Editorial Feature

5 English Heritage Sites That Changed English History Forever

History buff and BBC presenter Dan Snow on the most influential stately homes, ruins and castles

As a kid, my grandma, mum and dad often took me to old castles, ruins and stately homes around the South East where I grew up. My love of history is rooted in these historic sites. They are the places that endure, unchanging, as cityscapes rise and fall, as technology changes, as we age, and that feeling has stayed with me ever since.

It’s sometimes difficult to visualize the past, difficult to believe that history actually happened. Did armies really once traverse the landscape leaving a trail of scorched earth, and wailing victims? Did the ancients really believe in a pantheon of gods who actively, daily interfered in our lives, who demanded altars, temples and monuments? It’s difficult to believe that anything happened before we were born, and that is why our heritage environment matters so much. The weathered stones remind us that we are part of a continuum, a human story that began long before us and will continue long after. These buildings, decayed or lovingly preserved, speak wisdom. We are not so special, our problems are not unique. They admonish our arrogance. They explain who we are.

Here are 5 of my favorite English Heritage sites; places that help to tell the story of how we got to where we are today.

Maiden Castle (From the collection of English Heritage)

1. Maiden Castle: The Ancient Stronghold

Most of human settlement in Britain happened before history began. For thousands of years, men and women followed the herds up and down the island, mined copper in North Wales, lived on stilted villages over The Fens, but left no written record at all. Maiden Castle is a mis-named relic of this deeper past. It is not a medieval castle but a massive hill fort; one of Europe’s biggest. 500 years before the Romans arrived, it was a vastly important site, surrounded by rings of ramparts. Was it a refuge in time of war, a ceremonial centre, a settlement? We don’t know for sure, but it fires the imagination.

Reconstruction Drawing of Maiden Castle in the Iron Age, by Peter Urmston, 21st century (From the collection of English Heritage)

2. Portchester Castle: Coastal Guardian to Britain

History often happens in the same place. A strategic pass, a good harbor, or a fertile valley will remain at the centre of human affairs for as long as we need these for defense, trade and survival. Portchester is such a place. The Romans built a base here, within easy reach of the continent, and as a safe refuge for ships, which remains the best preserved Roman fort north of the Alps. It guarded the shore against Saxons, Vikings and the French. A mighty castle was built inside the old Roman fort by the Plantagenet kings of England, which is one of the finest surviving castles in England to this day.

Portchester castle (From the collection of English Heritage)

3. Battle Abbey: 1066 and Regime Change

Sometimes, battles do change the course of history. In October 1066, King Harold of England was decisively defeated by Duke William of Normandy. Harold was killed, as was a large portion of the English nobility. In their place came a few hundred Norman French lords, who were installed in mighty castles across the country and, over the next few generations, subdued and thoroughly conquered England, before pushing into Wales, Scotland and Ireland. French was spoken at court, in parliament, and in the courts for centuries to come. The battlefield today is an evocative place; a bloody killing field where Saxon and Norman were locked in deadlock for hours, until one side broke, changing the course of British history forever.

Battle Abbey and Battlefield (From the collection of English Heritage)

4. Dover Castle: The “Key to England”

There has been a military presence at Dover Castle from the Iron Age to the Nuclear Age. The massive ancient ramparts have been added to and strengthened by every generation. Today, a medieval wall surrounds a Roman lighthouse and Saxon settlement, with 20th-Century gun platforms, and 1940s anti-tank traps. Beneath lie a network of Cold War tunnels, ready to be inhabited by regional government after a nuclear strike. In 1216, Dover held out against French invasion as much of the rest of England submitted, in 1940, Dover was HQ for the Dunkirk Evacuation; Dover’s influence has always extended far beyond its powerful walls.

Dover Castle (From the collection of English Heritage)

5. Kenwood House: Birthplace of Modern Britain

In the 18th Century, Britain underwent an explosion of trade, industry, imperial power and wealth which saw it outstrip its rivals and lay the foundations for the modern industrialized nation we know today. Britain was reshaped by hugely wealthy families who built palatial houses to flaunt their wealth, and celebrate their modernity and sophistication. Kenwood tells you more about this period at a glance than thousands of words in a history book. Opulent, powerful, confident, it was home to British aristocrats and Russian royalty over the centuries, and has never been far from the heart of British public life.

Kenwood (From the collection of English Heritage)

We’re blessed with a vast array of house, castles, battlefields, monuments and museums in Britain. Collectively they ensure that more people visit heritage sites every weekend than go to football matches. They are a critical part of our past, but also our present; if you want to understand the nature and character of modern Britain, visit the places that shaped our past.

You might also like:
- Portchester Castle: from Roman Fort to Prisoner-of-War Camp
- Bolsover Castle
-The Iconic Art of Kenwood House
- Explore the English Heritage collection

Words by Dan Snow
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