12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them

Tim Flight - May 19, 2018

Who doesn’t love a good castle? Behemoths of the architectural world, undertaken on a scale unseen in modern times, nothing is quite so evocative of the medieval past. Yet in the medieval period, castles played several different roles. They were homes for kings and aristocrats, symbols of prestige, military bases, prisons, and symbols of power that reminded people of the need to behave lawfully (or at least according to the whims of whomever owned the castle). That so many are preserved, despite their age at times reaching nearly 1, 000 years, demonstrates their importance to our sense of the past.

In Britain, alone, there are over 1, 000 still to be seen. Castles in Britain have their roots in the hill forts of the Bronze Age, which housed soldiers in strategically-important places on a semi-permanent basis, but it was after the Norman Conquest (1066) that the castle as we know it today took shape. Wishing to enforce his rule over his new subjects, William the Conqueror undertook the largest campaign of castle building ever known, and most individual castles can trace their origins to this point in history. Read on for 12 of the best-preserved and historically-important castles in Britain.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
The Tower of London viewed from the Thames. Wikimedia Commons

Tower of London

No castle demonstrates the castle’s symbolic role as a demonstration of power and terror quite like the Tower of London. After defeating Harold Godwineson at the Battle of Hastings in September 1066, William the Conqueror made London his capital, and tried to discourage any local debate about his right to rule England by building the Tower of London. In 1078, he replaced the original wooden structure with the notorious White Tower, a vast keep which was later whitewashed to make it yet more intimidating to the king’s subjects. It was added to and restored many times over the following centuries.

Despite its antiquity, the White Tower was kept as the hub of the castle, and major defensive extensions were made by Richard I (r.1189-99) and Edward I (r.1272-1307). Today, the Tower encloses an area of 12 acres, and is made up of a drained moat, two encircling defensive walls, and a series of towers, all centred around the White Tower. London has always been the seat of power in England since William’s day (though Charles I ineffectively made Oxford the capital during the Civil War), and simultaneously the Tower of London has been at the very nexus of English history.

Perhaps its most famous role was as a prison, a function dating from 1100. The first recorded prisoner was Bishop Ranulf Flambard, incarcerated for his harsh taxation of the populace, who escaped after plying his guards with drink. Many others have been imprisoned in the Tower, most famously the Princes in the Tower, the young sons of Edward IV who were murdered there during the Wars of the Roses, allegedly by their uncle Richard III. It was also used for other important prisoners, such as John II of France and David II of Scotland, and even Rudolf Hess in 1941.

Anne Boleyn was beheaded on Tower Green, and though only a handful of people were executed within the castle itself countless prisoners (including Guy Fawkes and Walter Raleigh) were executed just outside its walls. Their heads were displayed on Traitor’s Gate on the Thames-side of the Tower as a warning to others. However, the Tower’s bloody history is not only confined to executions. In the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the protestors stormed the castle and dragged the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, kicking and screaming from the White Tower’s chapel before beheading him with 8 blows outside the castle.

Although the Tower was rarely used as a royal residence after the Tudor period, it remains vitally important to this day, and has housed the Crown Jewels of England since the 13th century. 23, 500 jewels are held at the Tower today, with an estimated worth of £20 billion ($27.1 billion). Between the 12th century and 1830 it also housed the Royal Menagerie, which at various points contained lions, hyenas, bears, and monkeys. In the 18th century, the Menagerie could be visited by anyone willing to part with 3 half-pence or a cat or dog to feed to the lions.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Hever Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Hever Castle

Looking at this splendid residence today, it is hard to imagine how it looked when it was first built in 1066. The land was given to Walter de Hevere by William the Conqueror, and permission was given to build a motte and bailey castle, a large manmade mound topped by a simple keep in which the aristocrats lived surrounded by a ditch overlooking a fenced and ditched courtyard containing kitchens, barracks, and a great dining hall. It was only in 1271 that a fortified stone castle was erected, with the moat, curtain wall, and present dining hall following around 1383.

In 1459, the then-fashionably-whitewashed castle fell into the hands of one Sir Geoffrey Bullen, Lord Mayor of London. He set about turning it into a comfortable manor house, whilst retaining the crenellated features and the ‘castle’ part of the name. Bullen was the grandfather of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII; the family modified the family name around the time of Henry’s courtship of Anne. She had grown up at Hever, and it remained her most beloved residence. Cruelly, after beheading Anne, Henry seized Hever and later included it in his divorce settlement to Anne of Cleves.

In 1557, Hever Castle was given to the staunchly Catholic Sir Edward Waldegrave (1517-61) by Queen Mary I. Waldegrave spent a year in the Tower of London after refusing to cooperate with the ban on Princess Mary hearing Catholic Mass after the Reformation. When Mary became queen, she instantly set about returning England to Catholicism in the Counter-Reformation, earning herself the nickname of ‘Bloody Mary’. Whilst Protestants burned alive for heresy, Waldegrave was rewarded for his faith with Hever Castle. When the Protestant Elizabeth I succeeded her childless sister Waldegrave was again imprisoned in the Tower, where he died.

Hever Castle’s unwise alliances continued beyond Edward Waldegrave’s lifetime to the Civil War. Edward had an oratory and priest holes installed to hide Catholic priests during Elizabeth’s reign, and these were used to hide loyal Royalists during the Civil War, when the country was divided between those supporting King Charles I and Parliament. It survived intact, surprisingly, perhaps due to its lack of strategic importance and status as essentially a glorified manor (unlike Corfe Castle – see below). After falling into disrepair in the mid-18th century, Hever was purchased and lovingly restored by William Waldorf Astor, the fabulously wealthy American businessman.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Windsor Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Windsor Castle

Another castle with origins after the Norman Conquest, Windsor Castle is the longest-occupied royal residence in Europe, whose royal connection dates from Henry I (c.1068-1135), the 4th son of William the Conqueror. Occupying 13 acres of land, in its current form Windsor Castle represents a sequence of expansion, rebuilding, and reimagining across nearly a millennium. Since the 14th century the architectural plan has been to imitate antiquated building features in a contemporary fashion, giving it something of a fairytale appearance and the opportunity to tell us something of how a castle was defined across nearly 700 years of occupation.

Fearing for his safety during the tumultuous early 12th century, Henry I abandoned the custom of using Edward the Confessor’s nearby palace in favour of the original motte and bailey castle of Windsor. An added attraction for Henry and his successors was the proximity of the castle to Windsor Royal Hunting Park, which meant that resident monarchs could enjoy both safety and good sport. Edward III (1312-77), spent a record sum of £51, 000 renovating Windsor Castle, and planned to found a new order of the Round Table in imitation of the legendary King Arthur at the castle.

Edward III’s activity at the castle gives a useful demonstration of the purpose of the castle in the medieval period. The great warrior king used the redevelopment of Windsor Castle both to emulate his successful grandfather, Edward I, and to impose the royal authority lost by his weak father, Edward II, who was deposed by his own wife and allegedly executed with a red hot poker up his backside (in imitation of the buggery he was accused of) at Berkeley Castle. Thus he fortified the castle to a great extent, whilst making its interior an intimidating display of royal wealth.

Although Edward’s plans to build a residence for a new order of knights at Windsor failed, the Order of the Garter (as it was eventually called) was revived by Edward IV in the 1460s, who built the still-extant Chapel of St George for members at the castle. The castle’s proximity to the Royal Hunting Park made it very popular with Henry VIII in his vivacious, sporting youth, and he added a tennis court in around 1510. Elizabeth I, his daughter, was drawn to the castle owing to the great security it offered, and spent lavishly on repairing its defences.

The strategic and symbolic importance of Windsor Castle to the Royal Family meant that it was targeted by the Parliamentarian army during the Civil War, who seized it in 1642 and thenceforth used it as a garrison and headquarters. The decoration was deemed too lavish by the largely-Puritan Parliamentarians and by the end of the Civil War 101kg of gold and silver plate had been looted by the occupiers. By the time that the monarchy was reinstated, Windsor Castle was a wreck, and Charles II lost no time in rebuilding and renovating it in the lavish style of French castles.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Edinburgh Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Edinburgh Castle

Perched on a rocky outcrop over Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh Castle has been a fortification since at least the Iron Age, and has a claim to be the most besieged place in Britain after enduring 26 sieges. Like Windsor Castle, Edinburgh Castle in its current form boasts a variety of architecture from different periods, but this is less the result of aesthetic taste than its buildings being destroyed by hostile armies. The rock upon which it stands is an extinct volcano formed 350 million years ago and standing at 130 metres above sea level, 80 metres above the surrounding area.

Legend has it that Edinburgh Castle was built by Ebraucus, legendary King of the Britons, but the stronghold’s importance through the early middle ages is much better-evidenced archaeologically. Edinburgh Castle was the home of the future Saint Margaret of Scotland (c.1045-93), who died of grief after hearing of the death of her husband, King Malcolm III. In Margaret’s time the city of Edinburgh became the established set of Scottish royal power, a decision aided no doubt by the seeming-impregnability of the castle. The literal and symbolic elevation of the royal family above their subjects would also have been appealing.

Edinburgh Castle was at the centre of conflicts between the English and the Scots. It was occupied by the English for 22 years in the late 12th century after King William the Lion was defeated by Henry I of England at the Battle of Alnwick and had to surrender the castle as part of a peace treaty. The castle saw direct action in 1296, when King Edward I of England, known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, took advantage of the unstable Scottish crown to make himself Scotland’s feudal overlord. The castle surrendered after 3 days of bombardment.

The castle was retaken in 1314 (after Edward I’s death), but this came at a great price, for the decision was made to blow up the armaments to prevent its refortification in the event of another English capture. It continued to swap hands through the Scottish Wars of Independence, but when the English had more or less established rule over Scotland, Edinburgh Castle was repaired and extended to incorporate comfortable apartments and state rooms. The Great Hall was completed by 1458, but increasingly the castle was used as an arsenal. The famous gigantic cannon, Mons Meg, was added in 1457.

Perhaps the bloodiest siege took place in 1573, when 1, 000 English troops armed with 27 cannon fired 3, 000 shots at the castle. After 12 days, the castle finally surrendered when much of it was destroyed. Following many further conflicts between England and Scotland, the 1603 coronation of James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots, as King James I of England united the kingdoms, and from 1660 to 1923 a garrison was always stationed at the castle. Its last military action took place in 1745 when it successfully withstood a siege during the Second Jacobite Uprising.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Kenilworth Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Kenilworth Castle

The extensive remains of Kenilworth Castle match its historical significance. As it stands, Kenilworth represents 5 centuries of military architecture, from its Norman origins to the English Civil War. It was founded by Henry I’s treasurer, Geoffrey de Clifton, in the early 1120s, and the great tower possibly dates from his original foundation. It was fortified and redesigned until its partial destruction during the Civil War, serving as both stronghold and palace and passing from aristocratic to royal hands and back again. Until it fell into ruin, Kenilworth Castle remained very much at the centre of English history.

It was seized by Henry II when his his wife and sons rebelled against him in 1173, and was passed onto one of those rebellious offspring, ‘Bad’ King John, who celebrated being excommunicated by the Pope by rebuilding and modernising several royal residences including Kenilworth. His son, Henry III, in turn granted it to Simon de Montfort in 1244. This proved a grave error, as the disgruntled de Montfort became a leader in the Second Barons’ War (1264-67) against the spendthrift and autocratic Henry III, and used Kenilworth Castle as the centre for his military operations against the crown.

De Montfort died at the Battle of Evesham (1265), and his son, also called Simon, agreed to surrender the castle to the king. However, his forces rejected the terms, and so began the Siege of Kenilworth Castle in 1266, which in lasting 6 months is the longest siege in English history. Despite attacking the castle with trebuchets, siege towers, and a wealth of arrows, the castle’s defences were far too strong for the royalist army. Its defensive walls and impressive water features rendered the castle impregnable, and the forces at Kenilworth only surrendered when their provisions ran out.

In 1533 Kenilworth Castle passed into the hands of John Dudley, who not long afterwards was executed for his part in the temporarily-successful plot to put Lady Jane Grey (‘the Nine Days’ Queen’) on the throne. John’s son Robert, Earl of Leicester, inherited the castle after the succession of Elizabeth I, to whom he was a favourite and long-term suitor. Robert set about a grand redesign and extension of the castle in order to attract Elizabeth to visit, transforming it into a Renaissance palace. In 1575, Robert made a final unsuccessful attempt to convince Elizabeth to marry him.

Robert almost bankrupted himself with the architectural additions and lavish entertainment for this particular visit. Elizabeth arrived with an entourage of 31 barons and 400 servants and stayed for 19 days, the longest she ever patronised a private home on her tours. Robert organised hunting, bear-baiting, plays, and fireworks, at a cost of at least £1, 700, which was a fortune in Elizabethan times. Kenilworth was a Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War, but was captured by Parliamentarians in 1642, and eventually ‘slighted’ (deliberately destroyed) in 1649, to prevent its recapture and fortification by Charles I’s army.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Corfe Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle was built in 1066 by William the Conqueror, but its history and significance starts almost 100 years before. In 978, Edward the Martyr, King of England, was assassinated at the age of 15 at a Saxon hall that stood where the castle was later built: ‘no worse deed for the English race was done than this’, notes The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This resulted in the succession of Ethelred the Unready (r.978-1013; 1014) who is widely-seen as one of England’s worst ever monarchs. ‘Unready’ comes from the Old English unræd which actually means ‘un-counselled’, a pun on Ethelred (‘wise-counsel’).

Corfe is unusual amongst Norman castles for being built immediately out of stone, signifying its importance, and William established a hunting forest nearby to make the most of the fortification. The great keep, built in the early 12th century by Henry I, added to the defensive potential of the naturally high-ground on which the castle stands. Indeed, Corfe successfully withstood a siege from King Stephen in 1139 during The Anarchy, when the throne of England was disputed and a civil war erupted. Like Kenilworth, Corfe was significantly repaired by King John: whenever there was national unrest, Corfe was strengthened.

After being sold by Elizabeth I in 1572, Corfe remained in private hands until the English Civil War. Dorset, the county in which the castle is located, was loyal to Parliament but the family who then owned the Castle, the Bankes family, were fiercely loyal to the crown. Sir John Bankes was Attorney General to Charles I, and fought alongside the king, leaving his wife, Mary, and children at Corfe, trusting in its impregnability. Realising that the castle was too strong to attack openly the Parliamentarians first tried to infiltrate the garrison after a hunting excursion, but failed.

From 1643, Corfe was placed under siege: anyone caught joining the garrison had their house burned down and supplies were prevented from entering the castle. However, despite initially having a garrison of just 5 soldiers, Mary managed to expand this to 80 and simultaneously to have supplies smuggled through the blockade. Eventually a force of 600 was gathered to lay direct siege to the castle. Mary valiantly lasted several weeks before she was relieved by Royalist forces. Finally, in 1645, a traitor managed to smuggle 100 Parliamentarian soldiers disguised as Royalists into the castle, and it was captured and slighted.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Stirling Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Stirling Castle

Like Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle was built atop an imposing natural feature, in this case an intrusive crag, and was also occupied as a hill fort in the Iron Age. It occupied a strategically important position: beyond the defensive possibilities afforded by the crag, Stirling Castle overlooks a downstream crossing of the River Forth, and thus for centuries whoever occupied it controlled any movement across the river. Consequently, Stirling was involved in all of Scotland’s major conflicts, and besieged 8 times. Most of today’s castle dates from the 15th and 16th centuries, when it became an important royal palace.

In April 1304, during the Wars of Scottish Independence, Edward I of England laid siege to the castle, which was the last remaining stronghold in Scottish power. He had assembled 17 siege engines for the attack, and on July 20th the castle surrendered. Unfortunately, Edward had just finished construction of Warwolf, the largest trebuchet ever built, and was determined to use it. Warwolf was so large that, when disassembled, it needed 30 wagons to transport it, and could hurl projectiles weighing 136kg. Sending the truce party back to the castle, Edward totally levelled a large part of the curtain wall.

Stirling Castle also overlooks Bannockburn, where in 1314 Robert the Bruce secured the most famous victory of the Scottish Wars of Independence. By this time, Edward I had been succeeded by his ineffective son, Edward II, whose reign was an unmitigated disaster. At the battle, 10, 000 Scots, mostly on foot, defeated 25, 000 English troops of whom a large part were mounted. Boggy ground and fighting uphill made the English cavalry ineffective, and they were roundly slaughtered by the Scottish army. The battle itself was fought to save Stirling Castle, which Robert the Bruce was then successfully besieging.

Under the Stewart Kings, who came to power in Scotland in the late 14th century, Stirling Castle was transformed into a Renaissance palace between 1490 and 1600. Its surviving architecture displays a mixture of English, French and German influences, and it was home to musicians, clerks, and several alchemists. In 1507, one of these alchemists, Father John Damian, built a pair of wings out of feathers based on Leonardo da Vinci’s design and leaped from the castle walls in an attempt to fly. He of course failed, luckily only breaking his thigh bone, and blamed hen’s feathers for his crash-landing.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Dover Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Dover Castle

You only have to look at the surviving architecture at Dover Castle to understand how important it has been for millennia. As well as the medieval castle – the largest in England – there is also a Roman Lighthouse (Pharose), and a Saxon Church and burh (fortress). Dover Castle sits on one of the famous White Cliffs, from which the coast of France can be seen across the Channel on a clear day, and this proximity to continental Europe has led to its well-earned nickname of the ‘Key to England’. Even in World War II, Dover Castle played an important role.

Like most important English castles, Dover was originally founded by William the Conqueror, who recognized the site’s importance by appointing 8 knights to guard the coast from there. The design and appearance of today’s castle originate with Henry II, who built the keep and outer and inner baileys. During the First Barons’ War, in which powerful aristocrats sick of King John waged war against the king and made him sign the 1215 Magna Carta, the eventual King Louis VIII of France was invited to take the English Crown, and unsuccessfully attempted to take Dover Castle, breaching only the outer bailey.

Dover Castle was again besieged in 1265, during the Second Barons’ War, when it was held by Eleanor de Montfort, sister of Henry III and wife of his great enemy, Simon de Montfort (see Kenilworth Castle, above). Eleanor was a strong and assertive woman, who would not surrender Dover despite her husband’s death in 1265. The castle was blockaded, and food had to be plundered and smuggled in from the surrounding area. 14 royalist prisoners held in the castle eventually managed to convince their guards to release them, and Dover succumbed to attacks from within and without by Eleanor’s enemies.

In the event, Eleanor managed to negotiate her exile to France (where her surviving family were already waiting) and pardons for her supporters. The strength of the castle is demonstrated by the need for subterfuge rather than direct assault to capture it, and even when technology advanced in the Tudor Period, Dover was not abandoned. Henry VIII heavily fortified the South Coast of England to protect the country against France, and at Dover Castle he added many cannon and associated defensive walls. It was again captured by subterfuge rather than direct attack by Parliamentarians in the English Civil War.

Unlike many castles, Dover’s significance did not end with the Civil War. During the Napoleonic Wars, England was again wary of its proximity to France, and the outer defenses of the castle were remodeled to incorporate more heavy artillery to guard against potential French invasions. Simultaneously, extensive tunnels were dug 15 metres underground to house a garrison. In World War II, these tunnels were used as military headquarters, and Admiral Sir Bertram-Ramsey directed the evacuation of Dunkirk from beneath Dover Castle. During the Cold War, these tunnels housed a shelter for government officials in case of a nuclear attack.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Caernarfon Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle is the first Welsh castle on the list, and has its origins with the great castle-builder William the Conqueror. Having subdued England, William turned his attention to Wales and Ireland, and by 1086 (the time of the Domesday Book) Northern Wales was under Norman control. The Domesday ruler, Robert of Rhuddlan, was killed by the Welsh in 1088, and his cousin Hugh d’Avranches succeeded him and reasserted Norman rule by, of course, building castles. One of these establishments was a motte and bailey castle at Caernarfon, which was captured for the first time by the Welsh in 1115.

This change of ownership from English to Welsh set the tone for the medieval history of Caernarfon Castle. War broke out between the countries in 1282, and the Welsh suffered under the brutal military campaigns of Edward I, who cut his martial teeth in the conflict in preparation for subduing Scotland later in his reign. He took Caernarfon back from the Welsh, and set about turning the rudimentary motte and bailey castle into a 13th-century masterpiece. Inspired by the great fortifications he saw in the Holy Land whilst on crusade, Edward’s new castle was instrumental in asserting rule in Wales.

The new castle was so large that parts of the town of Caernarfon had to be demolished, and the whole settlement was surrounded by a strong defensive wall. Edward garrisoned his new castle with 40 men, the most of any Welsh castle. Mid-construction, however, Caernarfon Castle was damaged by Welsh rebels led by Madog ap Llywelyn, and large parts were burned to the ground. It was rebuilt and completed at great cost by 1330. Though its size and strategic importance made Caernarfon Castle the target of many sieges during the Glyndŵr Rising (1400-15), once finished the castle was never taken.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Harlech Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle sits atop a spur of rock overlooking the Irish Sea, and is another Welsh castle built by Edward I. The castle was again influenced by fortifications from the Holy Land, and beyond taking advantage of the altitude of this natural topographical feature the architects also built a defensive wall around the spur’s bottom. Building Harlech Castle was a mammoth task: 10% of Edward’s entire expenditure on Welsh castles went on Harlech alone, and the need to build it quickly meant that 546 laborers, 115 quarriers, 30 blacksmiths, 22 carpenters, and 227 stonemasons were slaving away in 1286.

Harlech was also besieged by Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294, a year before it was finished, yet unlike Caernarfon was still strong enough to withstand the attack. The concentric defensive walls, moat, and rock face all meant that Madog could not directly assault the castle, and so he resorted to razing the surrounding areas and attempting to starve the garrison out. However, Harlech’s proximity to the sea was to be its salvation: the heavily-fortified ‘way to the sea’, a steep staircase leading to the coast, allowed provisions to be smuggled in, and the siege was called-off after a few months.

Harlech was not entirely siege-proof, however. During the Glyndŵr Rising, Harlech was to fall to Owain Glyndŵr, and became the headquarters of his military campaign. In the early 1400s, England was troubled by its own internal war, which broke out after Henry Bolingbroke deposed King Richard II and crowned himself Henry IV. Henry would spend much of his reign putting down rebellions against his legitimacy to be king, and thus the Welsh castles were understaffed. At Harlech, which was besieged by Glyndŵr in 1404, the defenders had a mere 3 shields and 6 lances to defend themselves, and soon surrendered.

Things had settled down in England in 1408, when the future King Henry V (a great military leader who masterminded the Battle of Agincourt in 1415) took the castle back by force and starvation. During the Wars of the Roses Harlech was a Lancastrian stronghold, and successfully withstood a Yorkist siege lasting a staggering 7 years (1461-68), surviving through the ‘way to the sea’ and its architectural brilliance before falling to a 10, 000-strong army in 1468. The heroic exploits of the besieged garrison during the longest siege in British history is commemorated in the traditional song, Men of Harlech.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Warwick Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle is built on a sandstone bluff above the River Avon, which also flows through Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. Its origins lie during the early 10th century, when Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, built a burh to defend the area against the invading Vikings. William the Conqueror (who else?) turned the Saxon fortification into a motte and bailey castle in 1068, and the stone edifice that survives today was started in 1260. Its impressive outer defensive walls incorporate ‘murder holes’, openings from which boiling tar or human waste could be poured on attackers climbing up siege ladders.

Warwick fell to perhaps the most audacious and bloodless capture in the history of castles. In 1153, England was embroiled in The Anarchy, when the throne was disputed, and the son of the rival claimant Empress Matilda, Henry of Anjou, invaded with the intention of seizing power. Arriving at Warwick Castle, Henry convinced the wife of Roger de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Warwick, who was loyal to King Stephen, that her husband had died, and she foolishly handed over the castle. Roger is said to have dropped dead upon hearing the news, and Henry became king of England in 1154.

The castle was taken under more conventional means by Simon de Montfort during the Second Barons’ War (see Kenilworth Castle, above). He launched a surprise attack on the newly-stone castle in 1264, laying waste to the defensive walls, and succeeded in capturing Earl William Mauduit and his wife. Simon imprisoned and held to ransom the royalist couple in Kenilworth Castle. Warwick itself was also used as a prison, and hosted the notorious Piers Gaveston, lover of King Edward II, in 1312 before his execution, and King Edward IV for a period in 1469 during the Wars of the Roses.

Warwick Castle is also famous for its horrific dungeon, which dates back to 1345. Located underground, barely any natural light would have reached it in its heyday, and the walls are covered in graffiti carved by prisoners, including one from the English Civil War – when the castle was used to confine Royalist soldiers – who laments his 4 years’ incarceration. Warwick Castle is also associated with the murky period of witchcraft in England. Moll Bloxham, an old woman who was dismissed for selling dishonest measures of dairy products, died cursing the Earl of Warwick’s cattle after being banished.

12 Best-Preserved British Castles, and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them
Leeds Castle. Wikimedia Commons

Leeds Castle

Self-described as ‘the loveliest castle in the world’, Leeds Castle is an example of a castle that served more as a crenellated home than a military stronghold like nearby Hever. Located on two islands in the Kent countryside (rather than the city in Yorkshire of the same name), the setting of Leeds Castle perhaps best epitomizes the common conception of a castle in the popular imagination. Its origins, however, were dogmatically military: in 857 a Saxon chief called Led (from whom the modern name ‘Leeds’ derives) built a wooden fortification on two natural islands in the River Len.

It was first built as a stone castle in 1119 by Robert de Crevecoeur, who linked the two islands with a drawbridge. 20 years later it was attacked by King Stephen during The Anarchy, but withstood a siege and the maelstrom of 12th-century politics to remain in the de Crevecoeur family. Little remains of de Crevecoeur’s building today, but more substantial parts survive from Edward I’s period of ownership. Edward’s first wife, Eleanor of Castile, purchased Leeds Castle in 1278, and set about making it into a more comfortable home, incorporating a gloriette (a high building affording pleasant views).

When Eleanor died, Edward set about improving both the castle’s defences and domestic comfort, building a rare medieval bath house. His imprudent son, Edward II, gave the castle to one Bartholomew de Badlesmere, who responded by refusing to let Edward’s queen visit, and so the castle was besieged and its churlish owner beheaded. From this time until the late 14th century the castle was traditionally given to the Queen of England. Despite its hospitable nature, the castle also served as a prison for Henry V’s stepmother, accused of plotting to poison the king, for a period the early 15th century.

The castle’s military function was all but ended by Henry VIII, who set about a lavish period of redevelopment to make it more comfortable. It was a favoured palace of Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who once visited the castle with an entourage of 5, 000 in 1520. Unfortunately, much of the medieval castle was demolished over a period of insensitive redevelopment from the Jacobean to the Victorian period, though aspects and features can still be traced in today’s castle. At the very least, Leeds Castle offers a perspective on changing tastes and ancient attitudes to conservation.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Alexander, Marc. The Welsh Castles Story. Stroud: The History Press, 2015.

Allen Brown, Reginald. Allen Brown’s English Castles. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1976.

Forde-Johnston, James. Great Medieval Castles of Britain. London: Book Club Associates, 1979.

Johnson, Paul. The National Trust Book of British Castles. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978.

King, D.J. Cathcart. Castellarium Anglicanum: An Index and Bibliography of the Castles in England, Wales and the Islands. London: Kraus International Publications, 1983.

Parnell, Geoffrey. The Tower of London: Past & Present. Stroud: The History Press, 2009.

Sorrell, Alan. British Castles. Hastings House Publishers, 1973.

Tabraham, C. J. Scottish Castles. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2005.