A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

The Berkeley Family and the Roman Catholic Church

The Berkeley Family and the Roman Catholic Church

Richard Barton (1989)

An extended version of an article published in Journal 9 of the Gloucestershire and North Avon Catholic History Society

Recently, one of our members, Major John Berkeley, has restored the burial chapel or mausoleum attached to the Parish Church at Berkeley and he is surely to be congratulated for bringing to fruition this important conservation project.

Berkeley Burial Chapel to the right of the Chancel

Most of the Berkeleys buried in the chapel are not, in fact, his ancestors; however, he is descended from its builder, James, First Baron Berkeley (1394-1463). The chapel or sacellum is joined to the south wall of the chancel of the church and it was built in or about the year 1450. Sadly, the chapel is not accessible to visitors to the church as it is partitioned by a glass screen and the doorways are blocked up. In mediaeval times this surely served as a chantry of mortuary chapel where Masses would have been offered for the repose of the souls of members of the Berkeley Family.

The Reverend Thomas Dudley Fosebroke, a keen local historian, wrote of the chapel in 1821:

‘on the outside it is sumptuously embellished in the highest Gothic style: the arms and cognizances of the Family are fitted with ornaments of the frieze, which is peculiarly elegant and simple, consisting only of ducal leaves alternately large and small. The figure of St George subduing the dragon is affixed to one of the pinnacles.’

One of the other pinnacles, tradition affirms, is the Berkeley witch riding upon the devil.

The burial chapel consists of two chambers and one is open to the chancel with a fretted arch now containing the glass partition. There is a small priest’s doorway with an elaborate ogee crocketted arch with the Berkeley coat-of-arms held by angels immediately over it.

One of the chapel’s chief features is the alabaster altar tomb, situated in the archway into the chancel of the church. It includes the recumbent effigies of Baron James (1394-1463), the chapel’s builder, and his second son, James. David Verey described the tomb in his volume of ‘Buildings of England’:

‘Alabaster recumbent effigies resting on an alabaster tomb-chest under a freestone canopy between the chancel and the Berkeley Chapel.  The difference in their ages is indicated by the different sizes of the effigies; both are in armour with Yorkist collars of alternate suns and roses, and both heads rest on tilting helmets. Tomb-chest adorned with a row of canopied niches containing figures of saints, and panels with quatrefoils. The south side reaches to a lower level and has two rows of ogee-shaped canopies separated by pinnacles. The canopy above the tomb on the south side has thirteen canopied niches without figures, divided by decorated pinnacles starting directly from the arch, which has diamond-shaped vaulting.’

Baron James’s other sons included William, the second Baron and first Marquis, Earl Nottingham and Earl Marshall of England; Maurice, third Baron from whom is descended the Earls of Berkeley and Thomas, the fourth son, from whom John Berkeley is descended.

Turning first to the Berkeleys of Berkeley Castle and their involvement with the Roman Catholic Church, we begin with two of the sons of the Fifth Earl. The Hon. Craven Berkeley (1805-1855), brother of Earl Fitzhardinge, was Liberal Member of Parliament for Cheltenham from 1832-1848 and again from 1852-1855. Craven Berkeley had a personal grievance against the Catholic Church.  In 1839 he married the Hon Mrs Augusta Talbot (1813-1841), widow of the Hon George Henry Talbot, brother of the Earl of Shrewsbury.  The Talbots were a Catholic family and George Talbot had arranged for an influential priest, Dr Doyle of Southwark, to be guardian of his daughter Augusta.  Dr Doyle placed Augusta temporarily in the care of the Franciscan nuns at Taunton as her step-father, Craven Berkeley, had wished to gain control of her affairs and remove her from Catholic influence.  The case went to Chancery in the full glow of publicity and whilst Dr Doyle won the case the Hon Craven Berkeley won the hearts of the Protestant anti-Popery movement and he was regarded as something of a hero in Cheltenham. Augusta married a son of the thirteenth Duke of Norfolk.

Craven’s brother, the Hon Grantley Berkeley (1800-1881), the Member of Parliament for West Gloucestershire, from 1832 to 1852, also opposed the Catholic cause.  His wife, Caroline Martha (1804–1873), was a daughter of Paul Benfield, a banker in the East Indies and then a government loan contractor.  He profited from slavery and invested some of his East India wealth into the Bogue estate in Jamaica alongside Alderman Richard Atkinson (q.v.) c. 1780, and also owned the ‘Benfield estates’ in Berbice, which included at one time Edinburgh, Glasgow, Welgelegen, Herstelling, New Welgelegen, Belmont, Union, Mon Choisi, Zeelught and Edderton. By the time of compensation only Herstelling and Welgelegen appear to have continued in the hands of his daughters and their respective husbands.


Caroline became a Roman Catholic early in their marriage. The elder of their sons, the Hon Swinburne Fitzhardinge Berkeley, although brought up an Anglican was received into the Catholic Church when he came of age.  Meanwhile, his younger brother, who had been brought up a Catholic, reverted to Anglicanism.  Grantley Berkeley despaired at his elder son’s decision and urged him to reconsider in the interests of the electorate of the County of Gloucester who would now be unprepared to support him as a future Member of Parliament. 

Swinburne Berkeley, whose grandfather, Henry Swinburne (1743-1803), had been painted by Pompeo Batoni, became involved with the plans for a new Catholic Church in Cheltenham and he seems to have made an anonymous donation of £120 towards the building fund.  In 1865 Swinburne Berkeley died, aged forty, at Bonchurch, on the Isle of Wight; He was by this time reconciled with the Church of England, to the joy of his father. Grantley Berkeley openly condemned his wife’s generosity to the Catholic Church, claiming that she had been ‘perverted’ by Jesuits. She died on 13 February 1873 following the quarrel.

Grantley Berkeley, godson of King George IV, was violent and argumentative; he opposed the abolition of slavery and successfully opposed John Bright’s reform of the Game Laws. He has been described as ‘an extremely unpleasant man.’ 


It seems ironic that the wife of Edgar Berkeley Gifford, great nephew of both Grantley and Craven Berkeley, was to open a Catholic Chapel at Sharpness in 1883.

Woodchester Priory Marriage Register. Edgar’s mother, the Hon Swinburne Frederica Charlotte Fitzhardinge Berkeley, was the daughter of Admiral Maurice Berkeley, first Baron Fitzhardinge of Bristol. The register is signed by Edgar’s uncle, second Baron Fitzhardinge.


The Berkeley Burial Chapel contains a number of other members of the Berkeley Family including Henry, seventeenth Lord Berkeley (died 1613) and his wife Katharine. A wall plaque, designed by Sir Ninian Comper, perpetuates the memory of Randal Thomas Mowbray Berkeley (1865-1942), the eighth and last Earl of Berkeley. His second wife, Mary Emlen Lloyd Lowell (1884-1975) of Boston, Massachusetts, died in Assisi and is the only post-Reformation Roman Catholic to be buried in the vault beneath the Berkeley Chapel.


The eighth Earl, a well-known physicist and a fellow of the Royal Society, was the owner who greatly transformed the domestic quarters of the castle. The changes that he made to “restore the mediaeval character” of the rooms were in part financed by the sale of London property. The new, half-octagonal porch leading into the hall, was added in the courtyard, and the architectural historian, Bryan Little, has noted that “much of the ornamental stonework put in at this time was French Gothic.”

When the eighth Earl died without issue in 1942 the castle, but not the earldom, passed to Captain Robert George Wilmot Berkeley (1898-1969), John Berkeley’s father, a member of the Catholic branch of the family that had settled at Spetchley, near Worcester. As we have seen already, he was descended from the fourth son of Baron James who died in 1463. However, the two Berkeley families were more closely connected than that.

Grantley Berkeley’s sister-in-law, Henrietta Sophia nee Benfield (1795-1857), was the wife of Robert Berkeley (1794-1874) of Spetchley Park, Worcester. Both sisters became Roman Catholics and they and their husbands financially benefited from their father’s investment in slavery.

Spetchley Park built in 1811 by Robert Berkeley (1764-1845)

In 1851, Robert Berkeley (1823-1897), the eldest of the fourteen children of Robert and Henrietta, was married to Mary Catherine Browne (1829-1824), second daughter of the Earl of Kenmare, by Cardinal Wiseman at Chelsea Old Chapel. Robert and Lady Catherine were the grandparents of Captain Robert Berkeley (1898-1969) who inherited Berkeley Castle in 1942.

From 1852 they leased Overbury Court from the Martin Family until 1864 when they moved to Wolverton. It was not until 1874 that they inherited Spetchley Park. Their daughter, Agnes Mary Philomena Berkeley, was born at Overbury Court and later became the celebrated Sister Xavier Berkeley, a Daughter of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, who spent fifty-four years of her life as a missionary in China.

In 1857 an event linked the two Berkeley cousins. As we have already noted, Swinburne Berkeley made a generous contribution towards the cost of building St Gregory’s Church in Cheltenham. When the church was opened, Cardinal Wiseman was the guest of Robert and Lady Catharine at Overbury:

‘Robert escorted the Cardinal to Cheltenham in an open carriage with four horses, postilions and outriders, and we all followed in open carriages. People were a little doubtful of the reception the Cardinal would get, as feeling had run high and the windows of the church had been smashed. Precautions were taken, but all went off very well, and he was greeted most cordially.’ (Lady Catherine’s Memoirs)

Robert Berkeley the Younger (1823-1897)

It was late in the seventeenth century that Thomas Berkeley of Spetchley became a Catholic and his descendants have supported the mission there since that time. With the joining together of the two estates, after four centuries of Anglican usage, Berkeley Castle became a place where the Roman Catholic Mass could now be celebrated.   

The Chapel of St John the Evangelist is tucked away upstairs in the Keep of the castle. A good deal restored by the eighth earl, it has a round-ended apse and a much renovated vault, resting on late Norman side shafts with scalloped capitals, in the main body of the chapel whose side walls are lined with late mediaeval choir stalls, perhaps French, put in by the eighth earl; others like them are elsewhere in the castle.

Chapel of St John the Evangelist, Berkeley Castle

To accommodate the apse of the chapel the wall of the Keep here curves outwards, and this rounded projection recalls, on a small scale, the outward curve, on one side of the White Tower in the Tower of London, which conceals the apse of that castle’s splendid chapel of St John the Evangelist.

A large crucifix, perhaps Spanish, rises behind the altar, whose front is now hidden by Elizabethan panelling recently put there.

Chapel of St John the Evangelist, Berkeley Castle

Writing in 1982, John Berkeley shared the following details:

‘The Chapel of St John was presumably built in the twelfth century, when the rest of the Keep was constructed. It has always been a private chapel. It ceased being used as a place of worship sometime in the past 200 years, another chapel in the Castle being used for worship. The Berkeleys had given up Catholicism at the time of the Reformation, and so the chapel had been used for Protestant worship. I reopened the Chapel in 1970 for Sunday Mass. The Blessed Sacrament is not reserved.’

The chapel in Berkeley Castle is served by the Salvatorians from Thornbury and about thirty people come to Mass each Sunday. Previously they had worshipped in the premises of John Conway, the local bookie.

Reflecting further on John Berkeley’s remarks about the impact of the Reformation at Berkeley Castle, it occurs to me that one Gloucestershire cousin took a very different path. Jane Berkeley (1550c-1616), the daughter of Sir John Berkeley of Beverston Castle, became the Abbess of the Convent of the Glorious Assumption, in Brussels. This abbey, set up by a Lady Jane Percy, was one of the first English convents on the continent.


Since writing this article, Major Robert John Grantley Berkeley (1931-2017) died on 11th November 2017 and was succeeded by his two sons, Charles and Henry. Alas, the Salvatorian Fathers no longer celebrate Sunday Mass in St John’s Chapel.



Berkeley Manuscripts by Thomas D. Fosebroke 1821

Berkeley, Gloucestershire by J. E. Gethyn-Jones 1971

Gloucestershire, the Vale and the Forest of Dean by David Verey 1971

Berkeley Castle by V. Sackville West 1985.

Articles by Bryan Little in ‘The Catholic Herald’

Correspondence with Major John Berkeley 1982

Sister Xavier Berkeley by M.L.H. 1949

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