One Family – One Castle

It was the home of the same family for 900 years, a king was executed in it, and one of the descendants starred in the hit TV-comedy “Friends”. What more can you expect from a castle?

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Many of the castles in England tell the story of a dominant family, but usually, it wasn’t just one family. This is not the case with Berkeley Castle, it was built in 1153 by William FitzOsbern during the reign of Henry II, and it stayed occupied by his descendants for over 850 years (it belonged to the crown for two decades) and it is still the family seat today.  This not only makes Berkeley Castle completely unique, it also makes this family very special. In the history of England, many of its great families became extinct, especially during periods like “The Anarchy” after the death of King Henry I, or during the “Wars of the Roses”, where choosing one side often meant that you would lose your head the moment the other side won… but the FitzOsberns, who are now called the Berkeleys, always managed to produce an heir who would inherit the castle (even if in some of the cases this heir came from another branch of the family).

The biggest story associated with this castle by far relates to King Edward II. Many castles in Britain can claim to have entertained kings, but not many of them can claim to have imprisoned and allegedly executed one. You can still see the cell where he was held for months in 1326, and it will really give you a chill… If you wonder why I added the word ‘allegedly’ to the part about the execution, you are more than welcome to read about one of the greatest ancient conspiracies of English history; It is all in my “Berkeley Castle stories”. But although it is the biggest event in the castle’s history, it is not the first major event. For example, In 1215, Berkeley Castle hosted a gathering of armed barons with their private armies. These were the days of one of the worst monarchs in English history, King John, and that meeting was arranged to make the last plans before the barons headed into a place called Runnymede to sign what we know today as the “Magna Carta”.

For hundreds of years, being a baron in England meant that you acted like a mini king in your area, and this could have meant that from time to time, you had to fight other barons in what we call a “private war”. Those wars were mainly common during the reigns of weak kings, and in the 15th century, the country had such a king. His name was Henry VI. He could not control his barons, and this eventually led to a period known as the “Wars of the Roses”. During this period, in 1470, a legal dispute between the Berkeley family and their neighbour led to the last “private war” in England

For many castles in England, the English civil war was the last chapter in their history. In the case of Berkeley, the castle switched hands five times during the war. Finally, it took the parliamentarian forces as little as 3 days to seize it in 1645. During the artillery bombardment, they created a breach in the wall of the castle, and later it was agreed that the castle would return to the Berkeley family, but they were not allowed to fill that breach and use the castle as a defensive building. This agreement saved the castle from being destroyed, and funnily enough, this agreement is still in place today…

After the end of the civil war, the castle did not see any more fights, sieges, or battles. But time is also an enemy, and much like any other old structure, keeping the castle in good shape was a huge burden. Luckily for us, the Berkeley family decided that it was more important to take care of their ancestral home than any other house they own, and in order to raise enough funds to maintain the castle, the family sold their London residence in the heart of Mayfair, which is now is also known as Berkeley Square.

While visiting Berkeley Castle, you might feel like you know some of the rooms or the courtyard, it’s probably because this castle was the main location in numerous films and TV shows including the hit series Poldark, as well as shows like “Wolf Hall” and “The White Princess”. Berkeley was also featured in movies like “The Other Boleyn Girl”, in 2008, and the French comedy, “Just Visiting”. In 2017, the castle was also featured in the show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” when the American star, Courteney Cox (Monica Geller from friends) discovered that she was part of the Berkeley family (she was a descendant of the 3rd Lord Berkeley who lived in the 14th century).

For more information: Berkeley Castle official website

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When you have too many things to show, and not enough space

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Berkeley during a mini-heatwave that passed through the region at the end of June 2018. I had read a lot about this castle before the visit, and I was very eager to finally visit it and was not disappointed. Berkeley is definitely what you can expect from a 900-year-old castle. Especially the kind that is still lived in.

Since Berkeley is still privately owned, it is always interesting to see what sort of strategy the family will develop to engage with their guests. While some privately-held castles operate as a historic house with guided tours, some turn into a complete theme park. In the case of Berkeley, it is clear that the castle has found a good balance between the need to reveal its heritage, and the need to entertain families with children.

There are plenty of activities for children while visiting. These include a butterfly house, an art room, dressing-up area, a children’s trail around the gardens etc.

Many of the rooms in the castle are open to the public, and while you are free to roam the rooms of the castle (and enjoy plenty of information sheets), you can also join a guided tour.

As you can imagine, I preferred taking the tour. I really enjoyed what was probably the most extended tour I have ever had in a castle, but I ended up puzzled by the end of it. It wasn’t because of the guide, but because of the layout of the tour. Berkeley Castle was first opened to the public in the 1950s, and I assume that the family wanted to present as much of the castle and to share as many of the portraits and artefacts as possible, but unfortunately, they created a bit of a mess. The guided tour starts with what is probably the most “famous” room of the castle (but not the most interesting one), the room wherein King Edward II was imprisoned in September 1327, and then probably murdered. After this room, you go through a series of rooms and corridors that were clearly service areas, but for some reason, they are now packed with portraits and tapestry. One of the rooms is even presented as a dining room, whilst, in actuality, it was a barracks.

The result is that the guide stops in each room and explains what we see in it instead of explaining the story of the castle. In a place with so much history, this creates a lot of confusion, as you can spend so much time in unimportant rooms that you end the tour in the most important rooms when you are feeling tired and overwhelmed.

I think that the experience in Berkeley would be much better if the guided tour focused on the 3-4 staterooms like the great hall and the drawing room. This is the perfect place to explain the story of the family and the castle with the right focus on the important historical events, while the rest of the rooms, including the room where Edward II was imprisoned, would be part of a permanent exhibition (something similar can be seen in Sudeley Castle in Winchcombe, or Plas Newydd in Anglesey).

After the tour, we had to rest a bit before we could start exploring the gardens which were stunning. Unlike some of the estates we visit, the gardens are not massive, so it is easy to explore them all in one visit.

To sum things up, even though visiting the layout is confusing, Berkeley is a must-see castle. Its perfect location between Bristol and Gloucester makes it a very easy attraction to explore for many visitors. When we explore a castle, we always look to understand its historical importance, its “wow” factor and the way visitors can engage with it. If you read my previous posts, you’ll know by now that I like to compare castles to restaurants and follow the guidelines of the Michelin guide to rank them. While most of the castles do not receive any stars, Berkeley Castle deserves two. It ticks all the boxes, making it one of the most important castles you could visit in England.

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