Built to control the River Little Avon and the Severn valley, Berkeley Castle was raised soon after the Norman Conquest by William FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford. The castle would later become infamous as the prison of Edward II and was allegedly where he was horrifically murdered in 1327. It changed hands five times during the seventeenth century Civil War.
Berkeley Castle was an existing manor at the time of the Norman invasion and was held by Harold Godwinson. Following his death at the Battle of Hastings (1066), Berkeley passed to William I to be managed as part of the Crown estates. However, in 1067 the King created three Earldoms - Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester - which were granted to magnates who would be responsible for containing the Welsh. Hereford was entrusted to William FitzOsbern and he was given huge swathes of land across Bristol, Herefordshire, south-east Wales and Gloucestershire (which included Berkeley). He raised a small earth and timber motte-and-bailey castle on the site shortly afterwards presumably to control the River Little Avon and Severn valley.
FitzOsbern's castle consisted of a motte which was probably topped with a timber palisade and tower. To the south-east was a small, square bailey which would have been enclosed by a timber rampart. The castle is mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086 with the slightly cryptic entry stating "there are five hides belonging to Berkeley which Earl William put out to make the castle". This can be interpreted a number of ways but is now generally assumed to mean he appropriated the associated lands in order to support the new castle. The custodian was Roger, who took the name de Berkeley, as was the norm. He died in 1093 but was followed by his son who seems to have acquired outright ownership of the castle during the reign of Henry I (1100-35). Roger entertained Henry I at the castle at Easter 1121.
Roger died in 1131 and was followed by his son, also called Roger. He still owned the castle at the outbreak of the Anarchy, a civil war between Stephen and Matilda over the English succession. Like most magnates Roger seems to have initially supported Stephen but changed sides during the war perhaps as a result of his niece marrying Philip of Gloucester, the son of Matilda's military commander. A Royalist force besieged Berkeley Castle and the unfortunate Roger was captured outside of its walls, stripped of his clothes and hung in chains in an attempt to get the garrison to capitulate. The castle refused to surrender and the half-dead Roger was dragged off in chains although he was eventually restored to his estates.
The Anarchy was settled with an agreement that Stephen would remain King for life but would be followed by Matilda's son, Henry Plantagenet. Henry needed to reward his supporters and granted Berkeley Castle to Robert FitzHarding. His son, Maurice, married Roger de Berkeley's daughter, Alice, avoiding any subsequent dynastic struggles. Roger de Berkeley himself retired to his estates in Cubberley and Dursley and died in 1170. It was during Robert FitzHarding's tenure that Berkeley Castle was rebuilt in stone. Work on the circular Keep, which was built around the existing earthwork motte, started in 1153 and included three protruding towers. The curtain wall enclosing the bailey was rebuilt in 1160. A moat was dug on the east, west and south sides of the castle. The north side was protected by a steep scarp down to marshy ground.
Maurice (who took the name de Berkeley) was followed by his son, Robert. He supported the Baronial opposition to King John with Berkeley Castle reputedly being used to host a meeting of West Country Barons prior to their departure for Runnymede to seal Magna Carta. When that document failed to secure peace, King John seized Berkeley Castle and took it under Crown control. Robert died in 1220 without ever having recovered his castle but in 1223 it was restored to his brother and heir, Thomas. The family remained at the forefront of national events participating in the Second Barons' War and Royal expeditions on the continent and in Scotland. Thomas de Berkeley, sixth Lord Berkeley fought at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) where he was captured by the Scots and ransomed.
Thomas died in 1321 and was followed by his son, Maurice. He was one of the many magnates who opposed Edward II and raided the territories of the King's unpopular favour, Hugh le Despenser. Maurice was captured and imprisoned at Wallingford Castle where he died in 1326. The same year Edward II's regime collapsed when the King's estranged wife, Queen Isabella, and Roger Mortimer, Earl of March invaded and forced his abdication. Edward was initially held at Corfe Castle in Dorset but the local populace was sympathetic to the deposed King's plight and accordingly he was moved to Berkeley Castle under the supervision of its owner, Thomas de Berkeley. The former King was incarcerated at the castle from April to September 1327. Popular history then suggests he was murdered either by suffocation or insertion of a red hot poker into his anus. Recently the historian Ian Mortimer has made a compelling case to suggest that Edward was never murdered and simply went abroad until his death circa-1330. The truth remains a mystery but both Roger Mortimer, Earl of March and Thomas de Berkeley were charged with his murder by Edward III. Whilst Roger was convicted and executed, Thomas was acquitted as he proved he was away from the castle at the time of the alleged murder. Thomas survived until 1361 and during his tenure completely remodelled the interior of Berkeley Castle.
By the mid-fourteenth century the requirement for the castle to serve a defensive purpose had reduced considerably. Accordingly upgrades were focused on improving the state apartments to make it more comfortable in line with contemporary high-status residences (such as Bodium). The castle continued to be a home for the Berkeley family until William de Berkeley transferred it to Henry VII in 1492 in exchange for various titles. It remained a Royal castle until 1553 when it was returned to the family. Further modifications were made throughout the Tudor period to upgrade the castle into a contemporary residence.
During the Civil War the owner of Berkeley Castle was George de Berkeley. He garrisoned it for the King but its strategic position, in vicinity of the important Royalist port at Bristol, meant it changed hands five times and the two sides vied for control. The final assault, by Parliamentary forces in 1645, included an artillery bombardment which blasted a breach in the central Keep. Whilst the castle was returned to the Berkeley family after the war, it was on condition that the breach was never repaired. Whilst some modifications were made during the Georgian period, the castle survived largely unaltered until the 1920s when Randall Mowbray Berkeley, Earl of Berkeley transformed the internal arrangements including making some controversial additions. He funded the work through the sale of Berkeley Square in London.
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Berkeley Castle has been transformed into a stately home but elements of the medieval fortification survive including the circular Keep. Furthermore the castle's layout still largely reflects its original plan.
Berkeley Castle Layout. The castle was originally a small earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification and has retained the footprint of this original structure ever since. The Keep was built around the motte in 1153 whilst the ranges around the bailey were added and re-developed in the centuries that followed.
Keep. The shell keep was built in 1153 around the motte of the original eleventh century castle (a similar feature can be seen at Fareham Castle in Surrey). The breach was created by Parliamentary troops in 1645 and was never repaired for that was a pre-condition of the castle being returned to the Berkeley family after the war.
Berkeley Castle. The Berkeley family did not achieve the same national prominence as contemporary families and this is reflected in the castle. For example note the lacklustre gatehouse (seen right) which was little more than an archway embedded within the range.
Gatehouse. The gatehouse / entrance arch viewed from the courtyard.
Norman Arch. The Norman arch to the Keep
Edward II. Thomas de Berkeley was the son-in-law of Roger Mortimer, Earl of March and was trusted to act as gaoler of the deposed Edward II. The King was held at the castle between April and September 1327 allegedly in the room shown above.