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.

Gloucester Cathedral – 5 things you shouldn’t miss.

For me, Gloucester Cathedral has to be one of the most overwhelmingly lovely places in England, but I have to say it was difficult to decide how to begin talking about it here, because quite frankly there’s too much delicious history stuff there to choose from. I was definitely in danger of going into fact and date overload. So instead, I decided to pick just five things I wouldn’t want to miss –  of course your choice might very well be entirely different, and if you’re a Gloucester Cathedral fan I hope you’ll take a moment to share what you’d have included too.

If after all this you’re left wanting to know more, I’ve added a selection of links at the end of this post to help you explore further. 

So kicking off, in no particular order…

  1. The tomb of King Edward II (it’s up on the left-hand side of the High Altar)

Buried beneath a rather splendid canopied shrine, with a lion at his feet and angels at his head, is the unfortunate King Edward II (died 1327), who history says was gruesomely murdered at Berkeley Castle with the wincingly unpleasant application of a red hot poker to his nether regions. (If you visit Berkeley Castle you can still see the room where his murder was said to have been committed and where it’s said you can hear his cries each year on the 21st of September, the anniversary of his death).

Over the course of his reign, Edward had managed to seriously annoy powerful factions at court through his friendships with first Piers Gaveston and later Hugh Despenser. Eventually this provoked Edward’s wife Queen Isabella and baron’s leader Roger Mortimer to revolt and in April 1327 Edward was forced to abdicate in favour of his teenage son who then became King Edward III, with Isabella and Mortimer effectively ruling in his name.

How exactly he really did meet his end isn’t known and a number of theories exist, including one which several historians believe, that he wasn’t murdered there at all, but instead was able, or enabled, to escape to the continent where he later met his son Edward III in Antwerp in 1338.

As it happened, things didn’t turn out too well for Isabella or Roger Mortimer either. Having rid themselves of Edward they went on to make many of the same mistakes and were themselves brutally removed from power just three years later when Edward III seized control from his mother and Mortimer. Isabella was allowed to retire to her castles (Castle Rising in Norfolk where she lived is a wonderful place to visit), but Mortimer was quickly executed, having been blamed for murdering Edward II.

Whatever the truth about Edward II’s death, Edward III went to some trouble to have his father remembered with this elaborate tomb, and the monks at Gloucester (which in those days was an abbey) did very well indeed from the numerous pilgrims who came to pray here. So well in fact that later in the 14th century it was possible for them to carry out the building of what must be some of the most beautiful English Perpendicular architecture in the country.

So in a way, whatever Edward’s fate, you could argue that he has left us a magnificent and poignant legacy in stone, albeit not of his design. I’m not sure that the face of the effigy is a likeness of the king, but to me it seems extremely melancholy and indeed I suppose he had much to regret.

But then I wonder if in some ways he didn’t have the last laugh, because whilst he has this magnificent shrine and still draws visitors nearly 700 years later, there is no trace remaining of the burial places of either his queen Isabella or Roger Mortimer. (Isabella had been buried in Christ Church Greyfriars, London, but that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, and the Wren church which replaced it was destroyed in the Blitz during WW2. Roger poor chap was probably buried in Wigmore Abbey amongst his Mortimer family, only ruins now remain there).

2. The effigy of Robert Curthose – Duke of Normandy.

As if one awkward royal wasn’t enough, Gloucester Cathedral can boast another. Across the aisle from Edward II, you’ll find the effigy of another wayward chap, Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror. Why you might wonder wasn’t he a king of England if he was the eldest son, but according to history, Robert and his father had some major fallings-out (this seems to be a recurring theme with medieval monarchs), and so William divided his lands in England and Normandy between Robert and his younger brother William, Robert getting Normandy and William inheriting England (and becoming William Rufus).

Things didn’t exactly run smoothly between them (Robert sounds like a bit of a lad one way or another) and when William died without an heir, it was their youngest brother Henry who seized the throne, despite Robert’s attempts to take it for himself. Not long after, Robert was imprisoned by Henry and spent the rest of his long life a prisoner in Cardiff Castle. He died in 1134 aged 83 and is buried in the cathedral.

But the reason for telling you this is just to set the scene, because what I love is Robert’s effigy itself and the curious position he’s lying in.

It’s made from bogwood and dates to about 100 years after his death. And here’s the mystery – what exactly is he doing with his leg and his arm? He looks as if he’s doing some kind or yoga pose. It’s probable that originally he was holding something, but nobody seems to know what that was. As a result he remains stuck in this peculiar stance for all time.

3. The Cloisters.

Now the cloisters at Gloucester are without doubt simply magnificent, the sheer beauty of the vaulting, the windows and the disappearing vanishing points are breathtaking. Thinking about it, this is the one thing I really wouldn’t miss, and where I’d go if I could only see one thing there. But there’s another reason why they’re so popular and why I bet they get many visitors and it’s because they were used as a set for parts of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.

I found a charming home video on YouTube of a visit to the film locations with a Cathedral guide pointing out the precise spots – it’s cute if you’re into that sort of thing have a look.

Harry and Ron were not the only stars to film in the cathedral. A ‘Dr Who Christmas special’ episode (while David Tennant was playing the Doctor) was filmed here, as was an episode of ‘Sherlock’ (filmed in the crypt) and scenes from The Hollow Crown and Wolf Hall were both filmed here (and incidentally they’re two of my absolute favourite programmes – what did you think?)

4. The Stained Glass Windows.

A visit to Gloucester isn’t all kings and wizards though. One thing you can’t miss is the simply mind-blowing stained glass, including the extraordinary East Window which is bigger than a tennis court and certainly makes your neck ache if you stand looking up at it.

All the windows are stunning, but I’ll be honest and say that for me the most beautiful of all aren’t the massive ones, but instead I’m a fan girl for Tom Denny’s stained glass windows in the Lady Chapel commemorating the Gloucestershire poet and composers Ivor Gurney and Gerald Finzi.

Sadly there’s no access to them at the moment as restoration work is being carried out in the Lady Chapel (2017), but they are jewels in the cathedral’s crown and I can’t wait to go back and see them again. If you aren’t familiar with Tom Denny’s work, he has other work in the area, including at Hereford Cathedral and Malvern Priory (and I’m still hoping to make a pilgrimage around them myself before too long).

5. The secret Whispering Gallery…

If it’s open, pay £2 and walk up to the Whispering Gallery (you’ll see signs). It’s one of those lovely acoustic quirks that means someone standing at one side will be able to ‘whisper’ to someone on the other side and be heard over there. Don’t be shy, try it! Oh and the added bonus is getting probably the best view of the East Window.

So there you have this history-junkie’s ‘five not to be missed’. Of course it’s impossible to condense such a splendid place into a handful of highlights, your’s will almost certainly be different (please do share your own highlights too).

Oh and one more thing – if you wander around to the side of the cathedral, there’s a superb cafe with excellent food, free WiFi and (ahem) the necessary facilities. I love it when there’s somewhere comfortable to get a good coffee while I read a guidebook and make my notes.

Want to know more?

What have I missed that you’d have liked to know about? Do tell, I’d love to hear.