BERKELEY FAMILY, the name of an ancient English family remarkable for its long tenure of the feudal castle built by the water of Severn upon the lands from which the family takes its name. It traces an undoubted descent from Robert (d. 1170) son of Harding. Old pedigree-makers from the 14th century onward have made of Harding a younger son of a king of Denmark and a companion of the Conqueror, while modern historians assert his identity with one Harding who, although an English thane, is recorded by Domesday Book in 1086 as a great landowner in Somerset. This Harding the thane was son of Elnod or Alnod, who is recognized as Eadnoth the Staller, slain in beating off the sons of Harold when they attacked his county. But if Harding the Berkeley ancestor be the Harding who, as the queen's butler, witnesses King Edward's Waltham charter of 1062, his dates seem strangely apart from those of Robert his son, dead a hundred and eight years later. Of Robert fitz Harding we know that he was a Bristol man whose wealth and importance were probably increased by the trade of the port. A partisan of Henry, son of the empress, that prince before his accession to the throne granted him, by his charter at Bristol in the earlier half of 1153, the Gloucestershire manor of Bitton, and a hundred librates of land in the manor of Berkeley, Henry agreeing to strengthen the castle of Berkeley, which was evidently already in Robert's hands. In his rhymed chronicle Robert of Gloucester tells how -
"A bourgois at Bristowe - Robert Harding
Vor gret tresour and richesse - so wel was mid the king
That he gat him and is eirs - the noble baronie
That so riche is of Berkele - mid al the seignorie."
Later in the same year the duke of Normandy granted to Robert fitz Harding Berkeley manor and the appurtenant district called "Berkelaihernesse," to hold in fee by the service of one knight or at a rent of 100 s. Being at Berkeley, the duke confirmed to Robert a grant of Bedminster made by Robert, earl of Gloucester, and in the first year of his reign as king of England he confirmed his own earlier grant of the Berkeley manor. About this time Robert, who had founded St Augustine's Priory in Bristol, gave to the Black Canons there the five churches in Berkeley and Berkeley Herness. In their priory church he was buried in 1170, Berkeley descending to his son and heir Maurice.
Berkeley had already given a surname to an earlier family sprung from Roger, its Domesday tenant, whose descendants seem to have been ousted by the partisan of the Angevin. But if there had been a feud between the families it was ended by a double alliance, a covenant having been made at Bristol about November 1153 in the presence of Henry, duke of Normandy, whereby Maurice, son of Robert fitz Harding, was to marry the daughter of Roger of Berkeley, Roger's own son Roger marrying the daughter of Robert. In his certificate of 1166 Robert tells the king that, although he owes the service of five knights for Berkeley, Roger of Berkeley still holds certain lands of the honour for which he does no service to Robert. This elder line of Berkeley survived for more than two centuries on their lands of Dursley and Cubberley, but after his father's death Maurice, son of Robert, is styled Maurice of Berkeley. Robert of Berkeley, the eldest son of Maurice, paid in 1190 the vast sum of £1000 for livery of his great inheritance, but, rising with the rebellious barons against King John, his castle was taken into the king's hands. Seizin, however, was granted in 1220 to Thomas his brother and heir, but the estate was again forfeit in the next generation for a new defection, although the wind of the royal displeasure was tempered by the fact that Isabel de Creoun, wife of Maurice, lord of Berkeley, was the king's near kinswoman. Thomas, son of Maurice, was allowed to succeed his father in the lands, and, having a writ of summons to parliament in 1295, he is reckoned the first hereditary baron of the line.
Even in the age of chivalry the lords of Berkeley were notable warriors. Thomas, who as a lad had ridden on the barons' side at Evesham, followed the king's wars for half a century of his long life, flying his banner at Falkirk and at Bannockburn, in which fight he was taken by the Scots. His seal of arms is among those attached to the famous letter of remonstrance addressed by the barons of England to Pope Boniface VIII. Maurice, his son, joined the confederation against the two Despensers, and lay in prison at Wallingford until his death in 1326, the queen's party gaining the upper hand too late to release him. But as the queen passed by Berkeley on her way to seize Bristol, she gave back the castle, which had been kept by the younger Despenser, to Thomas, the prisoner's heir, who, with Sir John Mautravers, soon received in his hold the deposed king brought thither secretly. The chroniclers agree that Thomas of Berkeley had no part in the murder of the king, whom he treated kindly. It was when Thomas was away from the castle that Mautravers and Gournay made an end of their charge. Through the providence of this Thomas the Berkeley estates were saved to the male line of his house, a fine levied in the twenty-third year of Edward III. so settling them. Thomas of Berkeley fought at Creçy and Calais, bringing six knights and thirty-two squires to the siege in his train, with thirty mounted archers and two hundred men on foot. His son and heir-apparent, Maurice of Berkeley, was the hero of a misadventure recorded by Froissart, who tells how a young English knight, displaying his banner for the first time on the day of Poitiers, rode after a flying Picard squire, by whom he was grievously wounded and held to ransom. Froissart errs in describing this knight as Thomas lord of Berkeley, for the covenant made in 1360 for the release of Maurice is still among the Berkeley muniments, the ransom being stated at £1080.
Being by his mother a nephew of Roger Mortimer, earl of March, the paramour of Queen Isabel, Maurice Berkeley married Elizabeth, daughter of Hugh Despenser, the younger of Edward II.'s favourites and the intruder in Berkeley Castle. With his son and heir Thomas of Berkeley, one of the commissioners of parliament for the deposing of Richard II. and a warden of the Welsh marches who harried Owen of Glendower, the direct male line of Robert fitz Harding failed, and but for the settlement of the estates Berkeley would have passed from the family. On this Thomas's death in 1417 Elizabeth, his daughter and heir, and her husband, Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, the famous traveller, statesman and jouster, seized Berkeley Castle. Earl and countess only withdrew after James Berkeley, the nephew and heir male, had livery of his lands by the purchased aid of Humphrey of Gloucester. But the Beauchamps returned more than once to vain attacks on the stout walls of Berkeley, and a quarrel of two generations ended with the pitched battle of Nibley Green. Fought between the retainers of William, Lord Berkeley, son of James, and those who followed Thomas Talbot, Viscount Lisle, grandson of the illustrious Talbot and great-grandson of the countess of Warwick, this was the last private battle on English ground between two feudal lords. Young Lisle was shot under the beaver by an arrow, and the feud ended with his death, all claims of his widow being settled with an annuity of £100. Bitter as was the long quarrel, it kept the Berkeleys from casting their interest into the Wars of the Roses, in which most of their fellows of the ancient baronage sank and disappeared.
The victorious Lord Berkeley, whose children died young, was on ill terms with his next brother, and made havoc of the great Berkeley estates by grants to the Crown and the royal house, for which he was rewarded with certain empty titles. Edward IV. gave him a viscount's patent in 1481, and Richard III. created him earl of Nottingham in 1483. His complacence extending to the new dynasty, Henry VII. made him earl marshal in 1485 and marquess of Berkeley in 1487. For this last patent he, by a settlement following a recovery suffered, gave the king and his heirs male Berkeley Castle and all that remained to him of his ancestors' lands, enjoying for his two remaining years a bare life interest. At his death in 1491 the king took possession, bringing his queen with him on a visit to Berkeley.
Here follows a curious chapter of the history of the Berkeley peerage. When Thomas, Lord Berkeley, died in 1417, it might have been presumed that his dignity would descend to his heir, the countess of Warwick. Nevertheless, his nephew and heir male was summoned as a baron from 1421, apparently by reason of his tenure of the castle and its lands. When the marquess of Berkeley was dead without surviving issue, the castle having passed to the crown, Maurice, the brother and heir, had no summons. Yet this Maurice's son, another Maurice, had a summons as a baron, although not "with the room in the parliament chamber that the lords of Berkeley had of old time." The old precedence was restored when Thomas, brother and heir of this baron, was summoned. This Thomas, who had a command at Flodden, held his ancestors' castle as constable for the king. A final remainder under the marquess's settlement brought back castle and lands on the failure in 1553 of the heirs male of the body of Henry VII., and Henry, Lord Berkeley, had special livery of them in his minority. Yet although seized of the castle he took a lower seat in the parliament house than did his grandfather who was not so seized, being given place after Abergavenny, Audley and Strange.
By these things we may see that peerage law in old time rested upon the pleasure of the sovereign and upon no ascertained and unvarying custom. Of the power behind that pleasure this Henry, Lord Berkeley, had one sharp reminder. He was, like most of his line, a keen sportsman, and, returning to Berkeley to find that a royal visit had made great slaughter among his deer, he showed his resentment by disparking Berkeley Park. Thereat Queen Elizabeth sent him a warning in round Tudor fashion. Let him beware, she wrote, for the earl of Leicester coveted the castle by the Severn.
At the Restoration, George, Lord Berkeley, who had been one of the commissioners to invite Charles II.'s return from the Hague, petitioned for a higher place in parliament, claiming a barony by right of tenure before 1295, but his claim was silenced by his advancement on September 11, 1679, to be viscount of Dursley and earl of Berkeley. James, the 3rd earl, an active sea captain who was all but lost in company with Sir Cloudesley Shovel, became knight of the Garter and lord high admiral and commander-in-chief in the Channel, he and his house being loyal supporters of the Hanoverian dynasty.
The last and most curious chapter of the history of the Berkeley honours was opened by Frederick Augustus, the 5th earl of Berkeley (1745-1810). This peer married at Lambeth, on the 16th of May 1796, one Mary Cole, the daughter of a small tradesman at Wotton-under-Edge, with whom he had already lived for several years, several children having been born to them. In order to legitimatize the issue born before the marriage, the earl in 1801 made declaration of an earlier marriage contracted privately at Berkeley in 1785. On his death in 1811 the validity of this alleged marriage was tested by the committee of privileges of the House of Lords, and it was shown without doubt that the evidence for it, a parish register entry, was a forgery.
Under the will of his father, Colonel William Berkeley, the eldest illegitimate son, had the castle and estates, and on the failure of his claim to the earldom he demanded a writ of summons as a baron by reason of his tenure of the castle. No judgment was given in the matter, the king in council having declared in 1669 that baronies by tenure were "not in being and so not fit to be revived." But Colonel Berkeley's political influence afterwards procured him (1831) a peerage as Lord Segrave of Berkeley, and ten years later an earldom with the title of Fitzhardinge. He died without issue in 1857. His brother, Sir Maurice Fitzhardinge Berkeley, who succeeded to Berkeley under the terms of the 5th earl's will, revived the claims, and was likewise given a new barony (1861) as Lord Fitzhardinge, a title in which he was succeeded by two of his sons, the 3rd baron (b. 1830) being in 1909 owner of the Berkeley and Cranford estates. The earldom of Berkeley was never assumed by the eldest legitimate son of the 5th earl, and was in 1909 enjoyed by Randal Thomas Mowbray Berkeley, 8th earl, grandson of admiral Sir George Cranfield Berkeley, second son of the 4th earl. In 1893 Mrs Milman (d. 1899), daughter and heir of Thomas Moreton Fitzhardinge Berkeley, 6th earl de jure, was declared by letters patent under the great seal to have succeeded to the ancient barony of Berkeley created by the writ of 1421; and she was succeeded by her daughter.
Many branches have been thrown out by this family during its many centuries of existence. Of these the most important descended from Maurice of Berkeley, the baron who died in Wallingford hold in 1326. His second son Maurice was ancestor of the Berkeleys of Stoke Giffard, whose descendant, Norborne Berkeley, claimed the barony of Botetourt and had a summons in 1764, dying without issue in 1770. Sir Maurice Berkeley of Bruton, a cadet of Stoke Giffard, was forefather of the Viscounts Fitzhardinge, the Lords Berkeley of Stratton (1658-1773) and the earls of Falmouth, all extinct, the Berkeleys of Stratton bequeathing their great London estate, including Berkeley Square and Stratton Street, to the main line. Edward Berkeley of Pylle in Somerset, head of a cadet line of the Bruton family, married Philippa Speke, whose mother was Joan, daughter of Sir John Portman of Orchard Portman, baronet. His grandson William, on succeeding to the Orchard Portman and Bryanston estates, took the additional name of Portman, and from him come the Viscounts Portman of Bryanston (1873). From James, Lord Berkeley, who died in 1463, descended Rowland Berkeley, a clothier of Worcester, who bought the estates of Spetchley. Rowland's second son, Sir Robert Berkeley, the king's bench justice who supported the imposition of ship-money, was ancestor of the Berkeleys of Spetchley, now the only branch of the house among untitled squires.
See John Smyth's Lives of the Berkeleys, compiled c.1618, edited by Sir John Maclean (1883-1885); J.H. Round's introduction to the Somerset Domesday, V.C.H. series; G.E. C(okayne)'s Complete Peerage; Jeayes's Descriptive Catalogue of the Charters and Muniments at Berkeley Castle (1892); Dictionary of National Biography; Transactions of Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 3 vols., viii., xlv., et passim; The Red Book of the Exchequer, Chronicles of Roger of Wendover, Matthew Paris, Adam of Murimuth, Robert of Gloucester, Henry of Huntingdon, etc. (Rolls Series); British Museum Charters, etc.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)