For up to date information on opening times and events for Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Gardens, please visit English Heritage.
”Described by many as the definitive English Castle”
Simon Jenkins, England’s Thousand Best Houses
Immortalised and romanticised by Sir Walter Scott in his early 19th century novel, Kenilworth is probably one of the finest ruined castles to be seen in Britain today. Dramatically portrayed amidst the gentle rolling countryside of Warwickshire, Kenilworth Castle is a memorable landmark of the powerful Normans, and a fitting memorial to the power games of Elizabethan England. The inner court contains a range of ruinous buildings dating from the 12th to the 16th century, including Leicester’s Building. Remaining substantially intact are the great Tudor gatehouse and stabling block located in the outer court, both from Robert Dudley’s time. From a 17th century plan, the Tudor gardens have been reconstructed in the form of a parterre.
Kenilworth Castle has been intimately linked with some of the most important names in English history. Today, with its Tudor gardens, its impressive Norman ‘keep’ and John of Gaunt’s Great Hall, it is the largest castle ruin in England.
The first castle at Kenilworth was built 50 years after the Norman conquest when Henry I gave the Royal Estate of Stoneleigh to Geoffrey de Clinton. Henry II took over the castle 50 years later, to counter an attack from his son’s rebel army. It was then extended by King John, who also transformed the Mere (great lake) into one of the Castle’s most illustrious features and the country’s largest manmade lake.
Kenilworth stayed in royal hands until 1253, when the King’s brother-in-law Simon de Montfort (Earl of Leicester) was made governor by Henry III. De Montfort fell foul of Henry III in leading a popular baronial revolt for reform, after which he founded the first parliament in 1265. Simon de Montfort was killed in the battle of Evesham in 1265 and his body dismembered. The supporters of his eldest surviving son (also Simon) held Kenilworth for a year after the battle , despite generous offers of surrender from the king and the siege at Kenilworth was one of the longest in English history lasting for over six months. The siege was only ended by disease and famine within the castle.
The ‘round table of one hundred knights’ and their ladies took place in 1279 and Kenilworth was one of a small number of licensed tournament grounds where knights were able to meet.
Edward II was imprisoned at the Castle for a time. Here he abdicated, before being taken to his death at Berkeley Castle in 1326.
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, acting as protector for the young Richard II, remodelled the buildings into a palace,and built the magnificent hall and private apartments overlooking the Mere. The Great Hall with it’s hammer-beam roof was the prototype for Westminster Hall. John of Gaunt’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, eventually deposed Richard and became Henry IV, meaning that Kenilworth was once again Royal property – something that continued through to the reign of Elizabeth I.
Henry V built himself a retreat and banqueting hall at the end of an arm of the Mere. Here he received the insulting gift of tennis balls from the French Dauphin (Shakespeare: Henry V, Act 1, scene 2), and it was to here that he returned after his success at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In due course he was re-united with his new French Queen, Katherine, for the first time on English soil, here at the Pleasaunce.
One of the castle’s most famous periods was the 16th century, when it was acquired by the Dudley family. When Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, took possession of Kenilworth Castle in the 1560s he continued the building and modernisation work, and the creation of formal gardens. The building of an impressive new gatehouse at the northern boundary, and his luxurious suite of Tudor apartments meant that the Castle was ready to entertain the Queen. Elizabeth I visited several times, and in 1575 she and her entourage were lavishly entertained for three weeks with pageants, music, dancing, fireworks, hunting and feasting. It is reputed that the entertainments at Kenilworth almost bankrupted Dudley. Sir Walter Scott (in 1821) wrote of these pageants in his novel ‘Kenilworth’. The Castle has also featured in Charles Dickens’ Domby and Son (albeit briefly – in Chapter 26!)
After the death of Robert Dudley, Kenilworth Castle returned to the Crown. During the Civil War it changed hands several times, and after the War the Lord Protector (Cromwell) ordered the demolition of parts of the Keep and the draining of the Mere to ensure that it could not be used as a defensive fortress again.
When the Monarchy was restored, Kenilworth Castle passed to the Villiers family (later Earl of Clarendon) until 1938 when Lord Kenilworth placed his property in the care of the nation. In 1958 his son gave it to the people of Kenilworth and in 1984 English Heritage took over the role of maintaining the Castle.
The Castle is one of the jewels of the properties that English Heritage manages and it plays host to a huge number of events every year.