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From Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, edited and translated by Esther Singleton; New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1901; pp. 337-345.


Berkeley Castle*


Black and white photograph of Berkeley Castle in England, taken in the late 19th century.


FOR sylvan beauty and pastoral loveliness there is no fairer countryside in all England than the broad domains of which the old feudal stronghold of the Berkeleys is the centre. A mile to the westward, the Severn’s broad flood sweeps slowly to the Bristol Channel, only twenty miles away. Five miles or so to the eastward, the last spurs of the Cotswold Hills sink to the level of the plain. There is Stinchcomb Hill with its flat bare top dotted with the white tents of its summer camp. Beautiful Dursley lies in a neighbouring hollow. Nibley Knoll, where begin the beeches of Westridge Woods, amid which are the earthworks of a Roman or Saxon fort, can be easily distinguished by the column by Teulon that rises about one hundred feet to commemorate the part William Tyndale took in the Reformation. The little valleys running into these hills (locally called bottoms) hear the call of spring long before the uplands, and along the margins of their streams the snowdrops wake to nod graciously at their reflected beauty; and then, before the Westridge Woods are clothed in green, among the shielding trunks the primrose spreads a cloth of gold above the last year’s leaves.

This whole district is thronged with historic memories; many a Norman cross and church lies within a circuit of 338 twelve miles’ radius. Tortworth Court is close at hand. A few miles down across the river, stands mighty Chepstow with the Wye washing her ruined walls; but Berkeley is still intact and inhabited after seven centuries’ assault by Time and civil strife. This is what renders Berkeley so remarkable among English castles: it retains its ancient shell, and it has always been owned and inhabited by a lineal descendant of the original owner and builder.

The “Faire Vale of Berkeley” was always famous for its beauty and fertility. William of Malmesbury describes it as “rich in corn, productive in fruits . . . enticing even the lazy to industry by the prospect of a hundredfold return. . . . Neither has any county in England more numerous or richer vineyards . . . . the wine is but little inferior to that of France in sweetness.” The vineyards have long disappeared, and the only vines now seen are those that beautify the walls and frame the latticed casements of the cottages.

In Domesday Book, Berkeley appears as a royal demesne and borough: one of the trees mentioned as a boundary of the hundred is still pointed out in the Deer Park, and known as King William’s Oak. The Conqueror gave the manor to Roger de Berkeley who erected the Keep about 1093. At first this was only a military hold to keep the neighbourhood in check, but buildings were gradually added till the castle assumed its present form and the lord took up his residence here under Cœur de Lion, a century later.

Situated on a little rise, its strong battlements and towers look across the tops of the beautiful trees that now shade 339 its useless moat, and the visitor enjoys a lovely view in every direction. Situated midway between Gloucester and Bristol, the baron, predatory doubtless as was the custom of the age, was in a fine position to levy toll on merchant caravans that must pass through the vale. The form of the castle is that of an irregular circle. The drawbridge leads to a portcullised gateway in massive walls between two hexagonal towers. The donjon is a square tower with turrets at the angles, built on higher ground than the other constructions to dominate the rest of the castle. It was erected in 1342. It is called Thorpe’s tower after the family who held lands in tenure from the lord in return for acting as its warders. The strong keep also still stands and shows the warder’s walk fifty-eight feet in length, in perfect preservation. The dimensions of the great hall are forty-eight by thirty-three feet. Its great chimney is adorned with mediæval armour and antlers. The ancient kitchen and other offices still exist, and so does the chapel with its Decorated style of architecture. The sacrarium is of special interest since it is divided into two floors, each with a separate entrance and fire-place, the lower for the use of the retainers and the upper, or Oriel, for the family and guests. The living-rooms contain many pictures by famous masters, and some historic furniture. Among the latter, are some ebony chairs and a table that Drake brought home from the Spanish Main.

Rich as the castle is in antiquarian remains, however, the interest of these walls is multiplied a hundredfold by their historical associations. When we take our stand on the 340 summit of the Donjon and look around and below us, what memories are evoked! When we recall the history of the family, we cannot but marvel that the ancient line is still in possession; for a turbulent race were the Berkeleys, and often arrayed against the Crown. Roger de Berkeley joined Stephen against the granddaughter of his father’s benefactor, and therefore Henry Fitz-Empress confiscated his fief, and conferred it upon Robert Fitz-Harding, Governor of Bristol, of royal Danish descent, at the same time making him a baron. The latter’s son, however, married Roger’s heiress, and thus the Berkeleys were restored in their son Maurice. Robert, the son of the latter, joined the barons against John, who seized the castle, and was there in the last year of his reign. However, Robert’s brother Thomas managed to get it restored, in 1233, by Henry III. Maurice, the son of Thomas, was in rebellion with Simon de Montfort twenty-five years later, and, as a result, Berkeley was again confiscated. His son Thomas served Edward I., the “Hammer of the Scots,” so well in the North that he got back his ancestral honours and domains and was summoned to Parliament as Baron Berkeley in 1295. This lord and his son and grandson were rich and powerful, and all the beautiful “Edwardian” stonework is of this period. Much of the older work was cleared away for the new buildings of the loveliest style of English Gothic. But what a deed of violence was perpetrated in the narrow chamber in the adjoining building below us! We have reached the dark memory that above all else enshrouds Berkeley. The effeminate king who lost Bannockburn 341 and handed over the reins of government to the unworthy Gaveston and De Spencers, decimating the English baronage at their behests, and revelling in Oriental vice and ferocity, finally succumbed to his wife and her paramour at Kenilworth early in 1327. The Lord of Berkeley now was Thomas, the grandson of the favourite of Edward I. to him and to two knights named John Maltravers and Thomas de Gournay was entrusted the custody of the dethroned Edward II. The two latter removed their captive secretly and treated him with every indignity: they crowned him with a crown of hay and shaved him with ditch-water along the way. A circumstantial account tells how he said therefore he would supply his own hot water with tears! On Palm Sunday, Baron Thomas received him kindly and treated him with consideration, whereupon he received a reprimand from Queen Isabel, bidding him “use no familiarity with Edward, the late king;” and so, fearing for himself, he “departed with heavy cheere, perceiving what violence was intended.” Lovely as was the view from his window, the long summer from April to September brought no joy to the prisoner. The Berkeley MS. says that “this poor, foolish king did nothing but lament for his wife, singing love-songs in a low voice and grieving that she would neither see him nor permit his son or any of his relatives to come near him. The Queen was afraid that the Church would compel her to live with him again, and therefore urged his death.” At first, his keepers tried to ruin his health by piling putrid carcases in the pit below his chamber; then they kept him half-starved and half-clad. 342 Yet the Queen reproved them for excessive clemency! Marlowe quotes the historian in noble verse when Edward complains:

“In mire and puddle I have stood
  This ten days’ space; and, lest that I should sleep,
  One plays continually upon a drum.
  They give me bread and water, being a king,
  So that, for want of sleep and sustenance,
  My mind’s distempered and my body’s numbed. . . .
  O, would my blood dropped out from every vein,
  As doth this Water from my tattered robes.
  Tell Isabel, the queen, I looked not thus,
  When for her sake I ran at tilt in France,
  And there unhorsed the Duke of Clermont!”

The night of September 22nd heard the shrieks of the tortured king: that they reached the ears of the people in the town, who crossed themselves and prayed for the passing soul, is doubtless a statement due to the historian’s sympathy, for the walls are thick. In the morning, the citizens of Bristol were called to gaze upon the distorted features of their dead king, who otherwise bore no sign of violence. All were afraid to bury Isabel’s victim, till the Abbot of Gloucester bravely undertook the task. The next year Isabel and Mortimer actually visited Berkeley, and were entertained by its wealthy lord. The latter kept twelve knights to wait upon him, each of whom was served by two servants and page. He also had twenty-four esquires, each of whom had a horse and an attendant. There were about three hundred in his household who fed at his board. 343 The Lord of Berkeley was a mighty baron in those days. The blame had to be shifted, however, and so he was brought to an irregular trial before twelve knights, instead of his peers: he was finally acquitted of complicity in the crime in 1330. In that year, his son and successor, Maurice, was born. He fought at Granada and Gascony, and was so desperately wounded at Poictiers in 1366 that he died at Berkeley two years later. His son Thomas was also a warrior who unfurled his banner in Spain, France and Scotland. He entertained Richard II. at Berkeley in 1386, but this did not prevent his voting for Richard’s deposition in favour of Bolingbroke in 1399.

The direct male line fails soon after this and the Berkeley heiress marries a Talbot. A collateral branch comes in and the descendants have rival claims and start what is usually called the longest lawsuit on record: it is not finally settled till 1609. In the course of this suit, occurs the last battle that was fought between independent noblemen in England. Lord Lisle of Wotton, the grandson of the great Talbot, early of Shrewsbury, claims Berkeley which is held by William a fiery youth of nineteen. (Wotton-under-Edge lies under the edge of the hills three miles beyond Nibley Knoll.) On March 22nd, 1470, the Viscount sends a challenge to Berkeley to settle all differences by combat: it is eagerly accepted. There was bustle in the castle that night. The meeting was at Nibley Green. Long Lane still preserves memories of how the men of Berkeley chased the men of Wotton into the churchyard till the grass was heavy with crimson dew. 344 Berkeley far outnumbered Lisle; moreover the latter were taken as they were marching unawares, and an arrow entered their leader’s open visor and a dagger afterwards finished him. The victors proceed to Wotton and sacked Lisle’s house. His widow have premature birth to a dead son amid the carnage, and the Lisle claims were ended. The Wars of the Roses were still raging and a little affair of that kind passed unnoticed.

Margaret of Anjou rested once at Berkeley in her campaigning. Richard III. created Viscount Berkeley an Earl, but, true to his race, he went over. When Henry of Richmond landed at Milford Haven, Berkeley joined him and, to spite his heir, made over to him his castle and domains. After Bosworth, Henry created him a Marquess, but his avarice induced him to keep the property. In default of heirs male, however, on the death of Edward II., it lapsed to the Berkeley heirs again. The new lord of Berkeley was a mighty hunter and delighted in his beautiful deer park. On one of her progresses, Good Queen Bess paid him a visit. He happened to be absent, but his venison proved useful in victualling the courtly following. Everybody knows what it cost to entertain that locust-swarm! When Lord Henry returned, he was greatly enraged at the havoc, and ordered his park to be disparked rather than let it be a future temptation. Elizabeth heard of this and sent him a quiet hint to “beware of his words and actions, for the Earl of Leicester greatly desired the castle for himself!” One of the rooms in this “Naboth’s vineyard” is still called Queen Elizabeth’s room. Other 345 royal guests who have visited the castle are George IV. And William IV.

The Earls of Berkeley no longer own their ancestral home, in fact they maintain that the title is not rightfully theirs. This celebrated romance of the peerage started with the fifth Earl. Some of his children were born before the only marriage he could prove to the satisfaction of the House of Lords, though he maintained that he and the lady had previously gone through a secret marriage ceremony. The Earl left the castle and estates to his eldest son, and the Crown created him Baron Fitzhardinge. The late Earl of Berkeley never took his seat in the House of Lords nor assumed his title in any way since the decision that set the baton sinister in the escutcheon of the elder sons of the fifth Earl.

Elf.Ed. Notes

*  Read a joke, on this site, involving the 19th century Lord Berkeley, from the Jest Book, by Mark Lemon.

  Parts of Appalachia and mountainous areas of the Southeastern United States, are known for the preservation of words and expressions from Elizabethan England, due to its isolation. An example in Eastern Kentucky, is the continued use of the term Bottoms, for the lower part of small valleys. The upper parts are called Hills or Hollows. Here, people live at addresses like Number 1 Bottom. That means they are on the creek side of a road following a mountain waterway. Those who live on the upper side, going up the mountain, would then be in the Number 1 Hill.


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