Over the past few weeks I’ve been relishing getting back to some castles after such a painfully long time. Having missed them like dear old friends, it’s been a relief simply to be back within their sturdy walls, absorbing their stories and glories once more. Regrettably for a castle-mad medievalist, there aren’t many such places to visit in my area, but nevertheless I’m lucky to have one wonderful example reasonably close by, and this was at the top of my go-to list. So as soon as I could, I made a beeline for Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, for which I’ve always had a soft spot. Kenilworth is most famous for its links with Elizabeth I and her doomed romance with Robert Dudley, as it was here in July 1575 that the desperate Dudley made his last ditch attempt to woo his beloved queen during her 18-day stay as his pampered guest. As history well knows, his efforts were all in vain and he failed to win Elizabeth’s hand, but for me, to find the castle’s best stories you need to look further back in time, into the mists of the Middle Ages. So let me show you around my local castle and tell you its earlier tales of unpopular kings, over-mighty nobles, bitter sieges, egotistical palace builders and the odd bit of regal recreation.
My first port of call is always the keep, the oldest building on the site and also my favourite. It’s a colossal behemoth of a building that never fails to impress with its 14ft thick sandstone walls dominating the site like some medieval stone terminator. Even with one wall missing thanks to the vandalism of Oliver Cromwell, and the timber roof and floors long gone, it’s easy to imagine the impact this huge edifice must have had on the surrounding area when it went up. But there was a good reason for its commanding presence.
The humongous tower and its surrounding bailey were built in the 1120s by one Geoffrey de Clinton, chamberlain and treasurer to Henry I (r.1100-35). Geoffrey had been granted lands in the Warwickshire manor of Stoneleigh and made sheriff with the purpose of keeping an eye on his dodgy neighbour Roger, the new earl of Warwick, whom the king didn’t trust. With full royal support Geoffrey built this great signal of power at Kenilworth, sending out a pointed message of royal authority in Warwick’s direction. However, as often happened in the Middle Ages, Geoffrey’s glory wasn’t to last. By 1130 his relationship with the king had gone off the boil and the family’s fortunes turned. When he died in 1133, Geoffrey left only a young son at a time when the earl of Warwick had redeemed himself with the king. Despite the boy being married off to Warwick’s daughter, the de Clinton fortunes continued to dwindle during the protracted civil war between Henry I’s daughter, Matilda, and her cousin Stephen (r.1135-54), and with ever dwindling resources for building works and maintenance, the castle eventually passed into royal hands.
Being a fortress of strategic importance, Kenilworth then received a fortified facelift. Henry II rebuilt the wooden walls of the inner courtyard in stone and garrisoned the castle during the ‘great rebellion’ of his own sons in 1173-4. But his youngest son, King John, went much further. After falling foul of the pope in 1208 he set about strengthening his castles. Between 1210 and 1215, Kenilworth gained a sizeable outer circuit of walls and towers and a new gatehouse, while the keep was heightened to incorporate a new fighting deck. As if that wasn’t enough, John created the most extensive man-made water defences in the entire kingdom. By raising a dam in the brook by the castle, John expanded the existing lake to form a vast protective body of water of around half a mile long and some 500ft wide. Now that’s some moat.
Still, none of these improvements could help John when relations with his barons broke down. Having been forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 he swiftly disregarded its contents, so the desperate nobles invited the French prince Louis over to unseat the reviled king. Louis arrived in England to claim the throne and the stage was set for a royal showdown like no other. But the following year, in the words of historian Marc Morris, suddenly ‘King John obliged everybody by dropping dead’. So that was the end of that. John’s son, Henry was crowned king at the tender age of nine, and Louis was sent packing back across the channel.
Henry III grew up to be a pious ruler but he too managed to upset his barons by lavishing lands and titles on an undesirable French wing of his family, and this was one of several grievances that eventually led to a second barons’ war. This conflict saw Kenilworth step into the limelight, and it was now that all John’s defensive works would come into their own. In 1253 Henry had granted the castle to his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, the son of a famous French crusader and a powerful noble gifted with military prowess, a sense of moral obligation and a large dose of self-interest. But despite being married to the king’s sister, Simon was one of the barons Henry managed to upset. Seeing himself as liberator of England, in 1264 de Montfort raised an army from his base at Kenilworth and confronted Henry’s troops near Lewes in Sussex, where he inflicted a humiliating defeat on the king. For the next fifteen months it was Simon de Montfort that ran the country, with Henry kept in the shadows as a purely nominal king. But Simon’s actions came back to bite him when he faced royal payback at the battle of Evesham in August 1265, when Henry’s son, Prince Edward (the later Edward 1st) sent a death squad into the battlefield to find and slaughter the traitor to his father’s rule. The plan worked a treat, and bits of Simon’s body were removed and dispatched to his enemies around England. But the crown hadn’t completely won the day just yet.
After Simon’s death, his supporters continued the cause, rallying at Kenilworth in 1266 and readying themselves to withstand a siege by the king and one of the largest armies ever assembled to attack an English castle. But despite all Henry’s attempts to break into Kenilworth and crush the rebels, the defences proved too strong and the garrison refused to surrender. Worse still, so confident were the defenders in Kenilworth’s walls that they left the gates open the whole time as a taunt to the king they despised. After 172 days of gruelling struggle, making this the longest siege to occur on English soil, Henry was forced to come to terms with the defenders and offer them leniency if they gave up the fight. The siege of Kenilworth was finally over, but it was a hollow victory for the king.
Straight after the siege, Henry gave Kenilworth to his younger son, Edmund, together with the title of Earl of Lancaster. For the next 200 years the castle was to be the prize possession of the House of Lancaster, although at first they weren’t quite as obnoxious a bunch as they came to be in the late middle ages. Under their ownership, Kenilworth Castle took on the mantle of a royal palace, benefitting from further improvements over successive generations, and playing host to more pleasurable events, such as the grand Arthurian ‘Round Table’ tournament and festivities of 1279 with Edmund’s older brother, King Edward 1st as guest of honour.
In contrast to Edward’s cordial visit to the castle, his son, another unpopular Plantagenet king, Edward II, fared less well within these brawny walls. It was to Kenilworth in 1326 that he was brought after his capture in south Wales and held prisoner until he gave in to demands for his abdication before being shipped off to Berkley Castle, where popular history maintains he was horribly murdered. How the deed was actually done, if indeed it was at all, is widely debated, but that’s another story entirely…
Kings and lords may have come and gone, but the castle went from strength to strength. The grandest makeover came in the 1370’s courtesy of John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III and uncle to the young King Richard II. He was the most powerful – and formidable – noble in the land, with an ego and ambitions to match. Having come into possession of Kenilworth through his first marriage to Blanche of Lancaster and then claiming kingship of Castile and León in Spain through his second wife, Constanza, daughter of King Pedro ‘the Cruel’, Gaunt set about transforming the castle into a palace befitting his towering status. From around 1373 he began a phase of major building works inspired by his father’s imposing lodgings at Windsor Castle, and although today his palatial accommodation is a shadow of its former self, there is just enough detail lingering for us to see just how magnificent it was. In fact, it’s said that for the late middle ages Gaunt’s sumptuous great hall was so ahead of its time that when Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I’s erstwhile suitor took on the castle nearly two hundred years later there was no need to update it.
Even the great mere became the source of pleasure for later medieval kings. Not only was the lake a plentiful source of fish and wildfowl for the castle kitchens, the promise of a secluded hideaway across the water so enticed King Henry V (r.1413-22) that he built a private double-moated banqueting house and gardens to escape to with his friends. Known as the ‘Pleasance in the Marsh’, this party palace was reached by boat that docked in its own harbor, bringing the king and his guests across the mere for some off-duty feasting and frolics. Sadly, nothing remains of the Pleasance now save a few earthworks lingering on private land, and like the keep, the mere was yet another victim of Oliver Cromwell’s destructive machinations, being drained when the castle was deliberately ruined in 1649-50.
With such a rich tapestry of medieval tales woven into its honeyed walls, it’s not hard to see why I’d have wanted to return to Kenilworth Castle as soon as I could. Over the years I’ve spent many a happy hour wandering around this fortress that played such a central role in the lives of so many great medieval characters, and I’m looking forward to going back there for more in just a few days’ time. But hopefully now you can see why, for me, Elizabeth I and Dudley aren’t the main attraction. It’s the earlier voices, the clashing of swords, the Plantagenet dramas and the echoes of fun that draw me back to Kenilworth again and again, and I’m sure they always will.