In rural Warwickshire, Kenilworth castle stands as a beautiful monument to a 900-year story of power, war and royal magnificence. There is something melancholic about its gargantuan walls, gaping windows and towering arches, which evoke its past glory as a place of flamboyant display and momentous political machinations.
The castle has its origins in the 12th century, when Henry I gave his chamberlain Geoffrey de Clinton land in Warwickshire to strip away the power of the troublesome Earl of Warwick. Since then, Kenilworth remained a coveted centre of power in the midlands, moving from noble to royal hands and back again over the following 9 centuries.
One of the most dramatic moments in its history was the Siege of Kenilworth in 1266. The Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montford, led a rebellious group of barons against the king. After he died in battle, his son rather snakily promised to surrender the castle to the king. His supporters understandably weren’t very happy about this, and they were besieged by the king’s forces. Complicated stone-throwing machines, like primitive cannons, were used to attack the castle. Some of these enormous stones (more like small boulders) were excavated in the 1960s and you can see them in the castle barn today. It is terrifying to imagine them crashing down over the castle walls.
The castle began its transition from a battle-ready fortress to a theatre of luxury when it came into the hands of John of Gaunt in the 1360s. He had married the princess of Castile and Leon, and when her father died, he inherited immense riches. He was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in England and he used Kenilworth to tell the world this. He constructed the great hall, which had fitted glass (a rare luxury), expensive tapestries imported from the Low Countries, and a kitchen twice the size of a normal aristocratic kitchen to feed his many guests. The hall would have been glittering with splendour.
In 1553, the castle was granted to John Dudley, but he was soon executed for opposing the accession of the Catholic Mary I. However, under the reign of Elizabeth, his son Robert gained more and more power, becoming the Earl of Leicester. He remodelled Kenilworth in the current fashionable style, aiming to wow Elizabeth enough into accepting a proposal of marriage. His pride and joy was the garden, which was recreated in 2009 based on a long letter written by a member of Dudley’s household. The letter describes the opulence of the garden: an obelisk painted to look like porphyry, trellis pavilions with elegant climbing roses, and a Classicising marble fountain. The centrepiece of the garden was the aviary, where exotic birds were kept. The aviary was “beautified with great diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires”! The reconstruction lacks this glitz, but it does have real exotic birds – I’m sure they are kept well, but this made me unhappy to see.
Poor Robert never got Elizabeth’s hand in marriage, despite hosting her at Kenilworth four times. The final visit, in 1575, was an unprecedented 19 days of feasting and pageantry. Elizabeth encouraged this kind of ostentatious display amongst her nobility, and Robert wasn’t the only one to try and impress her with his garden. Lord Hertford created a landscape garden with a manmade lake in order to reconstruct the defeat of the Spanish Armada in miniature, all for the queen’s pleasure.
The reconstruction of the garden has been done beautifully, down to the tiny strawberries interlaced around the borders of the beds. It is bright and colourful against the sombre ruins that loom over it. I loved the trellis pavilions, which provide a dreamy setting to take in the garden vista, with its neat, ordered layout and bright blooms. The gardens provide a taste of what the whole castle would have been like – colourful, rich, full of life.
English Heritage, who own the castle, have decided to use the ‘living museum’ method to engage their visitors – people in Elizabethan costume showing off traditional skills such as falconry, music and horsemanship. The downside of this is that it privileges the Elizabethan aspect of the castle over the medieval or later Civil War elements, so visitors on that day may not have an overall sense of the many layers of history. But I think this is worthwhile. The performers, to use the cliché, ‘bring the place to life’. They override the fact that it is a ruin and encourage you to imagine yourself back into its more vibrant past. Walking out of the barn and seeing Queen Elizabeth I ride by on a beautiful gleaming horse was rather magical.
The final royal owner of Kenilworth was Charles I, who visited several times. During the English Civil War, the castle was occupied by the Parliamentarians, who despised it because of its royal connections. It was ‘slighted’ (partially demolished) under Parliamentary orders and Colonel Joseph Hawkseworth retained the rest of the building for himself, turning Dudley’s gatehouse into living quarters. He let the parliamentary officers pillage the rest. They tore out the magnificent fittings and fixtures, which found their way into homes all over the area. Kenilworth was left a sad ruin.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, it became a tourist attraction, fulfilling the Romantic love of gloomy ruins and all things medieval. Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens were notable visitors. When I visited, on a Saturday afternoon, it was bustling, with people all over exploring the ruins and enjoying the historical reconstructions. There are discrete steps placed up many of the ruins, so you can climb up to see the views down to the gardens with the lush countryside beyond. You can also peer into what once were Elizabethan state apartments, with nothing left but empty fireplaces, a few patches of white plaster, and holes in the wall where a Classical frieze would have been fixed.
Kenilworth was an important focus of rebellion, power and conflict – and a site of great artistic and architectural achievement. It has a powerful melancholic atmosphere, inviting you to listen to the multi-layered and rich stories it has to tell.
All photographs my own