Kenilworth Castle: Medieval Castle and Elizabethan Showpiece

English Heritage

One of England’s most magnificent castles 

First built in the 1120s and a royal castle for most of its history, Kenilworth Castle was expanded by King John, John of Gaunt and Henry V. In 1563 Elizabeth I granted it to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who converted Kenilworth into a lavish palace. The castle’s fortifications were dismantled in 1650, and the ruins later became famous thanks in part to Walter Scott’s 1821 romance, ‘Kenilworth’.

The Medieval Castle
The first castle at Kenilworth dates to the 1120s. Over the following 500 years the castle increased in size and status, having been taken on by the Crown because of its strategic significance. New, stronger defences consisting of stone walls and extensive water features were added by King John in the early 13th century, allowing the castle to withstand a full-scale siege over six months in 1266.

The origins of Kenilworth Castle lay with Geoffrey I de Clinton, in about 1120. Geoffrey was Henry I’s chamberlain and treasurer.

The king granted him the lands of Kenilworth to position a political ally close to the lands of the Earl of Warwick, whom Henry did not trust.

A generation later, this strategically important castle was in royal hands. Henry II garrisoned it against his rebellious sons in 1173–4, and acquired it outright in the 1180s.

It’s likely that Geoffrey I built the great tower, the best-surviving part of the early (stone) castle.

This tower, or keep, was the castle’s architectural focus and was a fashionable form of building in the 12th century. It was entered via a stone forebuilding on the west side.

The tower itself had two storeys beneath a walkway at roof level. The significant changes in the castle’s layout and functioning in the 16th century have partly impeded a better understanding of how the great tower was used.

However, we can be certain that the building was laid out to impress upon visitors the great power and influence of its builders and owners.

Apart from the tower, the 12th-century castle comprised a courtyard enclosed by stone walls. The buildings around it housed other aspects of daily life in the castle: the kitchen, accommodation spaces and storage facilities.

Later changes at Kenilworth, including John of Gaunt’s massive remodelling, have swept any visible evidence of this away.

In 1253 Henry III granted the castle to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, for life. De Montfort’s fateful decision to lead a rebellion against the king cost him his life at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.

After the battle, some of his followers made a last stand at Kenilworth in what became the longest siege in English medieval history.

During the siege, massive stone projectiles were hurled into the castle using trebuchets, or siege engines.

Many trebuchet balls have been found at the castle.

This iron arrowhead probably dates from the time of the siege.

Knights often extended their adornment to their horses, which were also a sign of prestige.

Pendants like this, which would have hung from a bridle or saddle, are frequent finds from medieval sites.

This large bone toggle might have been used to attach equipment to a horse’s saddle.

The powerful nobleman John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, developed the castle into a vast and comfortable palace in the later 14th century. He added key buildings such as the magnificent great hall.

Elizabeth and Leicester
In 1563 Elizabeth I granted the castle to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He added to its grandeur, commissioning new buildings and a formal garden as part of his elaborate preparations for a series of visits to Kenilworth by the queen between 1572 and 1575.

Elizabeth visited Kenilworth Castle four times during ‘progresses’ through her realm. Her visit in the summer of 1575 was the longest she made to any courtier during her reign.

Robert Dudley’s careful staging of the queen’s visit in 1575 was clearly intended to impress his importance on the queen – and was perhaps his last attempt to win her hand in marriage.

Within the castle’s inner court, Leicester erected this four-storey tower block, now known as Leicester’s Building. It was designed especially for the queen’s use in 1572 and improved for her next visit in 1575.

As well as improving the hunting park outside the castle walls with bowers, arbours, seats and walks, Leicester also laid out a privy garden especially for the queen’s 1575 visit.

In 2009 English Heritage was able to recreate Robert Dudley’s lost garden using contemporary written accounts, archaeological evidence and historic images.

It was the first ever recreation of an Elizabethan garden on such a grand scale.

An Elizabethan extravaganza
After the Civil War, most of the castle’s buildings were slighted (made indefensible). Of the magnificent buildings erected by Robert Dudley, only Leicester’s Gatehouse survives as a roofed structure. This is because it was converted into a residence by the Parliamentarian commander in charge of the slighting.

Architectural features from other buildings at the castle were reused in the gatehouse after 1650, giving an impression of Kenilworth’s showy interiors in the Elizabethan period. This magnificent alabaster fireplace contains the initials RL (Robert of Leicester), his family motto, and the badge of the Order of Garter, of which he was a knight.

The oak overmantle shows the initials ER (Elizabeth Regina) and the Dudley family’s emblem of a ragged, or knobbly, staff.

Dudley’s additions to the castle were elaborately decorated.

This carved helm is from an architectural frieze, and shows in detail the S-shaped ‘breaths’ of an actual helmet, which provided ventilation for the knight wearing it.

Even utilitarian objects, like this (incomplete) block for tethering horses, could be decorated.

This one takes the form of a grotesque beast. Originally it would have had a metal loop in its mouth to which reins could be attached.

By the late 18th century tourists and artists alike had begun to take an interest in Kenilworth’s picturesque ruins. The 1821 publication of Sir Walter Scott’s romantic novel ‘Kenilworth’ put it firmly on the map as a major tourist attraction.

English Heritage took over the care of the castle in 1984.

It manages and maintains it today as one of England’s foremost historical sites.

Credits: Story

Cameron Moffett, Will Wyeth, Rose Arkle

Visit Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Gardens.

Credits: All media
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