Berkeley, Sir John (1607–78), 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton , soldier and politician, was baptised 1 February 1607, fifth and youngest son of Sir Maurice Berkeley of Bruton, Somerset, England, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Henry Killigrew of Hanworth, Middlesex. Educated at Queen's College, Oxford, he served as an ambassador to Sweden (January–July 1637) and later served in the campaign against the Scots, being knighted by Charles I on 27 July 1639. In 1640 he was MP for Heytesbury in the short parliament, but was expelled and imprisoned for allegedly attempting to corrupt the army. During the English civil war he was a successful royalist commander in Devon and Cornwall, serving as governor of Exeter (1643–6). A favourite of the queen, Henrietta Maria, he acted as an occasional envoy to the parliamentarians. He joined the court in exile, becoming comptroller of the court of James (qv), duke of York, to whom he was close; on York's recommendation he was made Baron Berkeley of Stratton in Brussels on 19 May 1658. As he lacked land of his own, the title was taken from a victory he had won in the civil war.
After the Restoration, he served as a commissioner of the navy (1660–64), was sworn of the privy council (17 June 1663), and was appointed as master of the ordnance (1664) and to the committee on Tangier (1665). Described by Burnet as ‘ a very weak and a very proud man, and corrupt without shame or decency’ (Burnet, History, i, 482), Berkeley began his association with Ireland when he was granted the posts of governor of Galway, constable of Athlone castle, and lord president of Connacht on 26 December 1661. He was appointed to the latter on 13 January 1662, with a seat on the Irish privy council. However, the viceroy, James Butler (qv), duke of Ormond, soon complained that Berkeley was neglecting the post by his absence, but despite this, in March 1663 he was granted two years’ absence from it. In January 1666 he became joint president with John King (qv), 1st Baron Kingston, though Berkeley retained the salary. Throughout the 1660s he amassed substantial lands in Ireland.
On 4 February 1670 Berkeley was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, being sworn in on 12 April 1670, and replacing Lord Robartes (qv). There were high expectations of him after the unpopular Robartes, and he was warmly welcomed to Dublin. Berkeley was more politic than his predecessor, despite his age and reputation for drunkenness, and, as he was rumoured to be a catholic, he was an obvious choice given the inclinations of the English government at this time. His instructions were similar to those of Robartes. He was to continue the financial reforms that Robartes had sought to initiate, but was also to overhaul the established church and deal sternly with catholic clergy opposed to the 1661 remonstrance, though this did not necessarily imply indulgence for those who had subscribed to it. Ably assisted by his chief secretary, Sir Ellis Leighton (qv), Berkeley got off to a promising start, being seen as efficient, diligent, and diplomatic. He put the Irish army into an impressive condition relatively quickly; as a former soldier, he gave much of his attention to military affairs. Markedly civil to quakers, he also encouraged appointments to vacant Church of Ireland sees. But Berkeley, in line with English policy, proved especially tolerant of catholicism. Mass was said in his home, and despite his instructions he was well disposed towards the anti-remonstrants; he formed a good relationship with Archbishop Oliver Plunkett (qv), not least because of the latter's assistance in dealing with tories. Plunkett exploited the opportunity provided by Berkeley, whose toleration of the catholic clergy was supposedly conditional on their avoidance of politics.
Berkeley was an efficient administrator, but did not leave a distinctive mark on policy; more than other viceroys, he became an intermediary for policy dictated from London. Early setbacks were outweighed by satisfaction with his governance, but over time his views, especially in the critical area of finance, became marginalised at court. Bad relations with key figures such as Ormond and Henry Bennett, earl of Arlington, served to undermine his position. By mid 1671 he had largely lost royal support, despite having absented himself from Ireland (June–September 1671) in order to deal with this very problem. Crucially, his tenure coincided with the start of the financial undertaking of Richard Jones (qv), earl of Ranelagh; Berkeley had opposed the undertaking (thereby alienating Ranelagh), and was ordered not to interfere with it, which effectively sidelined him. Ranelagh became pre-eminent in Irish affairs, and although Berkeley retained control over the army, Ranelagh swiftly neutralised this, removing his final leverage. Berkeley's recall was perhaps inevitable. He had also alienated Roger Boyle (qv), earl of Orrery, whose harsh anti-catholicism as lord president of Munster was interpreted by Berkeley as a deliberate move against him. Devoid of influence and isolated, he came under the sway of Alice Hamilton, Lady Clanbrassil, and his work-rate decreased considerably in late 1671; by now Ireland was effectively governed by the committee for Irish affairs in London. Berkeley's initial successes were eclipsed by Ranelagh's ascendancy.
Having been instructed to readmit catholics to corporate towns, Berkeley provoked a massive dispute within Dublin corporation that saw Leighton briefly installed as recorder. In the aftermath of this he was recalled in May 1672, with explicit orders not to make new appointments in the interim, particularly in Dublin, and was replaced that month; he handed over to the new viceroy, Arthur Capel (qv), earl of Essex, on 5 August. Later in August he complained about the suppression of the provincial presidencies under Essex, but was mollified by compensation.
In hindsight Berkeley was not viewed favourably; there were widespread complaints about both his own and Leighton's corruption, and in 1679 Ormond blamed him for the large numbers of catholics to be found in Irish towns. But he did not lose royal favour, and retained and added to his existing financial arrangements. In December 1675 he was appointed English ambassador to the congress of Nymegen, but ill health forced him to return in May 1677. He died 28 August 1678, and was buried in Twickenham.
During the 1660s he married Christian, daughter and heir to Sir Andrew Riccard of London, governor of the East India Company. They had three sons – Charles, John, and William, each of whom succeeded to the title in turn – and a daughter, Anne. Two portraits of Berkeley, one by Caspar Netscher, are held in Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire.