Early History. A.D. 45 to 1154.
The rude forefathers of the hamlet .....
- Gray's Elegy.
AT the earliest period of which we have any authentic information, -- that of the second Roman invasion of Britain, -- the Vale of Berkeley was for the most part a thickly wooded tract extending from the Bristol Avon northwards as far as or beyond Berkeley; the lower lands near the Severn were frequently overflowed by the tides, and must have been a morass; the woods of the higher and drier regions afforded acorns and other food for the herds of swine kept by the inhabitants, while the more open tracts furnished pasturage for their cattle. A specimen of the general aspect of the country at this time may still be seen in Michael-wood, Hill Woods, and the Lower Woods near Hawkesbury, which are, no doubt, remnants of the primeval forest which in early ages covered the Vale district of Gloucestershire.
The inhabitants of this region were a British tribe called the Dobuni; a name derived from an ancient British word signifying a valley or low place, their dwellings being for the most part in the valleys of the districts. They were a race of a more quiet and peaceable disposition than many other of the native tribes, and were consequently much harassed by the incursions of their more warlike neighbours, the Cattieuchlani on their eastern frontier, and the Silures who inhabited the country on the western side of the Severn. The Romans who under Aulus Plautius, a general of the Emperor Claudius, first penetrated into these parts about A.D. 45, soon overcame, and then made a treaty with, the Dobuni, by which, in return for their submission, Aulus Plautius undertook to protect them from their troublesome neighbours; the more effectually to do this he planted garrisons among them; and, subsequently, Ostorius Scapula a general who succeeded Plautius, built a chain of fortified posts or camps from the Avon to the Severn, which have been supposed to be those at Old Sodbury, Uley-bury, Painswick, Bredon Hill, and some others, the remains of which are still visible along the brow of the Cotswold Hills, overlooking the Vale.
The Dobuni being thus favourably disposed to, and allied with, the Romans, the latter rapidly settled in and colonized the province; they placed colonies in Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath, and they also appear to have settled thickly in many other parts, and to have gradually mixed with, and lived amongst the Britons, who were no doubt much civilized and benefited by the contact with their conquerors. Remains of Roman villas, camps, and other erections, are scattered thickly all over the County, and it has been said that no other part of England is so rich in Roman antiquities, there being scarcely a parish in which coins or remains of some kind have not been found.
There is no doubt that the Romans had a station or settlement of some kind at Berkeley; most probably at first a fortified camp or military post to secure the passage across the Severn to Aylberton near Lydney, where they had an important station; round this the natives would naturally gather, and thus in time a town would be formed. Coins, tiles or bricks, sculptured stones, and other relics of undoubted Roman origin have been found; the form of the town, four streets meeting in a centre or forum, is adduced by Fosbroke as evidence of its Roman origin. A branch of the Roman road called the Acman-street has been traced from Cirencester in this direction as far as Symondshall, and there are good reasons for believing that it passed through Berkeley to the Severn, communicating by means of a Passage or Ferry with the settlement at Aylberton near Lydney. At Ryham Field near Newport an interesting relic of the latter period of the Roman occupation of the country exists, in an ancient cemetery or burial ground, where human skeletons are often found regularly interred, together with pieces of pottery, Roman coins, and bones of horses, shewing a mixture of Roman and British customs.
After the withdrawal of the Romans in the fourth century, a long period of anarchy and bloodshed followed, during which the Island was overrun by the Saxons and the Danes, who settled in and occupied the country, driving the original inhabitants to, the more inaccessible parts of Wales, Devon and Cornwall. In the reign of Edward the Confessor we find the earliest mention of Berkeley in the celebrated legend of the Witch of Berkeley, which Southey has made the subject of a well known ballad. The following is the Legend taken from the Polichronicon of Reinulph of Chester
About that time a certaine woman in Berkeley accustomed to evil arts, when as upon a certaine day shee kept a feast, a Chough which shee used delicately to feede cackled more loud and distinctly than shee was wont to doe, which when shee heard, the knife fell out of her hand, her countenance waxed pale, and havinge fetched a deepe groane, with a sigh said, 'nowe this day is the plowe come to my last furrowe;' which beinge said, a messenger cominge in, declared to her the death of her Sonne, and of all her Family exposed to present ruine; The woman presently laye downe and called to her such of her other children as were Monkes and a Nunne, who cominge shee thus spake unto them; 'I a wicked follower of an evil art and worse life vainly thought to have beene defended by your praiers, nowe I desire to be eased by you of my torments, because judgement is given against my soul, but peradventure you may keepe my body if it bee fast sewed in a stag's skin; make yee for mee a chest of stone, fast bound and cemented with iron and lead, settinge the same upright, and also bound about with three iron chaines; use singers of Psalmes for forty nights, and pay for soe many Masses by daies; and if I shall soe lie for three nights, on the fourth day bury my body in the ground; But all was in vaine, for in the two first nights which the psalmes were in soundinge, the Divells havinge easily broken the doores, as lightly brake the two utmost iron chaines; and on the third night about cock-crowinge, the place shakinge, one with a terrible countenance and of a mighty tall stature, havinge broken open the cover of the chest commanded the dead body to arise, who answeringe that shee could not by reason of the bonds; bee thou loosed quoth hee, but to thy woe; and presently all the barres being broken, hee draweth her out of the Church, and setteth her upon a blacke horse, neighinge before the doore, aud soe went away with loud soundinge cries heard four miles of."
At this period the site of the Castle was occupied by the buildings of a wealthy Nunnery, which was endowed with the greater part, if not the whole, of the manors now forming the Hundred or great Manor of Berkeley. About the year 1043, the celebrated Earl Godwin, having cast a covetous eye on the rich possessions of the Nunnery, contrived its suppression by an artifice which is recorded in the county Histories, and then procured from the King a grant of its confiscated estates to himself. He did not however long enjoy his ill-gotten wealth; a few years afterwards he fell into disgrace and fled to the continent, and the whole of his possessions were confiscated; he returned however in the next year and regained to some extent his power and influence, but died within the year [A.D. 1053.] There is a tradition that the great Saxon Earl was accustomed to take his morning draught of wine daily from an antique silver cup which is still preserved at the castle, and that on his once omitting the custom from some cause, a sudden irruption of the sea swallowed up a large portion of his estates in Kent, now known as the Goodwin Sands, so much dreaded by mariners.
Berkeley seems to have been retained by the King, Edward the Confessor, and was by him granted at a fee farm rent, equal to £500 17s. 2d. of modern money, to Roger the Lord of Dursley, who was of an old Saxon family said to be allied in blood to the King. At the conquest Roger was permitted by the Norman king to continue to hold Berkeley as before, and it remained in the possession of his son and grandson down to the latter part of the reign of Stephen. From their tenure of the Royal Manor of Berkeley, by far the greater part of their possessions, this family assumed or were known by the name of De Berkeley, which continued to be their patronymic for many generations, until the male line became extinct in 1382. It is necessary to distinguish between these De Berkeleys and the descendants of, Robert the son of Harding the Dane, who afterwards assumed the same name, but who did not possess Berkeley till the beginning of the reign of Henry II.
During the contentions for the Crown between Stephen and the Empress Maud and her son (afterwards Henry II.) Roger de Berkeley the grandson, the Lord of Dursley, as a crown Vassal, of course supported his sovereign; but on the accession of Henry to the throne he was punished for his fidelity by being deprived of Berkeley, which the King bestowed upon Robert the son of Harding, who had been one of the principal adherents of the Empress his mother. This Robert, commonly called Robert Fitz-Harding, was the founder and direct ancestor of the present noble family of Berkeley, and the Manor has continued in the possession of his descendants, (with the exception of one short alienation,) down to the present time. His father, Harding, was a Dane of royal descent, who had come over in the train of William the Conqueror, and was by him rewarded with large possessions in and around Bristol, where he resided. By the same deed by which King Henry granted to Robert the great Manor of Berkeley, (and which is still preserved at the Castle,) he covenants to build for Robert a Castle there, and to see this engagement performed the King came to Berkeley in 1154, and the building was then actually commenced.
The history of Berkeley and its Lords is henceforth a portion, and no unimportant one, of the History of England, there being scarcely a transaction in the civil or military annals of the kingdom in which they are not mixed up.