Berkeley Castle

Posted on July 5, 2014 by

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Berkeley Castle is wonderful. A proper castle. Everything you imagine a castle to be.

Roger de Berkeley built Berkeley Castle in 1088. Astonishingly, it’s still owned and lived in by the same family, the oldest continuously occupied castle in England after Windsor Castle. The State Bedroom has a four-poster which dates from the 1500s. It’s not roped off as a museum curiosity because it’s slept in by owners John and Georgina Berkeley who say it’s the most comfortable bed in the castle.Because the Berkeley family supported Charles I during the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s troops bombarded the castle from the roof of the church opposite. The breached wall of the Keep has never been repaired.

It’s thanks to George Berkeley who left his vast library to the first university built on the west coast of America that it’s named Berkeley University. We need not be sniffy that Americans pronounce it BERKeley (not BARKeley). In those days that was how the name of the Gloucestershire village was pronounced.

Berkeley Castle will always be famous as the place where Edward II, an anointed King of England, was murdered on orders from his wife Isabella and her lover Roger de Mortimer. Isabella – dubbed by the English as The She Wolf of France – was fed up with being cuckolded. When Edward’s lover Piers Gaveston was done away with by his enemies and Edward took Hugh Despenser as his new bed fellow, it was the last straw for Isabella. She arrived from France with an army. When Edward’s so called allies deserted him, he was captured and forced to abdicate in favour of his son (Edward III). The lad, who was fond of his father, agreed to be King only when Edward sent him the sceptre and crown. As he was only fourteen his mother ruled as Regent.

Isabella paid Thomas Berkeley to keep her husband in custody until she decided what to do with him. It was intended that Edward would die of natural causes but, like the Russian monk Rasputin, he was too robust. His jailers shaved his head and beard so he was unrecognisable as they took him along byways by night to Berkeley Castle. To weaken his constitution he was not allowed to sleep. He wore only a thin nightshirt and was expected to die of hypothermia. He was given rancid food and dirty water in the hope he would die of food poisoning. Every word he uttered was repeated back to him in mockery so that he would lose his reason. The final humiliation was when a crown of hay was put on his head.

Edward was in Berkeley Castle five months during which his supporters rescued him only for him to be recaptured. When his jailers received the order to murder him they were told to leave no marks on his body. The cell in Berkeley Castle where Edward was murdered can still be seen.

According to Sir Thomas More: ‘On the night of October 11 1327 while lying in bed [the king] was suddenly seized and, while great mattress… weighed him down and suffocated him, a plumber’s iron, heated intensely hot, was introduced through a tube into his secret parts so that it burned the inner portions beyond the intestines’.

The account given to Parliament was that Edward had met with a fatal accident. His body was embalmed and put in a sealed lead coffin. The King lay in state in Berkeley Castle for a month in the Chapel of St John within the castle Keep. No one saw him in his coffin, not even his wife or son.

Thomas Berkeley escorted Edward’s corpse to nearby St Peter’s Abbey where the monks buried him. When he was charged with being an accessory to the murder, his defence was that it was carried out when he was not there.

Because of the huge number of tourists flocking to the King’s grave, the abbey grew into present day Gloucester Cathedral. His son Edward commissioned his father’s elaborate tomb.

Some sources claim that someone else was murdered in Edward’s place. Ian Mortimer’s The Greatest Traitor contains a letter from a Manuele de Fieschi, a notary of the pope, which he sent to Edward III telling him that his father did not die in Berkeley Castle but with the help of his jailers managed to escape.

It starts: In the name of the Lord, Amen. Those things that I have heard from the confession of your father I have written with my own hand and afterwards I have taken care to be made known to your Highness’.

Alexandre Germain, the French archivist who said he found the letter, published it in the 1870s.

If there was a letter and if Edward III received it he may have believed it because Thomas Berkeley was cleared of all charges and Edward wrote to Sir John Maltravers, one of the other murderers, offering him a job with a high salary.

As for The She Wolf of France, when she died in 1358 she left instructions she was to be buried in her wedding dress and Edward’s embalmed heart be placed on her breast.

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