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Days out: who wore the trousers at Berkeley Castle?

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Think you’ve got Berkeley Castle’s story sussed? A provocative exhibition lifts the veil on who really had the upper hand, writes Simon Hacker.

All told, Berkeley Castle is a blokey kind of place. Soaked in the sweat of bloody battles, savage sword fights, grisly murders and boys being boys – usually at their worst. To visit this treasure on our doorsteps is to delight in tales of testosterone-driven beastliness, peer into the dark dungeons and generally thrill at all that armour-clad masculinity cutting and thrusting its way into the history books. 

Berkeley Castle and St Mary’s Church. Picture: Matt Bigwood.

How wrong we’ve been. As an exciting new exhibition now showing at the castle reveals, it may never really have been men who ruled the roost at Berkeley, a regional power base that helped shape the history of the nation. No, it was, of course, women who exercised a guiding hand, not just on the everyday practicalities of life within the castle but also the impact that Berkeley’s story would have on history.

Fittingly, Women of Berkeley Castle is the creation of visitor assistant Sarah Wordsworth, who is currently studying for an MA in Medieval Studies at the University of Bristol.

“I’ve worked here since 2017, and thought it would be interesting to bring to the fore stories about the often-forgotten women connected to the place,” said Sarah, who lives in Thornbury and has planned a walk-through, Covid-safe format to the show.

“Our most famous story, of course, is the imprisonment and grisly murder of King Edward II within its walls, in 1327. As a medievalist, I was fascinated to discover that King Edward II had, in fact, imprisoned Margaret, Lady Berkeley, earlier in his reign. This punishment was meted out because her father and husband had rebelled against the king. There was no evidence that Margaret had any involvement, but she remained in captivity for four years. When you put this into context, it goes some way to explaining why the Berkeleys were entrusted with imprisoning King Edward II!”

Although men inherited and owned Berkeley Castle, the exhibition reveals how it was customary for their wives to be responsible for running the household and estate – often saving the estate’s financial skin. 

“When Elizabeth Carey, a patron of the arts and translator of the classics, became the second wife of Sir Thomas Berkeley in 1596, she signed an agreement with her husband to ensure she would handle their financial affairs because he kept running up huge amounts of debts.” 

Berkeley Castle.

From that position of authority, Elizabeth cannily ensured an eventual inheritance that would not, as the law might have dictated to the detriment of her children. 

“The fifth earl of Berkeley even put his mistress in charge of the Berkeley estate in the late 1700s! Behind these patriarchal figures, women were working hard in the background to maintain both the castle and the estate to be passed on down the generations.”

A self-portrait also invites visitors to reflect upon the emotional fortitude provided between women in castle life. Anne Killigrew, who died in 1685 at just 25 from smallpox, was thought to have been a maid of honour to Mary of Modena, King James II and VII’s second wife. Killigrew was broadly acknowledged as a poet and painter, albeit not until after her death. Disdained artistically by the misogynist Alexander Pope (who believed women and any ‘trades people’ could not be poets) but praised by John Dryden as comparable to the ancient Greek protofeminist Sappho, Killigrew penned My Lady Berkeley as words of comfort to a mother ‘Afflicted upon her Son, My Lord Berkeley’s Early Engaging in the Sea-Service’.

“We found this beautiful poem in the private archives, addressed to Lady Berkeley,” Sarah explained. “Anne was a lady-in-waiting at the court of King Charles II and was a talented poet and painter, being one of Britain’s first female artists, although not many of her works survive. We are extremely lucky to have this self-portrait in our collection, which is on public display for the first time.”

The exhibition will also explore the roles of women in all walks of life, detailing the many struggles they faced in medieval society. “From the women servants toiling in the kitchens to the noble ladies they waited on, their stories tell of love, perseverance and determination and they illustrate that these women from another time were not so different to modern women today.”

That’s not to say, she adds, that the ground rules for women are comparable between then and now: “Women were instructed to obey and be subservient to their husbands; any property they owned became their husband’s. They hardly had any rights at all. They were also limited in employment, while the law, the church, politics and medicine were closed to women.”

Berkeley Castle.

Systems, however, have always been able to be exploited. As local schoolboys and girls should already know, in 1347 a certain Katharine de Clivedon took the Berkeley name and went on to found Katharine Lady Berkeley’s school, still going strong at Wotton-under-Edge. But after her husband Thomas de Berkeley’s death, Katharine, unusually for her time, evidently chose to remain a widow for 20 years. 

“She was one tenacious lady! The law protected a widow and offered her more financial independence than she might retain had she quickly remarried,” explained Sarah. Having amassed a substantial fortune, Katharine became known as a benefactor, even planning a pilgrimage overseas, though we don’t now know if she carried it out. The rest of her story though, is a legacy that continues today.

“I feel that Katherine’s spirit as a determined woman still casts a positive shadow today,” said Sarah. “Just in terms of our team at Berkeley Castle, our estate manager, visitor business manager and her team and the majority of our tour guides are all women!”

As the ultimate ‘take-home’ though, Sarah hopes visitors feel a sense of inspiration: “Despite the limitations placed on women by society throughout history, many found ways to circumvent or challenge those restrictions to achieve their own ends. These women emerge as assertive, brave and tenacious and that’s been particularly striking for me.”

This one-off exhibition includes a displayed textile recreation of the unusual reticulated head-dress which features on the the effigy of Katharine Lady Berkeley, as seen at her tomb in St Mary’s Church, close to the castle. Sadly, there are no plans for much of the exhibition to remain on display after this month’s show ends, though Sarah suggests more gems may be in the wings for future events. 

“We are hoping to create yearly historical exhibitions to be displayed. As the castle is nearly 900 years old, there is still a wealth of possibilities to explore – watch this space!”

For more information visit: berkeley-castle.com or call 01453 810303. Women of Berkeley Castle is free with standard admission and runs until June 30th.

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