Berkeley Castle

Berkeley Castle courtyard
Photo © David Stowell, 14 October 2007

Berkeley Castle
Photo © Philip Halling, 9 August 2009

Castle Doorway - Photo
D. Stowell, 14 Oct 07

Berkeley Castle (historically sometimes spelt Berkley Castle) is a castle in the town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, UK. It was constructed from 1154 A.D., on the orders of Henry II, with the aim of defending the Bristol - Gloucester Road, the Severn estuary and the Welsh border. It continues to belong to the Berkeley family, descendants of Robert Fitzharding, who completed the keep around 1189.

King Edward II of England was held in the castle for 5 months from April to September, before being murdered September 21st 1327 there by unknown means, although popular stories of a red hot poker or suffocation persist and the murderers were charged with suffocating the King. The cell where he is supposed to have been imprisoned and murdered can still be seen, along with the adjacent 28' deep dungeon, which supposedly echoes the events of the murder every year on September 21. The castle has remained within the same family since its construction, with most areas now open to the public, the private apartments occupy about 15% of the building and the rest is managed by the Berkeley Castle Charitable Trust. It is the oldest continuously-occupied castle in England after the royal fortresses of The Tower of London and Windsor and the oldest to be continuously owned and occupied by the same family.

The courtyard in the 1840s.

In the 14th century, the Great Hall was given a new roof and it is here the last Court Jester in England, Dickie Pearce, died after falling from the Minstrel's Gallery. His tomb is in St Mary's churchyard which stands besides the castle. Adjoining the Great Hall is one of two of the original chapels, that includes painted wooden vaulted ceilings and one of the first examples of a biblical passage (from the Book of Revelation), written in the language of those who read it - Norman French, it is the earliest attempt to translate the Bible into a common language. This room also contains an illustrated vellum book of plainsong that was used in Catholic rites, before the family converted to Protestantism in the 16th century. In the 20th century, the 8th Earl Randall repaired and remodelled parts of the castle and added a new porch in the same gothic style as the rest of the building. One change included an Art Nouveau take on a Medieval bedroom.

The castle is surrounded by beautiful 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.

During the English Civil War, the castle still held sufficient significance for it to be captured in 1645 by Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, for the Parliamentarian side and after a siege which saw cannon being fired at point blank range from the adjacent church roof of Saint Mary the Virgin, the Royal garrison surrendered. As was usual, the walls were left breached after this siege but the Berkeley family were allowed to retain ownership on condition that they never repaired the damage to the Keep and Outer Bailey, still enforced today by the original Act of Parliament drawn up at the time; according to Pevsner, the breach is partially filled by a subsequent 'modern' rebuild, but this only amounts to a low garden wall, to stop people falling 28' from the Keep Garden, the original Castle's "motte".

Two ships of the Royal Navy have been named Berkeley Castle after the castle, as has a Great Western locomotive.

The Berkeley family divide their time between the Castle and their other home, Spetchley Park, just outside Worcester, which has been in the family's ownership since 1606.

A Restoration Appeal was launched in 2006 to raise £5.5 million needed to renovate and restore the Norman building. The Charitable Trust running the Castle is relatively small.

The castle was used for many scenes for the hit BBC children's television series The Ghost Hunter and the first televised version of The Other Boleyn Girl.

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