When I was a boy, I loved Castles. I played regularly in a local wood which had a great big mound of earth, at its centre. My friends and I took it in turns defending the mound, which of course was `Our castle! We stripped back small sticks and ferns and threw them down onto the enemy below us.
We would set up `look outs` and take it in turns patrolling the top of the mound, alert for sudden incursions from the outlying woodland, ever wary of a sudden attack. We were imaginative children, but much of it had been nurtured during our school history lessons with glorious tales of siege and mayhem, throughout the Norman Invasion of William the Conqueror.
I was fascinated by the multitude of ways in which a castle could be attacked; from firing dead rotting sheep over the walls of a castle with a trebuchet, to spread disease during a siege, to the shocking `killing ground` of the Barbican.
Huge wooden machines of war, such as the `trebuchet`, `battering rams`, `scaling ladders`, `siege towers` and `the belfry`, filled me with the adventure, excitement, noise, blood and thunder of castle warfare! I loved castles, what young boy didn’t?
I recently visited Kenilworth Castle and that boyhood excitement immediately returned.
“the finest surviving example of a semi-royal palace of the later middle ages, significant for its scale, form and quality of workmanship”
Anthony Emery – Architectural historian
Kenilworth Castle stands on a low hill that was once at the heart of a 1,600 hectare (4,000 acre) park and surrounded by a vast man-made lake. The spectacular ruins, built mostly from the local red sandstone, reveals much of its medieval and Tudor past.
There is a great deal to see and explore at Kenilworth Castle and it was very easy to imagine how grand the Castle must have been, when entertaining Kings, Barons and Earls, with much dancing, eating and music in the Great Hall. As I walked around the walls, across the Bailey looking up at the impressive solid Keep, I was able to use my imagination to go back several centuries, to how the castle would have looked to those people, who lived there or visited.
Founded in the 12th century around the impressive looking Norman Tower, this Tower was and still is, the heart of castle life for over 500 years. The Norman Keep is a defensive powerhouse, built three stories high with walls, which I was told are an incredible 14 feet wide. It is still the most dominant feature of the castle today.
The self – guided audio guide, available from English Heritage at the entrance to the castle, helped a great deal and the information panels spread across the site provided further details on each part of the castle. Visitors can explore at will and not have to follow a set route around the castle.
I noticed several schoolchildren wandering the site, free of their teachers, enjoying the freedom of the castle. There is plenty of space to roam freely, ideal for families with young children, who may want to stretch their legs a little! It is a fascinating place to explore and so much history to learn!
John of Gaunt’s Great Hall was one of the finest of its kind in the world and was at the cutting edge of 14th century architectural design. Built to reinforce Kenilworth’s position of power and wealth it regularly played host to powerful medieval monarchs and Tudor kings. John of Gaunt spent lavishly in the late 14th century, turning the medieval castle into a palace fortress designed in the latest perpendicular style. The castle also formed a base for Lancastrian operations during the Wars of the Roses.
Huge water defences were created by damming the local streams, and the resulting fortifications proved able to withstand assaults by land and the castle was the subject of the six-month-long Siege of Kenilworth in 1266, believed to be the longest siege in English history!
Kenilworth is one of the most romantic castles in England, due principally because of the attempt by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester to court Elizabeth I. In the 16th century, Elizabeth I had granted the castle to Dudley, who converted and expanded the castle, constructing new Tudor buildings and exploiting the medieval heritage of Kenilworth to produce a fashionable and lavish Renaissance palace in which he hoped to entertain and woo the Queen in 1575, unsuccessfully as it turned out.
For the first time in 350 years you can now explore the full height of the tower built by Leicester to court Elizabeth I. Stairs have been added to make more parts accessible. Stand at floor level in the queen’s private rooms and soak up the same spectacular views that she had enjoyed. Experience a whole new perspective on what was one of Elizabethan England’s finest buildings.
The staircases and platforms take you 18 metres up into the tower, to the level of the fireplaces and windows built for the royal visit. You can glimpse the queen’s private staircase, and the long gallery where she could have private time with her most intimate friends. In 1575 these rooms were luxurious, elegant and flooded with light from enormous glass windows.
In Leicester`s Gatehouse you can view a captivating exhibition about the romance between the queen and her ambitious courtier. The imposing castle entrance was transformed into a private house after 1650. Today you can see how it looked when the last caretaker left in the late 1930`s. You can explore the Elizabethan bedroom and Oak Room which contains a beautifully ornate alabaster fireplace which once stood in Elizabeth I’s private rooms. The Dining Room and Oak Room are also available for wedding ceremonies and receptions.
I strolled across to the Elizabethan Garden and was surprised to find such a beautiful garden located at the side of the castle. Lost to the world for almost 400 years, this beautifully recreated Elizabethan Garden is a haven of peace and tranquillity, full of colour and fragrant walkways.
Looking across the gardens I could see a marble fountain, a decorative aviary and the Earl of Leicester’s emblem of the Bear and Ragged staff.
The Elizabethan gardens have been restored and shows what types of plants were probably grown in the 16th century. But it is a lovely place to walk or just sit quietly and take in the garden.
Kenilworth was partly dismantled by Cromwell`s Parliamentary forces in 1650 to prevent it being used as a military stronghold. Much of the castle was destroyed and left in ruins. The castle became a tourist destination from the 18th century onwards, becoming famous in the Victorian period following the publishing of Sir Walter Scott’s romantic novel Kenilworth in 1826, considered one of his finest historical novels.
Set in Elizabethan England, the plot relates the disaster that follows the attempt by the Earl of Leicester, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, to avoid the queen’s displeasure at his marriage. Telling no one that he has married Amy Robsart, he hides his new bride at the home of Richard Varney, whose patron he is. Edmund Tressilian, who had also courted Amy, mistakenly believes that Amy is Varney’s mistress and attempts to persuade her to return to her parental home. Tressilian then informs the queen that Varney has seduced Amy. To protect Leicester, Varney claims that Amy is his wife. The tangled web of lies and betrayals ultimately results in Amy’s death.
Kenilworth -Sir Walter Scott – 1821
English Heritage has managed the castle since 1984. The castle is classed as a Grade I listed building and as a Scheduled Monument.
I was looking forward to resting my feet, grab a bite to eat and order a drink at the Stables Tearoom. The tearoom is set within an impressive Tudor timber-framed stables building. It offers a selection of cakes and light lunches, made from seasonal ingredients and sourced from local suppliers. Children’s meals are also available.
There is also an exhibition showing the timeline of historical events associated with the castle. The cafe is fairly large and there is also outdoor seating. When the weather is fine you can sit outside and enjoy a picnic! The food was good and the restaurant staff were very pleasant and attentive. A varied menu with reasonable prices. .
Friends of mine who have previously visited, also recommend stopping off at the local Queen and Castle pub, appropriately named, just across the road from the castle, which has a very pleasant restaurant and bar.
My day at Kenilworth Castle, certainly fired my imagination! As I walked around the back of the castle and out over the mere, I suddenly started to strip back the ferns and began to rush back towards the castle to defend the Keep, but then I stopped and remembered, I had left the car in the car park!
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Credit: English Heritage for all photographs marked EH