One of the March Castles, built by the English as a defence against the Welsh, Berkeley is one of the finest examples of medieval domestic architecture in the country, surviving as a Norman fortress built and enlarged through the middle ages. The Berkeley family are one of only three families in England who can trace their ancestry from father to son back to Saxon times and the castle is the oldest building in the country to be inhabited by the same family who built it.
The first castle at Berkeley was a motte-and-bailey (i.e. a wooden or stone keep situated on a raised earthwork called a motte, accompanied by an enclosed courtyard, or bailey) built around 1067 shortly after the Conquest by William FitzOsbern (Lord of Breteuil, in Normandy, he was a relative and close counsellor of William the Conqueror, fought at Hastings in 1066 was and one of the great magnates of early Norman England. He was created Earl of Hereford, one of the first peerage titles in the English peerage, but died in 1071 in Flanders). The castle 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' (The Anarchy or The Nineteen-Year Winter (1135–1154) was a period of civil war and unsettled government in the reign of King Stephen, marked by a succession crisis between the supporters of Stephen and those of his cousin, the Empress Matilda. Stephen was a favourite nephew of King Henry I of England (reigned 1100–1135), whose only legitimate son died in 1120, so at the time of his own death it was unclear who would succeed him. Henry proclaimed his daughter Matilda as queen, who for various reasons was an unpopular choice. Stephen was crowned instead but there followed a long period of instability, resolved only shortly before his death, when he signed the Treaty of Wallingford, which named Matilda's son Henry Curtmantle as his heir, establishing the Plantagenet dynasty).
The Lordship of Berkeley was then granted to Robert Fitzharding, a wealthy supporter of the Plantagenets and burgess of Bristol (a burgess originally meant a freeman of a borough or burgh, later coming to mean an elected or unelected official of a municipality, or the representative of a borough in the English House of Commons). He was the founder of the Berkeley family which still holds the castle.
In 1153–54 Fitzharding received a charter from King Henry II giving him permission to rebuild the castle, with the aim of defending the Bristol - Gloucester Road, the Severn estuary and the Welsh border. He built the circular shell keep (a stone structure circling the top of a motte) during 1153–56. The building of the curtain wall (a defensive wall between two bastions of a castle or fortress) followed. 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.
The Death of King Edward II
The castle was ransacked in 1326 by the forces of Hugh Despenser, the favourite of King Edward II. In 1327, Edward was deposed by the Queen and her ally Roger Mortimer, and they made Thomas de Berkeley and his brother-in-law John Maltravers his joint custodians. They brought Edward to Berkeley Castle, and held him there for five months. During that time a band of Edward's supporters entered the castle and rescued him, only for him to be recaptured soon afterwards.
Edward was reputedly murdered there on September 21, 1327 by unknown means. The cell where he is supposed to have been imprisoned and murdered can still be seen. 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, whose tomb is in the neighbouring St. Mary's churchyard, died after falling from the Minstrels' gallery.
The Civil War and beyond
During the English Civil War, the castle was taken in 1645 by the Parliamentarian Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, after a siege during which cannon was fired from the adjacent church roof of Saint Mary the Virgin (after which the bell tower was detached from the church so that it could not happen again). The Berkeley family were allowed to retain ownership of the castle on condition that they never repaired the damage to the Keep and Outer Bailey, still enforced today by the original Act of Parliament.
In the 20th century, a new porch was added in the same Gothic style as the rest of the building.
The castle is surrounded by Elizabethan terraced gardens, including Elizabeth I's bowling green and a pine that is reputed to have been grown from a cutting taken from a tree at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
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