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Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire.

* Guarding the lush Severn meadows where the cattle graze in the vale of Berkeley, the castle has been transformed through eight centuries from the frowning fortress where Edward II was brutishly murdered into the civilised home of one of England's oldest and most colourful families. In their twenty-four generations since the castle was built the Berkeleys have been involved in pitched battles, duels, scandals and notorious court cases. They have been army officers, admirals, members of parliament, courtiers, sportsmen and authors. Bishop Berkeley, the famous seventeenth-century philosopher after whom the University of Berkeley, California, was named, came from a junior branch, as did Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-89), the composer, who would have been Earl of Berkeley if his father's parents had been married.

The Berkeleys go back in the male line to Robert Fitzharding, a rich Bristol merchant who helped to finance the future Henry II against King Stephen. His reward was the lordship of Berkeley, where the formidable shell-keep was built in the 1150s. He was probably the grandson of Eadnoth the Staller, master of the horse successively to Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror: in which case the Berkeleys can trace themselves back to Anglo-Saxon roots.

The doings of the early Berkeleys were recorded by their steward, John Smyth of Nibley (1567-1640), who spent his life in the family's service and whose manuscripts were published in 1833-35 by the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society. Thomas, Lord Berkeley in Edward I's time, fought enjoyably against the French, the Welsh and the Scots. Still in harness at the age of seventy, he was captured at Bannockburn and had to be expensively ransomed. His grandson, another Thomas, was lord of Berkeley in 1327 when Edward II was imprisoned there and gruesomely dispatched -- in the room now called the king's gallery, with its horrible dungeon. The king was buried in Gloucester Cathedral, where pilgrims flocked to his tomb and the monks made so much money that they were able to pioneer the Perpendicular style of architecture. (`lt's an ill wind,' as the present Mr Berkeley says.)

Lord Berkeley, in his mid-thirties at the time, was the trusted son-in-law of Roger Mortimer, the leader of the successful coup against Edward. He afterwards pleaded that he had been away from Berkeley at the time of the murder, and so ill that he had lost his memory. John Smyth said his household accounts suggested otherwise, but he was acquitted of blame and his expense account for the black-draped cart used to carry the king's corpse to Gloucester was duly paid. He went on to fight at Crecy and substantially enlarge the castle before dying in 1361. His effigy, looking extremely pious, is in Berkeley church next door to the castle, with other family tombs.

His fifteenth-century descendant, William, was involved in a dispute over ownership of the castle with Viscount Lisle in 1469. They settled it by arranging to fight each other with their retainers at Nibley Green nearby, said to be the last private pitched battle on English soil. The Berkeleys won, Lisle was killed, and that settled that.

The seventeenth-century Berkeleys were closely involved with the court and the Stuart cause, and the castle itself shows the signs of its battering by Parliamentary cannon in 1645. Lord Berkeley of Stratton (died 1678), of the branch of the family settled at Bruton in Somerset, distinguished himself as a Royalist general in the West Country, tried unsuccessfully to mediate between the king and the Parliamentary generals and retired to Paris where he gained an influence with the young Duke of York, the future James II, which was to stand him and his family in good stead. Returning to England in 1660, he married a rich young heiress, ran the Duke of York's household and built himself a magnificent London house in Piccadilly. His descendants laid out Berkeley Square in the grounds. His brother, Sir William Berkeley (1606-77), was Governor or Virginia from the 1640s and the exiled cavaliers he encouraged to settle there were the ancestors of the Virginia planter aristocracy.

In the senior branch, George, Lord Berkeley (1628-98), was closely involved in the East India Company -- he married the treasurer's daughter -- and the Royal Africa Company. Charles II made him Earl of Berkeley in 1679 and he published a book of pious reflections. His youngest daughter, Henrietta, had a notorious liaison with her sister Mary's husband, Lord Grey of Wark. `The high spirit and strong passions of Lady Henrietta,' Macaulay wrote, `broke through all restraints of virtue and decorum' and `a scene unparalled in our legal history was exhibited in the Court of King's Bench. The seducer appeared with dauntless front, accompanied by his paramour . . . The old Earl of Berkeley poured forth reproaches and curses on the wretched Henrietta. The Countess gave evidence, broken by many sobs, and at length fell down in a swoon.' The jury found Lord Grey guilty and swords were drawn in Westminster Hall as the Berkeleys dragged the erring Henrietta away from him by force.

The fifth Earl of Berkeley, Frederick Augustus (1745-1810), was a friend of the Prince Regent, an indefatigable rake, a capable amateur cellist and a formidable horseman, who inherited the Berkeley Square estate from his cousins and used to hunt his hounds all the way from Berkeley Castle to London. At the age of forty he became infatuated with a pretty girl of seventeen, a local butcher's daughter named Mary Cole (1767-1844), and paid her elder sister to trick her into becoming his mistress. Two ruffians suddenly burst into the girls' rooms and violently threatened to kidnap Mary's sister unless they were given a hundred guineas. Who should providentially appear at this moment but the earl himself, armed with a hundred guineas which the ruffians accepted. Mary was so impressed and grateful that she let him carry her off, not realising until later that her sister had helped to set her up.

In 1796, after bearing him their first seven children and taking over the running of the estate, Mary at last persuaded the earl to marry her. Their son Thomas Moreton (1796-1882) was born five months afterwards and they had five more children, but she was anxious about the legitimacy of her adored eldest son William Fitzharding (1786-1857), known as Fitz. In 1799 she and the earl forged an entry in the Berkeley church register recording a secret marriage in 1785, which would have legitimised the whole brood. Unfortunately, in the celebrated Berkeley Peerage Case of 1811 the House of Lords turned its thumbs down, and the earldom went to Thomas Moreton, though he never used the title.

There are splendid portraits of the fifth earl and Mary Cole at Berkeley. They were friends and supporters of their local doctor, Edward Jenner, the pioneer of vaccination for smallpox. They were among the first to have their own children vaccinated, introduced Jenner to the royal family, who became supporters too, and staunchly defended him against all criticism: there is a portrait of him in the castle. Frederick and Mary's mettlesome sons were Regency bucks, devoted to hunting and womanising, and ready with their fists. Four of them sat in the House of Commons together. Francis Henry (1794-1870) was a crack shot and boxer. Grantley (1800-81) wrote a three-volume historical romance titled Berkeley Castle in 1836, took a horsewhip to the publisher of a savagely adverse magazine review which defamed his mother and winged the author of the review in a duel. A useful amateur pugilist, he owned a pet cormorant named Jack and wrote several other books including an autobiography. Craven (1805-55) fought a duel in 1842 with a man who had been rude about Queen Victoria.

The eldest brother, Fitz, never got over being ruled illegitimate, though he was given the title Earl Fitzhardinge in 1841. Handsome and witty, he loved acting and paid the day's top professionals to appear in plays with him. He was feared at Berkeley for his savage temper and was such a predator of women that the locals refused to let their daughters go into service at the castle. Master of the Berkeley Hunt for fifty years, he died after a hunting accident.

Following her husband's death in 1810, Countess Mary never returned to Berkeley Castle. Instead she lived at Cranford House, the family's Middlesex mansion, now demolished except for the eighteenth-century stables next to Cranford church with its Berkeley monuments (and Tony Hancock's grave in the churchyard, incidentally). As if Mary had introduced some genetic nemesis into the family, her sons and grandsons failed to breed and the senior line had died out by 1916. The eighth and last earl, Randal Mowbray (1865-1942), descended from the fifth earl's younger brother, was a distinguished scientist and FRS who built his own laboratory. He sold the Berkeley Square estate and spent some of the money on restoring Berkeley Castle, while his American second wife made him modernise the family rooms. There was only one bathroom in the entire castle when she arrived.

From the childless eighth earl the castle passed to the Spetchley branch of the family, descended from a fifteenth-century younger son. They made money in the cloth business in Worcester, founded the Berkeley Hospital there and bought the Spetchley Park estate nearby, whose beautiful grounds are open to the public in summer.

The present owner, John Berkeley, like his father before him was master for many years of the Berkeley Hunt, with its distinctive yellow livery. He owns the hounds and kennels, and supervises the breeding. A wealth of family possessions in the castle includes sporting and marine paintings, portraits by Lely, Pompeo Batoni, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Hoppner and Orpen, and possibly ghosts. Mr Berkeley has never seen any, not being on the same wavelength as ghosts, but Mrs Berkeley has been aware of people from earlier centuries in the house. One of the bedrooms used to be notoriously haunted and guests would arrive white in the face at breakfast with grisly stories until the eighth earl became so fed up with terrified servants giving notice that he reorganised the sleeping arrangements. Nobody really wants to encounter Edward II, but if anywhere deserves an array of ghosts, it must be Berkeley Castle.

Berkeley Castle, Berkeley, Gloucester GL13 9BQ. Tel: 01453-810332. Open April, Tuesday to Sunday 2pm-5pm; May to September. Tuesday to Saturday 11am-5pm, Sunday 2pm-5pm. Closed Mondays (except Bank Holiday Mondays). Refreshments. Admission charge.

Richard Cavendish is a freelance journalist and the General Editor of the Automobile Association's Roadbook of Britain (1995).
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Title Annotation:history of Berkeley family of England
Author:Cavendish, Richard
Publication:History Today
Date:Feb 1, 1997
Words:1754
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