The Berkeley family is nearly 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, which still belongs to the family.
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.
The Scottish Clan Barclay may or may not be descended from the family.
This descends from Sir Maurice Berkeley (by 1514–81), a politician who rose rapidly in the Tudor court. He came from the Berkeleys of Stoke Gifford, a cadet branch of the main Berkeley family, as a descendant of Sir Maurice de Berkeley (14th century), younger son of Maurice de Berkeley, 2nd Baron Berkeley. This Sir Maurice, before being killed at the Siege of Calais in 1347, had acquired Stoke Gifford in 1337, and founded the line of Berkeley of Stoke Gifford.
By now a remote cousin of the main line, in his career the Tudor Sir Maurice's initial advantage was his mother's second marriage to Sir John FitzJames, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, 1526–1539. By 1538 this had brought him into the household of Thomas Cromwell, from which he passed into the royal household by 1539. He built a house on the site of Bruton Priory, a spoil of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, incorporating some of the buildings, but this was demolished in 1786. His "Bruton branch" of the family produced a number of notable figures until the 18th century, including five Barons Berkeley of Stratton (extinct in 1773), and four Viscount Fitzhardinges (extinct in 1712), as well as William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia. Berkeley Square in London derives its name from this branch.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Berkeley". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 777.
- 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.
- Virgoe, Roger, title=BERKELEY, Sir Maurice I (bef. 1514–81), of Bruton, Som., History of Parliament Online, accessed,22 November 2015
- 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)