Of all the castles of England, Kenilworth Castle ranks as one of the most break-taking ruins – and one of my absolute favourites.
Kenilworth is a beautiful little town in Warwickshire, sandwiched between Leamington Spa and the urban concrete of Coventry. The castle is located towards the outskirts of the town; surrounded by flat, marshy land.
Kenilworth was originally a true Medieval stronghold. During Tudor times, however, the castle evolved into a glorious palace that was, quite literally, fit for a Queen – Elizabeth I.
Nowadays, Kenilworth Castle is managed by English Heritage, who do an excellent job of maintaining the site and providing historical interpretation. There’s enough to see and to do in the castle to occupy a comfortable day’s visit.
Kenilworth Castle: A Marriage of Fearsome Military Strength, and Gentle Tudor Romance
Kenilworth Castle is so special because it marries phenomenal military might with a remarkable Tudor love-story.
One one hand, Kenilworth is as important and impregnable a fortress as any of the world’s most formidable castles.
It was once surrounded by huge, man made-lakes (or meres), and was the site of the Great Siege of Kenilworth in 1266 – which was one of the most ferocious Medieval sieges ever to occur on English soil.
On the other hand, in Tudor times, Kenilworth was delicately-restored and wrapped up as a romantic surprise – an intended engagement present, literally fit for a queen.
During the 1570s, Robert Leicester (before patronage, Robert Dudley) restored and extended Kenilworth Castle, and built the spectacular Elizabethan Gardens. Leicester’s aim was to seduce Queen Elizabeth I with his phenomenal hospitality – and hence claim her hand in marriage. Despite his over-blown attempts, he was unsuccessful.
These two huge events are only part of the magic of Kenilworth Castle – a beautiful site, filled with jaw-dropping ruins and atmospheric remnants of years gone by. It’s worth taking a deeper look into what makes this castle so special.
A True Medieval Stronghold – Once Surrounded by Huge, Defensive Meres
On approach to Kenilworth, the first thing you’ll notice is that the castle is truly vast.
At its furthest points, the main enclosure of the castle is almost a quarter of a kilometre wide. Indeed, in the castle’s heyday, the surrounding countryside estate of the castle would have spanned more than 4,000 acres.
When you first arrive at the castle, you’ll drive through an outer-ring of defensive hillocks to get to the modern-day car-park.
These small hills and fortifications used to be a first-line of defence for anyone entering the castle, but, nowadays, much of these fortifications have faded away, from the passage of time – and erosion.
On parking up and paying at the English Heritage entrance booth, you’ll walk across a wide access-way to reach the castle. This raised-way was originally a dam and access-road, and the marshy, flat land to your left and right used to be two huge man-made lakes (or meres), which were used to defend the castle.
These lakes – the Great Mere – were also a habitat for fish and wildfowl, which would have been caught to be cooked in the extensive early-modern castle kitchens.
The Great Mere which surrounded Kenilworth once spanned a phenomenal size – it was more than half a mile long, and about 150m wide.
However, in 1649, as a consequence of the English Civil War, the mere was intentionally drained by Colonel Hawksworth, one of Cromwell’s men. This act of intentional damage – the ‘slighting’ – was to prevent the castle for being used as a stronghold during future uprisings.
The Siege of Kenilworth Castle in 1266
But let’s step further back in time. In 1266, Kenilworth Castle was the site of one of the largest and most ferocious sieges in the history of England.
To give you context behind the Great Siege of 1266, it’s important to understand that, in about 1120, the first fortifications were built at Kenilworth.
From 1174, King Henry II saw the castle had significant strategic potential, and ordered the control of the castle to be passed to him. Between Henry II and his son, King John, they lavished money on the castle, and built the ring of outer defence works which are still visible to this day.
In 1253, Simon de Montfort was granted custody of Kenilworth Castle for the rest of his life. He spent even more money on the castle, which included equipping Kenilworth with “unheard of machines” – which probably referred to trebuchets, which were mighty stone catapults.
However savvy de Montfort may have been in securing the castle and strengthening its defences, he made a terrible mistake in 1258 by leading a group of barons in rebellion against the present king, Henry III.
De Montfort enjoyed some early success – he managed to capture King Henry and also son Edward. This effectively made de Montfort the caretaker king of England.
But his aspirations were short-lived. Edward managed to escape from his captors, and lead a huge army into battle against de Montfort. As a result, de Montfort was killed in a bloody battle at Evesham in 1265.
However, from 1266 onwards, some of his loyal followers barricaded themselves in Kenilworth Castle, in defiance of the victorious King.
This whole situation would have been incredibly frustrating for King Henry III.
His father and great-grandfather had spent tens of thousands building up the defences of Kenilworth Castle – and now his own forces were locked out of the castle that was ‘rightfully’ his! Those expensive defences were now being used against him.
The siege of Kenilworth Castle began in June 1266 and lasted a full six months, until December that year. Those defending the castle lived through quite shocking difficulty and squalor, but were successful in keeping out the attackers for an unheard of time.
The royal forces outside the castle struggled against the might of the huge trebuchet catapults, which flung huge rocks from inside the castle onto the defenders outside. Resultantly, the regal army had to scurry to London to procure equal machinery.
The Royal forces returned with a selection of their own trebuchets – and these were truly quite phenomenal beasts. These mighty machines were capable of flinging huge rocks, weighing up to 150kg, into the castle.
Some of the rocks used back then have been discovered by archeologists, and can be seen today (see below). A rock this size was capable of phenomenal damage – it destroyed buildings inside the bailey, and would have horrifically crushed men defending the castle.
After six months passed, the Royalists won out. Those in the castle surrendered.
However, the victory wasn’t really due to the success of the royalists’ besieging techniques. Instead, the defenders had been starved out or forced out by disease – leading to their bedraggled surrender on 14 December 1266.
An Elizabethan Love-Story: How Robert Leicester Used Kenilworth Castle Used to Woo Queen Elizabeth
And so to another remarkable chapter in Kenilworth’s history, some 300 years later – the entanglement of the castle and Queen Elizabeth I.
Quite remarkably, during the 1570s, Kenilworth Castle became an ostentatious offering from Robert Leicester to Queen Elizabeth of England. At that time, Kenilworth was owned by Leicester, and he tried to use the castle to woo the ‘Virgin Queen’ and secure her hand in marriage.
Every summer, Elizabeth I made ‘progresses’ around England – journeys where her adoring subjects could get a glimpse of her in her finery, helping to maintain her enviable image. These short journeys cumulated in lengthy stays in the castles or mansions of her most trusted courtiers.
Robert Leicester was a favourite of Elizabeth’s and, if the Queen would have married for love or for companionship, he would have been her obvious suitor.
Leicester undoubtedly felt a greater attraction to the Queen than she felt to him. He desperately wished to secure her hand in marriage.
As a result, he extended and refined Kenilworth Castle as an attempt to impress and to woo the Queen when she stayed at the castle, during her summer progress of 1575.
Leicester spent a phenomenal amount on Kenilworth to make the castle, quite literally, ‘fit for a queen’.
From 1571, he built the entire four-storeys of Leicester’s Building, an extensive suite of rooms and chambers intended to house the Queen and her servants. The design of the building was extravagant – the windows were large and made of glass, which would have been extremely expensive.
In addition to Leicester’s Building, the duke improved other areas of the castle.
Such improvements included remodelling the older state apartments and adding beautiful bay windows. Leicester also built an extensive gatehouse, connecting the Northern side of the castle with Kenilworth itself.
One of Leicester’s most ostentatious additions was the magnificent Elizabethan Garden, which is situated again at the North aspect of the castle.
Ornate, ordered gardens had become particularly en vogue in Elizabethan times, and were built to demonstrate the pedigree of their owner.
The mix of statues, fountains and delicate shrubbery evoked classical Greek or Latin mythology, and provided a refined environment for plays or feasting. The Elizabethan Garden has been painstakingly re-created for today’s audiences by English Heritage.
Despite all these efforts, the Good Queen Elizabeth only stayed a week when she visited in 1575.
She was, however, greeted with flamboyant (and bordering impudent) display of extravagance and finery, which included guilded trumpeteers, firework displays, tremendous feasting, many hunts, and the performance of numerous plays and pageants.
Leicester pushed his luck with some of these plays.
Some of the skits, although couched in classical mythology, were filled with unsubtle references to the need for chaste Queens to marry. One piece, entitled Zabeta, was so close to the line that it was cancelled at the last minute.
What was the outcome of all this expense and hard work? Unfortunately for Leicester, the Queen chose not to take these heavy hints.
She never again returned to Kenilworth and, instead, in 1578 Leicester abandoned the project and married another woman. However, there’s ample evidence of a lingering affection between himself and the Queen – although Elizabeth, of course, never married.
If you’d like to read about other interesting castles in England, Dover Castle is one of the country’s most famous fortresses. Alternatively, an interesting nearby site – around 45minutes drive – is Tamworth Castle.
Murder, Romance, And Even More Secrets of Kenilworth Castle…
Why did Robert Dudley use whale’s vomit to woo Queen Elizabeth?
Did Lady Amy Dudley die of natural causes – or was it murder?
And why could a visit from a Queen be financially ruinous?
If you’d like to unearth more mysteries of Kenilworth Castle, you need my first print book, Exploring English Castles.