Thursday, 20 April 2017

Berkeley Castle: beautiful and so rich in history

Berkeley Castle stands on a low hill in sight of the Severn estuary and is an appealing blend of Norman fortress and later Medieval mansion. The Domesday Book records that it was founded by William FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford, who was a powerful ally of William the Conqueror and who makes regular guest appearances in this blog. Since he died in 1071, the castle must pre-date that. His sub-tenant adopted the name de Berkeley and the first 3 generation were all called Roger (just to confuse later historians).  The last was dispossessed in 1152 for withholding allegiance to the House of Plantagenet during the Anarchy.
  The feudal barony was granted to Robert FitzHardinge, a supporter of the Plantagenets, and he, amazingly, was the founder of the Berkeley family which still holds the castle today. Complex? It gets worse: his father, Maurice, had married Alice de Berkeley and from then on most were called Maurice. He received a royal charter from Henry II giving permission to rebuild a stone castle defending the Bristol/Gloucester road and the Welsh border. All this makes Berkeley Castle the 3rd oldest continuously occupied castle in England after the royal fortresses of the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, and the oldest to be continuously owned and occupied by the same family.

   The original was a motte castle and, unusually, the keep was not strengthened in stone on top, but the sides of the mound were cut away to form a cylinder, revetted, and the keep constructed around it. Much of the rest is 14th century, built for Thomas de Berkeley (they had thought up another Christian name by then) and visitors can gaze at the battlements dropping 60 feet down to the lawn (all the surrounding area could be flooded in defence), trip steps to cause the enemy to fall over one another (this belies the idea that the door at the top was just large enough for a horseman), murder holes, portcullis slots and huge barred doors.
  Inside, there are grand rooms: the dining room with its 18th century silver service on display was converted from a billiard room as can be detected from the lights and the Great Hall boasts a fine 14th century ceiling. The picture gallery, drawing rooms, buttery (nothing to do with butter of course) and kitchen are all of interest and it is well worth taking the guided tour to learn all the details about their history. I found particular interest in the tale of the bosomy Mary Cole, portrayed here, who could have altered the course of history.

Famous connections
  The best known is the murder of Edward II in 1327, which took place here, committed by his gaolers, Sir John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney, although Berkeley himself was probably absent, being, as Marlowe says, "so pitiful". The alleged method was considered appropriate for what was perceived as his sexual deviancy and also unlikely to leave incriminating marks on the outside of his body - I will say no more. Recently there has been a revisionist alternative to this gruesome bit of history, in which Edward successfully escaped, was not recaptured, and died much later elsewhere. A less well-known and pathetic incident is related in Sir Richard Baker's Chronicle: this concerns the means of making the king less recognisable by the shaving en route to the castle of Edward's head and beard "in a most beastly manner" with cold puddle water. The King said he must have warm water and so "shed forth a shower of tears. Never was King turned out of a kingdom in such a manner." What is generally accepted is that Edward was kept in insanitary conditions above a stinking pile of dead or diseased animals in the expectation that this would undermine his constitution and lead to his death.
  Other royal visitors were: King John (the barons of the west convened here before Runnymede); Henry III; Margaret, wife of Henry VI; Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I; George IV when Prince of Wales and William IV when Duke of Clarence. Horace Walpole came and was unimpressed! There is much ancient furniture including Sir Francis Drakes's cabin chest and Elizabeth I's bedspread.
  It is said the A Midsummer Night's Dream was written for a Berkeley wedding.

Other points of interest
   As you walk around you might notice a small breach in the wall, a customary bit of slighting during the Civil War: the family were allowed to remain provided they did not repair this damage and, to this day, all they have done is make the wall safe, since they are still under orders from the original Act of Parliament.

In the nearby church, St. Mary's, bullet holes can be seen in the doors, dating from the Civil War and, in the churchyard, you can look at the tomb of Dickie Pearce, the last court jester, who died falling from the minstrel's gallery in 1728. Gertrude Jekyll had a hand in planting the terraces - the gardens specialise in scented flowers and sell some of them. The story goes that Elizabeth I, apart from playing bowls on the green, hunted and shot so many deer that the rest were moved to a park some miles away where she failed to find them. (So did we and settled for reasonably priced CAKE in the tea rooms in the attractive little town, which also dates from Medieval times.) There is a Butterfly House with interesting specimens and a café yurt (selling delicious velvet CAKE!) The house of Edward Jenner, whose invention of the small pox vaccine eventually completely eradicated this terrible disease, is close by and can be visited: it contains the horns of Blossom, the bovine heroine of his original experiment.
   Gertrude Jekyll described the atmosphere of the castle: "The giant walls and mighty buttresses look as if they have been carved by wind and weather out of some solid rock-mass, rather than wrought by human handiwork". In some evening light "it cheats the eye into something ethereal, without substance, built up for the moment into towering masses of pearly vapour."

My readers have sharp powers of forensic analysis and always note when I go off the route of a Monmouthshire bus but I assure you that Berkeley Castle can be reached by public transport. (I was taken by car though on this occasion - cheat!) Do check opening times, however, as it shuts in the winter and hosts weddings towards the end of each week. Click here to find out. William FitzOsbern has already interested us as the founder of Chepstow Castle, which is not far away, and as a powerful Marcher Lord.

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