. The gardens, have been sculpted into rococo style landscapes, and a fittingly picturesque. Yew trees dot the paths and the lily-pond, flanked on either side by paths of stone is quite beautiful in the summer. The gardens also contain a butterfly house, which has been described as “a calm oasis” and is indeed wonderfully peaceful.
Living reasonably close by, I have visited this historical building many times, and it never ceases to stun me. It is a magnificent addition to the rolling English countryside.
Horrible Histories: Cruel Kings and Mean Queens –Terry Deary.
The English Civil War –David Sharpe
my tour guide, Matt,
scarf who libraried for me
Submitted as an entry in Everything Quests: Places to visit in Ireland and the UK