Kenilworth Castle: Part 2

In Part I of this post last week I took a brief look at the history of Kenilworth Castle from its origins in the 1120s to the 16th century when it was given to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester by Elizabeth I. In today’s post I want to bring Kenilworth’s history up its slighting in 1650 following the Civil War. To start with, here’s a reminder of the castle’s location in the county of Warwickshire…

Map created by Nilfanion using Ordnance Survey data.  Creative Commons. Annotations are my own.

… and the plan showing the various stages in the castle’s development and growth between the 12th and 16th centuries:

Before I plunge into describing the building works undertaken by Robert Dudley in the 16th century, I want to step back apace and take a look at the actual buildings added by John of Gaunt between 1373 and 1380. In the previous post, I simply mentioned that he’d transformed the fortified castle into a great palace – which is exactly what he did. His new buildings, shown in yellow on the above plan, replaced a succession of earlier ones that had stood on the site, including great halls.

John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III, made certain that family and guests enjoyed comfort and luxury when residing at Kenilworth. His Great Hall was the centrepiece, flanked on the left by spectacular kitchens and the Strong Tower, and on the right by the Saintlowe Tower and State Apartments. The Great Hall was described as the architectural masterpiece of the inner court and was designed to show John of Gaunt’s regal status. This is a reconstruction illustration of what it might have looked like in its heyday:

Designed as a statement of hospitality and display, the Great Hall was where members of John of Gaunt’s family and a hundred and seventy male servants – mostly of aristocratic birth – took their meals. It had a high-pitched roof and very tall windows along the side walls, with six fireplaces. It probably had a raised minstrel’s gallery at the near end of the diagram above.

These are a few photos of the ruins of the Great Hall today. The last one shows part of the  Strong Tower to the right.

The kitchens would probably have been mostly timber framed, and have almost disappeared now, but they were twice the size of a normal aristocratic kitchen. It was a long rectangular hall, 66 feet x 28 feet, built against the earlier curtain wall, along which three  huge fireplaces are preserved. The room was top-lit, had a cobbled floor with  a drain in the centre for kitchen waste.

The diagram with the cauldron among the photos below shows a depiction of the kitchen at Windsor  Castle in the 19th century and gives a good idea of what the kitchen at Kenilworth would have looked like. The massive cauldron was used for boiling meat. The little lad in the last photo looks to be perched where an oven would have once been, with the space for the cauldron and steps up to it to his left.

The two towers and state apartment to either side of the hall are interesting to explore and views of surrounding countryside from both are excellent – some  areas of which which would have been part of the mere in John of Gaunt’s time.

I won’t show photos of the towers here, or this post will be far too long, so I’ll finish looking at John of Gaunt’s buildings by saying that his Great Hall must have been extremely impressive as it’s the only one of his buildings that was left unaltered by Robert Dudley 200 years later.

In the previous post, I got as far as describing the changes Henry VIII made to the castle and how, in 1363,  his daughter Elizabeth I, had given it to her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of  Leicester. The Stables -now the Cafe and Information Centre, which are also shown in Part 1 – already stood in the Base Court, having been built on the orders of Robert’s father, John Dudley, in the early 1500s.

So after that brief step back in time, I’ll continue with the changes made to Kenilworth by Robert Dudley himself. As shown in the plan above, Dudley’s building works are shown in blue, including his father’s stables. Dudley – or Leicester as he is often called – constructed two fabulous buildings around 1571-2, known as Leicester’s Gatehouse and Leicester’s Building. He also made changes to various other buildings, including the Great Tower/Keep and created the colourful new Elizabethan Gardens.

This photo shows three new, large Tudor-style windows added to the Great Tower to replace the small 12th century ones:

One of his main reasons for such elaborate works was to create a castle fit to receive  Elizabeth I and her entourage in suitable style. The Gatehouse was intended to provide an imposing first view of the castle from the Coventry Road and his magnificent new lodgings, i.e. Leicester’s Building, were simply to impress Elizabeth and provide for her comfort.

Leicester’s Gatehouse straddled the medieval curtain wall and featured an entrance passage at ground level wide enough for carriages to pass through, with two floors of lodgings above. The corner turrets were originally battlemented, a symbolic rather than a defensive structure, as was common with Tudor buildings.

Similarly, the passage was not defended in any way other than by a pair of gates and on both facades there are extensive windows. In 1650, at the end of the Civil War, Leicester’s Gatehouse was a part of the castle that wasn’t slighted and was converted into a private house by Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth, the Parliamentarian who had overseen the castle’s slighting. It remained a private residence for the next 300 years, lived in by a succession of gentlemen farmers. Most rooms in the Gatehouse today are furnished to reflect the style of the 1930s when it was last lived in – which I’ll look at in the third and final part of this  post.

Leicester’s Building was, unfortunately, badly damaged/slighted following the Civil War, but in its day it was an elaborate structure, the size of a compact country house, and it extended beyond the curtain wall. It was four storeys high, but because it’s on the slope of the hill and out over the former ditch, the ground floor and basement were below the principal floor level.

Leicester’s Building was designed to mirror the 12th century Great Tower and Leicester was determined it would equal the old tower in magnificence. He ordered an upper floor to be added to make them similar in height. The ground floor consisted of bed chambers for the queen’s ladies-in-waiting and on the first floor was Elizabeth’s own bed chamber plus outer and inner rooms in which she might meet with her advisors. It is thought that the top floor was a long gallery, where Elizabeth could walk or rest and was possibly used as a dancing gallery. It had huge windows with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. The first of the two diagrams below shows what the second and third floors might have looked like and the second one gives a closer look at the queen’s bed chamber with her bed against a lost partition wall:

These are a few photos taken at various places around the ruin of Leicester’s Building, many showing views of the surrounding countryside or of other parts of the castle:

Many of Leicester’s new and updated buildings were ready for Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1572. By the time of her last visit in 1575, Leicester had also created a fashionable Privy Garden to the north of the Keep. It was rumoured that during Elizabeth’s final and lengthy nineteen-day visit (July 9-27) he made his last attempt to win her hand. It was a sumptuous affair that ‘took pageantry to its limits’ with no expense spared on feasts and staged mock battles, plays and other performances, tilting, bear-baiting, ceremonial gunfire, water fetes and, of course, dancing. This famous painting from around 1580 reputedly shows Queen Elizabeth dancing La Volta with Lord Leicester at Kenilworth:

It is well known that in the early days of her reign, Elizabeth was strongly attracted to Robert Dudley and he to her. But the death of his wife, Amy Robsart, in suspicious circumstances in 1560, cooled the affair. (Amy was found at the botttom of a short flight of stairs at Cunnor Place in Oxfordshire with a broken neck and two wounds on her head. Suspicion fell on Dudley, not surprisingly due to his infatuation with Elizabeth – and his desire for more power was well known.) 

To finish with, here are a few photos of the (recreated*) Elizabethan Garden / Queen’s Privy Garden that Dudley had created. It was situated on the northern side of the Great Tower with a raised terrace running across the bottom of the building. It is divided into four quarters, each with an obelisk in the middle and colourful and fragrant with herbs and flowers with grassy pathways between. A fountain of white, Tuscany marble stands in the centre of the garden. It depicts two ‘Athlants’ i.e. Atlantis figures, joined together and holding up the sky. The ‘boll’ discharges jets of water. There are also arbours and an aviary. 

* The Elizabethan Garden we see today was recreated by English Heritage in 2009 from an eyewitness account written by Robert Langham, a minor official, in a letter to a friend. 

…and this is a photo showing what Kenilworth Castle might have looked like around 1575-80 after all Leicester’s work, including the Elizabethan Garden:


References are listed on Part 1 of this post.

14 thoughts on “Kenilworth Castle: Part 2

  1. I had not heard of this magnificent castle. Thanks for the tour. I have friends living in Rugby, so if I ever have the chance to visit them, I’ll make it to Kenilworth too.

    1. It’s well worth a visit, Peggy, and there are a number of events throughout the year (well… on “normal” years!). Many of the buildings were ruined during the slighting, but they’re still interesting to look round.

    1. We spend a lot of time visiting historical sites on ‘normal’ years, Jill, and castles are a particular favourite. Like Kenilworth, many of them were partly cannoned down by the Parliamentarians at the end of the Civil War. I understand why they did it, but it seems such a waste of what were once fabulous buildings.

  2. It is interesting to see how the architecture changed from the heavily fortified style to the more luxurious and open style with magnificent spaces and large glazed windows. I never had a chance to visit Kenilworth but enjoyed several long visits to Hampton Court while I still lived in England.

  3. I always find that interesting, too, Hanne, and the changes are obvious at Kenilworth due to the long period over which the different buildings were erected. The medieval windows were small and let little light in, whereas, later ones were tall and wide to allow lots of light to shine through. It’s mainly because of the cost of glass, which wasn’t widely used as far back as the 11th century – as when Kenilworth’s keep was built. Tudor windows have that distinctive rectangular latticed style seen in Leicester’s Building above. Many were lead glazed, too.
    We’ve never been to Hampton Court, so that’s somewhere for us to visit in future.

  4. I can only recommend a visit to Hampton Court — that is — several visits. Alone the kitchens take up an entire house. I must admit that there are large parts I never managed to go through. The gardens are fabulous too.

    1. We’ll try to make it down there when travel and visits to such places are possible again! We haven’t been anywhere at all this year – like most people, I suppose. We can only wonder what next year will bring.

      1. That is true. It’s too bad that one gets so disabled through this virus. It could stay for a long time too, which makes it even gloomier. Thankfully, we can travel in spirit. That is probably the greatest advantage of being a writer. . .

      2. I agree, Hanne. It’s looking more and more like this virus will be with us for some time, so the sooner we get an effective vaccine against it, the better. It’s been a gloomy year for most people and the number of lives lost because of it is tragic – and a very frightening – thought. I haven’t been further than our tiny village since March, and it’s really getting to me now. We had such plans for this year, especially as it’s our 50th wedding anniversary in less than two weeks. I doubt we’ll even be able to see the rest of the family. Oh well, it doesn’t do to get too down. As you rightly say, as writers we can travel in spirit. That’s a lovely phrase, and one I’ll remember when I’m feeling sorry for myself.

  5. Was it common to build palace in the castles? While one does find palace in fort here in India, at least a few but I haven’t come across any in the UK. Maybe I don’t know many. Just curious.

  6. That Great Hall is amazing– such tall windows! Such big windows everywhere, actually. Obviously not meant for defense but for comfort. Enough to impress a queen… almost. Elizabeth and Dudley make for such an excellent romantic tragedy.

  7. Even the ruins of the Great Hall are impressive, Joy, particularly of those tall windows. Once gunpowder was available for use in warfare, castles ceased to be built with many defensive features. They were a waste of time when cannon balls could just blast through walls and gateways. Similarly, windows were no longer small, but just the opposite. Castles became much more light and airy than the dark and draughty places of post-conquest times (most of which did not have glazed windows, either).

  8. Yes, it is frightening. The scenario is altogether threatening, but it won’t do to dwell on it. To me, it seems like this is nature giving an answer to the abuse humans have offered for so many years.
    Spending fifty years together is amazing. It must be both wonderful and challenging to live with one person for such a long time. What an opportunity for deep intimacy.

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