Kenilworth Castle Origins
Kenilworth Castle’s history stretches back to the 1120s, where a fortification was founded around a powerful Norman great tower by the Lord Chamberlain of Henry I, Geoffrey de Clinton. The castle was probably built in the Norman style of motte-and-bailey, and rivalled the great Warwick Castle in its stature, as de Clinton remained a rival to Roger de Beaumont. Clinton was soon tried for treason in 1130 and later died in 1133.
The Centre for Civil War
During the revolt of Henry II’s son, Henry the Young King, Kenilworth Castle was garrisoned by troops of the Crown – although Geoffrey de Clinton (the original Geoffrey’s son!) died during the rebellion of 1173-4. This meant that the castle was taken into the possession of the Crown, which showed how important it was militarily at this point in Henry II’s reign. Kenilworth Castle had been extended significantly including an inner bailey wall, and a causeway across a small lake for defensive purposes.
Kenilworth Castle lay relatively dormant for the twilight of Henry II’s reign and into Richard the Lionheart’s reign. King John however, after his excommunication in 1208, had lots of money, and decided to rebuild a significant number of royal castles, including Kenilworth. John spent £1,115 on building works between 1210 and 1216, rebuilding the outer bailey wall in stone and creating both Mortimer’s and Lunn’s towers. John also dammed the Finham and Inchford Brooks, which created what is called the Great Mere – an artificial lake to defend the castle. Kenilworth Castle was given up to the Barons’ forces after signing the Magna Carta in 1215 – though it returned to royal hands in Henry III’s reign.
In 1244, Henry grated Kenilworth Castle to one of the most infamous nobles of English history, Simon de Montfort – who led the Second Barons’ War against the king, with the castle as his centre of operations. After the loss of the Battle of Lewes, Henry was forced to give up his son, Prince Edward, as a hostage to the Barons, who was then taken and held in harsh conditions at Kenilworth.
After Edward’s release in 1265, he defeated de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham, where the rebel leader was cut down by Roger Mortimer, 1st Baron Mortimer, with a lance to the neck. Kenilworth Castle was then besieged by the victorious army, and was the largest siege to have occurred in England at the time – though Prince Edward’s artillery trebuchets could not reach the walls of the castle due to the distance caused by the water. The rebels and besieging army eventually came to an agreement to surrender the castle, called the Dictum of Kenilworth.
Thomas, Earl of Lancaster came to own the castle in 1298, and so it became the primary castle for the Lancaster estates. Lancaster built the first great hall of the castle at some point between 1314 and 1317, whilst also constructing the Water Tower along the outer bailey. The earl found himself alongside other barons in his opposition to Edward II, with war breaking out in 1322. Lancaster was captured at the Battle of Boroughbridge and executed for treason – as Edward and his wife spent Christmas of 1323 at Kenilworth, celebrating their victory.
Edward’s ascendency was not to last – as he was later deposed in 1326 by Isabella of France (his wife) and her lover, Roger Mortimer (1st Earl of March, not the same person that killed de Montfort!). Henry, Earl of Lancaster, was given custody of the king and had the control over Kenilworth restored to his family by 1327. Edward himself formally resigned as king in the great hall of the castle on January 21st 1327.
Kenilworth Castle, being in the midlands, where many nobles still supported Edward, was seen as a bad place to hold the king, as many were attempting to free him – even the Earl of Lancaster’s loyalty was questioned. Therefore eventually, Edward was moved by night out of the castle, to Berkeley Castle, where he died soon after.
The newly titled Duke of Lancaster, Henry of Grosmont, inherited Kenilworth Castle in 1345 and remodelled the great hall with more grandeur – changing the interior and the roof. After his death, the castle went to Blanche of Lancaster, who married the famous John of Gaunt – making the couple the second wealthiest people in the kingdom, after only the king. Blanche died aged only 26 in 1368, quite possibly of the Black Death. John began building at Kenilworth between 1373 and 1380, in order to reflect his new claim to the throne in Spain, after his marriage to Constance of Castille.
John constructed, in true Lancastrian fashion, an even greater great hall! Alongside this, he also constructed the Saintlowe Tower, the Strong Tower and state apartments and a new kitchen complex. Towards his death, John made even more extensive repairs to the whole of the castle complex, post 1395.
Bucking the Trend
Despite many castles decaying throughout the 15th century and beyond, Kenilworth continued to be a central hub for the kingdom’s citadel needs! John of Gaunt’s son, Henry IV, usurped the throne from his cousin Richard II in 1399, making significant use of the castle – as did Henry V after the death of his father, though it was not his first choice. The famous tennis ball insult, present in Shakespeare’s Henry V (and Netflix adaption, The King) occurred at Kenilworth Castle in 1414, the Dauphin of France mocking Henry’s youth – inadvertently setting off the chain of events that would culminate in The Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
Kenilworth Castle was used as a key base of support for the Lancastrian armies throughout the Wars of the Roses, though it did not see much battle. Queen Margaret used Kenilworth Castle as a base of operations after 1456 and the rift between the royals and the Duke of York – as London was no longer a safe haven. Kenilworth once again found itself as the counterbalance to Warwick Castle, held by Richard Neville, the Yorkist styled as The Kingmaker.
After Henry VII’s victory in 1485 at Bosworth field, Kenilworth was visited frequently, with a tennis court (quite ironically) built at the castle for his use – whilst his son, Henry VIII, also deemed the castle worthy of maintenance as a royal castle. This remained the case until the castle was given to John Dudley in 1553, who began to remodel Kenilworth Castle in classical architecture style. Dudley had a new stable block installed and widened the tiltyard, before his execution in 1553 after the Lady Jane Grey fiasco.
The fortification was restored to Dudley’s son, Robert Earl of Leicester, a decade later, in 1563 – continuing the modernisation of Kenilworth Castle. Queen Elizabeth I visited the castle in 1566 and 1568, as Leicester was a firm favourite, and had drawn up plans to create a classical extension of the south side of the inner court – though this was abandoned eventually, as it wasn’t achievable. Instead, William Spicer was employed to rebuild and extend the castle, so that the royal court in its modern form could have better accommodation – and therefore Leicester’s reputation could also be boosted with the rest of the nobility.
Leicester attempted to use Kenilworth Castle as the means to impress Elizabeth, in order to convince her to marry him – as he almost bankrupt himself on her visit in 1575, though the queen did not marry Leicester. Kenilworth Castle was valued at £10,401 in 1588 when it was eventually passed down to Leicester’s illegitimate son, Sir Robert Dudley (another nobleman with the same name as an ancestor) – as Leicester had died without any legitimate children, and was very seriously in debt.
Civil War and Beyond
Sir Thomas Chaloner, governor and chamberlain to James I’s eldest son, Prince Henry, was commissioned to oversee repairs to the castle and its grounds. Dudley arranged to sell Kenilworth Castle to Henry – only for him to die before completing the purchase. Henry’s brother, Charles, soon to become King Charles I, of Civil War fame, bought the castle instead of his brother – giving it to his wife, Henrietta Maria. Kenilworth Castle was visited multiple times by both James and Charles I, remaining a royalist stronghold. Then, the tradition in Kenilworth castle’s history, of counterbalancing Warwick Castle, was repeated once more in another Civil War!
The castle was used by Charles I on his advance to the Battle of Edgehill, after which, the king withdrew his garrison and Kenilworth Castle was taken by Parliamentary troops. By 1649, Kenilworth had served its military purpose, and was slighted (partially destroyed) by order of Parliament. One wall of the great tower, and various other smaller sections of battlements, were destroyed.
Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth was responsible for the slighting, and acquired the castle for himself. When Charles II was restored as king in 1660, he quickly evicted Hawkesworth from the castle, returning it to his mother, Henrietta Maria, before it was then given to Sir Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. The castle was used as a farm during this period, and didn’t regain any strategic importance.
Kenilworth Castle was increasingly used as a tourist attraction throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as the first guide to the castle was published in 1777 – with many more editions to follow! The castle itself was popularised by Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth in 1821. The loosely historical novel was based on Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden’s visit by Elizabeth I in 1575. The novel captured the imagination of the public, with a number of stage adaptations and burlesques popping up countrywide based on popular demand for the story of the castle. Tourism increased, including Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens – and hence work was completed throughout the 1800s to protect the castle from deterioration, protecting the stonework and removing ivy from the castle.
The Clarendon’s owned the castle until 1937, when the maintenance became far too expensive for the 6th Lord Clarendon – selling Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden to Sir John Siddeley, a ‘new money’ industrialist. To improve his questionable reputation, Siddeley gave the running of the castle over to the Commissioner of Works, alongside a charitable donation – and his son gave the castle to the town of Kenilworth in 1958, to be managed by English Heritage from 1984. English Heritage has made it a priority to tell Kenilworth Castle’s History; attempting to restore the Elizabethan Garden to its true form between 2005 and 2009, at a cost of £2 million, making the gardens quite a sight!
Top 5 Kenilworth Castle Facts
- Kenilworth Castle was first built in the 1120s by Geoffrey de Clinton.
- The Castle was held against Prince Edward (Edward I) in 1266 for six months – the longest siege in English medieval history.
- John of Gaunt, founder of the Lancaster family branch, transformed the castle, including a suite of apartments included.
- Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, held 19 days of festivities for Elizabeth I in 1575.
- In 1939, The Kenilworth Pageant featured 2000 players performing events and episodes from Kenilworth’s history, and re-enactments continue to this day.
More Information on Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle Fireworks
Kenilworth Castle hosts a ‘Round Table’ firework display annually, which has been going on every year for 32 years! The display costs around £10 per adult and £5 for concessions.
Kenilworth Castle Events
Kenilworth Castle hosts a number of events of varying different sizes throughout the calendar year. Events include Easter events, ranging from Easter Egg Hunts, to Knight Re-enactments. Some events are members-only, so make sure to sign up as a member of English Heritage – which costs only £5.25 monthly for a family pass to over 400 different historical places.
Kenilworth Castle Walk
Outside of events, Kenilworth Castle offers a lovely walking path called the Kenilworth Castle Circular Walk – a 6-mile loop trail through the attractive Warwickshire countryside. There is a free car park by the Castle, which allows for some stunning views of Kenilworth Castle and its history.