The first castle at Berkeley was a motte-and-bailey, built around 1067 by William FitzOsbern shortly after the Conquest. This was subsequently held by three generations of the first Berkeley family, all called Roger de Berkeley, and rebuilt by them in the first half of the 12th century. The last Roger de Berkeley was dispossessed in 1152 for withholding his allegiance from the House of Plantagenet during the conflict of The Anarchy, and the feudal barony of Berkeley was then granted to Robert Fitzharding, a wealthy burgess of Bristol and supporter of the Plantagenets. He was the founder of the Berkeley family which still holds the castle. In 1153–54, Fitzharding received a royal charter from King Henry II giving him permission to rebuild the castle, with the aim of defending the Bristol to Gloucester Road, the Severn estuary, and the Welsh border. Fitzharding built the circular shell keep during 1153–56, probably on the site of the former motte. The building of the curtain wall followed, probably during 1160–90 by Robert and then by his son Maurice. Much of the rest of the castle is 14th century and was built for Thomas de Berkeley, 3rd Baron Berkeley: Thorpe's Tower, to the north of the keep, the inner gatehouse to its southwest, and other buildings of the inner bailey.
The castle was ransacked in 1326 by the forces of Hugh Despenser, the favourite of Edward II. Then in 1327, Edward was deposed by his wife Queen Isabella and her ally Roger Mortimer, and placed in the joint custody of Thomas de Berkeley and his brother-in-law John Maltravers. They brought Edward to Berkeley Castle, and held him there for five months from April to September. During that time a band of Edward's supporters attacked, entered the castle and rescued him, only for him to be recaptured soon afterwards. Some commentators have claimed that Edward's escape was actually successful, and that someone else was later murdered in his place. Edward was reputedly murdered there on September 21, 1327 by unknown means, although popular stories of a red hot poker or suffocation persist. The cell where he is supposed to have been imprisoned and murdered can still be seen, along with the adjacent 36 ft deep dungeon, which supposedly echoes the events of the murder every year on September 21. The account given to Parliament at the time was simply that Edward had met with a fatal accident. The body was embalmed and remained lying in state at Berkeley for a month, in the Chapel of St John within the castle keep, before Thomas de Berkeley escorted it to Gloucester Abbey for burial. Thomas was later charged with being an accessory to the murder, but his defence was that it was carried out by the agents of Roger Mortimer while he was away from the castle, and in 1337 he was cleared of all charges.
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 Minstrels' 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, it has painted wooden vaulted ceilings and a biblical passage, written in Norman French. 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 the Pevsner Architectural Guides 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". In the early 20th century Randal Thomas Mowbray Berkeley, 8th Earl of Berkeley, 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 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.
The castle is the oldest continuously occupied castle in England after the royal fortresses of the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, and the oldest to be continuously owned and occupied by the same family. It contains an antique four-poster bed that has been identified as the piece of furniture that has remained in continuous use by the same family the longest in the UK. This is a Norman Castle retaining many of its original features. As a result, there is unfortunately no wheelchair access and there are steps and uneven floors throughout the Castle and gardens. For those who feel the initial 24 stone steps of the Keep may be unmanageable, a shorter route through the Castle is available, avoiding this flight of steps, but other steps and stairs will need to be negotiated.
Location : Berkeley, Gloucestershire GL13 9BQ
Transport: Cam & Dursley (National Rail) then bus or taxi. Bus Routes : 88 (Stagecoach West) and 207 (Third Sector Services) stop in Berkeley.
Opening Times : Sundays to Wednesday 11:00 to 17:00
Tickets : Adults £11.00; Concessions £9.00; Children (3 - 16) £6.00
Tel: 01453 810303