You may not have thought of the countess of Berkeley lately but I have, since she illustrates important aspects of a great family. Do not approach 1985 without digesting a lesson.

The particular lady I think of was Mary Cole, the 17-year-old child of a butcher who plied his excellent trade near Berkeley Castle in the west of England in the 18th century. Like all nubiles west of London, apparently, she encountered the affections of the fifth earl of Berkeley, who did much to populate the realm, it is said, but unlike them she moved into the castle when she got pregnant and did not budge. In 1796, some time after she first ran into his lordship (and had a bastard by him) she was wed, probably with lilies of the valley.

This would not be the first time a butcher's lass was transformed into a countess, since in human affairs it commonly happens that sows' ears turn to silk purses; but what I admire is her handling of the whole business. Surely the Berkeleys, as one of the greatest families, raised a few objections, first to Miss Cole's moving in and then to her bastard and then to her marriage to the head of the family. You can almost hear the great-aunts in chorus.

But while other young ladies were perhaps overcome with shame, Mary made the best of things, which is always wise. Possibly his lordship was not her beau ideal -- he was 23 years older -- and perhaps it all sprang from a cup of mead at the village fair. Yet once in the soup, she forged ahead, doubtless concluding she might as well be a countess as a disgraced butcher's girl in the village, and maneuvering all shoals to reach port. This takes courage, this takes skill.

I hate to think of the outrage in her own family. ("We may be poor, missy, but the Coles have never before endured the shame of a daughter turning into a toff's pickup, and I thank God your dear grandmother is not alive to see this day, and why you ever let that man near you, knowing his reputation, is more than I can tell. As I told you and told you when you were only 12," etc., etc.)

As it turned out she bore the earl a large number of children, the later ones all legitimate, thank you, and she also wound up taking over the management of the Berkeley estates. The earl's brother, in a pretty tribute to her merits, told the earl that "If you had chosen from a throne you might perhaps not have got a better."

There are worse mottoes under a crest than Roll With the Punch.

A book I value, "A Place in History," by Paul Johnson (sometime editor of New Statesman), has a fine chapter on the Berkeleys, making the forgotten point that families rarely stay at the top of the heap more than three generations. The Berkeleys are, of course, a stunning exception, having held on to Berkeley Castle since they got a toehold there in 1149.

The founder of the family, Edward the Staller (do not underestimate Fed types in this city, by the way), was a government official under Edward the Confessor, but after the invaders won England, he later fought for the Conqueror. He did not, in other words, stall too long, and a descendant who was a rich merchant lent money to Henry II at an ideal moment. The name became Berkeley, and they got Berkeley Manor, which they have been improving for the past millennium.

A later Berkeley nearly lost the great estate by opposing King John, but fortunately his successor "so evenly observed a prudent inclining after the strongest powers that he ever avoided those court and country storms which in his time blew down many stronger cedars than himself."

What usually happened to great families was that they died of plague or lost male heirs in battle or opposed a king at the wrong time. Or sometimes they married off their heir to an heiress, and if you think of it, the reason the heiress was an heiress was because she had no brothers; and this raised the genetic likelihood that in the next generation or two the male line would die out. Thus a rich marriage, which might save a family in one generation, might destroy it through lack of heirs in the next. Things even out.

You recall another chancy episode of the Berkeleys, when Richard II died at their castle. Not to split hairs, he was murdered, but the Berkeley in question said he was away at the time, ha. Fortunately the murdered king's heir let it pass and nothing wretched happened to the Berkeleys.

Through a thousand years of peril on all sides the Berkeleys stayed afloat. Though often in battle, they nevertheless survived sufficiently. Sometimes forming unwise alliances or briefly losing their blue-eyed minds by backing the wrong faction, they nevertheless pulled through to this very day, and there is not a handful of families who can say as much, and of that handful only the Berkeleys have somehow managed to hold tenaciously to their immemorial seat.

If they ever guessed wrong or made errors they still caught up. One error was opposing the church in 1234, when the clergy wanted to remove the stigma of bastardy from a lad if his parents eventually married. The Berkeley of that day, however, joined other nobles to insist the stain was permanent.

This mean approach backfired when the fifth earl's bastard could not inherit, partly because of his ancestor's unwholesome reverence for documents.

The countess (Mary Cole) and her earl then said they had been married in secret before the first boy was born. This claim was rejected by the House of Lords. The Berkeleys probably just thought they were married. Some said they should be hanged for forging documents to support the claim. Again, luck held. The intended heir could not inherit, but a generation or so set all things right.

The lessons of this great family are too numerous, over too many centuries, to encapsulate, though fully relevant today. In general think quick, if you have a hand murdering a king, making sure the queen won't mind. Be nice to butchers' daughters at all times. Do not be beastly to bastards or bureaucrats, for times change. In duels eschew slowness. In battle watch out for the wrong end of the sword until you have heirs and dodge bubonic plague. Do not defy winning kings, but lend cash in good time, when it counts. Struggle for sharp wits. Pray hard for luck, and a Happy New Year to all.