The Ninth Annual Gloucester Cathedral Lecture October 2004

The Berkeley Castle Muniments

Summary by David Smith, Berkeley Castle Archivist

The Muniment Room contains about 20,000 documents dating from the mid-12th century to the early 20th century. Of these some 5,500 date from before 1492. The earliest recorded ancestor of the present Mr Berkeley was a Saxon thegn called Adnoth. He held office under Edward the Confessor and died in 1068 leading an army defending England against an attempt to recover it from William the Conqueror by the sons of King Harold. Adnoth’s son, Harding, was a businessman based in Bristol and the family is said to have supported the Empress Matilda against King Stephen during the anarchy, 1135-1147. So when her son Henry II came to power he rewarded one of Harding’s younger sons, Robert Fitzharding, with the Castle and Honour of Berkeley. The family took the surname of the estate and has lived in the Castle ever since, one of only two families still extant to trace their descent from the Saxon nobility.

Out of the thousands of documents among the family’s muniments, Mr Smith selected only four for detailed discussion: the original grant of the Castle to the family, 1153; the accounts of expenses at the Castle during the imprisonment of the deposed Edward II, 1327; the copy of the challenge leading to the Battle of Nibley Green, 20 March 1470; and Smyth’s Lives of the Berkeleys written in the 1620s.

The grant of the Castle is one of several which include varying descriptions of rights and services. Because of their form and content they cannot have been written at the time of the events they describe and must be ‘renovations’, that is, either replacements for lost originals or reports of events not formally recorded at the time.

The Castle expenses provide information not available elsewhere about the conditions of Edward’s imprisonment, and thereby disprove the lurid accounts of later chroniclers. Originally he had his own small household and kitchen staff. After his brief few days of freedom in July 1327 the doors and windows were strengthened and security was improved. He was probably suffocated on the night of 21/22 September 1327 on the orders of Roger Mortimer, the Queen’s favourite. Thomas III Lord Berkeley was charged with complicity in the murder in 1330, after Edward III had ousted Mortimer and taken control, but the charges were dropped.

The next lord Berkeley, Thomas IV, was the greatest patron of scholarship of his age. He employed John Trevisa as his chaplain, certainly from 1379 and perhaps from as early as 1374. He commissioned Trevisa to translate several of the most important secular books from Latin into English including the Polychronicon, a universal history and geography; De Proprietibus Rerum, an encyclopaedia and De Regimine Principum, a textbook on how to govern. There is no hard evidence that Trevisa translated the Bible, but he did translate the Gospel of Nicodemus, an apocryphal work, so maybe that is how the story arose of Trevisa as a Bible translator. After Trevisa’s death in 1402 Thomas Lord Berkeley commissioned further translations from other translators.

The Battle of Nibley Green was the last private battle on English soil. It took place against the disturbed background of the Wars of the Roses, and was intended to settle which branch of the family owned the Castle, in dispute between cousins since the death of Thomas IV Lord Berkeley in 1417. The challenge and reply suggest a formal battle but it would have been impossible for William, Lord Berkeley, to have assembled troops from Thornbury, Bristol and the Forest at 24 hours’ notice. Was the document written later to justify the killing of Lord Lisle when the legality of this was challenged in the courts?

John Smyth was steward to the family from 1596 to his death in 1639. To help George, Lord Berkeley, discharge his duties Smyth wrote books about the estates and the family, including Lives of the Berkeleys. These are very informative, both about the various lords and about the property they owned. They are written in the English of Shakespeare and the Authorized Version of the Bible and are very readable.

There are many other important documents among the Berkeley Muniments which record aspects of the history of this remarkable family.

Report by David Green
October 2004.

Berkeley Castle stands sentinel beside the Severn Estuary, just across the river from the Forest of Dean and the Welsh hills. It has been occupied by the Berkeley family now for nearly one thousand years. Berkeleys have travelled the world and have given the name to a part of San Francisco as well as to a London square.

The story of this family makes fascinating reading. The present owner of the castle, Major R.J.G. Berkeley, kindly suggested to me that we ask the former county archivist and keeper of the Berkeley Muniments, David Smith, to describe to us several important family documents.

This year, thirty members and friends attended the lecture and a group of them stayed for choral evensong in the Cathedral choir where we had readings from the Tyndale Bible and a fine performance of the anthem, ‘O Clap your Hands’ by Vaughan Williams. Thirteen stayed on after the service for supper in the undercroft restaurant.

We are grateful to David Smith for providing us with an abstract of his lecture.

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