Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Warwick Castle: imposing with a long history

Warwick Castle has a dominating position on a cliff which has been eroded by the Avon: Sir Walter Scott, who saw it before the fire of 1871, described it as the "fairest monument of ancient and chivalrous splendour which remains uninjured by time." In fact, during its long history it has been extensively remodelled, fallen into disrepair and been renovated again and again: time and man have injured it and so - metaphorically - have the present owners who allow a burger tent in the bailey and loud music to distract from the grandeur.
  When I first entered, I was struck by something odd in its proportions and attributed this to the delicate fairy-tale buildings on top of the motte but later discovered another reason during the excellent guided tour. Read on!

Motte, bailey and towers.
    The mound you see is called Ethelfleda's motte after the doughty daughter of Alfred the Great, who founded a burh here in 916 to help defend Mercia from the attacking Danes, but it is Norman, not Anglo-Saxon. She was aided by a legendary Saxon earl named Guy who resolutely fought dragons and rescued distressed maidens and then married the daughter of Rohand, the first true Earl of Warwick.
   In 1068 William the Conqueror made Henry de Newburgh an earl and he enlarged the mound and constructed a Norman motte and bailey fortification which was later rebuilt in stone to replace the timber. The open space is now dominated by Caesar's Tower (also called Poitiers Tower) and Guy's Tower (probably not after the monster-slayer, unfortunately), the work of the Beauchamps, father and son, both called Thomas.  Caesar's Tower has an oubliette (thrillingly horrible thought!), the walls of Guy's are 10 feet thick and they are masterpieces of 14th century military architecture. Both were probably inspired by French models and are machicolated. Other towers, Bear and Clarence, each with its own well and ovens, were instigated by Richard III and unfinished at his death in 1485.

The State Rooms
    Warwick Castle has several splendidly huge chambers including the The State Dining Room, The Great Hall, (62 x 45 ft and 40 feet high)  The Red Drawing Room, The Cedar Drawing Room, The Green Drawing Room and others. There are paintings in most of these by famous artists such as Raphael, Van Dyck, Rubens and the castle is worth visiting for these alone. The armour in The Great Hall is considered by some to be second only to that in the Tower of London and includes a touchingly small suit said to have been made for "the Noble Impe", the young son of Robert Dudley, who died in early childhood. Here you can also goggle at "Guy's Porage Pot", made in the 14th century as a garrison cooking utensil, apparently holding 136 gallons which is reputed to have been refilled 4 times with punch at a coming-of-age party. There is also a massive Beauvais tapestry showing Marlborough's army on the march and the famous picture of Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes. In the Cedar Room is a fireplace made by the Adam brothers in Carrara marble with the symbols of life and death, the egg and the arrow, as well as an Aubusson carpet with the Warwick bear and staff in each corner and the Greville swan on the centre edge. I normally prefer the exterior of a castle to sumptuous domestic rooms but there is no burger tent in here and I found the waxworks, which might have been naff, quite appealing.

Other famous connections
   Piers Gaveston, as we all learned in school, was the "favourite" of King Edward II and my shy history teacher never explained what that might have meant - I am also of modest disposition and will not illuminate the matter further. He flaunted himself and grew in power, was exiled but returned, until his presence became unsupportable: he nicknamed Guy, Earl of Warwick "the Black Hound of Arden" but Guy retorted that "one day the hound will bite him." Gaveston was tried in The Great Hall for stealing royal treasure by a committee of the Barons, was sentenced to death and beheaded by 2 Welshmen on 19th June 1312 on nearby Blacklow Hill. 
   I also emerged from my "O" level (shows how old I am!) history course having heard of Warwick the Kingmaker (22 November 1428 - 14th April 1471) but was unsure why he was so-called. Shakespeare said that  Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, was "the proud setter up and puller down of kings" and he was a powerful leader in the Wars of the Roses, originally Yorkist but then switching to the Lancastrian side.  He was by far the richest nobleman of the 1460's with a splendid household, retinue, fleet of ships and train of artillery. Thwarting the Duke of York's usurpation in 1460, he engineered the accession of Edward IV the following year and, falling out of favour, later restored Henry VI to the throne. 
   "Capability" Brown was employed in 1753 to beautify the courtyard and may have also helped landscape the gardens. I now regard him as a castle vandal since he destroyed ancient walls and Medieval buildings in the bailey at Cardiff Castle and here he did something even odder, as our guide explained. Thinking that the walls and towers were unduly looming and forbidding (that is the purpose of such items in my opinion) he was told that the cost of remodelling them was prohibitive and so he had the ground level raised ten feet. This was an immense undertaking and is the reason why the courtyard looks slightly disproportionate and why some of the windows (to the left of the entrance to the State Rooms) are half basement. 

My Trip Advisor Hat
    Take the family and enjoy all the attractions but please do NOT patronise the burger tent and encourage further monstrosities. Listen to one of the excellent history team on a tour and engage with all the fun things outside such as the Horrible Histories Maze, the Birds of Prey Arena and Mews, the peacocks, the Mighty Trebuchet (largest working model in the world) and The Castle Dungeon. There is plenty to do and I quite see why the owners need to attract visitors to pay for the ongoing building works but wish they would keep any modernity outside the walls. That's all - and toot if you agree. Then visit nearby Kenilworth, ruined, wild and magnificent. I shall write about that soon. Yes - you are right in thinking I didn't do all this on Monmouthshire buses but I managed on public transport which is the main thing! Yet my New Year's resolution is never to go through huge Birmingham New Street Station again although I loved little old Moor Street Station.
For opening times etc click here. For my article on Cardiff Castle click here. Another early fort founded on instructions of William the Conqueror is Chepstow Castle which is possibly even more forbidding but then, it was built to deal with the Welsh!

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