‘Her Majesty. . . .was conveyed up to her chamber: whereafter did follow so great a peel of guns and such lightening by fireworks. . . that the noise and flame were heard and seen twenty miles off.’
Robert Langham, 1575
(Gentleman-usher to Robert Dudley)
Fireworks coloured the sky. Trumpets and drums split the soft summer air. The “Lady of the Lake” floated on an artificial island alight with blazing torches. A grand pageant stirred into action.
Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and favourite of the Queen, lavished entertainment on Elizabeth I on her visit to Kenilworth Castle. It was July 1575. Internal peace reigned in England. The queen, on arrival at the palace, was greeted thus:
“And whiles your highness here abides
Nothing shall rest unsought,
That may bring quiet to your mind
Or pleasure to your thought.”
Feasting, dancing, hunting, and entertainment continued for 19 days. It was a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and possibly the inspiration for the play of the same name by William Shakespeare who, at the age of 11, may have witnessed the pageants.
Kenilworth shone in all its glory. Dudley had invested much effort in preparing the buildings at Kenilworth for the Queen’s visit. He built the Leicester Gatehouse, changing the main entrance of the castle to its north side by adding a timber bridge, enabling the new entrance to accommodate carriages. The Gatehouse was constructed with octagonal corner turrets and a ribbed stone door decorated with his initials. Inside, an oak panelled ground floor and alabaster fireplace added richness. Leciester’s Buildings, a three-storey block of rooms overlooking the mere was added to accommodate important guests. He constructed the stables, now the site of an historical exhibition, and planted the Tudor gardens on a ten-foot high grass terrace.
It was an appropriate setting for princely pleasures, but Kenilworth, in its long history, knew many other roles. Naturally protected by the surrounding marshes, the castle sat on a knoll in the midst of England’s heartland. Little is known of the early occupation of the site, but the first castle was built of earth and timber. In 1122, Henry I bestowed it as part of an estate on his chamberlain, Geoffrey de Clinton.
As protection, the massive Norman keep, one of the oldest parts of the castle, served its purpose well. Specifically designed to be impregnable, its red sandstone walls were 20 feet thick. The wide base discouraged attempts to undermine those walls while the third floor arrowslits gave archers both safety and easy targets. Its shell remains an imposing sight.
Henry II, at war with his son in 1173, took over the castle as a defensive measure. King John realized the power of the place, and between 1210-1215 he extended the castle and dammed the valley’s streams, changing the lake into the Great Mere that starred in Elizabeth’s entertainment. At the time of the signing of the Magna Carta, Kenilworth was one of four castles important enough to be held as sureties for King John’s signature.
In 1266, 300 years before Elizabeth’s visit, the castle endured the longest siege in English history—9 months. Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, and husband to Eleanor (King Henry III’s sister) had taken possession of the castle in 1253. Increasingly dissatisfied with the King’s abuse of power, the Earl and other barons revolted. In 1265 at the battle of Evesham, the King’s forces killed de Montfort. His son, who inherited Kenilworth, proceeded to rape and pillage the countryside.
The king’s army attacked the barons’ place of refuge, laying siege to Kenilworth. Neither “The Bear” (a mobile tower for archers) nor projectiles undermined the castle’s strength. The garrison surrendered only when disease and starvation decimated the ranks. The condition of surrender read that all within "should have four days' time to carry out all their goods, and go freely away with horse, arms, and all accoutrements, throughout any part of the kingdom."
After the siege, the king bestowed the castle and the title of Earl of Leicester on his son Edmund. The castle was repaired, the royal apartments were improved, and the chapel was redecorated.
Kenilworth enjoyed being one of five licensed tournament grounds in England where knights could meet. In 1279 a tournament known as the Round Table of Knights hosted 100 knights and their ladies who assembled for jousting, dancing, and feasting.
But the castle’s role became darker in 1326 when Edward II was imprisoned here by Henry, Earl of Lancaster, before being removed to Berkeley Castle and murdered. It was thought the King was “too much observed and respected” at Kenilworth.
In 1361, the powerful John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, inherited the castle and turned it into a palatial home. Roofless red sandstone walls give no hint of his Great Hall with its hammerbeam roof. The largest roof of its kind at the time, its trusses were 45 feet wide. A great fireplace, carved stonework, and huge windows only hint at the magnificent 14th century rooms.
The castle played the role of retirement home for Henry V after his victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. He added a Pleasaunce and timber-framed banqueting house in the marsh. Even King Henry VIII visited Kenilworth, repairing and altering the castle by adding an extra range of lodgings for his comfort.
Then came the Civil War. Changing hands several times during the war—Charles I spent a night here—Kenilworth managed to escape much of the battle. After victory Cromwell sounded the castle’s death knell, ordering his officers to demolish and dismantle much of the castle, drain its great lake, cut down the surrounding woodlands, and turn the parks into farms. Kenilworth Castle began its decline into ruin.
At different times in history Kenilworth played different roles to many people, but it is the Kenilworth of romance that impressed itself indelibly in the minds of many, thanks to Sir Walter Scott, who in 1821, wrote his novel of the same name. He described the castle as a “splendid and gigantic structure”.
Today Kenilworth is considered one of the finest ruined castles in England. The shattered towers whisper of celebrations and battles, of the famous and the ordinary, of times of greatness and neglect. Amongst the sprawling landscape and sandstone ruins, still stirring are the passions of the past.
Kenilworth Castle is 95 miles northwest of London, five miles from Coventry and Warwick in the town of Kenilworth, Warwickshire.
Gift shop and café
Tel. 01926 852078
Open April-end Sep, 10am-6pm daily; in Oct, 10am-5pm daily; Nov-end March, 10am-4pm daily; closed 24-26 Dec and Jan 1.
Bus: Midland Red/ Stratford Blue XI6-9, Stagecoach G & G X12, West Midlands Travel 12A/C Coventry-Leamington Spa (passes close BR Coventry and Leamington Spa) (Tel: 01788 535555).
Train: Warwick 5m.
Photos by Barbara Ballard
This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine.
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