Berkeley Castle rises on a low hill in sight of the Severn estuary. The castle is an appealing blend of Norman fortress and later medieval mansion, still remarkably un-spoilt despite its continuous occupation by an aristocratic family, who might have been expected to rebuild or drastically modernize it in more recent centuries.
The motte and bailey layout may go back to William Fitz Osbern, but the oldest masonry here is the unusual keep. If it dates from Henry II’s contract with Robert Fitz Harding, about 1155, then the three semi-circular projecting bastions are remarkably early, though the plinth and pilaster buttresses are consistent with that date.
One of the bastions contains a well chamber and another formed the apse of a chapel. The keep belongs to the shell keep type but its high wall actually encases the motte instead of rising from the summit. A feature taken from the tower keeps of the period, is the fore building. This is an afterthought, enclosing a narrow staircase that ascends to the keep entrance.
A deep breach in the keep wall, facing the outer bailey, is the only damage wrought by the Round-heads following a brief siege in 1645. The oblong Thorpe Tower beside it dates from the fourteenth century. The keep is infamous for the murder of Edward II by his jailers, Sir John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney, in 1327. According to tradition, the deed was done in the chamber above the fore-building. Edward had been sent to Berkely for safety following his abdication, but dethroned monarchs seldom remain alive for long.
The keep stood between two baileys. Only a restored gatehouse survives from the outer bailey but the inner is still intact. It is reached via a fourteenth century gateway flanked on one side by the keep and on the other side by a narrow, oblong tower.
Robert, Count of Mortain and Earl of Cornwall probably founded Berkhansted Castle. It was certainly held by him at the time of the Domesday survey. As William I’s half-brother, Robert did well for himself out of the Norman Conquest, but his son made the mistake of supporting Robert of Normandy against Henry I. As a result, the Crown confiscated the castle. During the twelfth century it was leased to certain individuals, including Thomas Becket.
The castle is a classic example of a motte and bailey stronghold, even if roads and railway have gnawed at its edges. The motte is tall and conical, and a double ditch surrounds the bailey with a rampart in between. Until the 1950s, the inner ditch remained full of water.
In front of the outer ditch, on the north and east sides, following the circumference of the motte, rises a strong rampart. It is probably a concentric defense provided by Richard of Cornwall, though it has been suggested that the earth bastions that project from it could have been raised as platforms for treuchets during the Dauphin Louis’ siege.
The shell keep, which crowned the motte, has vanished but there are remains of the walls that descended to join the bailey curtain. Considerable lengths of this flint curtain survive, especially on the east side. At least some of the masonry dates from the time when Thomas Becket occupied the castle, though the money came from Henry II’s executor.
Three semi-circular towers flanked the curtain, and if they date from Becket’s tenure they are remarkably early. Little more than foundations are left of the towers now. The stump of a large oblong structure on the west curtain is probably the tower built by Richard of Cornwall in 1254. Foundations show that the north end of the bailey was walled off to form a separate enclosure, in effect a barbican in front of the motte.