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At 800-year-old Berkeley Castle, the gardens are gorgeous but the stories chilling of pitiless murder of Edward II

Kate Bulo
Berkeley Castle. Author: Kathryn Yengel. CC BY-ND 2.0

Arguably the most enigmatic medieval building in all of England, Berkeley Castle is located in Gloucestershire. It has been home to the Berkeley family for more than 800 years and is believed to be one of the oldest inhabited castles in England. It is surrounded by beautiful gardens, created in the 20th century by the famous garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.

The garden is rich in colorful flowers, as well as rare and exotic species brought all the way from Indonesia and Japan. It is adorned with a beautiful lily pond that used to be a swimming pool and a butterfly house that is home to the largest moth in the world.

As much as the tranquil gardens are admired and enjoyed, the remarkable Gothic castle is the center of attention for every visitor, and its long history has some moments that were anything but tranquil.

On the property, where once a manor house from the Anglo-Saxon period stood, William FitzOsbern built a small castle in 1067 that in 1153 would be given to Robert Fitzharding, who would become the first member of the Berkeley family to own Berkeley Castle.

The Great Hall. Author: Kathryn Yengel. CC BY-ND 2.0

The Great Hall. Author: Kathryn Yengel. CC BY-ND 2.0

The Berkeleys were an influential family, supporters of the crown, and were also involved in many intrigues. They enlarged the castle and modified its interior according to their needs. During the rebuilding process, they added architectural elements such as murder holes and arrow slits to make the castle fit for wartime. Since the family was among the most powerful in England, the castle was constantly visited by royal monarchs, including Henry III, Henry VII, Elizabeth I, and George IV.

One of the apartments in the castle, where Queen Elizabeth used to stay during her visits, still bears her name. The Queen very much wanted to give the castle as a present to her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, but she was unsuccessful. During the English Civil War, the exterior of the castle was damaged, but fortunately, its interior remained intact.

Berkeley Castle’s dining room. Author: Fiducial. CC BY-SA 3.0

Berkeley Castle’s dining room. Author: Fiducial. CC BY-SA 3.0

The Great Hall is one of the highlights of the castle. Its walls are adorned with paintings from the 16th century to the 20th, including a portrait of Admiral Sir George Berkeley. The chapel, the drawing rooms, the dining rooms, and the kitchen have changed very little since the day they were constructed. The centuries-old tapestries, silver lamps, ceramics, chandeliers, paintings, and antique furniture contribute to the perfect image of a medieval castle that has stood the test of time.

The Berkeley family has a collection of relics that have been gathered by its members over the centuries. For instance, the bedspread of Queen Elizabeth, as well as the cabin chest of Francis Drake, are among the most precious items on display in the castle, together with a Bible that dates back to the 14th century, translated into Norman French.

The 14th century Bible. Author: Kathryn Yengel. CC BY-ND 2.0

The 14th century Bible. Author: Kathryn Yengel. CC BY-ND 2.0

Besides the remarkable architecture and the beautifully decorated interiors, Berkeley Castle carries the fame as being the place that a King of England was murdered.

Edward II had a serious falling out with his French wife, Queen Isabella, and she returned to her native country. But she came back several years later with her English lover, Roger de Mortimer, and they deposed Edward in favor her son, Edward III.

Berkeley Castle. Author: Kathryn Yengel. CC BY-ND 2.0

Berkeley Castle. Author: Kathryn Yengel. CC BY-ND 2.0

Isabella’s husband was forced to abdicate, and Edward II was imprisoned. Not everyone approved of what had been done, and to isolate Edward from possible supporters who would free him, Mortimer had him taken to Berkeley Castle, well outside London. Mortimer’s son-in-law was Thomas Berkeley. Legend has it they put the former king in a cell without windows in 1327, near to a dungeon where dead animals were thrown, hoping the toxic atmosphere would sicken him.

Berkeley Castle. Author: Kathryn Yengel. CC BY-ND 2.0

Berkeley Castle. Author: Kathryn Yengel. CC BY-ND 2.0

But Edward II was not willing to give up and somehow survived. A decision was made and a demand of Edward’s jailers, Sir John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney, that the king must die. Edward died in an unknown, but reportedly gruesome, way and legend has it that his screams could be heard outside the castle walls. The date of his death is believed to be September 21, 1327. The Berkeley family claimed complete ignorance of Edward’s murder.

Read another story from us: Hever Castle, home of Queen Anne Boleyn, restored by an American in early 20th century

The Berkeley Castle is of great historical importance for England and is a Grade I listed building. The famous journalist and author Simon Jenkins once said the castle is Britain’s own “rose-red city half as old as time,” referring to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra in Jordan. It has also appeared in many films and TV series, including Wolf Hall, The Other Boleyn Girl, Just Visiting, and Castle in the Country.