Berkeley Castle: A ‘Murderous’ Prison Cell

Last week I was fortunate enough to have been granted special permission by Lord and Lady Berkeley to visit their magnificent home, Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, which is closed to the public during winter. Berkeley has a rich heritage and is perhaps most infamous for the traditional tale of the murder of Edward II, held captive there from April until September 1327.

Whether you believe Edward II was murdered or not, one fact remains beyond dispute. For the summer of 1327 he was held in captivity at Berkeley castle under the watchful eyes of John Maltravers and Thomas Gurney, having left the custody of his cousin Henry of Lancaster at Kenilworth Castle that April. Thomas, Lord Berkeley, who owned the castle was not in residence during the king’s incarceration. The recorded part of the castle in which Edward was kept is now known as ‘Edward’s Cell’. I was given special access into this small room which is closed off to the public and whom can only view it through a small grill in one the walls. It was quite a special moment for me, having been researching Edward II for the best part of twenty years.

During my visit I captured many photographs and a panoramic video, and with the kind permission of the Berkeley family, are able to use them on my site. Below is a brief gallery charting my visit. (Please note all digital images are subject to copyright exerted by the author)

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Berkeley Castle basking in ‘rare’ January sunlight

Berkeley castle remains a mighty fortress. A much earlier settlement had been on this site since the time of Edward the Confessor (r.1042-66), and a castle in some form appeared after the Norman Conquest. Yet the Berkeley family, as they were to become known under the head of the family Robert FitzHarding, secured the castle and its lands from a grateful Henry II when Henry laid claim to the English throne towards the end of the cousin’s war between King Stephen and his mother, the Empress Matilda who held sway in the region. The FitzHardings, who became the lords of Berkeley, expanded the castle over time. The shell keep dates to before their time to 1117, but much of what we see today is their work, and there are many thirteenth and fourteenth century features. Although slighted following the the English Civil War of the seventeenth century, it was only marginally damaged.

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The Inner Bailey

The inner bailey and keep are part of the strongest and oldest elements of the castle. Attached to the twelfth century keep, you can make out the small gate keeper’s tower, with three small windows on the upper level and a large door below (Centre of the image above). The windows mark out the room that was used as Edward II’s cell in 1327. The entrance into the cell today is narrow and perched at the top of the stairs near the main door into the keep itself. Getting in and out of it requires a good deal of effort if you wanted to escape or rescue a prisoner. To hold a king captive, it was initially thought positively ideal.

The cell is a very small room and once inside feels like the heart of the castle. It was certainly a good location for holding a royal prisoner, although Edward II himself did escape on numerous occasions, only to be caught and subsequently reincarcerated. Each time he never got far. Locks and bolts were ordered to strengthen the door after his various and well aided escape attempts. Despite his deposition, there were many still loyal to the king and sought to bring him back to power.

The dimensions of the room may have been altered in the last seven hundred years, as along the wall opposite the windows next to the bed, there remains part of a former substantial stone doorframe complete with iron hinges. Furthermore, the arch crossing the window grill that looks into the keep and a room called ‘The King’s Chamber’ itself looks like a slightly later addition as the two do not sit comfortably together (see images above). The stone work around the room is however generally of the period. It may be that the cell was in fact approximately one third smaller when Edward was there, with an additional door exiting into the main keep at this level may therefore have been originally in situ.

In the King’s Chamber, next to Edward’s Cell, is a 28 foot shaft or pit used as a medieval dungeon. It was common practice to fill it with rotting animal carcasses with the subsequent noxious fumes said to be enough to kill off its victims either in the pit itself or in the adjacent room. These pit prisons were popular in medieval England, and I saw another one recently at Caerlaverock castle in Scotland only last week. The king was to high status, even after his deposition to find himself thrown into a pit prison, but the location of his cell immediately next door is telling. If this was a practice used during Edward’s incarceration it did not have the desired effect. The king had a famously robust constitution and did not succumb to such treatment, if it was even meted out at all.

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The bottom of a C13th ‘Pit Prison’ at Caerlaverock Castle with later window additions for rooms assembled in the upper floors of the tower.

The furniture inside the cell is a much later addition, apparently Victorian, although there is a beautiful medieval Book of Hours kept on the table next to a rather theatrical skull. It’s all very Christopher Marlowe. I forgot to ask if it is in fact real! Clearly, not Edward’s though.

To help give you a brief sense of the space, below is a very short panorama by video.

The outcome of Edward’s captivity at Berkeley is open to much interpretation and debate which is the subject of earlier and future blog posts here as well in a few of the later chapters in my up and coming book, ‘Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance’. The debate about ‘murder v survival’ will rage for decades to come I am sure, or unless one of us finds a magic silver bullet, or should that be an arrow head or crossbow bolt?!

Either way, from 21 September 1327, Edward II himself played no further part in English politics. His legacy however was more far reaching. Edward’s tomb at Gloucester is only a relatively short hop up the modern M5 from Berkeley castle and bears witness to the end of a tragic chapter in our nation’s history.

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Notes

Berkeley Castle Guidebook (Heritage House Group, 2007)

Images

All images (photographic and video) are the author’s who exert strict copyright over them.

 

Facebook: Fourteenthcenturyfiend

Twitter: @SpinksStephen


4 thoughts on “Berkeley Castle: A ‘Murderous’ Prison Cell

  1. This was so interesting!! I’m looking forward to any and all posts that you have! The video was wonderful! How lucky to be able to tour this wonderful castle!

    Liked by 1 person

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