Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Berkeley Castle

My last place to visit was Berkeley Castle and I was honoured to have Charles Berkeley as my tour guide. Charles is the 27th generation of Berkeleys to live in the Castle. He was delighted to share what growing up in a castle was like for he and his brother, Henry (“We were two boys, 11 months apart. Irish twins!”) who would walk the battlements on the roof, awake to sounds of shouting outside their bedroom windows to see a film in the making, slide down the banisters and play hide and seek in the old medieval rooms (“It once took him half a day to find me”)

Charles was most gracious with his time and as he was sharing the stories of the people in the large portraits on the walls of the castle, it dawned on me that not only was he sharing a behind the scenes glimpse of England’s history, but also of the Berkeley’s history. This was HIS family’s history! On the walls of a medieval castle!

The castle itself dates back to the 12th century and was originally built as a keep. The castle was granted to Robert Fitzharding, a Berkeley ancestor, by King Henry II. It has been in the Berkeley Family for 900 years, having once been relinquished to the Crown in exchange for a title. The Eighth Earl of Berkeley was himself an architect and dedicated a great deal of time and money to restoring the castle back to its Norman beginnings, purchasing lintels, fireplaces, masonry and firebacks from France or from other estates.

The Banqueting Hall is a wonderful room with a large 16th century wooden screen across the back where the minstrels and jesters would have entertained the guests. The same screen that the last court jester in England fell from, resulting in his death. There is a question as to whether Dicky fell or was pushed. I suppose only Dicky knows for certain. Dicky was so fondly thought of by the Berkeleys that he is buried in a table tomb in the church next to the castle. His epitaph was written by Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame:

Here lies the Earl of Suffolk’s fool
Men call’d him Dicky Pearce
His folly serv’d o to make folks laugh
When wit and mirth were scarce
Poor Dick alas is dead and gone
What signifies to cry
Dicky’s enough are still behind
To laugh at by and by

In more modern times, the Banqueting Hall is used for wedding breakfasts or wedding receptions.

The family has a long history with the Navy, with several Berkeleys having been Admirals. The family also has a history of trading with the East India Company. There are several pieces of Chinese pottery within the castle that come from this trading relationship.

In 1619, Richard Berkeley boarded the ship Margaret in Bristol and sailed to Virginia, where the Berkeleys have a plantation. The first American Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1619 in keeping with instructions from the Virginia Company of London which was:

  “We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

This is chronicled by the family’s historian, John Smyth of Nibley. Those archives are known as the Nibley papers and are on deposit with the New York Public Library. Each year on the first Sunday in November, the Berkeley Plantation still celebrates the Virginia Thanksgiving.

Another ancestor of the Berkeley family was Sir William Berkeley who was a governor of Virginia. A couple of years ago, there was a celebration of Berkeleys, a family reunion of sorts, at Berkeley Castle hosted by Charles and his brother with descendants of Berkeleys in Virginia.

The Castle has been graced by some very important guests including Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses. Perhaps the most famous of the Kings is King Edward II who was imprisoned in the castle and also met his death there. While the preferred story is a rather gruesome one of a red-hot poker up his backside, the more likely story is that he was, in fact, smothered with a pillow. Whatever the cause, several accounts within the Castle’s vast archival collection suggest that Edward was treated rather well in the time leading up to his death.

Next to the room where King Edward II was held captive is the castle’s dungeon, which is actually a 30 foot pit that was used as a well. Folklore has it that the Berkeley Toad was “A great toad the size of over a foot” that was said to have lived at the bottom of the pit.

Shakespeare had ties to the family and it is thought that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written about the wedding of one of the Berkeleys.

The castle was a gathering point for Barons from the west of England before heading out to Runnymede to meet with King John ahead of the signing of the Magna Carta.

Edward Jenner, son of the vicar of the church next to the castle, developed smallpox vaccine and inoculated local children from a hut on the outside of the kirkyard’s wall.

Sir Francis Drake was a friend of the family and the bedroom where he stayed while at the castle is named after him. In the room are his rather ornate bed as well as his chest made from cypress.

There is a church on the grounds of Berkeley Castle, used primarily by the staff and local people in the village. The Berkeleys were Catholic and worshipped in the chapel inside the Castle. However, the church has incredibly ornate painting on the walls, not unlike most Churches in the days before the Iconoclasts. Accounts in the family’s archival collection talk about it having been whitewashed and then rediscovered during some maintenance work.

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