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History of Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire
by John Timbs


B E R K E L E Y
C A S T L E
Where King Edward II was Murdered

On the south-east side of the town of Berkeley, in Gloucestershire, stands this perfect specimen of Norman castrametation, noted in history as the scene of the murder of one of our Kings, under circumstances of great atrocity.

It is in complete repair and not ruinous in any part. It is not ascertained at what date this building was commenced, but about the year 1150, it was granted by Henry II to Robert FitzHardinge, Governor of Bristol (who was descended from the Kings of Demnark), with power to strengthen and enlarge it. Maurice, the son of Robert, was the first of the FitzHardinges that dwelt at Berkeley, of which place he assumed the name, and fortified the Castle, which is placed on an eminence close to the town and commands an extensive view of the Severn and the neighbouring country.

The fortress is an irregular pile, consisting of a keep and various embattled buildings, which surround a court, about 140 yards in circumference. The chief ornament of this court is the exterior of the baronial hall, which is a noble room in excellent preservation ; adjoining it is the chapel. The apartments are very numerous but, except where modem windows have been substituted, they are mostly of a gloomy character. In one of them are the ebony bedstead and chairs used by Sir Francis Drake in his voyage round the world.

The entrance to the outer court is under a machicolated gatehouse, which is all that remains of the buildings that are said to have formerly surrounded the outer court. The keep is nearly circular, having one square tower and three semicircular ones. That on the north, which is the highest part of the Castle, was rebuilt in the reign of Edward II and is called 'Thorpe's Tower': a family of that name holding their manor by the tenure of Castle Guard, it being their duty to guard this tower when required.

In another of the towers of the keep is a dungeon chamber, twenty-eight feet deep, without light or an aperture of any kind, except at the top. In shape it resembles the letter D and the entrance to it is through a trap-door in the floor of the room over it; but, from being in the keep, which is high above the natural ground, this gloomy abode is quite free from damp.

The Roman method of filling the inner part or medium of the walls with fluid mortar, occurs in the keep of this Castle. The great staircase leading to the keep is composed of large stones and, on the right of it approached by a kind of gallery, is the room in which, from its great strength, and its isolated situation, there is every reason to suppose that Edward II was murdered, on the 21st September 1327.

It is a small and gloomy apartment, and till within the last century was only lighted by fleches. It is stated, by Holinshed, that the shrieks of the King were heard in the town of Berkeley; but from the situation of the Castle, and the great thickness of its walls, that is impossible. After his decease his heart was enclosed in a silver vessel and the Berkeley family formed part of the procession which attended the body to Gloucester, where it was interred in the Cathedral.

The then Lord Berkeley was acquitted of any active participation in the measures which caused the death of the King; but shortly afterwards he entertained Queen Isabella and her paramour, Mortimer, at the Castle. This Lord Berkeley kept twelve knights to wait upon his person, each of whom was attended by two servants and a page. He had twenty-four esquires, each having an under-servant and a horse. His entire family consisted of about 300 persons, besides husbandmen, who fed at his board.

In this Castle, Royal visitors have been several times entertained. After its having been a place of rendezvous for the rebellious Barons, in the reign of John, that King visited it in the last year of his reign. Henry III was there twice. The other Royal visitors have been Margaret, Queen of Henry VI; Henry VII; Queen Elizabeth, whose name one of the rooms still bears; George IV, when Prince of Wales; and William IV, when Duke of Clarence.

In the reign of Henry V, a lawsuit was commenced between Lord Berkeley and his cousin, the heiress of the family, which was continued 192 years. During which contest the plaintiff's party several times laid siege to the Castle. In the Civil Wars of Charles I, the Castle was garrisoned on the side of the King and kept all the surrounding country in awe. It was afterwards besieged, however, by the army of the Commonwealth and surrendered after a defence of nine days. In the west door of the church are several bullet-holes which are supposed to have been made by the besieging army. On the north of the Castle is a very perfect portion of the ancient fosse, which is now quite dry, and some very fine elms and other trees are growing in it. A terrace goes nearly round the Castle and, to the west of it, is a large bowling-green, bounded by a line of very old yew-trees which have grown together into a continuous mass and are cut into grotesque shapes.

In a Topographical Excursion, in 1624, Berkeley Castle is described as strong, old, spacious and habitable, with a fair park adjoining. Before the tourists entered the inner court, they passed through three large, strong gates with portcullises. "Here," say they, "was the dismal place where that unfortunate Prince, whom we left interred at the last visited Cathedral, was most barbarously and cruelly deprived of his life." The King, during his captivity here, composed a dolorous poem from which the following is an extract:

"Most blessed Jesu,
Root of all virtue,
Grant I may the sue,
In all humility.
Send thou for our good,
Lest to shed thy blood,
And stretch the upon the rood,
For our iniquity.
I the beseech,<
Most wholesome lech,
That thou wilt such,
For me such grace,
That when my body vile,
My soul shall exile,
Thou bring in short while,
It in rest and peace."

When Horace Walpole, in 1774, visited Gloucester Cathedral, on seeing the monument of Edward II, a new historic doubt started. "His Majesty has a longish beard and such were certainly worn at that time. Who is the first historian that tells the story of his being shaven, with cold water from a ditch, and weeping to supply warm, as he was carried to Berkeley Castle? Is not this apocryphal?" [The incident is narrated by Rapin.]

Sir Richard Baker, in his Chronicle, thus tells the story in his odd, circumstantial manner: "When Edward II was taken, by order of his Queen, and carried to Berkeley Castle, to the end that he should not be known, they shaved his head and beard and that in a most beastly manner. For they took him from his horse and set him upon a hillock, and then taking puddle-water out of a ditch thereby, they went to wash him, his barber telling him that cold water must serve for this time. Whereat the miserable King looking sternly upon him, said that whether they would or no, he would have warm water to wash him and therewithal, to make good his word, he presently shed forth a shower of tears. Never was King turned out of a kingdom in such a manner."

In the neighbourhood, Walpole found, in a wretched cottage, a child in an ancient oaken cradle exactly in the form of that of Edward II. Walpole purchased it for five shillings but doubted whether he should have fortitude enough to transport it to Strawberry Hill. He was much disappointed with Berkeley Castle, though very entire, he notes: "The room shown for the murder of Edward II and the shrieks of an agonising king, I verily believe to be genuine. It is a dismal chamber, almost at the top of the house, quite detached, and to be approached only by a kind of footbridge, and from that descends a large flight of steps that terminates on strong gates: exactly a situation for a corps de garde. In that room they show you a cast of a face, in plaster, and tell you it was taken from Edward's. I was not quite so easy of faith about that, for it is evidently the face of Charles I" Gray, in his Pindaric Ode - The Bard, - has this memorable passage:

"Weave the warp, and weave the woof,
The winding-sheet of Edward's race;
Give ample room and verge enough,
The characters of hell to trace.
Mark the year, and mark the night,
When Severn shall re-echo with affright
The shrieks of death through Berkeley's roof that ring,
Shrieks of an agonising king."

Edited from John Timbs' Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (1870)



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