Kenilworth is one of the grandest ruined castles in England. Enclosed by water on three sides its massive red-sandstone keep has been a fixture in the Warwickshire landscape for almost 900 years.
The first castle on this site was a simple wooden motte-and-bailey. In the 1120s the castle and lands were given to Henry I's Lord Chamberlain, Geoffrey de Clinton. He built the substantial great tower and curtain walls, however the problems caused by the uncertainty of Henry I's succession meant that further development of the castle was delayed.
During the revolt in 1173 Henry II's forces were garrisoned in the castle and it was taken into royal possession. Kenilworth was one of a number of royal castles upgraded by King John. Over the course of six years between 1210 and 1216 he built the outer bailey wall and added Mortimer's and Lunn's Towers. Royal domestic accommodation was added in the form of kings' and queen's chambers and a chapel. He also dammed two nearby brooks to form a massive defensive lake called the Great Mere.
John's son Henry III gave Kenilworth to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester in 1253. Over time de Montfort became one of Henry's most bitter enemies. In 1263 he led the Second Baron's War against the king using Kenilworth Castle as his base. He captured the young Prince Edward and imprisoned him.
Edward escaped and subsequently played a vital role in killing de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. The rebels retreated to Kenilworth castle where they were besieged for six months. The attackers couldn't get in to take the castle. Water on three sides prevented undermining so they were forced to attack the gatehouse. Despite bringing in massive siege engines and trebuchets the siege was only ended when the papal legate Ottbuono negotiated the Baron's surrender.
The castle passed through a number of hands during the 14th Century, but by the 15th Century it was a royal possession once more. Henry IV made extensive use of the castle and it was a favourite destination of Henry V.
The castle was given to John Dudley and he began new works to modernise the castle. He added a stable block and widened the tiltyard. After Dudley's execution, his son Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, continued the work.
Robert intended to marry Queen Elizabeth and he wanted her to stay during her regular tours of hte country. He employed William Spicer to extend the castle and build modern accommodation for the royal court. Together they added a superb gatehouse and a beautiful residential suite, intended specifically for Queen Elizabeth. The magnificent gardens and the landscaping of the hunting park also date from this time.
During the Civil War in the 17th Century Kenilworth remained loyal to King Charles and provided a useful counter-balance to nearby Warwick Castle, which was in the hands of the Parliamentarians. Just after the end of the war, in 1649 Parliament ordered the slighting Kenilworth Castle. Parts of the outer bailey and battlements were destroyed and one of the walls of the great keep was removed. Ownership of the castle was passed to Sir Edward Hyde, created Baron Hyde of Hindon and Earl of Clarendon. The castle subsequently became a farm.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries the castle gradually became a tourist attraction. Its fame really rose when Sir Walter Scott wrote his novel Kenilworth in 1821. He loosely based it on Queen Elizabeth I's visit in 1575 (the Earl's last, and most spectacular, attempt to woo the queen). The novel firmly established Kenilworth in the Victorian imagination as a romantic Elizabethan location. In the 1860s work was undertaken to preserve the ruined castle and it received a number of prominent visitors, including Queen Victoria.
The castle passed into the care of English Heritage in 1984. The castle welcomes visitors and, despite its partially ruined state, offers a number of exhibitions. The gatehouse is set up as it would have been in the 1930s when it was last lived in. There is also an exhibition on Robert Dudley, including rooms that have been restored to their Elizabethan form, some paintings of Queen Elizabeth and an original tapestry commissioned by the Earl.
The castle gardens have been restored to their Elizabethan glory as part of a major restoration project. The castle hosts historically-themed events and visitors are catered for with a picnic area, tearoom, toilets and an on-site gift shop.
Status: Museum / Visitor Attraction
Owner: English Heritage
Tel: +44 (0)1926 852 078
Opening Times: April to October daily 10am to 5pm / November to March weekends only 10am to 4pm
Kenilworth Castle keep and gatehouse
The massive red sandstone keep