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Horror & Laughter at Berkeley Castle

Berkeley Castle stands south west of the city of Gloucester looking out across the Severn estuary. It has been lived in by the Berkeley family almost constantly from the 1200s to today, making it the oldest castle continuously owned and inhabited by the same family.

The castle has seen some dramatic episodes in history but is probably most well known for being the place where Edward II was killed – hideously, if any of the old accounts are true. The “gentle son” of the fierce Edward “Longshanks” I, he married Isabella of France when she was barely into her teens, producing an heir despite his apparent sexuality but when his queen began an affair with Roger Mortimer – his end began. Isabella invaded England with an army raised in joint venture with Mortimer which rampaged through the country, seizing Edward when his guards deserted him. The hapless monarch was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle and despite escaping once, he was to die there after a long and wretched imprisonment.

His cell, situated today near the main gate, was directly above a foul refuse pit where the combined waste from the castle toilets, kitchens and slaughterhouse was dumped, and this is where the legends begin. It was said that a giant toad squatted in the pit, slowly devouring anything and anyone that was dropped in, it's huge mouth always open. The monster belched forth poisonous gasses and was so big and fat it was wedged completely in it's confines, unable to turn. Edward was thrown into the cell above the toad, a grisly fate inevitable. In reality, it is thought that he was locked above the pit so that the various bacteria and germs from it would slowly kill him, and medical opinion of the time believed that the smells themselves were deadly.

His constitution was strong and Edward lived on despite the all but unbearable conditions, so a plot was hatched to finish the unfortunate king off. Lord Berkeley and his retinue wisely left the castle on business while the deposed king was left with a small crew of jailers tasked with his death. Many sources say that they burst into his cell and squashed Edward between two mattresses, before introducing a horn inside his body – and not through his mouth or ears – through which they pushed a red hot iron poker up into his internal organs. The screams from the agonised king were said to have been heard right across the small town and folklore claims that his tormented cries are still heard today. He is entombed in Gloucester Cathedral. For what it's worth, Roger Mortimer was hanged and left on the gibbet for a week in 1330.

Legend claimed that the castle was cursed before it was even built, as Godwine, father of King Harold Godwinson, somehow took possession of an Anglo Saxon abbey and convent on the site and it was said that he had the nuns all slaughtered, their bodies taken to the Severn and thrown in. An ornate gold chalice is on display inside the castle known as Godwine's Chalice, and it was said this was made for him in celebration!

The castle was besieged during the Civil War by a Parliament force, they destroyed one castle wall after actually hauling a couple of cannons up onto the neighbouring church roof to get clear shots. The Berkeley family were allowed to remain living in the castle after surrender on condition they never repair the wall, and this law is amazingly still in legal force today – a low “garden wall” is there just to stop tourists from falling down the bank below. A century later Lord Berkeley thought history might repeat itself when the Jacobite Rebellion began so he actually had the church roof demolished so he could have a clear field of view to fire his cannon in defence against marauding Scots. The church tower was rebuilt 300 feet away across the graveyard, one of only a few detached bell towers in the Midlands.

The graveyard of St Mary has many grand and impressive tombs, the Berkeleys having taken all the space inside, in fact this is the largest “collection” of table-top tombs in the country, but one in particular is of curious interest to us. This is the ornate last resting place of Dicky Pearce – the last court jester in Britain. Minstrels in the medieval era had to be professional enough but the jester really had his work cut out, having to be a jack of all the entertainment trades. Acrobatics, singing, dancing, telling jokes, recounting funny stories, the art of illusion and magic tricks, close up sleight of hand tricks, elaborate stunts – the list goes on of the skills a jester needed to excel at to keep his job. During and after the civil war the role of the jester in England abruptly ceased but upon the Restoration it became the fashion to revive the lost medieval concept of the jester, and Dicky Pearce was one of the best and last of a dying breed. When work dried up as the fashion for jesters faded, Dicky went into full time service as the fool of Henry Howard, the 11th Earl of Suffolk, but very often gave performances for Lord Berkeley at the castle. It was here that he met his end, doing what he loved. During an energetic show up on the minstrel's gallery, the 63 year old fool hit the balustrade hard and went right over, plummeting to the floor where he died. Some say he was pushed deliberately after taking the banter too far and insulting one of Berkeley's hot headed guests, but we will never know. Lord Berkeley paid for a fitting tribute to his favourite foll, roping in Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver's Travels, to write the epitaph on his table-top tomb.

Berkeley Castle is currently closed, not even the exterior is open to the public as members of the old family are shielding within but when that changes I have no hesitation in recommending a visit to this incredible pile of strange, odd, and tragic history and legend.

Berkeley Castle exterior

The tomb of Dicky Pearce the last court jester

The tomb of Dicky Pearse the fool.

Here lies the Earl of Suffolks fool

Men called him Dicky Pearse

His folly served to make folks laugh

When wit and mirth were scarce

Poor Dick alas! Is dead and gone

What signifies to cry!

Dicky's enough are still behind

To laugh at by and by

The reverse side says:

My Lord that's gone himself made much of him

The detached church tower

The towerless church of St.Mary

The gateway to Berkeley Castle

Berkeley Castle, brooding over the Severn estuary

The minstrel gallery inside the castle where Dick Pearse met his end

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