The Battle of Nibley Green.
William I. Twelfth Lord, Marquis of Berkeley. 1463 to 1491
WILLIAM the late Lord's eldest son, who succeeded him, was born in 1426 and had been brought up in the household of Henry Bishop of Winchester, and a Cardinal. He received the honour of knighthood before he came of age, and his father then settled on him the Manor of Portbury, and all his other lands in the county of Somerset. Three years after William granted Portbury on a lease for twelve years to the Earl of Ormond and Wiltshire, which greatly offended his father and caused a bad feeling between them. William was of an unusually haughty and headstrong disposition, and made himself so much feared by all around him that for several years before his father's death none of the tenants would accept any lease without William's joining in it.
Scarcely had he entered upon his patrimonial honours and estates when the old feud which had been so recently patched up for the late lord's lifetime, broke out between the lord William and the old Countess of Shrewsbury, "two merciless natures not unevenly encountering," as Smyth remarks. The various pleadings, bills, and replies on either side are most voluminous, and are interesting as shewing the mode of legal procedure in those days. Lord Berkeley in his petition accuses the Countess of unjustly keeping possession of his manors of Wotton, Symondshall, Cowley, and some others; of plotting and corrupting his servants to get possession of Berkeley Castle, and finally of compassing his death by means of a hired assassin. The Countess in her reply denies some of these charges, especially that of the intended murder, but boldly avows her claim to the Castle and manors of Berkeley, justifies her attempts to gain possession of them, and prays that justice may be done her. The first petition and reply were referred by the king, (Edward IV.,) to the Lord Chancellor, to whom the subsequent pleas and counter-pleas were addressed, and in these proceedings, varied by predatory incursions upon each others' manors and frequent fights between their servants and tenants, five years passed away without any decision being pronounced.
In 1468 the Countess of Shrewsbury died leaving all her property and the disputed manors and claims to her grandson Thomas Talbot, Viscount Lisle, then twenty years of age, and recently married to Margaret the daughter of William Herbert Earl of Pembroke. Lord Lisle took up the quarrel with all the energy and impatience of youth, and found a ready instrument in Thomas Holt, lord Berkeley's keeper of Berkeley Castle and Whitcliff Park; by this traitor's help, Maurice King, the porter of the Castle, was gained over by the promise of a lucrative office in lord Lisle's service, to deliver up the Castle to lord Lisle. Smyth gives copies of the letters which passed between Holt and King and Robert Vele, lord Lisle's' chief agent, relative to this plot, but King turned round and disclosed the whole scheme to lord Berkeley, and thus saved his master. Holt fled to Wotton, to lord Lisle, and the latter was so enraged and disappointed at the failure of the plot, that he wrote the fatal letter and challenge to lord Berkeley, which led to the fight at Nibley Green and his own death. The challenge was dated and delivered on the 19 of March 1469, and the reply was sent back the same day, fixing the morrow as the time, and Nibley Green as the place of meeting, as laying midway between Berkeley and Wotton.
Lord Berkeley was at this time keeping a garrison at Berkeley Castle, as a precaution against a surprise, but there must have been much hurry and bustle and riding to and fro of messengers on that day, in order to collect the army which shewed itself at sunrise the next morning on Nibley Green, and which is stated to have been not less than one thousand strong. Lord Berkeley's brother Maurice came with a chosen band from Thornbury where he resided, and a strong party of miners from the Forest of Dean joined the Berkeley banner. It was also said that two rich Bristol merchants, Philip Mead, whose daughter Maurice Berkeley had married, and John Shipward, led a band of citizens to join in the affray, but in the enquiry which took place some time afterwards they succeeded in disproving the charge. Lord Berkeley's army lay that night in the outskirts of Michaelwood adjoining Nibley Green, and the country people near carried them provisions. At sunrise the next morning lord Lisle's party headed by their fiery young leader was seen moving down the hill from Nibley Church, on the open green, which then extended nearly as far as where Bush-street farm-house now stands, and where it joined Michaelwood. The place of stand, Smyth says, was at Fowles-hard, from whence lord Berkeley's men discharged the first flight of arrows upon their opponents. This name is now unknown, but a field a few hundred yards to the north of Bush-street farm was formerly called Fowles Grove, now corrupted into Foley's Grove, and a rough forest road running through the midst of Michaelwood from the direction of Berkeley, extended to this place, and probably went on to Nibley Green, crossing the brook at a ford (or "hard") in the valley below. We may therefore, I think, conceive the Berkeley men issuing from Foley's Grove on the borders of Michaelwood, and rushing down towards the brook to meet their foes, discharging their arrows as soon as they got into order. The fight was very bloody, though of short duration, lord Berkeley's party being much the stronger. Lord Lisle was shot with an arrow on the left side of his face - his visor being up - by a Dean Forester, called Black Will, and finished by a dagger-stroke; his fall completed the rout of his party, and the steep lane leading from the green to Nibley Church was soon thronged with the fugitives and their pursuers. Lord Berkeley led on his victorious followers to Wotton Manor-house which they sacked and pillaged. Lady Lisle gave premature birth to a dead son sixteen days afterwards, and by this event that family became extinct; a terrible and complete retribution by which the death of lord Berkeley's mother at Gloucester Castle, at the instance of the Countess of Shrewsbury was fearfully avenged on the descendants of the latter.
The kingdom was at this period in a very disturbed state, which probably accounts for such a serious breach of the peace passing unnoticed at the time by the authorities. An insurrection had broken out in Yorkshire; the Lancastrian party was suspected of an intention to raise their banner, and the powerful Earl of Warwick, the celebrated "King maker," to whom Edward IV. owed his crown was withdrawing his support. Seven days after the battle, lord Berkeley received the king's commission to search out and apprehend disaffected persons within the county; a few months after the king himself was a fugitive, and Warwick, who for his own purposes now espoused the Lancastrian cause, had replaced Henry VI on the throne. The Battle of Barnet however, which took place the next year, once more reversed the state of things; Warwick was slain and King Edward again resumed the sceptre. Lady Lisle now brought her appeal against lord Berkeley, his brother Maurice, and others, for the death of her husband, but the delays which the Berkeleys found means to interpose prevented the case from being heard for two years. At length, on October 6, 1473, it was decided that lord Berkeley should have all the manors in dispute, paying lady Lisle £100 a year for her life in settlement of all her personal claims. Shortly afterwards she married Henry Bodrugan, a Cornish gentleman, a circumstance which together with her having compounded the death of her first husband for an annuity, goes far to deprive her of the sympathy and interest with which her early misfortunes tended to invest her.
Lord Berkeley now took possession of the manors which had been so long the subject of contention, and for a time probably flattered himself that he was delivered from all his troubles. He soon however became embroiled with Sir Edward Grey, who had married the late lord Lisle's sister and co-heiress, and who was afterwards created lord Lisle by King Richard III. In order to stand well with the ruling powers and to ensure the king's favour and assistance, lord Berkeley in 1477 and in 1483 conveyed many manors and lands to the youthful Duke of York, the king's second son, in acknowledgement of which he was created a Viscount. King Edward IV. died soon afterwards, and should have been succeeded by his eldest son, now aged 13, as Edward V. but Richard Duke of Gloucester, uncle to the young Prince, contrived his murder, and that of his brother the young Duke of York, in the Tower, and placed the crown on his own head. By the death of the latter the conveyances lapsed and the manors once more returned to lord Berkeley.
In 1478 by the death of Anne, sole daughter and heiress to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, then seven years old, lord Berkeley succeeded to a moiety of the vast estates of the Duke, as heir-at-law of his mother the lady Isabel, the Duke's great-aunt. No less than 68 manors, in 15 different counties thus came into his possession, besides the half of at least fifty others, and much other property in lands and houses. So great however was his anxiety for honours and distinctions that in less then ten years he had given or granted them all away, for empty titles and patronage. In 1484, within a year after Richard had become king, lord Berkeley conveyed to him 35 manors by one deed of gift, and was in return made Earl of Nottingham. The usurper's throne was soon threatened by Henry Earl of Richmond, and the next year the battle of Bosworth, in which it was said that lord Berkeley assisted the one side with men and the other with money, terminated Richardís life and reign, and made Richmond king, as Henry VII. By this event the thirty-five manors again reverted to lord Berkeley, as though Providence were determined to thwart his attempts to impoverish himself and his family.
The new king was not backward in acknowledging the assistance he had received from lord Berkeley, who was created Earl Marshal a few days before the king's coronation, and was very soon afterwards made Great Maresehal of England. By a deed of the same date he conveyed two castles and twenty-eight manors to Sir William Stanley. the Lord Chamberlain, in return for court favour. At this time lord Berkeley was childless, a son and daughter by his second wife having died young; his brother Maurice was therefore his heir, and he with his son remonstrated against these repeated alienations of the family inheritance, but their complaints seemed not only to confirm him in his proceedings but greatly embittered him against them. By several successive conveyances he parted with many more manors to Sir William Stanley and other influential personages, and finally by his will he entailed Berkeley Castle and the whole of the remaining ancient family possessions upon the king, reserving only a life interest in them to himself and his third wife, whom he had recently married! In return he was, in January, 1490, created Marquis of Berkeley. To confirm these grants, and, as was supposed, to render them more effectual, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1492. Thus did William lord Berkeley become successively Baron, Viscount, and Marquis of Berkeley, Earl of Nottingham, and Great Mareschal of England, and after inheriting more manors and lands than any of his ancestors had ever possessed, he coolly gives them away in return for empty honours and titles, leaving his brother and heir not sufficient land to set his foot upon! To crown his stupendous folly, he now, at the age of sixty-six contracts with various persons for the erection of a fine house at Great Chesterford, in Essex, but died before it could be completed, in 1492. He was buried in the church of the Friars Augustines (Austin Fryers) in London, to which he had been a great benefactor, and where also his second wife, the lady Jane, had been interred.
The Marquess having thus disinherited his own family, the Crown took possession of Berkeley Castle and all the immense estates left by him, except such as were included in the jointure of lady Berkeley, who did not however survive many years. The king (Henry VII.,) came to Berkeley at Christmas, 1495, and remained there ten days. Among other preparations for the royal visit, the hall of Wotton Manor-house was pulled down, and the timber and lead used in new roofing the great kitchen at Berkeley Castle.