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Berkeley Castle

ERKELEY CASTLE, a perfect specimen of Norman castramentation, is not a ruin, as most of our picturesque castles are, but is in good repair. It stands on an eminence on the south-east side of the town of Berkeley, in Gloucestershire, and commands a wide sweep of view over the adjoining country and the Severn.

The fortress consists of a keep, and various embattled buildings, surrounding a court about 140 yards in circumference.

In this court is the exterior of the baronial hall - a noble room in excellent preservation; adjoining is the chapel. There are many apartments in the castle, but they are very gloomy, except where modern windows have been put in them. The entrance to the court is by a machicolated gatehouse. The keep has one square tower, and three semicircular ones; that on the north - the highest point of the castle - was rebuilt in the reign of Edward II., and is called Thorpe's tower, because a family of that name held their manor by the tenure of "castle guard;" that is, they were always liable to be called on to guard this tower, whenever defence might be required.

In one of the towers of the keep is the dungeon; in shape it resembles the letter D. It is 28 feet deep, and is without light or any aperture for air, except through the trap-door in the floor of the room over it. There is a deep dry well in its floor.

The Roman method of pouring fluid mortar into the middle of the walls occurs in this keep. The great staircase leading up it is composed of large stones, and on the right of it is a sort of gallery or passage leading to the isolated and strong chamber in which the unhappy Edward II. was murdered.

Berkeley Castle

Many pieces of furniture of the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. are found in the rooms, among which is a state bed occupied by Elizabeth on her visit here, when she and her retinue hunted so violently, that "27 stages were slaine in one day," much to the annoyance of Lord Berkeley, who instantly disparked the ground. The hunting and visit were supposed to have been contrived by Leicester to irritate the earl, and bring him into conflict with the queen.

There is a bedroom, called Admiral Drake's room, in which are the bedstead, chairs, and washhand-stand - all of ebony - which the great navigator used during his voyage round the world.

The apartments which have a horrible kind of fascination are the dungeon we have just described, in which it is said Edward II. was first confined with circumstances of atrocious cruelty, and the bedroom in which he was murdered. We perceive, on entering the inner quadrangle, a square tower of two stories attached to the keep, and on a platform of a few steps up, stands an early English arch, supported by a still older Norman label-moulding. A long flight of steps from thence gives access to the level of the base court of the keep; and at the side of these steps is the narrow gallery or gangway of which we have spoken, that leads to the room. It is covered with a rude timber-shed roof.

An old chair, a four-post bed, and, in a recess, an old pallet-bed, are all the furniture of this chamber. A bust of the wretched king stands in a recessed window seat.

Horace Walpole says of the death chamber, "The room shown for the murder of Edward IL, and the shrieks of an agonizing king, I verily believe to be genuine. It is a dismal chamber, almost at the top of the house, quite detached, and to be approached only by a kind of footbridge, and from that descends a large flight of steps that terminate on strong gates; exactly a situation for a corps de garde."

The story is an inconceivably tragic one. The dissensions of the king and queen ended in the infamous Isabella, with her lover Mortimer and three thousand men at arms, landing on the coast of Suffolk for the ostensible purpose of removing the favourite Spencer from the king.

She no sooner appeared than there was a general revolt in her favour; the bishops of Ely, Lincoln and Hereford brought her all their vassals, and Robert de Watteville, who had been sent to oppose her, deserted to her with his forces.

Edward vainly attempted to collect an army; he was obliged to leave the capital, and the populace, who were extremely brutal, rushed into frightful excesses when left unrestrained.

They seized the Bishop of Exeter, as he was passing through the city, beheaded him, without any form or pretence of trial, and threw his body into the Thames.

The king had hoped to find safety at Bristol, for he had placed the garrison under the command of the elder Spencer, a very aged and excellent man, but the soldiers mutinied and delivered him up to the rebellious barons, who condemned him at once to death, though he was in his ninetieth year, and they could literally find no fault in him, except being the father of the favourite. He was hanged on a gibbet in his armour, his body was cut up and thrown to the dogs, and his head was sent to Winchester, where it was set on a pole and exposed to the insults of the people. His son shared his fate soon after. The king, disappointed of succour, and miserable at the fate of his friends, endeavoured to escape to Ireland, but he was driven back by contrary winds, discovered and taken to his enemies, who carried him to London, and confined him in the Tower.

A charge was then brought against him, but nothing worse was or could be urged than his incapacity for governing, his indolence, his love of pleasure, and being swayed by evil counsellors. His deposition was voted by Parliament, a pension was assigned him, and his son Edward, a boy of fourteen, was declared king; the queen being appointed regent during his minority.

The deposed sovereign survived his misfortunes but a very short time. He was sent from prison to prison, an object of scorn and contumely to his inhuman keepers. He was first committed to the custody of the Earl of Leicester, but this gentleman showing some marks of respect and pity for the king, he was taken out of his charge and delivered to Lord Berkeley, Sir John Maltravers, and Sir Thomas Gournay, who were to guard him alternately, each for a month at a time.

However Lord Berkeley may have treated him - we believe it was courteously - the two latter gaolers practised every kind of cruelty on him; as if his sufferings were their sport. Among other acts of brutal mockery, it is said they shaved him in the open fields, using ditch water for the purpose. It seems incredible that a nation famous for its love of fair play could have permitted such conduct to a monarch whose greatest fault was only his violent friendships. He had borne all former indignities with wonderful patience, but at this last insult all his fortitude forsook hirn. He burst into tears, and said that the time might come when he would be better attended. The hint may have proved fatal, for as time went on, and a reaction in Edward's favour began to set in, the monsters had cause to fear that another revolution might expose them to the king's well-merited wrath, and they resolved to destroy him at once. They therefore repaired to Berkeley Castle, where Edward was then confined, and put him to a most cruel death, hoping that, as there would be no external marks of violence, they might pretend that it was a natural one; but his horrid shrieks were heard, and suspicion was aroused, which was afterwards confirmed by the confession of one of the murderers. Gray has thus written of this tragedy:-

"Mark the year and mark the night,
When Severn shall re-echo with affright
The shrieks of death through Berkeley's roof that ring
Shrieks of an agonizing king.
She-wolf of France, with unrelenting fangs,
That tear'st the bowels of thy mangled mate
From thee be born, who o'er thy country hangs
The scourge of Heaven."

The king's body was left without burial, as Isabel threatened "her displeasure," - of a terrible nature truly, - if any attempt was made to remove the corpse. But Edward had been a great benefactor to Gloucester Cathedral, and the abbot had a true friendship for him, and courage enough to dare the fury of the She-Wolf of France. He marched with a procession of his monks to Berkeley, and demanded the body of the king; threw over it a black velvet pall with the arms of the abbey embroidered on it, and bore it off, singing with the monks the dirge for the dead. They buried the murdered sovereign in the cathedral; and then miracles were performed at his grave; the abbot encouraging them as a means of bringing the people back to their loyalty to the dead king. This was very politic, and was the first thing that shook the singular popularity of that monster in woman's form, Isabella.

The king had left also some touching lines, written during his captivity, which no doubt were rescued and made known by the friendly priest. We give them from Miss Strickland's life of Isabella of France.

"On my devoted head
Her bitterest showers,
All fron a wintry cloud
Stern Fortune pears.
View but her favourite
Sage and discerning
Graced with fair comeliness,
Famed for his learning;
Should she withdraw her smiles,
Each grace she banishes,
Wisdom and wit are flown,
And beauty vanishes."

After the murder the king's heart was enclosed in a silver casket, and sent to Isabella, who actually, when she died, had it placed on her bosom in her coffin! Lord Berkeley was acquitted of any actual participation in the king's murder, but shortly afterwards he entertained the fiendish Isabella and her Mortimer at the castle.

Gournay was subsequently arrested at Marseilles, and beheaded on shipboard; "it was supposed," according to Hume, "because some nobles and prelates in England were anxious to prevent any discovery he might make of his accomplices;" probably to screen especially Adam, the bishop of Hereford, who was the creature of Mortimer and the queen, and wrote to the knight who had the custody of the king, "Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est," purposely omitting the punctuation, so that the words were capable of giving two meanings, either to slay or spare the royal prisoner, and thus ensuring the writer's safety if the crime were ever dis covered. Maltravers many years afterwards cried for mercy, and obtained it.

The Lord Berkeley, whose knightly fame was thus endangered by assassins, was a man of great wealth and power. He kept twelve knights to wait upon his person, and each knight was attended by two servants and a page. He had twenty-four esquires, each having a servant and a horse. His family consisted of 300 persons besides the husbandmen of the estate who were fed at his board.

The castle has had many royal guests - John, Henry III., Queen Elizabeth, George IV., when Prince of Wales, and William IV., when Duke of Clarence.

In the reign of Henry V. a law-suit began between Lord Berkeley and his cousin, the heiress of the family, which lasted 192 years! During the suit the plaintiff's party several times besieged the castle.

In the civil wars Berkeley was garrisoned for Charles, and kept the adjoining country in awe, but it was at last besieged by the army of the Commonwealth, and surrendered to it. There are bullet holes in the west door of the church, supposed to have been made by the besiegers.

Part of the old fosse is still to be seen to the north of the castle. It is now dry, however, and lovely elms and other trees grow in it. A terrace nearly surrounds the building, and to the west of it is a fine bowling green shut in by very ancient yew trees cut into a grotesque form.

The church adjoining the castle is a fine early structure; the groining is very curious, having on its several bosses and panels a united set of emblems of the Holy Trinity, with an extraordinary mixture of monkish satires; the fox preaching to geese, a monkey holding a bottle, etc. Attached to the south side of the church is the mortuary chapel of the Berkeleys, a richly groined building with a stone screen. It contains some fine monuments of the family. The altar end has the tomb of Sir Henry Berkeley and his wife, who died in 1613, and under an arch opening into the south side of the chancel is a magnificent monument - an altar tomb richly decorated - on which are the effigies of an Earl of Berkeley and his son. It is divided into fourteen niches with floriated canopies, under which are figures on pedestals - the Virgin and Child, St. Christopher, Our Lord, etc., etc.

The churchyard contains a monument to the Earl of Suffolk's jester, who appears to have been lent to Lord Berkeley. He was buried June 18th, 1728, and was the last of those men who wore the motley of the fool, adopting the part for a living. At the end of the monument are the arms of the earl, and on one side this inscription:-

" My lord that's gone, himself made much of him.

On the opposite side are the lines written by Lord Berkeley's chaplain, Dean Swift:-

"Here lies the Earl of Suffolk's fool,
Men call him Dicky Pearce;
His folly served to make men laugh
When wit and mirth were scarce.
Poor Dick, alas! is dead and gone,
What signifies to cry?
Dickies enough he left behind
To laugh at by-and-by."

The village of Berkeley is very picturesque, the park of the castle beautiful, and the place is celebrated for a far better memory than a murder, for here was born and is buried Dr. Jenner, the introducer of vaccination.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004