Kenilworth Castle: Part 1

Kenilworth Castle is one of two fabulous castles in Warwickshire we’ve visited several times – the other being Warwick Castle. Although Kenilworth’s fortifications were dismantled (slighted) by parliamentary forces at the end of the Civil War of 1642-49, it is still one of England’s most spectacular castles and is located in the town of Kenilworth in the county of Warwickshire, UK.

The location of Kenilworth Castle within Warwickshire, UK. Base map of Warwickshire from Nilfanion at Wikipedia.

It is thought that a castle has stood at Kenilworth since Saxon times, though the original structure was destroyed during the wars between the Saxon King Edmund and Cnut/Canute, King of the Danes (who ruled England 1018–1035). Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, Kenilworth became the property of the crown and was a royal residence from the 12th to the 17th century.  During that time it was owned by a succession of well-known historical figures. Each of these played a part in increasing the size and changing the shape of the castle as well as improving its defences and value as a residential home. Unfortunately, the Civil War of 1642-49 put an end to further growth – although it was by no means totally abandoned.

The following plan of Kenilworth Castle was on an information board near to the Entrance and Ticket Office (above). It shows the castle as it stands today. The key to the numbers is beneath it:

From the ticket office and shop, the castle is approached along the Tiltyard Dam, the long path up to the ruins of Mortimer’s Tower, as shown on the plan above. Once inside the Outer Curtain Wall, to the  right can be seen the former Stables, now the Cafe and Exhibition Centre, an important place for all visitors when in need of a drink and/or a snack, or a lunchtime meal, especially if you intend to stay for the day, as when events are held. It is also a good idea to view the introductory exhibition set up inside before heading off to investigate the various parts of the castle.

Kenilworth is a wonderful castle, constructed from local red sandstone and the result of almost five hundred years of continuous development and expansion. The years following its slighting in 1650 saw some restoration and, unfortunately, also some years of neglect.  The plan below shows the stages of development and growth over those first 500 years:

The first part of the castle to be built is shown in red/pink – the Great Tower or Keep.

Following the Norman Conquest, the Kenilworth Estate became the property of the Crown. In 1129, King Henry I gave it to his  chamberlain, a Norman noble named Geoffrey de Clinton, who was Treasurer and Chief Justice of England at the time. The new Norman castle  was built on a low sandstone hill at the crossroads of two ancient trackways. De Clinton built most of the Great Tower/Keep (shown below) and also founded Kenilworth Priory nearby.

The following illustration shows the extent of the early castle, built around the Norman Great Tower started by de Clinton in the 1120s and finished by Henry II in the 1170s.

Around 1210-15, the castle was significantly enlarged by King John, who inherited it from his father, Henry II. John spent enormous sums of money in transforming it into a powerful fortress with two concentric walls. The outer curtain wall had defensive towers at intervals and at the entrance were two stout towers, together called Mortimer’s Tower (a peachy colour in the plan):

King John also surrounded the castle by huge water defences, created by damming local streams. The economic benefits of the mere/lake came in the ready supplies of fish and waterfowl for the castle kitchens, and it also afforded scenic and recreational benefits. But the resulting level of defence provided by the building works and mere together was exceptional, and sufficient to withstand assault by land and water. This was proven in 1266 during the reign of King John’s son, Henry III:

In 1264, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, led the barons in revolt against Henry III’s tyrannical rule. They seized Kenilworth Castle and laid siege for six months – the longest siege in English medieval history. It ended when disease and famine forced the barons to surrender. It is thought likely that it was de Montfort who had the defensive outwork known as The Brays constructed (far left in the illustration) some time before 1265.

The flat surface of the dam built to hold back the mere is likely to have have been used as a tiltyard – a place where jousting tournaments took place – as far back as the 13th century. Edward I attended such an event in 1279, along with 100 knights and their ladies. In the late 16th century, during Elizabeth I’s reign, the dam at Kenilworth was walled both sides in stone and specifically called a tiltyard. By then, tournaments could be viewed from the Gallery Tower, which stood near to where the ticket office is today. The last jousting tournaments in England were held a year before the death of James I in 1624

The next major changes to Kenilworth came in 1362 when the dukedom of Lancaster passed to John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III. In the 1370s, John of Gaunt began to transform the castle into a magnificent royal palace, building the Great Hall and lavish apartments – as shown in this rather shadowy photo of the reconstruction diagram. It also shows the Collegiate Chapel, a private chapel close to the outer curtain wall, built between 1314-22 during the reign of his grandfather, Edward II, and probably demolished around 1524.

The Lancastrian king, Henry V (reign 1413-22) even built a retreat called the ‘Pleasance in the Marsh’ in celebration of his famous victory at Agincourt. The Pleasance was a luxurious, moated residence at the far north-western side of the lake, hidden from the castle by a spur. As the name Pleasance suggests, the mansion was for pleasure and relaxation. According to a castle surveyor of 1563, ‘kings would  go in a boat out of the castle to banquet there’. Henry VII also visited the castle often with his queen, and in the 149os he had a tennis court built.

But in 1524 Henry VIII ordered the Pleasance and its surrounding structures and gardens to be taken down. Henry VIII not only removed the Pleasance; during the years of his Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-39) the priory built by Geoffrey de Clinton was pulled down. By this time the priory had become a flourishing abbey, and evidently, Henry decided it had to go!

However, Henry VIII loved Kenilworth Castle as a place of leisure and retreat as much as his father had done, being particularly drawn to the fine hunting in the well-stocked park. He spent £460 on building works around the castle – a huge sum of money in those days – notably on a range of timber-framed lodgings for family and guests between the keep and John of Gaunt’s  state apartments. He also had a timber-framed building set up in the outer court, probably using materials from the dismantled Pleasance in the Marsh. It can be seen in the reconstruction illustration below, which shows the extent of the castle by about 1540.

In 1563, Queen Elizabeth granted Kenilworth Castle to Lord Robert Dudley, her favourite. The following year she made him Earl of Leicester and Baron of Denbighshire. For a short time in the early 1550s, Leicester’s father, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland, had held the castle. He made a few new additions, including the building of the impressive Stable, which stands along the outer curtain wall and is used today as a cafe.

A cut away reconstruction showing the possible arrangement of the stables in the 16th century.

The ground floor contained boxes for 30 horses and 20 geldings, while the floor above was a storage place for straw and hay and possibly accommodation for the grooms. Nowadays, only a single storey, the great ceiling can be seen. It was restored in the 1970s.

In the foreground of the stables today are the foundations of the Collegiate Chapel mentioned earlier in connection to John of Gaunt. It was possibly demolished around the same time as the Pleasance and the materials of both used in Henry in VIII’s  new timber-framed building that was later removed by Leicester.

Robert Dudley made many changes/improvements to the castle, including the erection of two brand new buildings. In Part 2 of this post, I’ll finish off the story of Kenilworth Castle, starting with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – and how his relationship with Queen Elizabeth will always be linked with this castle. Elizabeth and Dudley are shown below:


Guide Book purchased at Kenilworth Castle
Various information boards around the site
English Heritage
Historic UK
Base map for location of Kenilworth Castle from Wikipedia .My own annotations.

18 thoughts on “Kenilworth Castle: Part 1

    1. I didn’t know that, Hanne, so thank you for the link. The song is certainly a rustic sounding one. I knew that Walter Scott wrote a book inspired by the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, though I haven’t read it. I imagine that’s something quite different to The Feast at Kenilworth? I’ll be mentioning the book in Part 2 of this post. There is so much that could be written about this castle.

    1. Kings and queens, and the nobility in general, have splashed out for centuries on so many huge and grand buildings in Britain. Ordinary people could never imagine such wealth – or such extravagance. I enjoy looking round them, but they really do belong to a different world than the one we live in, Ineke.

  1. Quite a large, sprawling estate! I always find it funny to hear of monarchs of the day having to spend money on stuff, rather that just saying “sort out the stables or off with your head” 🙂

    1. It is a sprawling castle, Ali, unlike many others with one huge building. Each of the owners in the past just kept adding new buildings, and it takes some time to get round them all. I imagine monarchs past and present have so much money they wouldn’t miss the odd thousands of pounds spent here and there. As for Henry VIII… someone should have knocked his head off! Lol 😀

  2. Such an old castle which has seen so much. I guess its fortification is quite strong. Can one make out the period in which the castle is made by looking at architecture?

  3. Yes, there are distinctive styles in the architecture of English castles over the centuries, including things like the size and shape of windows and doorways. Tudor style windows in castles and/or stately homes have a very distinctive shape, as do the timber frameworks they used. I’ll be pointing out some Tudor-style windows at Kenilworth in Part 2 of this post. Thanks for reading, Arv.

  4. I can see why you’ve visited there multiple times — so much to explore! And so many years of history and changes to keep track of. I’m especially curious about why Henry VIII dismantled the Pleasance. I get the part about him dismantling the priory, but why go through all the trouble to tear down a comfortable retreat? Just a wild guess here, but maybe it was poorly built and by this point it needed more repairs than was worth spending money on? I’ve heard that reason before. Although it would be much more dramatic if it was because he had a tragic or angry emotional connection to the building, and ordered it torn down in a fit of jealousy or sorrow or revenge. 🙂

    1. It does seem strange that Henry – who loved to ‘party’ and feast – should tear down a building built for indulging in a multitude of pleasures. Perhaps it was at a time when he was desperate for money to pay for his divorce from K of A and didn’t want to pay for the buliding’s upkeep. It was the size of a stately home with gardens etc. to maintain. There’s nothing to say that it was poorly built in any information I have about Kenilworth – although, as you suggest, it could have been needing repairs by that time. Your last suggestion is also possible. Henry wasn’t known for being an even-tempered man. Further research might give an answer, Joy, but right now, like you, all I can do is guess.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.