A Berkeley Castle story

When an old rich relative dies, things can turn quite ugly when his will opens up and greedy parties start fighting for possession. Today it will likely end up in court, but during medieval times, as you can imagine, things worked a bit differently.

Powerful barons in medieval times had to have a huge estate, with as many people as possible. With the rent money you earned you could hire soldiers to protect your lands from other barons, and sometimes to invade and capture some extra land. If a dispute arose between two barons, they would either go to the King for the matter to be resolved or sometimes they might choose a different path to handle their issues… In the case of the Berkeley and Talbot families, their issue lasted around 50 years through the life of three generations and ended up with blood.

It all started when Thomas De Berkeley died in 1417 without a son. His nephew, James inherited his title, but this inheritance was disputed with Thomas’s daughter who was married to the Earl of Warwick, one of the most powerful barons in the country. This dispute got ugly when the Warwicks kidnapped James Berkley’s wife and held her captive until her death in 1452.

It seemed that this dispute would last forever, but when a new generation joined the fun, an opportunity to solve the matter once and for all arrived. King Henry VI was a weak king and probably a bit crazy as well. His powerful cousin, the Duke of York felt that there was a good chance for him to become a king and that led to an era known as “The Wars of the Roses” that lasted 30 years. During that period of time the throne kept switching hands between Henry VI from the house of Lancaster and Edward IV from the house of York.  Every time a king had to deal with a rebellion, the central government became weak, and this was a great opportunity for barons to take the law into their own hands.

In 1469, the son of James Berkeley, William, grabbed this opportunity with both hands. King Edward IV had to defend his throne from a rebellion in the north; it was time once and for all to solve the dispute. He sent a messenger to Thomas Talbot which represented the other side challenging him to meet for a battle the next day. It all sounds very chivalrous, right? Two barons fight for land, revenge and honour, but that was not the case. William Berkeley was an experienced 43-year-old veteran baron, and Thomas was only 18, so he did not understand that it was a trap. While most of the Talbot lands and men were far away, James Berkeley had his private army ready for action.

The next day, when the two sides met in Nibley Green, Berkeley’s army was three times bigger than the Talbot’s, and as you can imagine he did not only win the battle, he also managed to kill Lord Talbot in the battlefield and solve their dispute once and for all…The Winner, William Berkeley was not punished by King Edward IV for this battle. Instead, he was made a viscount by the King, and later he would be raised to become an earl and than a marquese.

The battle of Nibley Green was the last battle ever to be fought in England between two private armies. A few years later, when the battle of Bosworth would bring with it a new king and a new dynasty we know as the Tudor’s, one of the first laws King Henry VII would create would be to prevent his barons from hiring private armies…

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