What’s so special about Berkeley Castle?

A bit late this week with a dollop of heritage-hunting. Our little car (the one the OH and the girls use, came to a sudden halt on Monday and we’ve spent the rest of the week juggling everyone’s transport needs and trying to buy another car – it’s thrown me right off plan. Anyway, hopefully we’re getting sorted out now, so here’s my take on a remarkable castle I went to see on Monday, (which feels like a month ago now!)…

On Monday I drove west over the Cotswolds to meet up with my brother and visit Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire – somewhere I last went to on a school trip in the early 1970s. As I was driving I wondered if it would be as lovely as I remembered and would it still be as fascinating all these years later for a confirmed history-junkie?

And the answer I’m delighted to say was an emphatic ‘YES’


Considering how long it had been since the last visit, I was astonished at how much I remembered. I genuinely lost count of the times I turned a corner and gasped ‘I remember this!’ It was a strange feeling, to walk around a building I’d only once visited previously, but to still know it so well. I do remember that when I went on the school trip we had a guide to talk to us as we went around, and all I can say is, he must have done an exceedingly good job on that day.

So what made and continues to make Berkeley Castle such a great place to visit?

Well for me there are at least five reasons you should divert off the M5 for a visit if you’re passing.

1. Simply because no history-junkie could possibly resist a visit to a proper intact medieval castle.

Berkeley is one of those rare survivors, an inhabited medieval castle which has never been ruined (although a chunk of the keep was demolished after the Civil War).

A visit to Berkeley, (as with Powis and a handful of other castles which avoided a crumbling decline) gives us history-junkies a remarkable glimpse into the castle as it was originally intended to be – colourful, grand, strong, powerful, impressive. It’s all very well looking at ruins and using your imagination, but when you can see the real thing, it’s thrilling.

I’ve often thought that ruined castles, roofless and with crumbling walls fail to give you the feeling of enclosure which they must surely have had when complete. At Berkeley you get to feel the proper effect of being closed in all around. It also makes for a fascinating mix of architectural styles as you see the changes made to the fabric over the centuries.

Over the years, the Berkeley family who have owned the castle since its earliest days in the eleventh century, have done what all home-owners do, they’ve added bits on, moved bits around and redecorated from time to time. So walking around the castle today you’re never quite sure what you’ll see next. I suppose you could walk around quite quickly, but we found ourselves stopping to look at so many quirky details and I’m sure we missed loads – but we’re determined to go back soon and see what we missed.

Oh, by the way, if symmetry is your thing, you’ll hate it…

2. Because it was probably the scene of a gruesome royal murder

Then of course there’s Edward II. If you read my post about Gloucester Cathedral you’ll know that this unfortunate king met his end at Berkeley Castle in September 1327. Who arranged his murder, who did the deed and how the deed was done all remain open to conjecture. The official story is that Roger Mortimer ordered the murder,  and that Sir Thomas Gurney, John Maltravers and William Ockley carried out the order (possibly by the application of a red-hot poker to the poor man’s nether regions – more probably simply by smothering).

There is however now a theory that Edward escaped and fled abroad to live as a hermit in the Holy Roman Empire, eventually meeting his son Edward III in Antwerp in 1338. It’s good to have a historical mystery and this is certain to keep fuelling controversy for the foreseeable future.

The doorway to Edward II’s cell.

The room where the murder is alleged to have happened is at the top of a flight of stone steps – a small door leads to the chamber in the wall of the keep. Visitors can’t enter the room itself, but there’s a window to peep through and whether or not it is the location of a murder, it certainly makes you stop to think. I doubt if anyone looks into that room without pondering what happened in there.

The room in which Edward II was murdered.

Edward’s ghost is said to haunt the castle and to be heard in a death-cry on the 21st September each year!

The Keep – and the stairs to Edward II’s cell.

3. To embrace your inner nosey-parker tendencies…


Berkeley is full of treasures, some grand and priceless, others entirely domestic. I just love being led along from one treasure to another. Every room (and you see many) is full of delights and although there’s plenty of information, you can have great fun searching out all the amazing details. The dining room for instance has a stunning array of silverware, looked down upon by family portraits with people wearing the distinctive yellow hunting colours of the Berkeley hunt. The medieval kitchens which were still being used until the 1940s are worthy of a visit alone. You must see the spider’s web ceiling, it’s absolutely wonderful. (There was a large model dragon in the kitchen when we visited this week, made by local school children we were told. He was superb!)

Something about this corner epitomised Berkeley Castle for me.

4. To be able to say you’ve sat in the same window as Mark Rylance…

About half way around, you come to the Great Hall (which is indeed great!) And whilst taking photos of some stone carving, my brother noticed a leaflet in a window about Wolf Hall (the brilliant TV series based on the books about Thomas Cromwell by Hilary Mantel) and then we realised that in fact Berkeley Castle was one of the locations where the series was filmed. (You have to hand it to the producers of Wolf Hall – I’ve been to most of the places where it was filmed, but you’d hardly know it from watching, they did a magnificent job of recreating a very convincing Tudor world. If you really want to get into the Wolf Hall flow, they’ve even provided you with a costume to put on (yes adult size) – now that’s what I call visitor satisfaction.

5. To suss out a possible wedding venue

One thing you need to be wary of is that the castle isn’t open to visitors on Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays – which I assume is because these are the days when they hold weddings and private events. I had a little scroll through their Instagram account and it looks as if they do a fantastic job with weddings.

The Great Hall – a gorgeous setting for a wedding and a Wolf Hall location…

I must admit, it has the right atmosphere, which isn’t true for all potential wedding venues (in my opinion). I may be wrong but I got the distinct feeling that you’d have a very good time indeed if you got married at Berkeley, so if you’re on the look out for somewhere very special, put it on your list.

Anything else?

Well I think you can tell we loved our day at the castle. We’ve already decided to go back again soon. Oh and we had very acceptable tea and cake in the castle’s yurt now that’s not something you hear every day…


For more information…

Here’s the link to the official Berkeley Castle website. Remember to check here before you visit because you don’t want to go on a day when it isn’t open. It also has wonderful photography of the castle – have a look anyway.

Here’s the Wiki page for Berkeley Castle – lots of lovely history facts and dates.

Goodrich – A Proper Castle…

Have you ever wondered why castles were built exactly where they are?

I don’t mean why they were built at all, just how and who decided where the first spade went in. I wonder about the pre-Conquest landscape – largely without castles as we know them – and the nature of the Norman invaders, riding about the countryside (presumably often hostile countryside), determining the precise spot on which these alien buildings would be erected.


In the absence of a helpful set of Ordinance Survey maps, how did they make those decisions? Did they have a hoard of surveyors, architects and castle-designers offering their services to the victors of Hastings? Was there a handbook on castle building they could refer to, how did the man on the horse know what he wanted his castle to look like?

(You can tell I haven’t been sleeping well can’t you…)

I just have this image in my mind of all these Norman knights riding around, pointing at hills and saying ‘Alors! Contruisez-moi un chateau la-bas! Vite! And a retinue of workmen with clipboards and abacuses (what is the plural for abacus?) following them around, tugging their forelocks.


Goodrich in Herefordshire, between Monmouth and Ross-on-Wye, is one of those truly defensive castles which appears to have grown organically out of the rock it sits on, and even today I think you’d nominate any architect who could come up with it’s design for an award. When you walk around it’s difficult to decide in some places where the building actually begins. How did they do that in the days before computers and 3D modelling?

In fact very little is known about the origins of the first castle at Goodrich.

It was probably first a wooden affair, rebuilt in stone about 1120. At the beginning of the thirteenth century it was given by King John to one of my historic heroes William Marshal (he of Pembroke Castle fame), and he had further work carried out, which in turn was rebuilt around 1280 as relations with the Welsh made the area increasingly dangerous and required stronger defences to be added.

2015-04-10 14.50.30_20170511123615836

Much of what you see now dates from that time and you can see similarities with the castles Edward I was having built in Wales around then.

Over time Goodrich was altered to make it a more comfortable residence, without compromising its defensive capabilities and if you were a high status visitor in the fourteenth century, you’d probably have been very comfortable staying there.


But as with so many other castles, it was besieged during the English Civil War and was heavily bombarded – you can still see the mortar ‘Roaring Meg’ which did so much of the damage. Later the castle was slighted to prevent it being used again.

After that, it was only a matter of time before it crumbled into ruins.  Although in the eighteenth century it became popular with the romantic poets and painters who fell for its decaying charms.

If you haven’t been to Goodrich, don’t miss an opportunity to go. It’s got everything a textbook castle should have and is an ideal place to explain castle basics. It’s definitely what I call ‘a proper castle’.


More Information

If you want to know more about the building and history of Goodrich, this is the link to the Wiki page.

If you’re visiting check here at the English Heritage website for opening times and prices. By the way, the cafe at Goodrich is particularly good and the last time we were there they served the best cheese scones I’ve ever tasted.

Oh and if you were a fan of the TV series a few years ago ‘Merlin’ – you might recognise parts of the castle, an episode was filmed there back in 2009.


An Englishman’s house…

Do you ever watch the TV show Grand Designs? (I’m sure similar programmes exist across the world, where you follow people through the process of building their own houses) – I ask because for some reason, whenever I visit Stokesay Castle I can’t help thinking that if it had existed in the 1290s, Stokesay Castle would definitely have been featured.

The castle was built for Laurence of Ludlow, one of England’s richest wool merchants of his age and I can just see Kevin McCloud (the presenter of Grand Designs) following Laurence about on the scaffolding, talking about all the mod cons being built in, the problems sourcing the right timber, the difficulties with the labourers, how expensive it all was, how they’d hoped to be in by Christmas…

It’s fantasy of course, but you can’t help thinking that Stokesay was always meant to be someones vanity project, a way of announcing to the world that you’d arrived. Although it does have some castle-like features, it was never really intended to be a stronghold, this was first and foremost a rich man’s comfortable home in the country, a statement about wealth, not a fortress, despite being set in an area where true castles abound. The writer Norman Pound described it as ‘pretentious and comfortable’ – difficult to argue with that. Although I do wonder what Laurence’s noble neighbours made of him.

And for the thirteenth century it was pretty well-appointed. A huge hall with tall windows in the main public space, a solar suite for him and his family and a series of guest rooms. There are toilets and fireplaces built-in which was no doubt pretty avant guard for homes back then.

Going to Stokesay today it’s easy to let your mind slip you back into the thirteenth century because there’s so little change from the shell of the building that was first built for Laurence.

And it is undoubtedly a very lucky building indeed – to have sat right in the middle of some of the most heavily fought over land in the English / Welsh borders for 700 years and to remain very largely intact is nothing short of miraculous.

Its only real encounter with destiny was towards the end of the English Civil War when it was besieged in 1645. It surrendered to the Parliamentarians (quickly demonstrating it’s lack of proper defences). Unlike so many castles subsequently ordered to be slighted, Stokesay got off very lightly – where some castles were to all intents and purposes demolished, Stokesay doesn’t appear to have suffered more than the loss of a few feet off the height of its curtain wall.

The solar is the one room in the castle to have been significantly updated in the seventeenth century. The carving in the wooden mantelpiece is a tour de force.

After that fling with fate, Stokesay was gradually left to slide into decline and could easily have literally crumbled away, but it was lucky once again to have found a series of restorers in the nineteenth century who all decided to conserve rather than change the building, keeping intervention to a minimum, and as a result we now have this almost unique example of a fortified manor house to wander around and enjoy.

You know me well enough to realise that I love it particularly for the window seats. (They’re everywhere at Stokesay) – I always imagine myself sitting in one with my stitching, listening to some troubadour singing or playing a harp, gazing wistfully out across the Shropshire landscape – oh you get the picture…

The windows are what really make it for me at Stokesay, but then windows are always magical frames of liminal space. Looking out or looking in, there’s always a story.

Although Grand Designs is supposed to be about the buildings, there’s no doubt that it often also charts the impact of the stress of building on the people involved – marital strains are not uncommon. What Laurence and his family experienced we’ll never really know, but sadly he was to drown at sea in 1294, so it’s unlikely he enjoyed much time in his own grand design.

Still, over 700 years later, I’d like to thank him. He built his castle, and he left us with a remarkable window into the thirteenth century.


Visiting Stokesay?

This is the link to visitor information at English Heritage.




Two Historical Giants at Pembroke Castle

I may have mentioned before that I particularly love being able to link historic people to historic places and Pembroke Castle boasts intimate connections with two giants of English history, William Marshall and Margaret Beaufort. Both of these characters had long and colourful lives, tightly interwoven with the events of their day, and a visit to Pembroke is a good place to remember the role each played…

Pembroke Castle with the Great Keep on the left.

William Marshall

William Marshall had an extraordinary life. He was born in 1146 (or possibly 1147, it’s a grey area) to fairly lowly Anglo-Norman knightly stock, but through his immense courage and loyalty he rose in importance to play vital roles during the reigns of Henry II, Richard I, John and John’s son Henry III for whom he was appointed protector in 1216.

If you haven’t heard of him, there’s a fabulous biography ‘ The Greatest Knight’ – by Thomas Asbridge *, which is every bit as exciting as any fiction. I won’t bore you with oodles of details here, but suffice to say he got around a bit and fought a lot of fights through his 70+ years – (he led the charge at the battle of Lincoln aged 70).

In 1189 at the age of 43 he married 17-year-old Isabel de Clare (he was given her by Richard I as a reward for his support) and it was through her that he became owner of Pembroke Castle (and indeed a number of other castles – we’ll no doubt meet William quite often as we wander around the castles of Wales and the Marches). They went on to have 5 sons and 5 daughters, which was no mean feat and certainly provides fiction writers with plenty of possibilities.

How much time he spent at Pembroke I’m not sure, in those days practically all the aristocracy lived largely peripatetic lives, but he is credited with having had the castle built in stone and for building the Great Keep –  it’s a massive cylindrical tower with a stone domed roof, nearly 80′ high (you can walk up and on to it to see the views, although I have to say it brought me as close to vertigo as I’ve ever been). It’s impressive today and must have been even more so in the twelfth century.

We have William Marshall to thank for several things, including witnessing and then re-issuing Magna Carta. His descendants include both the Bruce and Stewart kings of Scotland, Edward IV of England and through him, Henry VIII and all English monarchs afterwards.

He died in 1219 and is buried in the Temple Church, London where you can still see his tomb. Isabel died a year later.

William Marshall in historical fiction

There are loads of stories featuring William, including novels by Jean Plaidy, Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick. Have you read any of them? Which ones would you recommend?

I’ve read that he may have been the inspiration for William Thatcher in the film A Knight’s Tale – I love that film although it’s set years later, I sort of hope it’s true.

Margaret Beaufort

Now Margaret Beaufort may not have built anything at Pembroke, but in a way you could claim that it was where the Tudor dynasty began, because it was in a tower at the castle on the 28th of January 1457 that Margaret gave birth to her son Henry, who would go on largely through the political manoeuvring of Margaret to become King Henry VII in 1485.

Margaret’s story is just as amazing as William’s. She was married at the age of 12 to Henry VI’s half-brother the 24-year-old Edmund Tudor. The Wars of the Roses were intimately entwined in her life and Edmund died in captivity at Carmarthen shortly after their marriage, but not before she became pregnant. She gave birth in Pembroke Castle aged just 13. Henry was her only child even though she married twice more, so I think we can imagine it would have been a pretty horrendous experience.


Like William, the life of Margaret has been the subject of numerous novels, including the enormously popular books by Philippa Gregory – Margaret is the Red Queen (I’m going to be honest and admit to not having read any of them). I know Margaret was a remarkable woman and you have to admire the way she struggled through the twists and turns of fate to bring Henry to the throne, but I’ve never been able to like her – is there a novel I should read that will change my mind?

Anyway, she outlived Henry VII and watched her grandson Henry VIII being crowned in 1509 shortly before her death. Quite some woman whatever you may think.

Pembroke Castle on film.

I’m surprised Pembroke Castle hasn’t made more film appearances, but for those of us who like to know, it featured in Jabberwocky (1976), Prince Caspian (1989), Richard II (part of the BBC The Hollow Crown series – with the simply marvellous Ben Wishaw as Richard – watch it if you haven’t already, 2011) and in Me Before You (2016). It also had a minor role at the beginning of The Lion In Winter (1968), where Nigel Stock plays none other than William Marshall…

An extra helping?

Click here to go to the official Pembroke Castle website where you can check opening hours, tickets prices, history timeline and the like – they have all sorts of events there too, including after hours ghost walks – sounds like fun.

Here’s a link to Thomas Asbridge’s website – if you aren’t familiar with William Marshall, try Asbridge’s book or search out the documentary he made about him – it’s ‘boy’s own’ stuff really it is.

Does anyone know of a good biography of Margaret Beaufort, surely there must be one? If you want a good article about her, I thought this piece from History Today by Michael Jones was useful.


Banqueting ‘medieval style’ – one of the tableaux at Pembroke Castle.

Just to say, there’s lots to see at Pembroke Castle that I haven’t attempted to mention here, but it’s a brilliant place to visit if you’re in the area. It’s privately owned and I love the approach they take to heritage and history, it’s a castle where you feel welcome and connected.



Patterns in stone…

We were at Raglan Castle a few weeks ago. It’s the sort of castle that forces you to look out across the landscape and up at the towers, but the floor of the Great Tower had me captivated…


Looks like a giant piece of crochet in pebbles.


If you’re interested in historic places, you can read about Raglan over at my history blog, Mists of Time.