The Berkeley family is unique in English history in that it has to this day an unbroken male line of descent from a noble Saxon ancestor before the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and also retains possession of much of the lands it held from the 11th and 12th centuries, centred on Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire.
The Berkeley family descends in the male line from Robert Fitzharding (d.1170), 1st feudal baron of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, reputedly the son of Harding of Bristol, the son of Eadnoth the Constable (Alnod), a high official under King Edward the Confessor.
Berkeley Castle, the caput of the barony, and the adjoining town of Berkeley are located in the county of Gloucestershire and are situated about five miles west of Dursley and eighteen miles southwest of Gloucester, and northeast of Bristol. The location has conferred various titles on the family over the centuries, including Baron Berkeley (barony by writ), Earl of Berkeley, and Marquess of Berkeley.
Berkeley Castle was originally granted by William the Conqueror to the Norman Roger de Berkeley, feudal baron of Dursley, under the feudal tenure of fee-farm. However, this Norman family, which had recently taken its name from its tenure of Berkeley Castle, was stripped of its tenure by King Henry II (1154–1189) shortly before he became king. The tenure was re-granted to his supporter and financier the Anglo-Saxon Robert Fitzharding (d.1170), of Bristol, as a feudal barony.
Shortly afterwards, under the encouragement of Henry II who had clearly regretted the effect of his dispossession of Roger, the two families were united by the forced intermarriage by contract of the eldest son and heir of each to the other's eldest daughter. Thus the heirs of both Roger de Berkeley and of Robert Fitzharding either adopted, or continued the use of, the surname "de Berkeley", the former retaining the truncated feudal barony of Dursley, the latter establishing his line as feudal barons of Berkeley Castle.
Both lines of Berkeleys therefore originated as cousins, but it was the line of the feudal barons of Berkeley, descended from Fitzharding in the male line, which was by far the more powerful and which would play the more prominent role in British history in the next several centuries.
- GEC Peerage, Volume 2, pp. 118–149, Berkeley
- Sanders, I.J. English Baronies, Oxford, 1960, p. 13, Berkeley
- Smyth, John. The Lives of the Berkeleys, Lords of the Honour, Castle and Manor of Berkeley from 1066 to 1618, ed. Maclean, Sir John, 3 vols., Gloucester, 1883-1885 (First published c.1628)
- From "The Peerage, Baronetage, and Knightage of the British Empire", "The Earl of Berkeley", pp 70-71 (1882)
- According to an article by James Lees-Milne in the 18th edition of Burke's Peerage or Burke's Landed Gentry, volume 1.