Berkeley (St. Mary)

BERKELEY (St. Mary), a market-town and parish, in the union of Thornbury, Upper division of the hundred of Berkeley, W. division of the county of Gloucester, 17 miles (S. W.) from Gloucester, 19 (N. E.) from Bristol, and 114 (W. by N.) from London; comprising the tythings of Alkington, Breadstone, Ham, Hamfallow, and Hinton, and the chapelry of Stone; and containing 4405 inhabitants. This place, according to Sir Robert Atkyns, the historian of Gloucestershire, derives its name from the Saxon Beorc, a birch-tree, and Leas, a pasture; whence it has been inferred that the parish was formerly remarkable for the growth of birch-trees. From the fertility of the soil, and its contiguity to the river Severn, it was always a place of considerable importance; and at a very early period it gave name to the great manor of Berkeley, which during the heptarchy was held of the crown, at £500. 17. 2. per annum, by Roger de Berkeley, a near relative of Edward the Confessor, and lord of Dursley, from whom the earliest authentic pedigree of the Berkeley family is deduced. Berkeley, notwithstanding the residence of the oldest branches of the family in their castle at Dursley, was a market-town; and had a nunnery endowed with the large manor. The time of the foundation of this establishment, and the name of the founder, are not known; but its suppression, prior to the Conquest, was effected by the perfidious avarice of Earl Godwin, who, in order to obtain its ample revenues, introduced his nephew into the convent for the purpose of seducing the sisterhood, and, on the accomplishment of the design, artfully reporting to his sovereign the state of the establishment, procured its dissolution, and was rewarded for his treachery with a grant of its lands. A few years afterwards, William the Conqueror, professing high regard for all the relatives of Edward the Confessor, granted the manor of Berkeley to Roger Berkeley, of Dursley, by whose descendants it was held till the reign of Henry II., when, refusing to pay the feefarm rent, and also taking part with Stephen, they were dispossessed by the former monarch, who bestowed the manor upon Robert Fitzhardinge, the descendant of a younger son of the king of Denmark, and at that time mayor of Bristol, who, being a man of great wealth, materially assisted Henry in his contest with Stephen. Fitz-Hardinge, however, was so greatly annoyed in his new possession by the Berkeleys of Dursley, that Henry II. interfered to make peace, which he ultimately effected by arranging a marriage between Maurice, son of Robert Fitz-Hardinge, and the daughter of Roger de Berkeley, upon which the former assumed the name of Berkeley. From this union descended the present family of Berkeley; the male issue of the Berkeleys of Dursley became extinct in 1382.

The castle, erected during this reign, at the southeast end of the town, out of the ruins of the ancient nunnery, was considerably enlarged by successive proprietors in the reigns of Edward II. and III., and became one of the principal baronial seats in the kingdom. It has been connected with many transactions of intense political interest, and in the reign of John was one of the places of rendezvous for the confederate barons, who extorted from that monarch the grant of Magna Charta. Edward II. after his deposition was detained a prisoner in the castle under the alternate custody of Lords Berkeley, Montravers, and Gournay; and, during the illness of the first, by whom he had always been treated with kindness and humanity, was barbarously murdered by the two latter: the room and bed in which the murder was perpetrated are still shown to persons visiting the castle. During the reigns of Henry VI. and Edward IV. the town suffered materially from the attacks of the Earl of Warwick, who, in right of his wife, laid claim to the castle, of which he endeavoured to obtain possession by force; and in the civil war of the 17th century, being garrisoned for the king, it was besieged by the parliamentarians, to whom, after a vigorous resistance of nine days, it was compelled to surrender. The castle and estates are now the property of Earl Fitz-Hardinge, to whom they were devised by his father, the late Earl of Berkeley. The castle occupies a site nearly circular in form. The entrance from the outer into the inner court is through a massive arched portal, on the left of which is the keep, a fine specimen of Norman military architecture, containing the dungeon chamber, without either window or chimney, in which Edward II. was confined; in the floor is an opening to the dungeon, which is twenty-eight feet deep. The great hall was built in the reign of Edward III.

The town is situated on a gentle eminence in the beautiful vale of Berkeley, at the distance of two miles from the river Severn, the tides of which, flowing up the Berkeley Avon, render it navigable to the town for vessels of forty or fifty tons' burthen. At present, the place consists only of two streets irregularly built, the principal of which is well paved and contains a few good houses: the surrounding scenery is pleasing; and the ancient castle, which has been partly modernised as the residence of Earl Fitz-Hardinge, forms an interesting feature in the landscape. The trade is principally in coal, which is brought from the Forest of Dean, by the rivers Severn and Avon, for the supply of the neighbourhood. The Berkeley and Gloucester ship canal joins the Severn at Sharpness Point, in the parish, at the distance of two miles from the town, where are the harbour and entrance locks, esteemed one of the finest pieces of masonry in the kingdom; the canal, for nearly a mile, is separated from the rapid flow of the Severn only by a high and massive wall. The Gloucester and Bristol railway passes near the town, on the east, where a station is fixed. The parish is the largest in the county, being twenty-seven miles in circumference, and comprising about 14,000 acres; it contains some fine pasture, and there are extensive dairies, from which is produced the celebrated Berkeley cheese: an act for inclosing the waste lands, was passed in 1839. The market, which is inconsiderable, is on Tuesday; and fairs are held on May 14th and Dec. 1st.: a handsome market-house was erected in 1825. The corporation still exists, by prescription, but has scarcely any municipal functions; it consists of a mayor and twelve aldermen, who appoint a serjeant-atmace, constables, and other officers. The county magistrates hold a petty-session every alternate Tuesday.

The living is a vicarage, valued in the king's books at £32. 15. 7½.; patron, Earl Fitz-Hardinge; appropriators, the Dean and Chapter of Bristol. The great tithes have been commuted for £985. 10., and the vicarial for £749. 10.; there are 7 acres of glebe annexed to the vicarage, and one acre belonging to the Dean and Chapter. The church is a spacious structure, partly in the later Norman and partly in the early English style, and though greatly altered, still retains some portion of its original character; the tower, which is detached, has been rebuilt within the last century. There is a place of worship for Wesleyans. The free school was founded in 1696, by Samuel Turner, who endowed it with land producing a rental of £38: which endowment was augmented with lands purchased with money given by Mr. John Smith and the Countess of Berkeley, in 1717, and now let for £17 per annum. John Attwood, in 1626, bequeathed to the poor some land, which, together with three acres given by Thomas Machin in 1630, yields a rental of £40; and there are various other charitable benefactions. Edward Jenner, M.D. and F.R.S., who introduced the practice of vaccination, was born here in 1742; and his remains were deposited in the church.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.