Berkeley Castle may very well be the most visitor-friendly authentic castle- not only in England but in the entirety of Europe. The castle is definitely the oldest abode in England still inhabited by the same family that built it throughout all these centuries. A mauve-colored stone medieval shell keep (the oldest portion) stands firmly around the flattened motte in the Berkeley Vale in the midst of 6,000 acres of a medieval deer park where the family still hunts! At present day there is only one game reserve left. The residential state apartments are magnificent enough for the latest installment of the longstanding Berkeley family of twenty-five generations to continue to occupy comfortably. Interestingly, Charles and Henry Berkeley, sons of John Grantley Berkeley, humbly answer to the title of Mister like their father and the family occupies a diminutive wing- the only portion of the castle unavailable to visitors. The importance of the family is very much in evidence with their long heritage and many holdings in England but their nominal influence and reach goes much further- particularly in the U.S.A. with such notables as the Berkeley Hundred in Virginia and Berkeley University in Northern California.
Only fourteen miles southwest of Gloucester, this magnificent specimen is seated on a relatively low rise just in view of the Severn estuary across the water from Chepstow Castle in Wales and St. Briavels in the Forest of Dean (part of Gloucestershire). With the site originated by William FitzOsbern, the Earl of Hereford, late in the 11th century, it has been rebuilt, extended and modernized over a period of 900 years- displaying very little dilapidation or ruins except for the famous breach caused by parliamentary troops during the second Civil War. To look upon its stones from any vantage point is to view an important connection to English Royal history. It is beautiful and fascinating to know that key events happened right within it’s ancient walls. When you tour the premises you will hear stories and individual experiences at Berkeley. Be prepared for one particularly gruesome story from the 14th century as it vies with the Tower of London for reputation- bloody tower, indeed! The castle’s history is well documented with archives which number about 20,000- 6,000 of which cover the medieval period and related documents of manorial records for every county in England save two!
Of course, the castle started as a motte and bailey but when converted to masonry by Robert FitzHarding, with the financial support of Henry II, many features, including the esthetically different shell keep, took on mammoth proportions. It took thirty-six years to build ! FitzHarding was a Bristol merchant who had helped Henry finance his campaign against King Stephen, so the king’s eventual reciprocation gave Berkeley the status of a royal stronghold. Berkeley retains the first turreted curtain walls in England, leading the way toward concentric castle building throughout the realm. It is an interesting castle to visit because of the mixture of architecture which combines a Norman fortress with many additions during the entirety of the medieval period. You will find the ornate Berkeley horseshoe arches around the complex of buildings in various places with a wonderful example in the Great Hall. These were the work of Thomas, Lord Berkeley in the mid-14th century and he is responsible for the overall appearance of the castle today as rebuilding was minimal after his time. The various plinth and pilaster buttresses which encircle the south range of private apartments were retained although many window portals have been placed between them. I believe it only adds to its charm.
The keep has a few diverse features such as projecting bastions. One has a well chamber and another was the apse of a chapel- both unusual uses but adds more interest to its unusual construction. The most charming feature (and most photographed) is the forebuilding which ascends to the keep entrance by steps to a short crenellated tower with two arched entrances and encloses a narrow staircase leading into the keep. The breach was blown through the keep wall and faces the outer bailey but did no significant damage to it overall. Nevertheless, it will never be repaired because of a centuries-old agreement by the Berkeleys. You may also tour a suite of rooms in the keep housing furniture and tapestries which were the possessions of Sir Francis Drake. An extensive tour will also include the King’s Gallery which leads down into the dungeon.
There were two baileys at one time but only a restored gatehouse remains from the outer bailey. It once defended a double drawbridge and large octagonal towers. The inner bailey is reached through the 14th century gateway which stands on the other side of the keep and a narrow oblong tower. Inside it has been completely filled with residential Tudor and Elizabethan structures which are also mostly the work of Thomas in the 1340s and only minor alterations have been made from that time. The main hall for these residences rest on the east side of the bailey, opposite the gatehouse. You’ll find kitchens and a maze of domestic use buildings along the north side. The ornate carved door which is seated at the porch entrance was an import installed by the 8th Earl- it is otherworldly !
Beautiful and enigmatic are the best words to describe the Great Hall. Its original timber saddle roof is structured to great height and has been well preserved. The room has been repopulated with authentic Tudor features- such as the 15th century screen with the original paintwork (installed less than a hundred years ago) and other furnishings. A Gainsborough of Admiral Sir George Berkeley is picturesquely hung over the fireplace. Stained glass windows depict alliances of the family over the ages. This was, in fact, the meeting room of all the Barons of the west country, in 1215, to confer before meeting with King John at Runnymede for the purpose of forcing him to sign the Magna Charta. Next to that, an old chapel, once referred to as St Mary’s and now called the Morning room, shows off windows with tracery and a wooden ceiling (painted over). From there, an ambulatory will give you a view of the breach which was blown out from guns mounted on the church seated a short distance from the castle- off grounds. From the battlements down to the terraced gardens below, where a moat is presumed to have been kept filled, the drop is no less than sixty feet. Grounds further afield, called the water meadows, were additional defense. Below, you’ll find that this area is surrounded with Elizabethan terraced Gardens which include a lovely lily pond. Its current aspect was the work of Gertrude Jekyll little more than a hundred years ago. Great lawns stretch out beyond magnificently.
The later State apartments, which can be accessed from the Grand Staircase with its Tudor embroidery and beautiful portraits, comprise the present castle along the curtain wall and feature a Picture Gallery with a George Stubbs equestrian series and Dining room containing Lelys and Knellers along with the famous Berkeley silver service and the family portraits in their yellow hunting outfits. The 14th century kitchens, which were still in use up ’til the mid-20th century is fully stocked with game, butteries with a retired beer cellar which still reeks of the local ale. There are also the Long and Small Drawing rooms which are very close to the wing of private family apartments. The interiors have changed with each era, perhaps, but the basic medieval form remains as always with walls of stone, wood floors and filled with tapestries and rugs which hearken back to Victorian Gothic. Surprisingly, the King’s Pew from the chapel was moved to the Long Drawing Room along with a magnificent two-storey Gothic screen. The wife of the 5th Earl of Berkeley is depicted in a portrait here and the story of her secret marriage to the Earl brought about a famous trial involving legitimacy of their heirs.
Elizabeth I was one of many royal visitors to Berkeley, and on one famous occasion, over-hunted the Castle’s deer. On gentle reprimand, she departed in a huff, leaving her silk bedspread behind which is now on display in the castle. It is miraculous that there were not serious repercussions but I imagine Elizabeth thought better of her attitude later on. The bowling green below the gatehouse was named after her. There is hope for us all! Apparently, John G. Berkeley, the patriarch of the family is still very much the master of the house but his sons, are taking an active role in dealing with the day-to-day running of the castle and are very knowledgeable having grown up on the premises. Their father was described in Debrett ‘s as ‘descended in direct male line from Eadnoth the Staller’- Eadnoth being a nobleman of the court of Edward the Confessor (of 1042).
Today’s Berkeley is a vibrant center of activities and a venue rented for events such as weddings. You can become a friend of the castle and the benefits include free admission to the castle, gardens and a wonderful butterfly pavilion located within the walled gardens where forty two exotic species and varieties flit around freely. Specialty plants are also a part of the live exhibit. It’s an exhilarating experience! You will also receive advance notice of special events for the castle, invitation to an annual summer party hosted by the Berkeley family, a periodic newsletter, discounts at the gift shop and a free ticket to Spetchley Park Gardens, the other Berkeley residence in Worcestershire. The Yurt Restaurant which is opposite the butterfly pavilion is available during regular open hours.