First posted on the anniversary of the birth of Henry II, 1133, the first Plantagenet king of England, who enabled the building of Berkeley Castle, a major defence of the West of England, thus setting Robert Fitzhardinge, a good burgher of Bristol, and his descendants, on the road to status and fortune.
“They shall never get the marriage chain around my neck!” swore Frederick Augustus, 5th Earl of Berkeley, echoing the sentiments of his boon companion, the Prince of Wales.
Not even for the sake of a venerable posterity did he mean to sacrifice the bachelor freedom he’d cherished for the better part of two score years. Fred preferred not to tax his brain at all with speculation upon the future, but to abandon himself, with a sublime singleness of heart, to the pursuit of pleasure. His days were spent hunting stag and fox, or trying to recoup a dwindling fortune in the Clubs of St. James’s, and his nights in hunting daughters of the demi-monde and other fair damsels reckless enough to cross his path. Upon the violincello, he displayed a rare talent, which he seldom indulged save in the most dilettante fashion, scraping away with the best of them in the band of the South Gloucestershire Militia of which he was Colonel-in-Chief.
His pedigree was as impressive as that of his illustrious friend and boasted a long line of nobles who lived hand-in-glove with the Throne, so it was as natural as breathing that he should discover in its latest scion a mind that was gratifyingly in tune with his own.
He was fond of relating how he was twenty-first in descent from Harding the Dane, a fierce Viking raider, come over with Swein Forkbeard, who fell on the south-western shores of England and subdued its inhabitants long before the time of the Norman Conqueror. Canute, Swein’s son, might have failed to stem tides (that was reputed to have taken place on Berkeley’s own estate at Bosham in Sussex!) but the seed of Harding was to prove a power in the land. Over a century later, Robert Fitzhardinge, a shrewd merchant of Bristol and Mayor of the town, sought the favour of his monarch, the red-maned little firebrand, Henry II, by lending him vast sums of money. The Royal Treasury was emptying faster than revenues could fill it after the domestic strife of the usurper, Stephen’s, reign. He had made promiscuous gifts of land to his followers and Henry’s first mission was to summon his council and rampage through the country forcing the new barons to surrender their tenure and all domains rightfully belonging to the Crown. This done, he turned to reward his own votaries. Not least among them was the prudent Robert who was granted lands in the verdant vale of Berkeley and a charter to build the castle of his choosing.
A crude fortress rose, complete with motte and bailey, high above the loamy banks of the Severn, rough-hewn in appearance, as though it had sprung from living rock. It was built of spice-pink sandstone and slate-grey tufa that merged into an eerie lavender at twilight when wraithlike mists stole up from the river. The marauding Welsh and Norse and French would think twice before laying siege to the place, especially when the water-meadows below its terraces could be flooded at will by a cunning system of sluices. They were lords of all they surveyed, the progeny of the good Squire of Bristol. They became Barons by Tenure for eleven generations and, thereafter, Barons by Writ, taking their name from the Vale of their provenance. If they suffered reverses, they were apt to come up smiling before long. ‘The mercy of the Almighty,’ it was said by one diarist of their fortunes, ‘takes this family by the chin and keeps the head from drowning.’
It was George, the 9th Baron, who pleased that merry monarch, Charles II, and was rewarded with an earldom and a secondary title, Viscount Dursley. It seemed he could do no wrong for when James II succeeded his father, George was given the Lord-Lieutenancy of Gloucester and membership of the Privy Council. Despite that, the crafty fellow turned coat when his sovereign’s star was in decline and vowed allegiance to William of Orange should the doughty Dutchman cross the sea and claim the Throne of England. George’s conveniently malleable conscience saw him restored to the Privy Council and he died in 1698 bequeathing Charles, his son, an array of laurels and a foothold to gain even more.
James the 3rd Earl, distinguished himself by becoming First Lord of the Admiralty and the fact that he was in cahoots with George I was indicated by the audacity of a hare-brained scheme to kidnap the Prince of Wales and transport him to America when the lad was an acute embarrassment to his father. The plan was not adopted but was discovered among the King’s papers after his death. Needless to say, this Lord Berkeley could not expect to prosper further under George II!
The 4th Earl was Augustus, Colonel of a Regiment which advanced on the Jacobites in the ’45 Rising but never engaged them. He was a liverish fellow who imagined himself at death’s door from one ailment and another and his early demise, when Fred was only ten, was ascribed to the use of quack medicines.
Assuming his father’s honours at so tender an age did nothing to deflate Fred’s self-importance. In contrast to his parent, he was known to be physically brave and early on learnt the knack of placing himself in dangerous situations to gain attention. He ran rings round his mother who packed him off to Turin Academy when they despaired of him at Eton, but that did not answer, for he became a libertine and a gambler whom no prospective Mama-in-law dare allow across her threshold. A Maid of Honour to the late Augusta, Princess of Wales, his mother had been pretty Miss Drax whose own charms had never been solely reserved for her husband. It was not to be wondered at that Fred should shun the matrimonial yoke and strike out on his own.
But Fred was proud of his heritage, though he took it for granted and did not bestir himself to assume the role of curator. He never paused to consider what his stewards and bailiffs might be doing behind his back, or to listen to the plaintive voice of his tenantry whose hovels were in dire need of repair.
Fred’s life was a rollicking round of gaiety and devil take the sobersides who reminded him of his duties!