Kenilworth was the site of unrequited love, and unlike most of the castles we visited, saw military action. The castle and its many owners’ struggles played a major part in the consolidation of the English monarchy.
The castle is most noted now for its romantic history. Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley knew each other as children and became friends, very close friends. That’s what made Kenilworth more than just another castle ruin.
In the 12th century, Kenilworth had a curtain wall surrounded by a bank and ditch and possibly a gate. The inner court enclosed a huge square Norman keep built between 1124 and 1130. Between 1210 and 1215, King John replaced the bank with an outer stone wall with towers at strategic points and an impressive gate. A river was dammed and the castle surrounded by a lake which played a key role in the defense of the castle during a six-month long 1266 siege.
In the 1370s, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and fourth son of Edward III, added large apartments on the side of the keep thus turning the castle into a palace.
In 1564, Queen Elizabeth made her friend Robert Dudley the first Earl of Leicester, owner of Kenilworth and one of the largest landholders in England. There is evidence Dudley always hoped Elizabeth would marry him. He extensively remodeled the estate. He added a large gate house. He improved both the state apartments and the keep in the 1570s. He enlarged windows both to give light to his collection of paintings and to make it more comfortable for visits by Elizabeth I. He added a large high stable in the outer court which records showed could hold 50 horses.
Elizabeth visited in 1566 and 1568, but it was in a final attempt to persuade her to marry him in 1575 that Dudley went all out with construction and entertainment. Dudley created a magnificent garden to show off his status and to impress Elizabeth on this her last visit. Robert Langham, who was present at the time, left such a detailed description of the garden that English Heritage, a trust that manages great English properties (see July 2015 post), was able to recreate the garden just as it was when Elizabeth saw it, and now you can see it too.
Elizabeth’s entourage included 31 barons and a staff of 400. She stayed nineteen days and the cost of her visit came close to bankrupting Dudley, but she still did not marry him. By remaining single, she kept tight control on the monarchy. Marriage, a husband and in-laws would only weaken that control.
After the 1640s Civil War, Parliament had one wall of the keep “slighted” or destroyed to keep it from being used militarily in the future. It declined into a “romantic ruin, ” subject of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Kenilworth. The gatehouse was maintained as a private residence from 1650 to 1938.
After the restoration, King Charles II gave the property to the Earl of Clarendon. It remained the property of the Clarendons until 1937 when it was sold to Sir John Siddeley. Siddeley’s son gave the castle to the town of Kenilworth in 1958. English Heritage has managed the property since 1984.
Click on photos to enlarge.