The little known story of the two English nobles who fought the last ever private battle on English soil.
Throughout the long, often tumultuous history of Great Britain much of it has passed the rural folk of one quiet corner of it.
In the year 1470, a traveller might have set out from London and headed west. Days of travel first by riverboat along the Thames, then on horseback along ancient forest byways would’ve finally brought them to a halt at the banks of the River Severn Estuary, a mighty river miles wide at this point. On the far side lived the Welsh, of which the Severn had served as a bulwark against ages past. The Welsh had long been a warlike people until their kingdoms were subdued in the 13th Century.
Moving up the Severn Vale the traveller would’ve entered the ancient County of Gloucestershire, and along the riverbank they would’ve seen to their right a rising escarpment, some seven miles distant, of the Cotswold Hills; a rolling hill range of limestone. At the foot of these hills, a dramatic episode of English history played out but passed into medieval lore largely unnoticed.
It was in the year 1470 that a feud between two noble families that had festered for generations climaxed into a short, bloody showdown one chilly spring morning.
In 1417 a powerful nobleman with the family name Berkeley, and who held a Barony of the same name, passed down his estates to a male heir, his nephew, instead of his daughter. That daughter, a ruthless lady named Elizabeth Berkeley, vigorously disputed the decision and her descendants would do everything they could to get the estates back, all the way down in 1470, to her great-grandson Thomas Talbot. That nephew was James Berkeley and in 1470 his son, named William Berkeley, held the Barony.
The King’s Loose Hold on the Reign
This little known violent episode of English history might not have happened had the English kingdom not been going through a bout of intense political upheaval.
Just the year before, the War of the Roses had begun to warm up again after Edward IV vanquished the incumbent King Henry VI in the Battle of Towton 1461. By the end of 1470, the tables turned so much however that Edward was forced to flee the kingdom. This gives the reader an idea of how weak and distracted the government was. This allowed a noble feud to escalate to the extent two noblemen would stake everything they had; their lands, estates… and lives, in a clash of arms.
The Baron Berkeley
The New Year had just passed in a bustling settlement named Berkeley, a town later famous as the place Mr Edward Jenner would pioneer the Vaccination.
This night, with the sun long since set, smoke rose from openings in the thatched roofs of hovels into the pristine blackness of a night, free of the orange tinge that permeates the night time today. Hulls of small river craft creaked against their moorings on the town’s tidal river and everywhere was quiet and blanketed in crisp ice.
Overlooking Berkeley stood its sturdy castle — Berkeley Castle. It had been built to hold the Welsh at bay, thus it was a stout fortification but elegant and angular also. It was already over 300 years old and the site King Edward II was murdered almost 150 years prior. At this late hour the lord of the manor, William Berkeley, 2nd Baron Berkeley, sat, sated considerably after the feasting and celebrating during the winter festivities.
He was an able lord of the land at 43 years old, married for a second time (obtaining a divorce from his first wife after just a year), and had held his Barony for six years.
Everyone else had retired to their bed chambers at this dark hour and the Baron sat alone with just the crackling of the fire to break the meditative silence. He drained his goblet of wine and his lips pursed as his thoughts turned to the object of his contempt; that was the Talbot family, currently embodied in an impudent young man named Thomas Talbot.
The Talbots had been a thorn in his family’s side all his life and William had come to despise them deeply. Berkeley thought of young Talbot, virtually squatting in his residence in Wotton and holding a Viscountcy fit for a man, not an impetuous whelp as he. Of course, it was right that the lands and castle of Thomas Berkeley, 5th Baron Berkeley, had passed to his nephew, William’s father James Berkeley, instead of the man’s only child, Elizabeth Berkeley, in the 4th year of King Henry V’s reign, thought William. In taking up their inheritance however William’s parents had endured as much trouble as Elizabeth, then her daughter, in turn, Margaret Beauchamp, could cause.
They’d treated his family absolutely disgracefully. Elizabeth had married the Earl of Warwick, and his family was powerful enough to bar his parents from possessing Berkeley castle for years until Elizabeth died in her 30s. It didn’t end there either; Margaret married into a fire-eating family named the Talbots who were also formidable adversaries.
William’s nostrils flared in remembrance. Margaret stooped to a deeper low when she had William’s very own mother, Lady Isabel Mowbray, arrested and imprisoned at Gloucester where she would expire later that year, alone in a dingy cold cell, he imagined. That had been back when William was 25 years old. Despite the passing years and the fact the Talbots were fortunately not imbued with longevity, the boy Talbot was as hellbent on wrenching back Berkeley’s fine castle as his great-grandmother Elizabeth had been. But as the Baron’s midriff had expanded and hairline receded over the years, his attitude towards the Viscount had hardened in turn. Their vendetta had been allowed to become so all-consuming their mutual hatred even extended to their respective tenants and servants, who frequently quarrelled and fought in the local taverns.
For three years now the hotheaded Talbot let it be known that he would gladly meet William on the field of battle to decide the issue. Yet Berkeley was not an adversary to be taken lightly, as time would tell.
The Viscount Lisle
The gateman could see his lord, Thomas Talbot, 2nd Viscount Lisle, was in high spirits as he trotted his horse into the courtyard of his manor in Wotton-Under-Edge on a cold, grey afternoon.
War had visited this town before when it burned down in the English civil war of the 13th Century. Now, Wotton quietly prospered and a number of buildings that still stand today, including its church; the Ancient Ram Inn; and Katherine Lady Berkeley School stood then and had for over a hundred years.
Talbot’s cheeks were full of colour and his eyes sparkled with youthful exuberance. He’d just returned from hunting in the King’s wood down the hill. With the hubbub of a Cistercian Abbey within earshot the Viscount had been chasing game through the woodland with a new companion of his, Thomas Holt. It wasn’t all fun and games, however, for when the small hunting party took food and ale at the abbey canteen, talk turned to serious matters.
Holt was the Keeper of the Berkeley Castle and, as a servant of the Baron, a disgruntled man; he felt unappreciated and unrewarded for his years of service. His head was turned by the Viscount and together they’d hatched a sneaky plan to murder the Baron and take possession of the castle. And the Viscount would reward Holt very handsomely, that was made clear. Yet, more help among Baron William’s other servants would be needed, so the two Thomases agreed that Holt would approach the castle porter, Maurice King, for help. Talbot returned to his manor feeling more confident than ever. Soon, he mused, he could finally flaunt mettle worthy of the Talbot name and the Lisle Viscountcy.
The Viscount was 21 in 1470. Married to a wife expecting their firstborn come the Summer. He was known for his fiery belligerence which his dear grandmother had channelled against the imposters seated in his birthright; the castle down by the great river.
Talbot’s anger bubbled below the surface every time he thought of this. But then Talbot had been destined to be someone’s arch-enemy, such was the warlike lineage he was born from.
Thomas’s Grandfather was John Talbot. Called the ‘English Achilles’ and the ‘Terror of the French’, he was England’s greatest general in the Hundred Years War and lavishly praised in the plays of Shakespeare. He was also a tough, cruel, and quarrelsome man, so the Talbots were the perfect family for Elizabeth Berkeley to marry into and continue the fight for her inheritance. John’s son, of the same name, was also warlike and was enthusiastic about pursuing his mother’s claims for the Berkeley estates. Yet in 1453, when Thomas Talbot was still a toddler, John Talbot, both grandfather and father, fell gloriously in the last battle of the Hundred Years War — the Battle of Castillon. When his wounded and unhorsed father begged him to quit the field and save himself, John Jr. refused, preferring death to dishonour; a scene immortalized in Henry VI.
One can assume then that the young Thomas Talbot, imbued with his paternal warrior instincts and loathing for William Berkeley, felt destined to confront the man in combat in order to quench his family honour.
Talbot had certainly let Berkeley know he was more than man enough to topple him. If the Baron were a man of honour, Talbot mused, he would have accepted one of Talbot’s many challenges to meet on the field of battle, but Berkeley was too old and paunchy to take on Talbot, a true warrior like his father and grandfather. Talbot felt a match for any knight in the land and he smirked at the thought.
A Call to Arms
It is hard to write too lucid an account of what exactly happened and when for obvious reasons, but as the weeks passed and the cold of winter still clung on, February came around and Talbot’s scheme involving Thomas Holt turned sour.
Holt had approached the Keeper of Berkeley Castle, Maurice King, to persuade him to switch sides. The man had listened carefully to Holt’s offer then promptly reported Holt’s treachery to his lord. This brought matters to a head. Clearly, Talbot would stop at nothing to take Berkeley’s estates and the Baron could envision this struggle going on forever if he didn’t act decisively.
They say be careful what you wish for, the Baron was going to give young Talbot the fight he wanted, yet he had to make sure he was in the stronger position when the two sides finally met. For that, he was going to call in some favours.
Talbot is said to have been furious when he found out his plot was exposed and his plan in ruins. In his fury, he issued yet another challenge to Berkeley to meet on the field of battle which was readily accepted this time. Berkeley told Talbot to meet him on ground halfway between their respective headquarters, just the next day at a village clearing called Nibley Green.
Giving Talbot just one day to raise an army clearly made it hard to gather more than just the tenants and servants of Talbot’s immediate environs. Berkeley, on the other hand, managed to raise a considerably larger force and from much further afield, including a strong contingent of miners from his lands in the Forest of Dean on the other side of the River Severn and troops sent up by his sister in-law’s family from Bristol, 20 miles (33km) south. Reading between the lines it’s hard to believe Berkeley hadn’t given these companies of troops some advance warning he would be in need of them soon for them all to arrive at Berkeley in time, particularly those hailing from Bristol.
So it was on the 20th of March an army of 1000 spearmen and archers coalesced at Berkeley Castle. They then made a short march through Michaelwood towards Nibley Green, trampling the bluebell carpet underfoot as birds’ sang their dawn chorus through the woodland.
Trying to imagine Talbot’s state of mind as he rose early that morning is muse-worthy. In an era of religion and high mortality rates, the fear of death was much lower and it’s fair to assume Talbot, with his illustrious lineage of war leaders, did not fear death in battle. This feud, which had fixated four generations of his family now, had been fuelled mostly by his family and Talbot had issued a number of challenges to his adversary which had not been taken up and I imagine this had nurtured a sense of complacent bravado, now severely rocked.
How confident was he now as he and Holt led his poor excuse for an army of just 300–400 hastily gathered armed peasants up over to Nibley village to meet his foe? Did he know he was outnumbered? I expect Talbot had at least an inkling the odds in the coming battle were not good. Perhaps he intended to call out Berkeley for a personal duel where the odds would stand in his favour, or felt that whatever else a ‘Talbot battle charge’ could carry the day against the superior forces arrayed against him.
The Battle of Nibley Green
The accounts of the short but bloody fight are sketchy; the main source on the battle being written a good seventy years after. Locals gathered under the banners of both lords and their family and friends would’ve spectated, praying their sons, husbands, and fathers would survive unscathed or better still return victorious. Youngsters climbed trees for a good vantage point. Their shouts of support would’ve been heard from the edge of the green by the two opposing forces and it is from these witnesses an account of the battle was collated.
It was early morning and Talbot arrived from the west and halted atop Shankley Hill, a steep rise above the green, probably waiting for the opportunity to make a charge down upon his opponents. On the eastern side the Baron kept most of his force hidden in the woods, with just some men visible to lure Talbot into advancing forward.
Perhaps Talbot suspected a trap because a standoff lasted some hours, the Viscount reluctant to come down from his strong position on the hill.
Eventually, however, Talbot accepted the challenge to advance upon his enemy below.
It was at this moment Baron Berkeley’s true strength was revealed. He ordered his archers to step out of the trees.
As Talbot’s force closed in quickly, the order came for them to loose off volleys of arrows again and again, maybe not exactly a cloud so dense to blot out the sun, but one imagines, leaving a litter of bodies behind the dwindling company of peasants with a better-armed band of men, perhaps mounted, and the young lord very much at the front.
During the Hundred Years War, English longbow archers gained a formidable reputation as perhaps the deadliest troops on the continent. They were strong men armed with longbows the length of a tall man and were able to loose off arrows capable of piercing the thickest plate armour. Their fallen enemies would then be finished off with the thrusts of a dagger.
As Talbot closed the distance with Baron Berkeley a Forest of Dean archer named ‘Black Will’ stepped forward, drew his bow back, and fired an arrow which pierced Talbot’s left temple through his open visor.
With blood squirting from the wound to the rhythm of his dying heart, Talbot fell and there was nothing else to keep Talbot’s force on the field. They turned tail and melted away, perhaps before they had even reached Berkeley’s ranks. 150 men are said to have fallen that day. The young lord was customarily finished off where he fell and Holt died about an hour after Talbot, executed in cold blood.
As Talbot’s men stumbled back to their relieved families waiting nearby, Berkeley marched on to Talbot’s Manor home at Wotton-Under-Edge to sack it. Who knows if Talbot’s wife, Margaret Herbert, the daughter of the 1st Earl of Pembroke, was roughly handled during the plunder but it was a very traumatic day in any case. She miscarried her child shortly after. Thus, Thomas Talbot’s family line was extinguished. The destruction of Berkeley’s enemy was complete.
And so, the great Lisle-Berkeley family feud was finished. William Berkeley must’ve been immensely satisfied. One can imagine the joyous feast he held; the braggadocio and back-patting going on late into the night.
The Lisle Viscountcy would be inherited 13 years later by Edward Grey — the husband of Elizabeth Talbot, Thomas’s sister.
As for William Berkeley, his status in the kingdom went from strength to strength; William was created Viscount Berkeley in 1481, a Privy Counsellor in ’82, became Earl of Nottingham a year later, then assumed the life office of Earl Marshal and Great Marshal of England in ’86. Finally, he was made Marquess of Berkeley in 1488. He passed away 22 years after the battle in 1492.
It is interesting to note that William also never sired an heir, male or female, and so his Barony was passed on to his king. His brother, Maurice Berkeley, 3rd Baron Berkeley should’ve inherited the Barony but William disinherited his brother for bringing shame to the family for marrying a woman of common stock. This, even though Maurice’s in-laws had actually reinforced William with the men from Bristol. That’s gratitude!
The Barony was returned to the Berkeley family in 1553 and the Berkeleys are the only English family still in existence that can trace their ancestors from father to son back to Saxon times. Berkeley Castle has now been the Berkeley family residence for a whopping 850 years.
The Battle of Nibley Green was the last ever private battle in English history. It was remembered throughout Gloucestershire well into the 17th Century although little known farther afield.
It stands out for its portrayal of the nobility at their basest; not in pursuit of lofty ambitions but for greed and rampant pride.
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Battle of Nibley Green — Wikipedia article (and links included)
Battle of Nibley Green — Youtube documentary, created by Robin Burton
Battle of North Nibley — North Nibley website account of the battle (including Extracts from ‘Gloucestershire’s Forgotten Battle, Nibley Green 1470’ by Peter Fleming and Michael Wood), by D. Palmer
Berkeley Castle — Official website
Nibley Green, Battle of — enacademic.com
The Battle of Nibley Green — MyThornbury account of the battle, as told by Professor Peter Fleming of the University of the West of England (UWE)