Berkeley, Sir Robert 1584-1656, justice of the king's bench in the reign of Charles I, was descended by a succession of younger sons from a family, of whom two members, Maurice and Robert, had held the office of judge. He was the second son of Rowland Berkeley, a wealthy clothier of Worcester, by Catherine Haywood (pedigree in Nash's Collections for Worcestershire, ii. 358), and was born at Worcester 26 July 1584. He entered the Middle Temple in 1600, and was called to the bar 6 May 1608. Through the death of his father in 1611 he became possessor of the estate of Spetchley, Worcestershire; that of Cotheridge, which his father's success in business had also enabled him to purchase, being previously given to the elder brother. In 1613 he was elected high sheriff of his county, and in 1620 and 1624 M.P. for Worcester. In the beginning of 1627 he was called to the degree of the coif, in April was made a king's serjeant, and in October 1632 a justice of the court of King's Bench. To the question which the king addressed to the twelve judges in 1635, regarding his prerogative in the imposition of ship-money, he strongly supported an affirmative answer. At the great ship-money trial of 1637 he not only consistently adhered to this opinion by giving judgment against Hampden, but supported his decision by an argument which went much further in the direction of absolutism than the original proposition; for denying that lex is rex he asserted that rex is lex, lex loquens, a living, a speaking, an acting law (State Trials, iii. 1098). In December 1640 Berkeley and other five judges were bound in 10,000l. apiece to answer the charges which the commons were preparing against them, and on 13 Feb. following he was singled out for impeachment by the commons in the lords' house. By their command the usher of the black rod came to the King's Bench, when the judges were sitting, took Judge Berkeley from off the bench, and carried him away to prison, which struck a great terror in the rest of his brethren then sitting in Westminster Hall (Whitelocke, Memorials, p. 40). The general charge against him was that of endeavouring to subvert the fundamental laws, and introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical government against law (Articles of Accusation exhibited by the Commons House of Parliament now assembled against Sir John Bramston, Knight, Sir Robert Berkley, Knight, &c., published 1641, and also in Rushworth, ii. 606-14). On 20 Oct. 1641 he appeared at the bar of the House of Lords, and pleaded not guilty, whereupon the trial was fixed for 2 Nov. The difficulty of the commons in obtaining witnesses caused, however, a further postponement, and meanwhile, as the business of the King's Bench was at a standstill, one of the three judges being with the king and another in the Tower, the two houses, taking into consideration that Judge Berkeley had carried himself with modesty and humility, and inoffensively to both houses, invited him to act as judge for the Michaelmas term. On 10 Sept. following he was brought to trial, and adjudged to pay a fine of 20,000l. within six weeks, to be deprived of the office of judge, and rendered incapable of holding any place or receiving any honour in the state or commonwealth, and to be imprisoned in the Tower during the pleasure of the lords. As, however, there was an urgent need of ready money for the payment of the subsidy to the Scotch, he was allowed his liberty and an abatement of half the sum on his volunteering immediate payment (Clarendon, vii. 262). The remainder of his life was spent in retirement at Spetchley, but not without molestation, for before the battle of Worcester the Scotch presbyterians, though employed in the service of Charles II, robbed him of a large sum of money and burned his mansion to the ground, their motives being partly religious animosity, partly a love of plunder, and partly to prevent the occupation of the mansion by Cromwell. According to Habington (Worcestershire MS. in library of the Society of Antiquaries, quoted in Granger's Letters, 259, and in Nash's Collections of Worcestershire, ii. 359), Berkeley converted the stables into a dwelling house, and resided there during the remainder of his life. Lloyd states that he died heartbroken with grief anno 1649 (Memoirs, 95), but the date on his tombstone is 5 Aug. 1656. Nash gives the year 1692, which, though plainly impossible, has found its way into other books. He was buried in the church at Spetchley, where, in the south side of the chapel on a raised monument of black and white marble, is a figure of the judge in his robes (see the engraving in Nash's Collections for Worcestershire). According to Habington the likeness is an admirable one, and was taken from a plaster cast after death. There are engraved portraits of the judge by Hollar, by Powle, and by some other person. That of Hollar bears a close resemblance to the figure on the monument. By his marriage to Elizabeth, daughter and co-heiress of Thomas Conyers, of East Barnet, Hertfordshire, he left one son Thomas.
Whitelocke characterises Berkeley as a very learned man in our laws, and a good orator and judge, moderate in his views except in his desire for court favour. Lloyd, in much more eulogistic terms, as was to be expected, refers to him as the greatest master of maxims in his time, and a person whose worth was set in his pedigree as a rich diamond in a fair ring. The founder of the hospital in Worcester, in Foregate Street, was not Judge Berkeley, as is frequently stated, but a grandson of the same name. The judge, however, left a rent-charge of about 5l. 10s. annually to be distributed among the poor. He also gave twenty-three timber trees towards the rebuilding of the church at Spetchley, and was at a charge of more than 100l. for mending and increasing the ringing of the bells.
Lloyd's Memoirs, 93-7
Rushworth's Historical Collection
Clarendon's History of the Rebellion
Granger's Letters, 217-20, 253-61
Granger's Biog. ii. 224-225
Nash's Collections for Worcestershire, ii. 358-60
Green's History of Worcester, ii. 61, 69
Chambers's Biographical Illustrations of Worcestershire, pp. 108-113;
Contributor: T. F. H. [Thomas Finlayson Henderson]