Kenilworth Castle

In England, in the county of Warwickshire, there stand two castles each once owned by a pair of noble brothers in the 16th century – Warwick Castle was owned by Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick while its neighbour Kenilworth Castle was the illustrious home of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Both were granted their respective castles by Queen Elizabeth I, but their approaches to maintaining them were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Robert spent lavishly on Kenilworth, those he employed working tirelessly to expand the castle from a mediaeval fortress to a Renaissance pleasure palace fit for a Queen. Ambrose, on the other hand, effectively ignored Warwick Castle, so much so that by the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the castle was noted as being in a state of decay and disrepair.

In a tragic twist of irony, it’s Kenilworth which now stands in ruins despite all of Leicester’s efforts to transform it into a magnificent palace, while Warwick remains fully intact, though now owned and run by the same company which owns Alton Towers - for non-British readers, this is an amusement park complete with cotton candy and roller coasters. Hard to say which of them had a more ignominious end, really.

Jokes aside, though Kenilworth met its partial destruction during the English Civil Wars, when it was used as a royalist stronghold, it still engenders an air of romanticism and an intoxicating glimpse into the distant past – and it remains to this day one of my favourite heritage locations in England. I did my MA dissertation on the death of the Earl of Leicester and its effect on the English court, so you could say I have a biassed fondness for the castle my subject once owned (not to mention a secret longing to have seen it in its heyday), but I can still say with confidence that it’s well worth a visit even if you have no clue or care who Robert Dudley is.

Kenilworth Castle is situated in a town of the same name, and the town itself is just as much worth a visit as the castle. A quaint oasis a half hour’s drive away from bustling Warwick, it boasts a number of picturesque, thatched-roof houses, numerous charming shops and cafes as well as the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey to match the ruins of the castle nearby. St Nicholas Church remains standing however and the fields surrounding the abbey are a joy to walk through.

St Mary’s Abbey

When I first visited Kenilworth, it was for mine and my partner’s first year anniversary and we stayed at the Abbey Fields Hotel which also had an adjourning pub to dine in. I can wholeheartedly recommend it as a place to stay if you’re looking to treat yourself to something nicer than a Premier Inn or Travelodge. The staff were extremely accommodating, and they had a great breakfast selection in the morning. It also sits across from the aptly named Virgins and Castle pub, which proudly proclaims itself as one of the oldest pubs in Kenilworth as its first known appearance in the records dates as far back as 1563, then called the Two Virgins Inn. When my partner and I went, they were doing a craft beer, gin and cider faire which was absolutely delicious to sample – keep your wits about yourselves if you ever get the opportunity to try it as well because some of those drinks are quite strong!

Virgins and Castle

As lovely as Kenilworth the town is through, the star of the show for me is undoubtedly the castle. Standing tall upon raised earth, even in its ruined state, it’s hard to miss. From our hotel it was only a ten minute walk but it’s also easily accessible by car as well as via the nearby Kenilworth train station. If you haven’t already purchased tickets prior to visiting, you can do so within the gift shop located at the very end of the old tiltyard, the stretch of land connecting what is now the car park to the castle proper. When the castle was first built, this was a dam holding back what was once a lake (or mere) to the west. In the 16th century, the dam was widened in order to hold jousts, hence the term “tiltyard.” As you walk along this path, the remains of Kenilworth Castle loom before you, and the first time I visited I found myself speed-walking as my excitement grew.

After showing your ticket at the remains of Mortimer’s Tower, the main mediaeval entrance to the castle, you walk through the threshold to be faced with three main structures in ruins. On the right is the Great Tower, dating back to the 12th century, which was the heart of fortification and administration in the castle. To the left is Leicester’s Building, built, as the name suggests, by the Earl of Leicester in the 16th century, primarily for Queen Elizabeth to stay in when she came to visit. Directly in the centre of these two buildings and furthest away from where you’d be standing is the Great Hall, built by John of Gaunt in the 14th century and left virtually untouched by Leicester centuries later, though he made changes to the Great Tower.


All of these ruins are explorable with designated staircases and platforms to facilitate this. There is no official route to follow, you just explore at your leisure and desire, although if you would like something more structured, I would recommend purchasing the official guidebook from the gift shop and following the self-guided tour they’ve outlined in there. I like going from left to right starting with Leicester’s Building. As mentioned above, this was built by the Earl to accommodate the Queen when she visited during her summer progresses. In 1575, she stayed for a whopping 19 days, the longest period of time she would ever stay at a courtier’s home, and the accompanying festivities are widely regarded as being Leicester’s last, grand (and perhaps desperate) attempt at convincing the Queen to marry him.

Leicester spent an enormous amount of money expanding and refurbishing Kenilworth castle to make it worthy of Elizabeth’s presence and this can be seen in the remains of the huge, vaulted Renaissance-style windows and the giant, gaping fireplaces that would have once held a roaring hearth. The building was Elizabeth’s private lodgings along with her ladies and any intimates she allowed to attend her (undoubtedly, Leicester was one of them). You can climb the stairs all the way up to where Elizabeth’s bedchamber would have been and look out at the glorious views that would have greeted her hundreds of years ago - although we are missing the old lake. If you’ve not got the guide book with you, have no fear because there are informative plaques dotted around strategically, telling you what each room was used for. Fair warning, it’s a decent amount of steps to get up there! More than worth it though when you’re able to gaze out of the centuries-old windows and picture what it might have been like to witness the splendour of a 16th century summer stay-cation.

After climbing down Leicester’s building, the Great Hall will be on the left, the bowels of which can be explored as the upper floor is now missing. The Hall was built by John of Gaunt to emphasise his regal status and the huge structure would have been the setting of many feasts, dances and surreptitious political discussions. Here too you can see evidence of deep-set, gothic windows as well as the remains of no less than six fireplaces.Attached to the Great Hall, there is also the Santlowe and Strong Towers where you can descend down into mediaeval dwellings or climb to the top to indulge in some more stupendous views.

Leicester’s Building View

The Great Tower is next! Though as tall as Leicester’s building, it does not have staircases so that you can access the highest floor of the ruins - only the ground floor is explorable.. Nevertheless, it’s arguably the most intact of the ruins, barring the Gatehouse and stables, and it’s fascinating to see the architectural differences between this 12th century structure and its 16th century neighbour in Leicester’s building. The walls are thicker and the windows smaller, more rounded. This is typical of mediaeval fortresses which were built for defence, warfare and administration rather than for pleasure and comfort as Leicester’s Building was. The beauty of this building as well is that it leads directly into the Elizabethan garden! But we’ll get into that a bit later.


As mentioned, there are only two structures that survive entirely intact - the old stables (which now houses the tearoom and small, interactive exhibition on the general history of the castle), and Leicester’s Gatehouse which stands nearby. Within this gatehouse is housed a permanent exhibition exploring the unique and fascinating relationship between the Earl of Leicester and Queen Elizabeth I. If you’re a fan of complex dynamics, historical scandal and relationships that endure over decades despite numerous stressors and setbacks, you will greatly enjoy this exhibition. Photos are not permitted within the exhibition but there are plenty of interesting artefacts and artworks for you to feast your eyes on. But before rushing up to the top floor where the main exhibition is located, make sure you explore the rest of the Gatehouse as well which includes another exhibition, this time dedicated to motoring and aviation pioneer, Sir John Siddeley, as well as a magnificent 16th century fireplace decorated with Leicester’s initials. This fireplace was salvaged and moved to the gatehouse from the main castle in centuries past.


Without a doubt though, the crowning jewel of Kenilworth Castle has to be the recreated Elizabethan Gardens. Prior to Queen Elizabeth’s19-day visit to the castle in 1575, the Earl of Leicester created a magnificent garden for her. Italianate in its geometric design, it boasted an array of fragrant flowers, herbs and fruits, an elaborate fountain (which included a rooster-shaped spraying mechanism that could cool you off if you were too hot), and a large aviary filled with exotic birds. It was meant for Elizabeth’s private use, and the only reason we have any idea what it looked like is because of a contemporary eye-witness named Robert Laneham who attended the 1575 festivities. While the Queen, Earl and court were occupied with hunting, Laneham snuck into the garden, the door to which was left ajar, to describe what he saw. We are indebted to Laneham’s minor trespass because it, alongside other contemporary sources, allowed English Heritage in 2009 to reconstruct the gardens as closely as possible to how Elizabeth might have experienced it in all its glory. Alas, they didn’t include the spraying rooster!


The gardens are by far my favourite part of the castle. If you go in the warmer months, particularly May to July, the flowers are in bloom and the entire place is awash with colours and scents. It’s incredibly serene to walk the neat paths and it’s all too easy to imagine the great Queen herself enjoying a moment of respite from her court, perhaps arm in arm with her longtime favourite. You can practically taste Leicester’s hope and ambition in the air, ghostly lingerings of unfulfilled desire.

Though in ruins, there is so much of Kenilworth Castle to explore and so many stories to unearth. I’m partial to its 16th century history but I’ve not even touched its rich mediaeval roots and its fraught destruction during the civil war. With interesting exhibitions, imposing structures and gorgeous views, Kenilworth is one of the gems of Warwick heritage - well worth a visit if you find yourself in the area!

As a final note, if you can’t resist a good gift shop you’re in luck because Kenilworth’s is stellar. Alongside the usual fare that you find in English Heritage gifts shops (locally-made soaps, bottles of mead, children’s costumes, pins, mugs, magnets galore, etc), there’s also a fantastic selection of books related to the history of the castle as well as English history in general. Would definitely recommend setting a bit of time aside to peruse their selection!

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Corina Apostu

Corina Apostu is an independent researcher of Elizabethan history with a specific interest in the unique relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and her noted favourite, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. She holds a master's degree in Medieval and Early Modern Studies from the University of Kent as well as a bachelor's degree in History and Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto. She runs a blog called Exploring Elizabethan History which does exactly what it says on the tin. When she’s not feverishly reading, writing, or meticulously cultivating her farm on Stardew Valley, she can usually be found exploring the nearest historical house or museum.