The extraordinary Berkeleys

The Berkeley family, they of Berkeley Castle, certainly have a colourful history. The direct descendants of a Saxon noble, they have occupied the castle for 26 generations. At the January meeting of the History Society, David Smith, retired county archivist and archivist of the castle since 1980, recounted the family’s extraordinary history.

Given the castle by Henry II as a reward for services rendered during the Stephen and Matilda dispute, they were in the front rank of the peerage system as barons from 1154. Over the following couple of centuries the castle was taken from them several times as they became embroiled in various political rebellions and problems – King John and Magna Carta, the Battle of Bannockburn to name but two occasions.

There is a true wealth of documents, many thousands in fact, stored in the muniments room at the castle and through his work there David has been able to uncover the truth about many incidents including the murder of Edward II there in 1327 and indeed details of extensive building in the 1340s. The family were known as soldiers and politicians but they were also very learned and founded Katherine Lady Berkeley School in the 14th century which was unique at the time.

Unfortunately there were many family disputes over claims to the property culminating at one point in the violent Battle of Nibley Green in the 15th century. The dispute continued at great expense for years. During the Civil War the castle was sieged again, changed hands five times and was badly battered, eventually reverting back to the family. In the 18th century a strong illegitimate line led to a prolonged dispute over ownership claims into and throughout the 19th century. The legitimate line was back by the 20th century and the castle is now definitely the oldest in the country owned continuously by the same family.