Monday, 19 June 2017

Kenilworth Castle: a huge stunning ruin

Kenilworth Castle is ruinous and stunning to visit: it challenges the imagination to recreate it as it was and overwhelms you with its grandeur. Firstly you have to see it in your mind's eye as encompassed by a massive 111 acre artificial sheet of water, exceeding that of Caerphilly and vastly bigger than that at Bodiam. Then you can envisage it when it was refashioned by John of Gaunt and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. You can add mentally - if you are sufficiently gifted - the masques and revelry that the latter, a side-kick of Queen Elizabeth I, (literally as they did many dangerously jaunty dances together) organised in her honour.
   Warwickshire is not rich in castles as is the Marches area of Wales but Kenilworth is a star. On a windy sunny day it is unforgettable. Plus, walking round it leaves you hungry for CAKE, always a good thing.

Early history
   Between 1122 and 1129, Geoffrey de Clinton built a castle here, probably a motte and bailey structure where the present inner ward is now. The mighty keep, called Clinton's tower, is later and its impressiveness as a Norman structure is affected by the enlarging of its windows by Dudley. The kings Henry II, John and Henry III (he was probably the one who added the lake) spent vast sums in making the castle a strong fortress with 5 mural towers: Mortimer's; the Water Tower; the Warden's Tower; the Swan Tower and Lunn's Tower. John of Gaunt's Great Hall was the architectural masterpiece of the castle and was the only part that Dudley left unaltered 200 years later, presumably because it suited the grand and powerful image he wished to project.

2 exciting stories
   When Henry III had finished making the castle virtually impregnable, he unwisely gave it to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, and his wife Eleanor in 1254. Ten years later, de Montfort headed the opposition of the barons even though he was a previously unpopular foreigner. He became almost the ruler and held the king's brother, Richard, captive in the castle. Prince Edward escaped, marched his forces back overnight and, because he had reliable intelligence, fell upon the younger Simon de Montfort and his superior troops as they were camping, exhausted and without posting sentinels or sending out scouts. Simon the younger swam the lake in his night shirt to enter the castle. In 1266 the royalists besieged the castle - it was extremely violent, using the latest technology - and finally succeeded in agreeing the Dictum of Kenilworth and the castle was once again royal.
   The Tudors are now a much worked-over family and we all know that Dudley was a "favourite" of Queen Elizabeth who gave him Kenilworth, one of her many indiscretions with this dashing, ostentatious beau. He lavished her bounty on the castle, demilitarising it and building Leicester's Gate-house, which is more of a house over a gate than the usual fortifying structure. He added Leicester's Building and entertained the queen on several occasions, the most noteworthy being a 19-day revelry in 1575 which cost Leicester £1000 a day in maintenance to say nothing of the incredible sum of £100,000 in entertainments which included masques, plays, tilting, sports, Morris Dancing, ceremonies and pageantry. Elizabeth was greeted by the Lady of the Lake, Mars, Apollo, Neptune and Bacchus and later enjoyed (we hope) fireworks, tumblers, Latin orations, bear-baiting and a laugh-a-minute drama about the massacre of the Danes. She never came back here.  You can read an imaginative recreation of all this in Sir Walter Scott's novel, Kenilworth. 

The present
   What you see and ramble round is a ruin which had begun to decline before it was slighted in the Civil War. The castle and manor were given to Colonel Hawkesworth and other officers who "pulled down and demolished the castle, cut down the king's woods, destroyed his park, and divided the land into farms for themselves." The lake was drained at this time by cutting the dam. Our pile is not a monument to democracy although it it represents one of the early stages in our slow progress towards that system.  You can also see John of Gaunt's hall and chamber block and have tea and CAKE in the lovely cafĂ© in the stable block. There is a path to what was Henry V's Pleasaunce (private pavilion) and a Tudor garden.

I visited Kenilworth the day after Warwick Castle and much preferred the ruin. The staff are particularly friendly, it is not in any way commercialised and there were groups of well-behaved school children with clip-boards and learned faces. There is a bus connecting the 2 and so both come under my heading of History on the Buses - although Monmouthshire has many more castles. Tee hee!

I have written about Caerphilly Castle and its great lake as well as Bodiam set in its ravishing waters. There is also a post about nearby Warwick Castle. To read about medieval siege engines click here. For opening hours of Kenilworth, click here.

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