Kenilworth Castle, located in the Warwickshire town of the same name, played an important role in British history for over 500 years. The site was fortified by the Saxons, and Kenilworth is mentioned in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book of 1086.
The castle went through several transformations over the centuries. The Norman earth and wood castle became a local sandstone castle with improved defences. This in turn was redesigned to focus on comfort and luxury rather than strength of defence, eventually becoming an Elizabethan style palace. In its final incarnation, the castle’s gatehouse was transformed into a dwelling, while the rest of the castle lay in ruins.
The 3-story rectangular keep dates back to the earliest stone construction in the 1100’s, but the changes made over the centuries (such as the larger Tudor windows) are easily visible. Near the keep was the kitchen – kept separate to prevent fire – and other service buildings. The Great Hall built by John of Gaunt has lost its flooring, but it can be viewed from the undercroft or basement. The walls of the hall are still standing, along with evidence of an imposing vaulted ceiling, tall windows, window seats for work requiring more light, and a large fireplace.
Kenilworth Castle featured six towers at different times during its history. Mortimer’s Tower guarded the entrance to the outer bailey, and was essentially a gatehouse. The narrow passage through the tower, with thick walls and arrow slits above, meant that it could be defended by a small force of men. Lunn’s Tower was part of the later defensive wall built by King John, and as such was designed for military purposes rather than comfort. The Water Tower, on the other hand, was much more comfortable, with ample fireplaces and large windows. The Strong Tower, three floors high, contained domestic facilities such as the pantry and the buttery. Finally, Saintlowe Tower and Gaunt’s Tower were built by John of Gaunt to provide luxurious accommodations for himself and for important guests.
Other buildings at Kenilworth include the gatehouse and living quarters that were constructed by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Dudley, a favourite of Elizabeth, built the living quarters specifically for her visits. Its three stories each contained a group of rooms, including a sitting room, a luxurious bedroom, and special decorative elements such as elaborate fireplaces.
Like many once-magnificent castles of Norman and medieval England, Kenilworth was devastated by the Civil War that began in 1642. The castle passed back and forth between the two sides until the Restoration in 1660, and in the course of the battles the outer wall was damaged, one side of the keep ruined, and considerable damage done to the other buildings. The gatehouse was converted to a residence and the rest of the castle was left to decay. By the 19th century the castle was an abandoned ruin.
Kenilworth Castle was purchased in 1937 by Sir John Davenport Siddley and presented to England for preservation of the history contained within its walls. In 1984, maintenance of the castle was taken over by English Heritage. Today it is open to the public, so that visitors from England and around the world can appreciate the fascination of the various historical periods and their impact on this site. The castle is open almost every day of the year; it is free for members of English Heritage, with an admission fee charged for non-members. Visitors can enjoy medieval-themed activities and events such as falconry, jousting, and theatre. For more information, visit English Heritage’s Kenilworth Castle site.