Berkeley Castle is located in the town of Berkeley in Gloucestershire and just a few miles from Reggie Towers. It’s a place I’ve visited a number of times and most recently when my brother stayed with us on his return to the UK.
As castles go it’s quite compact but largely intact and is still occupied by the Berkeley family who claim they are the only English family that can trace its ancestors back to the Saxon period. For centuries, the Berkeley’s were close to the throne, able administrators and fighters who supported their king or queen (as long as they could), backed the winning side, and married well.
The first castle at Berkeley was a motte-and-bailey, built around 1067 by William FitzOsbern shortly after the Conquest. This was subsequently held by three generations of the first Berkeley family, all called Roger de Berkeley, and rebuilt by them in the first half of the 12th century. The last Roger de Berkeley was dispossessed in 1152 for withholding his allegiance from the House of Plantagenet during the conflict of The Anarchy, and the feudal barony of Berkeley was then granted to Robert Fitzharding, a wealthy burgess of Bristol and supporter of the Plantagenets. He and Eva Fitzharding were the founders of the Berkeley family which still holds the castle.
In 1153–54, Fitzharding received a royal charter from King Henry II giving him permission to rebuild the castle with the circular shell keep being constructed between 1153 and 1156, probably on the site of the former motte. The building of the curtain wall followed, probably during 1160–1190 by Robert and then by his son Maurice.
Much of the rest of the castle is 14th century and was built for Thomas de Berkeley, 3rd Baron Berkeley: Thorpe’s Tower, to the north of the keep, the inner gatehouse to its southwest, and other buildings of the inner bailey.
Murder of Edward II
Berkeley Castle is believed to have been the scene of the murder of King Edward II in 1327; The castle was ransacked in 1326 by the forces of Hugh Despenser, the favourite of Edward II. Then in 1327, Edward was deposed by his wife Queen Isabella and her ally Roger Mortimer, and placed in the joint custody of Mortimer’s son-in-law, Thomas de Berkeley, and de Berkeley’s brother-in-law, John Maltravers. They brought Edward to Berkeley Castle, and held him there for five months from April to September. During that time a band of Edward’s supporters attacked, entered the castle and rescued him, only for him to be recaptured soon afterwards. It is possible that his captors then moved him around between several castles to make further rescue more difficult, before returning him to Berkeley Castle in September. Some commentators have claimed that Edward’s escape was successful and that someone else was later murdered in his place.
The cell where Edward is supposed to have been imprisoned and murdered can still be seen, along with the adjacent 11 m (36 ft) deep dungeon. The account given to Parliament at the time was that Edward had met with a fatal accident, but Holinshed and other historical sources record that great effort was made to keep the murder secret. The body was embalmed and remained lying in state at Berkeley for a month, in the Chapel of St John within the castle keep, before Thomas de Berkeley escorted it to Gloucester Abbey for burial. Thomas was later charged with being an accessory to the murder, but his defence was that it was carried out by the agents of Roger Mortimer while he was away from the castle, and in 1337 he was cleared of all charges.
In the 14th century, the Great Hall was given a new roof and it is here the last court jester in England, Dickie Pearce, died after falling from the Minstrels’ gallery. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn visited Berkeley in August 1535, after staying in Gloucester and in the late 16th century Queen Elizabeth I visited the castle and played bowls on the bowling green.
During the First English Civil War, the castle was held by a Royalist garrison and was captured in 1645 by a Parliamentarian force under Colonel Thomas Rainsborough; after a short siege that saw cannon being fired at point-blank range from the adjacent church roof of Saint Mary the Virgin, the garrison surrendered. As was usual the walls were left breached after this siege, but the Berkeley family were allowed to retain ownership on condition that they never repaired the damage to the Keep and Outer Bailey; this is still enforced today by the Act of Parliament drawn up at the time. According to the Pevsner Architectural Guides the breach is partially filled by a subsequent ‘modern’ rebuild, but this only amounts to a low garden wall, to stop people falling 28 feet from the Keep Garden, the original Castle’s “motte”.
Between 1748 and 1753 the tower on the top of the Church of St Mary, Berkeley, was demolished and rebuilt beside the church so that it would not impede the clear line of fire from the castle. In the early 20th century the 8th Earl of Berkeley repaired and remodelled parts of the castle and added a new porch in the same Gothic style as the rest of the building. Since 1956 Berkeley Castle has been open to visitors (for a fee).
The castle has been used as a location for TV and film productions including the 2003 film, The Other Boleyn Girl and the TV series The Spanish Princess (no, me neither).
Two Royal Navy ships and a Great Western Railway steam locomotive have been named after the castle.
We visited in late April 2022 on a bright an sunny day. Since my last visit there the entrance to the castle had been altered and much has been added by the way of a refreshment ‘tent’ and other facilities, which I felt added to the overall enjoyment of our trip.
The entrance fee includes access to the grounds which are well maintained and contained several metal ‘sculptures’ of famous historical figures connected with the castle.
The castle itself is very well maintained with most if not all the rooms in liveable condition, a stark contrast to many other castles which are little more than ruins.
Well worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity in my opinion.
© text & images Reggie 2024