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Kenilworth Castle today. Source: Carl / Adobe Stock.

Something in the Water: Kenilworth Castle and a History of Rebellion

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Kenilworth Castle is a ruined castle located in the market town of Kenilworth, in Warwickshire, a county in the West Midlands, England. It is believed the site was occupied by a fortified structure as early as the Anglo-Saxon period, but that this had been destroyed subsequently. What is certain is that a castle was built on the site during the Norman period.

Kenilworth Castle witnessed many important events in English history during its existence. The last of these was the English Civil War, after which the castle was destroyed so that it could no longer be used as a military stronghold. During the 20th century, the castle was first presented to the town of Kenilworth, before coming under the care of English Heritage. The castle has been restored, and is today open to the public.

The Early History of Kenilworth

It is thought that the Anglo-Saxon castle believed to be built on this site was destroyed during the conflict between Edmund Ironside, and King Cnut the Great. There is little evidence, however, for the existence of such a castle. By 1086, the year the Domesday Book was completed, the town of Kenilworth was noted as part of the royal manor of Stoneleigh, but an Anglo-Saxon castle is not referenced.

During the 1120s, the lands and town of Kenilworth was granted by King Henry I to his chamberlain, Geoffrey de Clinton. It was Geoffrey who built the first Norman castle at Kenilworth, shortly after 1129. This first confirmed castle built at Kenilworth was most likely a “motte-and-bailey” timber castle.

A typical Norman motte-and-bailey castle (Duncan Grey / CC BY-SA 2.0)

A typical Norman motte-and-bailey castle (Duncan Grey / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The base of the motte, the large earthen mound which formed a key defensive feature in Norman castles, can still be seen today. Another defensive feature Geoffrey constructed at Kenilworth Castle is its famous moat. This was created by blocking two streams to create a large lake that fed water around the castle, surrounding it by water on all sides. Incidentally, Geoffrey also established the nearby Kenilworth Abbey, an Augustinian priory, which eventually grew to own more churches in England that any other religious house.

Royalty and Rebellion

It seems that the defenses of Kenilworth Castle were so strong that the new king, Henry II, felt that the castle should be in royal hands. Henry therefore acquired it from Geoffrey’s grandson, in exchange for which the de Clinton family was given a smaller property in Buckinghamshire.

King Henry proceeded to develop the castle’s defenses further, as did his successors. During the early 13th century, for instance, King John built a curtain wall and towers at Kenilworth. The construction of these defensive structures is said to have cost over £1,000, a substantial amount of money at the time.

The curtain (outer) wall of the castle likely dates from the 13th century (Tony Craddock / Adobe Stock)

The curtain (outer) wall of the castle likely dates from the 13th century (Tony Craddock / Adobe Stock)

In 1238, Kenilworth Castle was granted to Simon de Montfort, the 6th Earl of Leicester, by King Henry III. Simon’s wife, Eleanor, was incidentally the king’s sister. The earl continued to develop the fortification of the castle, especially its water defenses, which by this point made it virtually impregnable. In 1264, the earl led a rebellion against the king in what was known as the Second Baron’s War. Kenilworth Castle was held by the earl’s son, and was besieged by the king for six months. This is supposedly the longest siege in Medieval English history.

The castle’s defenses proved their worth, especially the water defenses. For instance, barges from as far away as Chester were brought in an attempt to propel a successful attack across the moat. All attacks failed and it was ultimately disease and starvation, which decimated the defenders, that led to the castle’s surrender to the royal forces. Following its capture, Kenilworth Castle was granted to Edmund Crouchback, the Earl of Lancaster and Leicester, and the king’s younger son.

Edmund’s successor as Earl of Lancaster and Leicester was his son, Thomas, who again rebelled against his king, Edward II, becoming one of the rebel leaders in the Despenser War from 1321 to 1322. The barons’ rebellion ended in failure, and Kenilworth Castle came under the control of the Crown again.

King Edward’s problems, however, did not end with the defeat of the barons. In 1326, Edward faced a foreign invasion led by his own wife, Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. The pair defeated the king, captured him, and forced him to abdicate. Edward was imprisoned in Kenilworth Castle, where he was murdered in 1327. His son, Edward III, succeeded him and was still a minor when he came to power.

King Edward II was assassinated at Kenilworth Castle (Patrick Gray / Public Domain)

King Edward II was assassinated at Kenilworth Castle (Patrick Gray / Public Domain)

John of Gaunt and the Wars of the Roses

The next significant figure in the history of Kenilworth Castle is John of Gaunt, the third of Edward III’s five sons who survived into adulthood. John’s first wife was Blanche of Lancaster, the daughter of Henry of Grosmont, the 1st Duke of Lancaster. As the duke died in 1361 without a male heir, half of his estates went to Blanche, and John inherited the title as “Earl of Lancaster”.

During John’s ownership of Kenilworth Castle major changes were made to the building, changing it from a primary defensive structure to more of a palace. John enlarged the domestic quarters of the castle, and made them more sumptuous, so that they were more comfortable to live in. His most significant contribution, however, was the Great Hall, a double story structure to the west of the inner court, which was used for lodging, meals, and entertainment. The hall boasted of having the widest roof span in England at that time.

The Ruins of the vast Great Hall at Kenilworth (DeFacto / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Ruins of the vast Great Hall at Kenilworth (DeFacto / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Although John himself never became King of England, he was the leader of the House of Lancaster, a junior branch of the House of Plantagenet. His son, Henry Bolingbroke, again rose in rebellion against the king, his cousin Richard II. The rebellion was successful, and Henry deposed Richard, ascending to the English throne as Henry IV, the first of the Lancastrian line of English kings.

Like John of Gaunt, the Lancastrian kings seemed to have favored Kenilworth Castle as a royal residence. Henry IV’s son Henry V, for example, built a wooden retreat, the Pleasance in the Marsh, outside the castle, on the far end of the defensive lake. Although this structure no longer exists, the site where it stood can still be visited today. Evidence of the Pleasance’s existence can be found in the well-preserved earthworks at the site. 

Kenilworth and the Tudors

Following the Wars of the Roses, the House of Tudor became the new ruling dynasty of England. The Tudor monarchs carried out some work at Kenilworth Castle. For example, King Henry VIII was responsible for dismantling the Pleasance in the Marsh. Some of the construction material from the Pleasance was then brought into the castle for a new building, also called ‘Pleasance’. By 1568, however, this new Pleasance was also demolished to make way for even grander constructions.

The Tudors held Kenilworth Castle until 1553. In that year, the castle was granted by King Edward VI to John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland. John’s ownership of the castle would only last for a short time. Following Edward’s death, the duke attempted to place Lady Jane Grey, his daughter-in-law, on the English throne.

John Dudley (Unknown Author / Public Domain)

John Dudley (Unknown Author / Public Domain)

This time the rebellion was unsuccessful, and John was executed following the ascension of Mary I in July 1553. Kenilworth Castle was taken back under royal control. Mary’s reign ended in 1558, and she was succeeded by her younger half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I. In 1563, the new queen granted Kenilworth Castle to Robert Dudley, one of John’s sons. In the following year, Robert was created Earl of Leicester.

Robert Dudley and the Queen

Robert was a favorite of Elizabeth, and a childhood friend of the queen. In fact, Robert may have also been the queen’s lover, and it is believed that in 1559, with his wife Amy Robsart gravely ill, Elizabeth intended to marry him. Although Amy died in the following year, the marriage between Robert and Elizabeth did not materialize, in part due to the Robert’s reputation being tainted by the circumstances of his wife’s death. Nevertheless, Robert remained a favorite of the queen.

Elizabeth visited Robert at Kenilworth Castle on three occasions, in 1566, 1568, and 1575. It was because of the queen’s visits that Robert carried out the beautification of Kenilworth Castle. Elizabeth’s visit in 1575 was the most opulent, as well as the one best-remembered by history. In preparation Robert constructed a large residential block overlooking the lake. The building is now known as Leicester’s Gatehouse, and still stands as a testimony to the Elizabeth’s visit.

Today, Leicester’s Gatehouse is open to tourists visiting Kenilworth Castle. In addition to an exhibition on the top floor exploring the love story between the queen and her favorite earl, visitors are also able to see life in the gatehouse as it may have been during the 1930s.   

In addition to Leicester’s Gatehouse, details about the queen’s visit can be found in written accounts. We know that when Elizabeth visited the castle in 1575, she was accompanied by an entourage of several hundred, and was entertained lavishly by Robert for 19 days. These entertainments allegedly cost the earl £1,000 a day. Other costs involved with hosting the queen brought the final cost to £20,000, an impossibly large sum that nearly bankrupted Robert.

Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley dancing (Attr. Marcus Gheeraerts / Public Domain)

Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley dancing (Attr. Marcus Gheeraerts / Public Domain)

The entertainments arranged by Robert included fireworks, and an artificial floating island in the middle of the lake, complete with the legendary “Lady of the Lake” who greeted Elizabeth on her arrival. These festivities may have been the inspiration behind William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and provides the backdrop for Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth. Incidentally, it has been speculated that Shakespeare, who would have been a young boy at that time living in nearby Stratford-upon-Avon, might have been amongst the locals who came to watch the festivities. 

Rebellion Once More

In the following century, Kenilworth Castle was used for its original military purposes once again. During the English Civil War, the castle served as a stronghold, this time on the royalist side. The forces loyal to the king launched attacks on Parliamentary strongholds across the Midlands.

Additionally, the castle provided logistical support for the Royalist forces at the crucial Battle of Edgehill in 1642. The battle was inconclusive, and the Royalists subsequently had to withdraw from Kenilworth Castle. Consequently, the castle fell into the hands of the Parliamentarians, who held it until the end of the war.

When the English Civil War ended, Kenilworth was “slighted” by the victorious Parliamentarians, a fate that befell many other English castles. The castle was partially destroyed and made indefensible, in order to reduce its military value. In 1649, the Great Tower and parts of the walls were ordered to be demolished. More importantly, the unassailable moat was finally drained.

The Ruins of Kenilworth today. Though largely drained, some evidence of the great defensive moat and lake survives (Nicola / Adobe Stock)

The Ruins of Kenilworth today. Though largely drained, some evidence of the great defensive moat and lake survives (Nicola / Adobe Stock)

The slighting left Kenilworth Castle a ruin, although Leicester’s Gatehouse was spared and converted into a comfortable lodging. All the same, it is clear that Kenilworth Castle’s heyday was over.

Ruin, Restoration and a Place in History

In the centuries that followed, there was no real attempt to repair or restore Kenilworth Castle, and the monument switched hands several times. Nothing of note took place at the castle until almost three hundred years later, in 1937. In that year, the castle was purchased by Sir John Siddeley, a successful industrialist, pioneer of the motor industry, and philanthropist.

After Kenilworth Castle was bought, it was placed in the care of the Ministry of Works to be restored. Additionally, Siddeley donated a huge sum of funds to repair the castle. Consequently, Kenilworth Castle was given a new lease of life through its transformation into a tourist attraction.

In 1958, on the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth I’s ascension to the throne, Kenilworth Castle was presented to the town of Kenilworth, and in 1984, the management of Kenilworth Castle was taken over by English Heritage. Since then, various repairs and restorations have been carried out at the castle. In 2009, for instance, the Elizabethan Garden was recreated. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, an exhibition featuring the love story of Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley was installed on the top floor of the Leicester Gatehouse.

Today, Kenilworth Castle is open to the public, though tickets are required to enter the site. Visitors are able to explore the various structures that remain at the site, as well as enjoy the events organized by English Heritage throughout the year.

Top image: Kenilworth Castle today. Source: Carl / Adobe Stock.

By: Wu Mingren           


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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