The third oldest continuously occupied castle in England, held by the Berkeley family since 1154. The keep and part of the curtain walls are from the 12th century, while most of the remainder is 14th century.
Both Windsor Castle and the Tower of London were constructed a few months after the Norman invasion, in 1066, and these are the two oldest continuously occupied castles in England. The third oldest is Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, which also has the distinction of being owned by a single family for the longest, ever since acquired by Robert FitzHarding (also known as Robert de Berkeley) in 1154. He soon rebuilt the castle, replacing an earlier, timber, motte and bailey structure. From him, a continuous line of descent leads to the present head of the dynasty, John Berkeley. The Arden and Swinton families are the only others in England with a provable, unbroken, male-line descent from a pre-Norman ancestor.
As the castle is still occupied, the visitor experience is different to most others from the Norman period, which are either ruined or preserved in an empty state. Nearly all the structure is intact, and all the rooms are furnished; about half of these are open to the public, via a circular route that typically takes about one hour. The castle is open between April and October, from Sunday to Wednesday each week, and the admission price also covers the extensive, well maintained grounds, and a seasonal butterfly house. Also of interest in the vicinity is the residence of Dr Edward Jenner, pioneer of the smallpox vaccine - an elegant, white painted building now preserved as a museum, and St Mary's Church, which dates from the 13th century and contains various memorials and tombs of the Berkeley family.
The earliest fortification at Berkeley was built in 1067 by William FitzOsbern, a cousin of William the Conqueror, who was granted several earldoms including that of Gloucester. He stayed here only briefly, soon returning to France where he was killed in 1071, by which time the castle had passed to Roger de Berkeley, then, in turn, to his identically named son and grandson. A dispute with the Crown lead to its confiscation after which the fortification, and the associated feudal barony, was granted to Robert FitzHarding, whose descendants adopted the Berkeley surname. The earliest stone sections were the keep and the curtain walls, built between 1154 and 1190, while most of the remainder was added around 200 years later, in the 14th century, by Thomas de Berkeley (3rd Baron Berkeley), sixth in descent from Robert. The castle was originally built for defensive purposes, to counter the threat from Welsh insurgents and their collaborators, and the most famous incident occurred on 21st September 1327 when Edward II was murdered here after being imprisoned by Roger Mortimer, an English lord sympathetic to the Welsh cause; Edward is buried in an alabaster tomb in nearby Gloucester Cathedral. Much later, the castle saw limited action in the Civil War, and was partly slighted afterwards, but it is in general very little changed from the 14th century. An unrepaired breach in the walls of the keep is the most visible evidence of the damage.
Berkeley Castle is situated on the southeast side of the small town of Berkeley, on slightly elevated ground above a small brook, close to the Little Avon River and 1.7 miles from the edge of the Severn estuary. A patch of woodland adjoins to the north, while the south and east sides enjoy sweeping views across grassy fields. Visitors approach from the north, along a short side street off the main east-west road through town, leading to the sizeable parking area. Entry is through a high wall, to the fee station/gift shop, which adjoins the Butterfly House - a warm, humid, glass enclosure containing fish ponds and tropical plants, home to several dozen species of butterflies during the summer months. The house is open from May to September. To one side is a lawn and yurt-based cafe, while nearby is Dr Jenner's House, a separately-managed attraction with an additional fee for entry. Two short paths head south, one to the castle, the other to St Mary's Church, which contains various medieval features and monuments including the tomb of Thomas de Berkeley, the 3rd Baron (died 1361) and wife Katherine. One unusual feature of the church is a detached tower, on the opposite side of the graveyard from the main building.
The oldest section of Berkeley Castle is the circular keep, about 100 feet in diameter, with rooms around most of its circumference, and a grassy courtyard at the centre, site of the original motte. Other large and small rooms, on up to four floors, extend from the keep to the south and east, enclosing a larger protected area, the inner ward. The entrance is on the west side, and in front of this is the outer ward, to where public access is via the path, from the north, while the family use a driveway from the west, through the outer gatehouse. Long terraces on several levels line the sloping ground south and east of the castle, adorned with many types of flowers and shrubs, then below these is a wide lawn, lined by specimen trees including an isolated pine at the centre, planted here as a cutting obtained following the Battle of Culloden, in 1746, by the 8th Earl Berkeley. The west end of the lawn leads to a lily pond (originally a swimming pool) with plume fountain, while the northeast gives way to a patch of woodland, containing several short trails and a childrens' play area.
The castle tour starts up a flight of steps from the inner courtyard, to an open passageway on top of the walls, and to the kings gallery, filled with paintings, furnishings and assorted artefacts including a wooden chest and other items owned by Sir Francis Drake. An internal window looks down upon a circular, low-roofed chamber where Edward II was imprisoned, and nearby a shaft nearly 100 feet deep leads to a subterranean dungeon. To one side is a bed chamber, viewable only from its entrance. A nearby stairway is one of several locations where the public areas link with the private apartments, most of which are along the southwest-facing wing. The visitor route continues past another private door, through the small tower room (used during sieges) and down some steps to the picture gallery - filled with a variety of pictures, mostly Dutch - and then down further to the dining room underneath, this originally the billiard room. Next are various smaller rooms including the kitchen, larder, buttery, china room and gun room or armoury, this latter leading to the 62 foot-long great hall, which dates from the 14th century and has staged many royal banquets over the centuries. On the far side, entered via the grand staircase, is the elegantly-furnished morning room, originally a chapel, and below this is the beer cellar. The final two rooms are the long and small drawing rooms, filed with more venerable paintings and furniture. Exit, at the foot of the grand staircase, is through the circular apostle's porch, the exterior of which is topped by a decorative clock. Other parts of the castle may sometimes be viewable on special guided tours.