Berkeley Castle is not one of those Disney-like fairy-tale castles.
Set in the rolling Gloucestershire countryside, it is a rugged, brooding hulk of a building, its grey crenellated battlements rising dramatically against the sky.
Despite its forbidding exterior, it has an intriguing history and along with my English relatives, we are visiting the castle to explore a Berkeley link within our own family’s lineage. As we follow an entrance pathway that winds between hedges and flower beds, a summer breeze carries the scent of wild roses, geraniums and lobelia on its breath.
Beyond spreading lawns, an archway takes us into a medieval stone-flagged courtyard where we are dwarfed by the castle’s surrounding walls.
Up a flight of steps, worn and uneven through centuries of use, we arrive at the entrance room — offering an introduction to Berkeley Castle’s macabre past and its most infamous and tragic prisoner, King Edward II.
Although Edward did his royal duty by siring four children by his French-born Queen Isabella, his preference ran to amorous affairs with court noblemen — liaisons that were far from discreet. Our guide tells us that Queen Isabella, in cahoots with her lover Roger Mortimer and the powerful barons of the country, imprisoned Edward in the castle dungeon — a stink-hole of a place — but eventually moved him to an austere cell, (we peer at it through a grille) where the King spent his final days.
At Isabella’s behest, a gang of paid assassins murdered the 47-year-old king, by ramming a red hot poker up his posterior —the customary punishment for sodomy. Not all of Berkeley Castle’s occupants came to such a grisly end. Quite the reverse.
Over the centuries, it has played host to royalty, knights and barons.
Queen Elizabeth I spent a short time here, her specially woven bedspread is on display in one of the rooms; Sir Francis Drake — a frequent visitor to the Castle, also has his own four-poster bed in a comfortably furnished guest room.
The Castle also has literary associations.
William Shakespeare makes mention of the castle in Richard II and his Midsummer Night’s Dream was intended to be read during a wedding at Berkeley Castle. In contrast to its forbidding exterior, the interior furnishings are lavish.
We pause before oil paintings of English landscapes — including one of Berkeley Castle — peer at medieval tapestries and marvel at blue Delft crockery and priceless Chinese vases in China cabinets.
The Long Drawing Room, and the adjoining Small Drawing Room have personal touches: charming wedding and group photographs of the present Berkeley family.
Particularly eye-catching is a painting of the present-day Mrs. Berkeley wearing an elegant Givenchy dress, a three-strand pearl necklace and an enigmatic smile. The dining room brings gasps of admiration from everyone.
Portraits of Berkeley scions in the walls look down at a splendid banquet table adorned with silver candelabras and vases of roses and peonies.
Places are set with Spode China plates, silver cutlery and sparkling wine glasses.
The imagination conjures up visions of liveried servants in the wings awaiting the arrival of distinguished guests.
The nearby kitchen is spacious and well provisioned: stone jars and gleaming copper pans sit on the shelves, herbs dry out on a side table and, as in all well-appointed baronial kitchens, a bell panel to summon staff is situated on an adjacent wall.
Huge haunches of venison would have roasted on the spit in front of the enormous open-hearth oven. The Great Hall is the climax of the tour. It is a splendid medieval room with a high ornamental ceiling.
It is easy to imagine the grand balls, the rich banquets, the sound of music and boisterous gusts of laughter that would have echoed from these walls.
Berkeley ancestral portraits adorn the walls and we study a genealogical map of its family members, dating back nine centuries.
Further along the long chain of Berkeley scions, a young Henry Nicholas Lionel Berkeley went to India as an officer in the British-India army in the late 1700s. His daughter Harriet was born in Chunar, a small British settlement in Northern India.
And so, it is through her that we lay claim to the wee trace of Berkeley blood in our genealogical timeline.
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