Approach Kenilworth Castle across its Warwickshire parkland and your first impression might be of yet another crumbling pile of ancient stones. But first impressions are often wrong. This is a fascinating place with nearly 900 years of romantic stories — royal conflict, religious strife and possibly the most poignant case of unrequited love in English history. Here's what you need to know to visit.
A Brief History
The castle was built around 1120 for Geoffrey de Clinton, chamberlain to King Henry I. King Henry was the fourth son of William the Conqueror. The Normans, only a few generations away from their Viking origins, were a warring lot with murderous family squabbles. Henry battled with his brothers for the throne and later his only legitimate son and heir drowned. He tried to name his daughter Matilda his heir but in 1120, the English were not ready for a woman on the throne, so it passed to a nephew Stephen of Blois.
But Matilda got her own back eventually. Poor Stephen: Civil war broke out between his supporters and those of Matilda almost as soon as he took the throne. Eventually he made peace with Matilda's forces but only on condition that her son, William the Conqueror's grandson, be named his heir.
That was Henry II, who took over Kenilworth Castle and fortified it for all the family fighting — and warring—- that went on with his many brothers. That was when Kenilworth changed from a substantial country estate to a military establishment where Henry II garrisoned soldiers.
What followed were several centuries of internecine struggles and dynastic wars during which the castle remained standing — it even withstood a six month siege, the longest in English history.
What eventually reduced it to ruins was politics. Early in the English Civil War between Parliamentarians and Royalists, Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentarian forces took the castle. It never saw any action in the war but after, in 1649, Parliament ordered it made "untenable". It was partially destroyed (much as you can see it now) so that Parliament didn't have to spend money defending it from new rebellions.
Elizabeth and Dudley
Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, who became the 1st Earl of Leicester, were childhood friends. They became reacquainted while imprisoned in the Tower of London during the reign of Mary, Queen Elizabeth's half sister. Dudley had been condemned to death because of his family's support of Lady Jane Grey. Elizabeth was imprisoned under suspicion of involvement with Wyatt's Rebellion. They were both eventually released and Dudley became Queen Elizabeth's favorite for the rest of his life.
There was even talk that they would marry when his peculiar wife Amy died. Amy never went to Court and led a completely separate life from her husband. When she died under suspicious circumstances (falling down stairs and injuring her head), Dudley proposed to the Queen. But because of the scandal over his wife's death (was it suicide? murder?) the marriage could never take place.
Nevertheless, they remained close. She gave him Kenilworth and often visited him there. As a last ditch attempt to persuade her to marry him, he virtually rebuilt Kenilworth in her honor. He added an enclosed hunting park, built a grand gatehouse, laid out a privy garden with a jeweled aviary and built a 4-story tower in the castle's inner courtyard, now known as the Leicester Building, that was just for the use of Queen Elizabeth and her closest servants.
Interest in the castle was revived in the 19th century when the story, including the tragedy of Amy, was the basis of the romantic novel Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott (author of Ivanhoe).
Things to Do at Kenilworth
- Tower Views: In 2014, English Heritage opened a series of easy to manage and safe stairways and platforms to the top of the Leicester Building so you can enjoy views that had not been seen in 400 years and were created specifically for Queen Elizabeth I's enjoyment.
- Elizabethan Garden: Visit the privy garden created for the Queen and recreated from drawings, descriptions and historical research by English Heritage's 21st century gardeners. They've even recreated Elizabeth's jeweled aviary.
- Leicester's Gatehouse: The grand entry gatehouse was later converted to a private home in 1650. Today it houses an exhibition about the romance between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley. There's an Elizabethan bedroom and an alabaster fireplace that once graced the Queen's private rooms.
- Where: Kenilworth Castle, Castle Green, Off Castle Road, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, CV8 1NG
- When: Daily from the end of February through October, weekends only November to mid February. Check the website for seasonal hours and half-term openings.
- How much: Full price adult ticket £11.80 in 2019; family tickets for two adults and up to three children £30.70. Student, seniors and children's tickets available. Kenilworth is included for free admission on the Overseas Visitor's Pass.
- Getting There: From London, take the M40 to the A46 to Kenilworth. From the Kenilworth town center, follow the signposts to the castle on the B4103. It's about 105 miles and in good traffic conditions takes about two hours. Plan on it taking longer or, better yet, take the train. The nearest train stations are Coventry or Warwick, both five miles away and served by taxi and local buses. Check National Rail Enquiries for train times and prices.
What Else is Nearby?
- Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare's home town is about 15 miles away via the A46.
- British Motor Museum: Classic British cars on Banbury Road, Gaydon, 17 miles away via the M40 and Warwick Bypass
- Baddesley Clinton: A wonderful, timber-framed Tudor manor house surrounded by a moat and lost in the middle of woodlands. Nine miles away on the A1477.
- Warwick Castle: This is a heavily reconstructed medieval castle now operated by Merlin Entertainments, the same company that owns Madame Tussauds. It is only five miles away but is a totally different and child-oriented attraction.