A castle slighted – if only walls could talk

Neither modest in size, nor lacking in importance, Kenilworth Castle was indeed slighted – in about 1650. It’s an archaic use of the word. The walls were deliberately destroyed, and razed to the ground. So after five hundred years of continuous occupation, the castle became a ruin, with only the Gatehouse (now fully restored) made a home by Sir John Hawksworth after the end of the Civil Wars. The Gatehouse was still occupied into the middle of the 20th century. But by then, the castle had been a ruin for 400 years or more. Kenilworth Castle is a fascinating testament to power and wealth from the Normans (from the time of Henry I) to the Stuarts.

Built by a Norman baron in the middle of the 12th century, and occupied for the next five centuries – as fortress, royal palace, or aristocratic residence – Kenilworth Castle, in the heart of Warwickshire (Shakespeare country) is a jewel in the English Heritage crown.

Plan of the castle

On a beautiful Tuesday, a couple of days ago, we made the 30 mile trip due east arriving at the castle just before 11:00 and spending almost four hours exploring the site, and what remains of the ruined Priory of St Mary just a short distance from the castle and built about the same time.

I hadn’t appreciated before our visit just how large the castle site is, and for how long it had been occupied. As a budding historian, I’ve encountered references to Kenilworth Castle in many of the books I’ve read. It was, during the late 14th and throughout the 15th centuries a residence of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and a Lancastrian stronghold. During the reign of Elizabeth I in Tudor times a century later, Kenilworth Castle was gifted to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the queen’s favorite and erstwhile suitor. Many parts of the ruin and the (reconstructed) Elizabethan garden are the legacy of Robert Dudley. Elizabeth visited Kenilworth a number of times, and Dudley actually constructed the Leicester Building (#10 on the graphic above) in 1572 especially for one of Elizabeth’s visit while on royal progress. Likewise the garden.

20150421 011 Kenilworth CastleThe castle is entered through Mortimer’s Gate (#2) over a ‘dam’ that was originally constructed by King John in the 13th century. It blocked the flow of the Finham Brook on the south side of the castle’s curtain wall, and creating what was once one of the largest man-made lakes in England. It provided great defensive possibilities. The later buildings lie to the west and south of the Norman tower (#6). The 16th century half-timbered stable block (#3) is now a cafe and exhibition hall. The construction of the timber gables and eaves is impressive.

On the west side of the castle is the Great Hall constructed by John of Gaunt. Of course most of the floors have disappeared, but you can easily see where each floor was located, with its windows and fireplaces.

And then just to the east is Leicester’s Building, over four or five floors. Now it’s a hollow shell, but English Heritage have constructed a walkway inside right to the top. I’ve not got a very good head for heights, and my knees were just a little wobbly by the time we reached the top, and peered over the side.

Elsewhere, access has been made to reach some of the battlements and great views are afforded all over the site, especially the Elizabethan garden, with its aviary and singing canaries. The garden was researched before reconstruction and is believed to look much like it would have done during Elizabeth’s visit.

20150421 023 Kenilworth Castle

20150421 065 Kenilworth Castle

If walls could talk what secrets would they reveal? Did King John plot here against his barons, or the Lancastrians plan their anti-Yorkist strategy during the Wars of the Roses? Did Dudley eventually make it into Elizabeth’s bedchamber? We’ll never know.

As we arrived to Kenilworth Castle a large group of German school children was leaving. Their visit had lasted just 45 minutes, I was told. Very short! We were there for nearly four hours, and although I think we saw almost all there was to see, another visit would merit a perimeter walk along the exterior curtain wall. Again, we were lucky with the weather, and there were not too many visitors. Kenilworth Castle welcomes thousands of visitors during the school vacations. A late spring day was just right for us.

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