Castle of the Week 63 – Kenilworth Castle

Few castles in England have made such an impact on both historian and romantic as Kenilworth. Regarded as an ‘architectural antique’ and with a long and extremely fascinating history, Kenilworth is indeed a jewel of a castle. From humble beginnings the fortress has developed over time into an interesting and much-written about place of Kings and Queens.

The earliest mention of Kenilworth dates back to 1086 and the Domesday Book, which describes the site as a modest settlement in the Forest of Arden. Speculation states that there was a fortification on the site earlier in Saxon times, built upon a hill called Hom. Its origin was popularly attributed to a Saxon king of Mercia, of the name Kenulph, and his son Kenelm, and this is countenanced by the name, which the place bears. The structure was probably demolished during the wars between King Edmund and Canute II, King of the Danes. In about 1122, for reasons that are unclear, Geoffrey de Clinton, Chamberlain to Henry I, determined to build what was to become possibly the most magnificent castle in England in this obscure forest clearing. A local outcrop of good building stone would have been one factor for selecting this spot. Geoffrey de Clinton built an oval enclosure defended by damming streams to create a great lake to the south and west, with a broad moat on the other two sides. The first structure here was a banked enclosure surrounded by a wide ditch, on which was raised a large mound with tower. Later, a substantial rectangular tower with walls 20ft thick and rising to three storeys was added, as well as a stonework curtain along the line of the ditch.

The castle soon became too important to leave in private hands and the Clintons eventually relinquished the castle to the Plantagenet Kings. In 1244, the king appointed Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, to be governor of the castle, and granted it for life to him and his wife Eleanor, who was the king’s sister. This earl is said to have “wonderfully fortified the castle, and stored with many kinds of warlike engines, till that time never seen nor heard of in England.”

Though a Frenchman, de Montfort is remembered as the founder of democracy in England and has a place of honour in the Palace of Westminster. In his parliament of 1265 he promised the common people an opportunity to play a part in governing the nation. This was seen as a cynical attempt at popularity by his political opponents, but he found favour with the country’s barons who were aggrieved by the King’s tax policy.

The Baron’s War 1266

Although de Montfort achieved great popularity, within a few months he was killed by the King’s army. Involved with the revolt of the Barons, Simon and his eldest son were slain in the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Kenilworth passed to the Earl’s eldest surviving son, also called Simon, and he received those that fled from battle along with friends of those who had died. Buoyed by this, Simon sent out his officers to burn and pillage properties held by his adversaries. This state of affairs continued until the summer of 1266, when the King, Henry III, became concerned over the activities and decided to lay siege to the castle. However, Henry was faced with assailing a castle completely surrounded by water and almost too wide to allow mining tunnels to be dug. The siege began in June though and lasted six months, the longest in English history. Henry deployed stone-throwing siege equipment and wooden belfries; the latter were smashed by stone from within the castle walls. Only when food ran out and a pestilence beset the inhabitants did the siege end, and Simon negotiated terms with the King to allow them 4 days to leave Kenilworth and resettle within the Kingdom.

Many English kings have added to the structure of Kenilworth and in the 14th century, whilst owned by John of Gaunt, the Great Hall was added, along with kitchens and a Great Chamber. John was the son of Edward III, and when Edward died the crown passed to Richard II, aged only 12. John was, in practical terms, the King of England at the time. John’s daughter, Joan, married Ralph Neville, and their son Richard was father of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker.

In 1563 – the fifth year of her reign – Queen Elizabeth I bestowed Kenilworth castle upon Robert Lord Dudley, her favourite. A year later she titled him Baron of Denbigh and Earl of Leicester. He made extensive additions and alterations to the castle to continue John of Gaunt’s transformation of the fortress into a palace. Some of the Norman features were modernised with fashionable Tudor to please Elizabeth. For example, he replaced arrow slits in the Keep with large windows to allow more light into the building.

Queen Elizabeth I visited Robert Dudley at Kenilworth Castle in the years 1566, 1568, and 1575. No expense was spared during this final trip, which lasted for 19 days in mid July and cost Dudley £1000 per day. The splendour of the pageantry eclipsed anything that had been seen before in the whole of England. Water pageants were provided for Elizabeth’s entertainment at the mere, a large defensive lake outside the perimeter walls, and the ‘Pleasance’ was laid out on the North side of the castle as a pleasure garden during her visit.

One historical account records that the Queen arrived at the castle at 8 o’clock in the evening. On approaching it she was accosted by an oracle, “comely clad in a pall of white silk,” who in poetic manner expressed the delight her arrival gave, and prophesied that she should enjoy a long and prosperous reign. On arriving at the first castle gate, six massive statues of trumpeters appeared upon the battlements, a fanfare welcomed the Queen, and she was presented with the gate keys. When the queen entered the gate and came into the court, she was met by the legendary Lady of the Lake, who, attended by two nymphs arrayed in silk, floated towards her from the middle of the pool upon a movable island, blazing with torches. According to the report, the sound of drums, fifes, and trumpets, the firing of guns and a grand display of fireworks were heard twenty miles away.

William Shakespeare was just 11 years old and likely among the crowd that witnessed the occasion with its expensive and complex arrangements. 20 years later he wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream which, according to experts, bears strong evidence of his visit in 1575 to see the festivities.

The Restoration in 1660 revived the monarchy and saw the accession to the throne of King Charles II. He gave the castle to Sir Edward Hyde, whom he created Baron Kenilworth and Earl of Clarendon. The castle remained the property of the Earl of Clarendon until 1937 when it was purchased by Sir John Siddeley, later Lord Kenilworth. The second Lord Kenilworth presented the castle to Kenilworth in 1958, on the 400th anniversary of the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne. English Heritage has looked after the ruins since 1984.

Write-up by Sulis.