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Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire

(51°41′16″N, 2°27′15″W)
Berkeley Castle
ST 687 989
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Gloucestershire
now Gloucestershire
medieval Worcester
now Gloucester
  • Ron Baxter
28 August 2008

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Berkeley is situated on the English side of the Severn estuary in the Vale of Berkeley, some 10 miles SW of Stroud. A stretch of the Little Avon River runs to the S of the village to enter the estuary just over a mile to the west. The castle is on the SE edge of the village and consists of an approximately square courtyard with a roughly circular shell keep at its NW corner. The Great Hall occupies most of the E range with the service quarters to the N of it and the State Lodgings to the S. The Inner Gateway is at the S end of the W range, and the Outer Gateway is some way to the W of this. The land falls away to the S and E, so that the castle dominates the view from Berkeley Heath. Most of the castle is 14thc, but the shell keep and the Great Hall are 12thc in origin and retain some original features.

A castle was erected here in 1067 by William Fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford (d.1071), comprising a motte and bailey with a timber keep on the motte. In the mid-12thc the motte was surrounded by the present shell keep, and was levelled within the shell wall, so that the ground is some 20 ft higher inside than it is outside the shell keep. This work was carried out by Robert Fitz Harding, immediately after he received the castle from Henry of Anjou (later Henry II) in 1153. The keep is approximately circular and originally had round bastions to the NE, NW, SE and SW. Only the NE bastion (with an elaborate 12thc window) and the SE bastion remain; the NW bastion was replaced by Thorpe’s Tower in the 14thc, and the remainder of the W stretch of the shell wall was destroyed by a Civil War battery from an emplacement on the roof of the nearby parish church. It was consolidated but the SW bastion was not rebuilt, and the shell wall was never rebuilt to its original height on this side. The keep is of reddish coursed sandstone rubble construction with pilaster buttresses, but this structure survives only on the S and SW sides, the remainder having been rebuilt. On the E face of the keep, between the two surviving bastions, is a forebuilding in the form of a rectangular tower built against the shell wall. It was not built with the wall, but added slightly later in the 12thc. This contains the staircase leading to the elaborate main E entrance doorway to the shell keep. The forebuilding has been considerably altered in later centuries.

Further 12thc fabric is found in the Great Hall, built against the E curtain wall. The Great Hall was rebuilt in the 14thc and extensively restored and remodelled by the 8th Earl, who succeeded to the Berkeley estates in 1916, when he found the castle in an advanced state of disrepair. As a result of these restorations, fabric which appears to be 12thc may not be original. The rectangular hall has its high end at the south, and at the north is a screens passage with a gallery above, divided from the main space by a wooden screen brought from Caefn Mably (Glamorgan). Along the east wall are three tall, round-headed window embrasures, and these are 12thc in origin but restored. 12thc chevron voussoirs have been reused in the doorway from the Keep Garden into Thorpe’s Tower, and these are also described here. Finally the Treasury contains four carved stones of 12thc date. Their provenance is unknown, and they may not be local or even British, having been amassed by the 8th Earl, a voracious collector.


Henry of Anjou, later Henry II, seized Berkeley Castleand its manor from Roger de Berkeley and in 1153 gave it to Robert Fitz Harding, a wealthy citizen of Bristol, nobly descended from Eadnoth the Staller, a Domesday landowner who had died fighting for his king. Robert Fitz Harding had financed some of Henry’s early campaigns, and Berkeleywas his reward. The problem with the Berkeleys was resolved by a double marriage: Robert’s eldest son Maurice married Roger de Berkeley’s daughter Alice (taking the name Maurice de Berkeley), and Roger’s eldest son married one of Robert’s daughters. The castle has remained with the descendants of Maurice de Berkeley to the present day.


Exterior Features



Loose Sculpture


This type of stone forebuilding may have appeared first at Norwich Castle keep around 1100; earlier castles with first-floor entrances, such as Chepstow (Monmouth) and the Tower of London had wooden stairs to provide access. After the mid-12thc the stone forebuilding was common, although the wooden form was still used at Goodrich (Herefordshire). The forebuilding was not built with the Great Tower: the stonework does not course, and a buttress of the SE bastion has been cut back to accommodate it, but the time between the two campaigns cannot have been more than a decade or so. It is suggested that the doorway was originally of two orders; this would explain the deep recessing of the rebuilt inner order and door opening. In this view the outer order was as at present, but with a nook-shaft support on the left similar to that surviving on the right, and inside this was an order decorated with point-to-point chevron on the jambs. When the inner order was remodelled, these chevron jambs were reused on the interior. There is not sufficient evidence to decide whether the doorway originally had a tympanum, but if it did it is hard to explain why it was not simply left in place in the remodelling.

Frontal chevron similar to that on the upper doorway arch is found locally at Kilpeck in the 1130s and Leominster Priory in the 1140s, both works of the celebrated Herefordshire School (plate 11), but remained in use into the 1160s, e.g. at Beckford church (Worcestershire). The more sophisticated point-to-point chevron, now set on the interior jambs, points to a date later rather than earlier in this range. In sum the diagnostic evidence of the sculpture points to a date in the 1150s, as suggested by the documentary evidence, and the surviving cushion capital, carved in shallow relief with a more-or-less symmetrical Winchester acanthus design, and the nook-shaft, with its lattice of interlace, are also acceptable at this date (although the capital would be rather old-fashioned). In its original state the doorway was a very elaborate one, as befitted its position as the main entrance to the Great Tower.

For the NE bastion window it is impossible to supply a date any more precise than c.1125-60, in view of the paucity of the surviving sculpture, but a date in the 1150s or ‘60s, contemporary with the voussoirs of the Thorpe Tower doorway seems likeliest.

For the interior hall windows, the use of fillets and the keeled trumpet-scallop capital indicates a date at the end of the 12thc, c.1190-1200.

Turning to the loose sculpture which, it will be recalled, may well not be from the castle at all, the frieze section has a chamfer suggesting that it may originally have been a lintel or a window sill. The deep indentations are probably simply decorative, intended to produce a play of light and shade across the surface, as on the Norwich castle keep doorway, or the west doorway arch at Tavant (Indre et Loire) in southern Normandy. It seems unlikely that they were ever filled, e.g. with lead or glass; there are certainly no obvious traces remaining. The palmette ornament that is the main element of the carved decoration was extremely widespread in the years between 1120 and 1150 and offers no guide to the place of production of this piece.

The bust-length figure may be part of a screen. Half-length, framed figures are among the fragments at Canterbury cathedral normally associated with the choir-screen erected by William the Englishman around 1180. However, it is not even certain that these figures were from a screen, rather than from the decoration of the cloister in which they were discovered, recycled as building material. No twelfth-century carved stone screens survive intact in this country, and the parallels used in support of this attribution have come from Germany, and especially from the Liebfrauenkirche in Halberstadt and St Michael’s, Hildesheim; both decorated with relief figures in stucco. Another possibility is that the stone formed part of a tomb, such as Archbishop Hubert Walter’s (d.1205), also in Canterbury, on which the gabled lid is decorated with a row of quatrefoils containing heads carved in relief.

The Canterbury screen reliefs show kings and prophets as well as unidentifiable human figures and grotesques. Most of the human figures are shown frontally, pointing to the left or right, as if drawing the viewer’s attention to a central feature, probably a figure of Christ. The Halberstadt figures are also half-length, and take the form of prophets with scrolls. I know of no screen, and indeed no twelfth-century French or English figure, depicted in the same way as the Berkeley one, with both hands clasping the neck-cord of the cloak. The pose does not correspond to any of the usual poses of Christ, while apostles shown as portraits usually carry books or, like martyrs, their instruments of martyrdom. Prophets often hold scrolls and kings carry sceptres. The absence of ecclesiastical vestments rules out the possibility of a churchman. Whoever is depicted here is shown in an unusually hieratic pose; where attributes are not shown, as here, some kind of gestural performance is normal.

If the pose is unique, the style offers too many possibilities for certainty. The earliest appearance of this kind of fold pattern is found among the cloister sculptures of Saint-Etienne in Toulouse (Haut-Garonne) signed by Gilabertus and dated to the second quarter of the twelfth century. The style found its way to England as well as expanding over large parts of France, and the Virgin and Child in York Minster offers many points of comparison. In view of the 8th Earl’s wide-ranging collecting habits it seems impossible to be sure of the origins of this piece, but a date in the second quarter of the 12thc is suggested.

The relief is assumed to be from the same source as the bust described above. The stone appears to be the same, and the carving is of the same high standard. Comparison of styles is not possible, as the two blocks include no similar features. However, an examination of the style of the carving opens up local possibilities for the origin of these two reliefs. Birds are common features of European Romanesque sculpture, but locally they appear regularly in the carvings of the Herefordshire School. On a purely formal level the birds on this stone have much in common with the Herefordshire School examples: the hawk-like heads and beaks; the almond-shaped eyes; the long, fanned tails; and the treatment of feathers with fish-scale carving. The Herefordshire School birds do not tend to have drilled eyes, however, and their wings are usually curved rather than straight, while their overall treatment is bolder and the poses more dramatic. Nevertheless the formal similarities suggest a link through copying with the Herefordshire School examples, and it is interesting that Gloucester cathedral is seen as a possible training-ground for some of the Herefordshire School sculptors.

Turning finally to the finial, the differences between the two faces of the block indicate two possibilities:

1. The carving of the head face is incomplete. The forms have been incised on the block, and a start made on the modelling of the head and on cutting away the background. When complete the head would have appeared in relief and the composition framed by a border, as on the other face of the block.

2. The carving of the head face is secondary, in the nature of graffiti. As originally carved this face was left plain.

In either case, one possibility is that this was the upper arm of a cross. In the first case the incompleteness of the head of Christ must indicate that the work was abandoned, perhaps because the block fractured during carving. In the second case the cross was not originally intended to bear a corpus (not all do), and an attempt was made to add one at a later date. This is not the only possibility. The form of the finial suggests a stone bench-end, and while these are uncommon they are not entirely unknown. On balance, the incomplete crucifix hypothesis (1. above) is a strong one, perhaps too attractive to abandon. The forms of the foliage suggest a mid-twelfth-century date.


E. Amt, The Accession of Henry II in England: Royal Government Restored, 1149-1159. London 1993, 37-42.

A. Emery, Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500, 3, Cambridge 2006, 58-67.

D. Gaborit-Chopin et al, La France Romane au temps des premiers capetiens (987 - 1152). Catalogue of an exhibition, Paris, Louvre, 10 March – 6 June 2005, 286, 369.

Gloucestershire Archives (for drawings by Marklove and Lysons)

T. A. Heslop, Norwich Castle Keep. Romanesque architecture and social context. Norwich 1994, 33-34.

D. Kahn, Canterbury Cathedral & its Romanesque Sculpture, London 1991, 145-71.

R. B. Patterson, “Robert Fitz Harding ofBristol: Profile of an Early Angevin Burgess-Baron Patrician and his Family's Urban Involvement”, Haskins Society Journal, 1 (1989), 109-22.

H. M. Thomas, The English and the Normans: Ethnic Hostility, Assimilation, and Identity 1066-c.1220. Oxford 2005, 196-98.

M. Thurlby, The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture, Logaston 1999.

D. Verey, The Buildings of England. Gloucestershire: the Vale and the Forest of Dean, London, 2nd ed. 1976, reprinted 1992, 102-03.

G. Zarnecki, J. Holt and T. Holland (ed.) English Romanesque Art 1066-1200. Catalogue of an exhibition held London, Hayward Gallery, 5 April – 8 July 1984, 188.