Founded in the 12th century around a Norman Great Tower, in the town of Kenilworth, the castle was developed by its various owners over hundreds of years. Kenilworth Castle was also the site of many historically important events. Enlarged by King John (1166 – 1216) at the beginning of the 13th century, a significant amount of money was spent on improving the castle’s water defences which were created by damming local streams. An outer bailey was also added, making it able to withstand attacks from both water and land. These defences were effective during the Siege of Kenilworth (1266) which lasted for six months and is documented as the longest siege in medieval English history.
The 14th century saw Kenilworth Castle fall into the hands of John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), fourth son of King Edward III (1312 -1377). He spent his time turning the castle into a palace, one of his most remarkable feats being the creation of the Great Hall.
It was later gifted to John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland in 1553 during the reign of Edward VI (1537 – 1553). He started making additions to Kenilworth but was executed later in the same year by Queen Mary I (1516 – 1558) for his involvement in a plot to place Lady Jane Grey (1537 – 1554) on the throne. Kenilworth was restored to his son Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (1532 – 1588) after the succession of Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603). Robert Dudley remained a favourite of the Queen and he spent much of his time renovating the castle, adding the gardens, in order to impress her. She visited four times, with her final visit in 1575 lasting for an impressive 19 days.
In 1588 Robert Dudley died without a legitimate heir but the castle did eventually pass to his illegitimate son of the same name. He arranged to sell Kenilworth to Henry, Prince of Wales (1594 – 1612) but, when he died before purchase could be complete, his brother Charles, later King Charles I (1600 – 1649) bought it. It played a significant role in the English Civil War (1642 – 1649) as a Royalist stronghold and was used by King Charles I during the Battle of Edgehill in October 1942. However, on Royalist retreat the castle was garrisoned by Parliamentary forces and kept under their power until 1649. Parliament ordered the slighting of the castle in which segments of it were destroyed and other areas were turned into farmland.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the castle was still used as a farm but the ruins became popular as a tourist destination. The castle was taken over by English Heritage in 1984 and has been open to the public ever since.
The ruins of Kenilworth are very impressive at first glance and give visitors the opportunity to explore the towers via several platforms which take its guests 18 meters up into the towers. Visitors can stand where Elizabeth I’s private rooms would have been whilst taking in breath taking views of the countryside. There are also opportunities to explore the castle keep which was originally built in the 12th century and the Great Hall, built in the 14th Century by John of Gaunt.
The gardens have been recreated to resemble what they would have looked like during Queen Elizabeth I’s progress. In its centre is the marble Atlas fountain, carved with scenes from the Roman poet Ovid’s (43BC – 17/18 AD) most well-known work ‘Metamorphoses’, surrounded by an array of flowers and herbs. It can be viewed, in all its splendour, from the terrace.
Located in Leicester’s Gatehouse is an exhibition exploring the relationship between Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley. There are plenty of opportunities for interaction, including a room for families to explore the castle’s history through play. The Tudor stables also have a small retrospective which allows visitors to learn more about the creation of the castle. Again, there are several sensory displays which invite people to interact and really get a feel for what it would have been like to live there.
Kenilworth is a gem in the centre of England and a truly magnificent place to visit. It accommodates to all kinds of audiences, from families looking for a lovely day out to castle enthusiasts looking to immerse themselves in a bit of history.
Website: Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk)
Location: Castle Green, Kenilworth CV8 1NG
Ticket prices vary for off – peak and peak times and can be found on their website.
Opening Times: 10:00 – 16:00
Accessibility: The Great Hall, garden and exhibitions are all accessible to those with limited mobility. However, the upper floors of the Kenilworth Castle are only accessible via stairs. Assistance dogs are welcome. There are a variety of sensory options for those who are blind and visually impaired or deaf/hard of hearing. Please Visit their access page to get a full list of facilities.
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Paige Worrall is a BA history graduate and has recently completed her MA in Museum Studies which specialises in making use of co-productive practice within institutions. She currently works as a library assistant and freelance exhibition technician. Her passion for history of art has led her to set up her own blog, The Museum Inspector, where writing on her various interests can be found. She also has an Instagram dedicated to promoting some of her favourite cultural institutions. When she isn’t visiting museums, Paige can probably be found in a bookshop or curling up with a novel or two!