England's 10 best castles include magical settings for legendary stories and early Medieval ruins connected to powerful families. There are castles with romantic stories and others that are the Victorian fantasies of wealthy aristocrats. These are among the best.
Leeds Castle, near Maidstone in Kent, is often called the most romantic castle in England because of its beautiful setting, surrounded by a moat. There is another good reason to think of romance here. For most of its 1,000-year history, it has been a lady's castle. The first woman to own it, Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward I, bought it for herself from the Norman noble who went broke building it. Eventually, it was the dower house of six queens, and Henry VIII added luxury touches to make it ready for his newest wife, Anne Boleyn. Sadly, she lost her head before she had much time to enjoy it.
Today the castle combines original medieval rooms and features with 20th-century areas created for the last private resident, an Anglo-American heiress who entertained celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and the young Winston Churchill. Among the highlights are the Gloriette, the oldest part of the castle, and the many family-oriented events that take place throughout the year. There's a hedge maze that ends in a magical hidden grotto and extensive gardens to explore.
Arundel Castle was begun within a year of the Norman Conquest in 1067. Some parts of that early castle—the keep, the gatehouse, and the barbican (defensive tower above the gate)—remain. Still, most of what you see is a Victorian fantasy of what a castle should look like, added during renovations in the 1880s and 1890s.
It is still a fabulous place to visit in its position high above the West Sussex town of Arundel and the river Arun, about two hours by car or train south of London.
It's the family seat of the Dukes of Norfolk, who is still in residence. Learning about this once politically powerful family and the ups and downs of their fortunes is the highlight of any visit. The family included several cardinals, a saint, a hero of the Spanish Armada, and the uncle of both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. He conspired to marry both of them to Henry VIII, and both lost their heads as a result. So, by the way, did many Dukes of Norfolk.
The house is crammed with Tudor-era furniture, tapestries, and clocks as well as portraits by Van Dyck, Gainsborough, and others. While there, you can also see some of the personal possessions of Mary, Queen of Scots—the fourth Duke plotted to marry her and was beheaded for it.
Dover Castle commands the shortest crossing of the English Channel to France, the reason William the Conqueror himself chose it. He directed the building of a stockade there almost immediately after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He wasn't the first to recognize this hill's importance. The Romans and the Anglo Saxons also fortified the spot, and you can see evidence of them when you visit. The castle remained a garrisoned fortress from these early days right up to the late 1950s.
Among the highlights of a visit, see the Great Tower, where six rooms of the Medieval castle of Henry II, William's grandson, have been recreated. Then tour the World War I Fire Command Post and take a guided tour of the World War II tunnels that housed a hospital and Operation Dynamo, the planning HQ for the evacuation of thousands of British soldiers from Dunkirk. Some of the costumes from the 2017 film, "Dunkirk," are on exhibit there.
Anne Boleyn's childhood home is a mere 30 miles southeast of London, near Edenbridge in Kent. It's surrounded by 125 acres of gardens and includes 28 rooms where you can stay.
The Tudor house, built by the Boleyn family, sits within the 13th century, medieval castle, filled with Tudor rooms—including a bedroom reputed to be Anne's. The castle was restored by American millionaire William Waldorf Astor who created a family home in part of the castle while indulging his interest in history by renovating the house. The heavily carved paneling and furniture in the Tudor rooms are worth a visit alone.
Hever Castle is an active family attraction with events happening in the gardens and grounds throughout the summer. Don't miss the jousting and heavy horse events that take place regularly within an authentic Medieval jousting arena, complete with a royal box.
Alnwick Castle (pronounced Annick), the family seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, is the second-largest inhabited castle in England (Windsor is the largest). It's on England's northeast coast, about halfway between Newcastle upon Tyne and the Scottish border.
For more than 700 years, the castle has been home to the Percys, once an influential political family in the late Middle Ages. Today this castle is probably more famous as the location of Hogwarts in "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."
Today you can learn broomstick flying and the rules of Quiddich in Outer Bailey, where Harry and friends learned to fly. Free 25-minute broomstick training sessions are available to castle ticket holders throughout the day. And the "Professors" share the secret of taking airborne photos with "graduates."
In the Artisan's Courtyard, the family can dress up in Medieval costumes and join in with the villagers in trying traditional crafts and games. You can also go on a quest to conquer a dragon.
The castle has impressive staterooms, and about a mile down the road, the Duchess of Northumberland has created new gardens that include a gated and locked poison garden that can only be visited by guided tour.
Sir William Cavendish built Bolsover Castle, within the ruins of a Norman castle, in the 17th century during the reign of the Stuart king, Charles II. He was a playboy, poet, and adventurer who designed his house to resemble a Medieval castle. But it was a place for him to entertain and impress his friends. During the English Civil War, Cavendish, who was a Royalist or Cavalier fought on the losing side and fled into exile in 1644. When he returned, about 16 years later, his house was severely damaged. He set about restoring some of it into what is now the Little Castle.
A highlight of a visit is the chance to see the Cavalier Horses perform in the indoor Riding School at Bolsover Castle. The horses perform to Baroque music with riders in Cavalier costumes, every weekend from early April to early October.
This Derbyshire house is about 25 miles north of Nottingham and about 12 miles east of the Peak District National Park.
Visit Bodiam Castle in East Sussex to walk the long bridge across its magnificent moat and to enter a ruined 14th century castle left much as it was the last time it saw battle. You might find that Bodiam Castle resembles the castle you may have built with a pail and shovel on the beaches of your childhood. You can climb ancient spiral staircases and see a very rare and original portcullis in the gatehouse. Picnic on the grounds or join a free archery session.
Bodiam is about 11 miles from the south coast at Hastings and only around 7 miles from Battle, the site of the Battle of Hastings, and well worth a visit.
Kenilworth started as a Norman country house. It was fortified into a castle by Henry II, William the Conqueror's grandson, who needed a stronghold to protect his throne from his many warring brothers. It was finally reduced to ruins by Oliver Cromwell's men after the English Civil War in the 17th century. But before that Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, extensively renovated the castle to please a special visitor, Queen Elizabeth I.
The story of Elizabeth and Dudley is one of the great unresolved romances of history. The childhood friends were reacquainted when both were imprisoned in the Tower by Elizabeth's sister, Queen Mary. Dudley became her favorite, and there was even talk of marriage. Then scandal over the mysterious death of his wife Amy made marriage impossible. Instead, he virtual rebuilt Kenilworth to please Elizabeth, who visited often.
Since 2014, new enclosed staircases let visitors enjoy views last seen by Elizabeth more than 400 years ago, while 21st-century gardeners recreated the privy garden created for her. And in the Leicester Gatehouse, see an Elizabethan bedroom and an exhibition about the romantic story.
Kenilworth is in Warwickshire, 105 miles from London but only 15 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, making it an excellent add-on to a short break in Shakespeare's England.
Legend has it that King Arthur was conceived here. What is much more likely is that Richard, Earl of Cornwall, and brother of King Henry III picked this strategic headland to build his castle in the 13th century and connected it to the popular Morte d'Arthur, a "bestseller" of the early middle ages. To strengthen his claim and attachment to Cornwall, Richard clothed himself in the popular legends. Tintagel's astonishing position, perched on rocks above a beach and Merlin's cave, makes it easy to imagine legendary romances happened here.
You need a head for heights for the long steep staircases and the narrow bridge that connects the castle to the mainland. It's worth the effort. Tintagel Head is on the north coast of Cornwall between Boscastle and Port Isaac.
Warkworth Castle, near the Northumberland coast and the Scottish border, was built by the colorful Percy family who arrived in Britain with William the Conqueror and became power players and intriguers through the Middle Ages. As the Dukes of Northumberland, they also built nearby Alnwick Castle, which is still the family seat.
The castle's position, a ruin at the top of its small English village, is dramatic. Today's visitors can explore the unusual cruciform castle keep, designed in the shape of a Greek cross. Its rooms and floors can be explored as can the Duke's chambers, two rooms roofed and floored in the 19th century for the private use of the Duke and his family. The gatehouse is the oldest part of the castle, and beyond it, the Bailey is a flat, grassy area great as a picnic and children's play area.