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Histories Greatest Castles: UK Edition

Updated: Mar 11

In today’s post we'll be diving into the history of some of the UK's coolest castles, at least in my opinion. Now most of these castles are featured on Secrets of Great British Castles a documentary series on Netflix and if you haven’t watched it, I would highly recommend it if you are interested in history and castles. I will be including a little about the history of each castle and then any videos that I can find.

 

First off, what exactly is considered a castle?

A castle is a type of fortified structure built during the Middle Ages predominantly by the nobility or royalty and by military orders. Scholars debate the scope of the word castle, but usually consider it to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble. This is distinct from a palace, which is not fortified; from a fortress, which was not always a residence for royalty or nobility; from a pleasance which was a walled-in residence for nobility, but not adequately fortified; and from a fortified settlement, which was a public defence – though there are many similarities among these types of construction. Use of the term has varied over time and has been applied to structures as diverse as hill forts and country houses. Over the approximately 900 years that castles were built, they took on a great many forms with many different features, although some, such as curtain walls, arrow slits, and portcullises, were commonplace. European-style castles originated in the 9th and 10th centuries, after the fall of the Carolingian Empire resulted in its territory being divided among individual lords and princes. These nobles built castles to control the area immediately surrounding them and the castles were both offensive and defensive structures; they provided a base from which raids could be launched as well as offered protection from enemies. Although their military origins are often emphasised in castle studies, the structures also served as centres of administration and symbols of power. Urban castles were used to control the local populace and important travel routes, and rural castles were often situated near features that were integral to life in the community, such as mills, fertile land, or a water source.

Many northern European castles were originally built from earth and timber, but had their defences replaced later by stone. Early castles often exploited natural defences, lacking features such as towers and arrow slits and relying on a central keep. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a scientific approach to castle defence emerged. This led to the proliferation of towers, with an emphasis on flanking fire. Many new castles were polygonal or relied on concentric defence – several stages of defence within each other that could all function at the same time to maximise the castle's firepower. These changes in defence have been attributed to a mixture of castle technology from the Crusades, such as concentric fortification, and inspiration from earlier defences, such as Roman forts. Not all the elements of castle architecture were military in nature, so that devices such as moats evolved from their original purpose of defence into symbols of power. Some grand castles had long winding approaches intended to impress and dominate their landscape.

Although gunpowder was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, it did not significantly affect castle building until the 15th century, when artillery became powerful enough to break through stone walls. While castles continued to be built well into the 16th century, new techniques to deal with improved cannon fire made them uncomfortable and undesirable places to live. As a result, true castles went into decline and were replaced by artillery forts with no role in civil administration, and country houses that were indefensible. From the 18th century onwards, there was a renewed interest in castles with the construction of mock castles, part of a romantic revival of Gothic architecture, but they had no military purpose.

Historians have interpreted the widespread presence of castles across Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries as evidence that warfare was common, and usually between local lords. Castles were introduced into England shortly before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Before the 12th century castles were as uncommon in Denmark as they had been in England before the Norman Conquest. The introduction of castles to Denmark was a reaction to attacks from Wendish pirates, and they were usually intended as coastal defences. The motte and bailey remained the dominant form of castle in England, Wales, and Ireland well into the 12th century. At the same time, castle architecture in mainland Europe became more sophisticated. The donjon was at the centre of this change in castle architecture in the 12th century. Central towers proliferated, and typically had a square plan, with walls 3 to 4 m (9.8 to 13.1 ft) thick. Their decoration emulated Romanesque architecture, and sometimes incorporated double windows similar to those found in church bell towers. Donjons, which were the residence of the lord of the castle, evolved to become more spacious. The design emphasis of donjons changed to reflect a shift from functional to decorative requirements, imposing a symbol of lordly power upon the landscape. This sometimes led to compromising defence for the sake of display.

Why is history full of castles? Castles could serve as a centre for local government, administration and justice. They were also used by powerful lords to display their wealth and power through lavish architectural styles and decoration. Castles were not only built and used by the crown. In fact, the majority of castles were granted by the king to his loyal lords and nobles along with large areas of land. In return for these grants, the king expected his nobles to control and administer these lands on his behalf. The castle itself also represented a whole group of people who contributed to its function from constables, masons, blacksmiths and servants to name a few.

So let’s get into the castles!

 

Dover Castle Before the castle was erected, Dover’s cliffs were a popular site for building strongholds over the centuries, with evidence dating back to the Iron Age. An ancient Roman Lighthouse and an Anglo Saxon fort are also still visible within the castle’s walls. The first incarnation of Dover Castle itself was built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror who, fresh from his victory at the 1066 Battle of Hastings, likely built a motte and bailey castle at the site. Over the centuries, Dover Castle would be improved, expanded and renovated, and remain continually garrisoned until as late as 1958! It was King Henry II however who gave Dover Castle its recognisable form as the stone fortress it is today. This took place in the 12th century, with further adaptations being made over time to cope with the castle’s ever-changing threats. In the 13th century it was besieged many times during the Barons’ War against King John, including one such in 1265 in which Eleanor de Montfort was present, and negotiated peace with her nephew, Lord Edward (Henry III’s son). In the early-modern period Dover Castle was also an important residence for the receipt of foreign guests, including Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1522, Anne of Cleves upon her marriage to Henry VIII in 1539, and Henrietta Maria in 1625 on route to marry Charles I.


The Anglo-Spanish War of 1585 to 1604 led Queen Elizabeth I to ready the castle for attack. And during the Nine Years’ War of 1688-1697 and the War of Spanish Succession of 1701-1714, the castle was converted into a prison to hold Spanish captives. One of the most interesting parts of Dover Castle is also its labyrinth of underground passages. Designed by William Twiss and constructed within the cliffs themselves in the 18th century, these underground tunnels and barracks were intended to defend Britain from a perceived threat of invasion during the Napoleonic Wars. Despite never being needed for this purpose, the tunnels have proved eminently useful in other endeavours, including as secret wartime tunnels during World War Two after being adapted to become bomb-proof. Dover Castle’s tunnels continued to play a military role and, in what is known as their finest hour, they formed a base during the Dunkirk evacuations in 1940. During the Cold War, the castle was chosen as a back-up seat of government, one of 12 sites across Britain selected in the 1960s to host ministers should nuclear war break out. The castle’s underground tunnels were repurposed into secure sleeping, dining and working quarters. And the entire site was made air-tight, capable of filtering the oxygen supply in case of nuclear fallout. The castle’s bunker was closed in the 1980s.

Dover Castle today Today, Dover Castle is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public, providing a fascinating insight into the fortress’ history. Visitors can explore the medieval castle and its underground tunnels, viewing numerous exhibitions which immerse them in the lives of Dover Castle’s former inhabitants and tell its fascinating story. Much of this extremely well-preserved castle has been restored to its original state or shows what it would have been like at different points in history, offering a truly authentic experience. Fans of ancient history can also view the well-preserved Roman Lighthouse nearby, and guided tours are available around the site.

 

The Tower of London The Tower of London is a historic castle on the north bank of the River Thames in central London that has played a prominent role in English history. The Tower of London, originally known as the White Tower, was commissioned by the first Norman king, William the Conqueror and work on it was underway by the 1070s. It was designed as a fortress-stronghold, a role that remained unchanged right up until the late 19th century. The Tower of London was also used as a residence for monarchs of England, and was traditionally used by monarchs in the run up to their coronation. However the Tower is most famous for its use as a prison. The Tower of London held prisoners for over 850 years – from Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham who was imprisoned for extortion in 1100 and who managed to escape, to infamous East London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray in 1952 for going AWOL from the army. Elizabeth I was even imprisoned here by her half-sister Mary I. She allegedly sat on the steps by the watergate (known now as Traitor’s gate) and wept, and was later forgiven and released. Only 7 people were executed within the Tower’s walls – including Anne Boleyn – but the list of people who at one time or another were imprisoned in the Tower of London reads like a who’s who of 1,000 years of Britain’s history and includes:

William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace, Scottish knight in 1305 Richard II of England in 1399 James I of Scotland in 1406 Henry VI of England in 1471 Edward V of England & Richard of Shrewsbury – The Princes in the Tower in 1483 Saint Thomas More, Renaissance humanist in 1534 Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII in 1536 Thomas Cromwell, Reformation advocate in 1540 Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1553 Lady Jane Grey, uncrowned Queen of England in 1553 Queen Elizabeth I in 1554 Sir Walter Raleigh, explorer, writer, poet and spy in 1603 Guy Fawkes for his part in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 Samuel Pepys, diarist in 1679 Sir Robert Walpole, future Prime Minister in 1712 Rudolf Hess, deputy leader of the Nazi party in 1941 Also at the Tower are mysteries, for example, what did happen to the Princes in the Tower? It also supposedly boasts ghosts, notably Arbella Stuart, cousin of James I who was imprisoned and possibly murdered in the Queens’ house in 1615.

The Tower of London today There is a great deal to see and do at the Tower: the beefeaters, ravens, site of the menagerie and just walking around it to soak up the history. The spot near to the scaffold where Boleyn, Howard, and Grey were all executed is marked with a memorial, and they were buried in the nearby church of St Peter ad Vincula which may be explored. Allow plenty of time for your visit.

 

Warwick Castle

Built by a king, the seat of a kingmaker and vital stronghold in the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War, Warwick Castle has played an important role in British history. It is one of the most dramatic and complete medieval castles in the country, and has been inhabited continuously since the Middle Ages. Before Warwick Castle’s existence, the site on which it sits was the location of a Saxon fort built by King Alfred the Great’s daughter, Æthelflæd in 914 AD on the banks of the River Avon. Its aim was as a defence from Danish invaders. It was in 1068 that the initial visage of Warwick Castle began to take shape, when its construction was ordered by William the Conqueror. At this point, it was a wooden motte and bailey construct, eventually to be turned into a stone castle in the 13th century. In fact, Warwick Castle would undergo centuries of change, some due to altering styles, but others for military reasons or due to necessity such as after a fire in 1871. For example, while its two vast eastern towers date to 14th and 15th century renovations and the Great Hall to the 14th century, much of the interior, such as the State Dining Room, was redone or created in the 18th century. A major part of what makes Warwick Castle truly exceptional is its story and those of the people and dynasties for which it formed a backdrop. For example, it was owned by the Earl of Warwick Richard Neville, a central character in the Wars of the Roses who history has named the Kingmaker. It was also at Warwick Castle that Edward IV was held prisoner in 1469 and it was later held by future King Richard III, the Duke of Gloucester in the 1480s. In 1642, Warwick Castle also played its part in the English Civil War, withstanding a Royalist siege.

Warwick Castle today The seat of the Earls of Warwick until 1978, Warwick Castle then opened to the public and today offers a wide range of things to see and do. Visitors can tour the site and its grounds, learning about its history and enjoying its architecture. There are also lots of children’s activities, shows and attractions, including birds of prey. A full visit can last around 4-5 hours, though medieval glamping or medieval themed lodges are also available for overnight stays.

 

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle is a stunning medieval stronghold in Wales built by Edward I in the 13th century. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Caernarfon welcomes thousands of visitors a year to explore its fascinating history and awe-inspiring architecture. Construction of Caernarfon Castle begun following Edward I’s conquer of Wales in 1283, and was at last completed by 1330. To secure his hold on the rebellious country, the king encircled it with an ‘iron ring’ of castles which included Caenarfon, Conwy, Harlech, and Beaumaris. Grand and imposing, Caernarfon Castle was an impressive mix of fortress, royal home and political seat, with features echoing that of imperial Rome and Arthurian legend. Caernarfon Castle was of great significance to the king, and in 1284 he visited with the heavily pregnant Queen Eleanor, likely to ensure his son would be born inside its walls. When the prince arrived he was named Edward of Caernarfon, and became the first English Prince of Wales in 1301, later becoming Edward II. Over its lifespan Caernarfon bore witness to much conflict, including its brief capture in 1294 during a Welsh revolt led by Madog ap Llewelyn, in which some of its walls were destroyed as Wales was set alight. In 1403 and 1404, another rebellion led by Owain Glyn Dwr threatened the castle – this time with less success – before tensions between England and Wales eased somewhat during the Tudor era, the eminent family being of Welsh descent. In more recent history, Caernarfon was again at the centre of royal ceremony. In 1969, the investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales took place within its shell, in which he gave a speech partly in Welsh to honour the ancient office of which he inherited.

Caernarfon Castle today Today, Caernarfon is managed by Cadw and remains exceptionally intact, with visitors able to explore its vast walls and many towers. Entering through the atmospheric King’s Gate, its double towers and overlooking statue of Edward I may be admired, while inside the castle’s interior transports guests back in time to medieval Wales. A trip up its winding stone staircases to its battlements also allows for fantastic views over the town and River Seiont. The 10-sided Eagle Tower, where Edward I and Queen Eleanor’s apartments once lay, today houses an interactive history of the castle, while inside the Queen’s Tower, the Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers is held, giving the 300-year history of the important Welsh regiment. Inside the Chamberlin Tower, a collection of paraphernalia from Prince Charles’ investiture may also be found, detailing some of the castle’s more recent history.

 

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle is an iconic royal palace and stronghold, seen to represent Scottish independence and a focal point for many of the most important events in Scotland’s history. Its imposing position and impressive architecture help make it one of Scotland’s grandest castles. Stirling Castle was the site of royal deaths such as that of King Alexander I in 1124 and William I in 1214, the subject of a tug of war between the English and the Scottish during the Wars of Scottish Independence and even the scene of an assassination. This latter event, the murder of William the eighth Earl of Douglas, occurred when he was invited to dinner there in 1452. A skeleton found at the castle in the 18th century is believed to have been his. During the Wars of Scottish Independence, Stirling Castle was fought over by some of the most famous figures in Scottish and English history, including William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Royal events at Stirling Castle included the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots (1543) and the baptism of her son, James VI (1566), both at the Chapel Royal. At least part of the reason for the prominence of Stirling Castle over the centuries must be attributed to its location. Situated atop the flat top of an ancient volcano, it forms an imposing sight and a formidable stronghold, surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs, which give it a strong defensive position. Furthermore, it is located at a vital strategic point at the centre of various routes across Scotland. The first mention of Stirling Castle dates to 1110, when Alexander I endowed a chapel there, but many believe the site has been fortified since prehistoric times (although this is disputed). The current grand incarnation of Stirling Castle mostly dates from the 15th and 16th centuries onwards, though a few structures remain from the 14th century, while the outer defences fronting the town date from the early 18th century. Some of the highlights include the King’s Old Building, constructed in 1496 for James IV, the Great Hall, which was medieval Scotland’s largest banqueting hall built for James IV in 1503 and the Royal Palace, built for James V in around 1540. One of the most well-known parts of Stirling Castle is its Forework Gate, a turreted stone fortification built for James IV in the early 16th century.

Stirling Castle today Stirling Castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and is now a tourist attraction managed by Historic Environment Scotland. Tours around the castle’s buildings and grounds are available – visitors can tour with an audio guide or with a tour guide and there are a range of exhibitions to see. Not least of these is the Regimental Museum, a military museum dedicated to the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, and the Castle Exhibition which reveals the castle’s story from its earliest times to the present day.

 

Carrickfergus Castle

Carrickfergus Castle was established in the 12th century and remained a prominent stronghold in Northern Ireland for 800 years. Witnessing countless sieges and battles throughout history, Carrickfergus remains today an excellent example of medieval architecture, fit wit numerous examples of its many years as a military stronghold. Originally built by the Anglo-Norman nobleman John de Courcy in 1177, Carrickfergus Castle was modified repeatedly over the centuries as new weapons, tactics and threats brought fresh challenges to those defending the area. As such, significant works to Carrickfergus Castle were carried out in the 13th, 16th and 17th centuries as its needs changed. In 1210, King John undertook a successful siege of Carrickfergus Castle, who then begun alterations on what was then Ulster’s premier strategic garrison. These were finished by Henry III in around 1250, following which it became the Crown’s principal residence and administrative centre in the north of Ireland. In 1689 the Castle was again besieged by Marshal Schomberg, and was the site where his leader William of Orange, also King William III, first arrived in Ireland in 1690 following the Glorious Revolution. In 1760 it was taken by French forces during the Battle of Carrickfergus in the Seven Years’ War, and even witnessed a small naval encounter fought in 1778 during the American Revolution! Later uses of Carrickfergus Castle included being used as a prison, armoury, military garrison during World War One, and air raid shelter during World War Two. Carrickfergus Castle today Today Carrickfergus Castle is a historic site run by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and is open to the public. Notable areas of Carrickfergus Castle worth seeing on a visit include the restored banqueting hall, medieval life exhibits and the 17th-19th century cannons which once formed part of the castle’s defences. As one of Northern Ireland’s best-preserved medieval castles, Carrickfergus allows an authentic look into the area’s long and fascinating history, with its location also providing a picturesque visit overlooking Belfast Lough.

 

Edinburgh Castle

A royal residence, vital stronghold and iconic structure, Edinburgh Castle is one of the most famous castles in the world. With centuries of history to explore, it is a must-see for visitors looking to explore the United Kingdom’s fascinating past, and has something for history lovers of any era. Known by its English name since the invasion of the Angles in 638AD, the first mentions of Edinburgh Castle occurred in 600 when it was called “Din Eidyn” or “the fortress of Eidyn”. However, even before the Angles Edinburgh Castle’s location had served as a vital stronghold for centuries. Archaeologists have found evidence of human settlement on the rock on which the castle sits as early as 900 BC, during the late Bronze Age. Over the following centuries, Edinburgh Castle continued to play a role as a crucial defensive structure as well as becoming an integral part of Scotland’s history. It initially became a royal castle in the Middle Ages and has since been the site of many significant events in royal and military history. As a royal residence, Edinburgh Castle was the site of the birth of King James VI in 1566, later James I of England, whose mother was Mary, Queen of Scots. Visitors can even see the small room where he was born! Edinburgh Castle’s main role was a military fortification however, and from as early as the 13th century was a focal point in the war between England and Scotland. Captured by Edward I of England following a three-day siege, Edinburgh Castle was then the subject of a tug of war between the warring countries, swapping hands numerous times in the 13th and 14th centuries until the Scots took it back again in 1341. By this time much of the original castle had been destroyed, and was rebuilt under the order of David II who later died there in 1371. The buildings of Edinburgh Castle were to suffer further destruction however, with David’s Tower – built in honour of David II – razed during the Lang Siege in the 16th century. The final siege at Edinburgh Castle would take place in 1745, during the Jacobite Rising. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Edinburgh Castle found itself fulfilling a new role: as a prison. It housed prisoners from numerous wars, including the Seven Years’ War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Edinburgh Castle today Today, visitors to Edinburgh Castle can explore the castle’s history through a series of guided tours and exhibitions. Amongst its many attractions are the Scottish National War Memorial and National War Museum, that give an insight into Scotland’s fascinating military history. Other highlights include the Mons Meg, a giant cannon gifted to James II in 1457, and the Great Hall, built by James IV in 1511. Royal exhibitions include The Honours of Scotland jewels which, along with Scotland’s coronation stone – the Stone of Destiny – can be found in the castle’s Crown Room. Edinburgh Castle is also home to the oldest building in the city, the 12th-century St Margaret’s Chapel.

 

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle is a medieval castle in Wales consisting of an 11th century Norman Keep and a lavish collection of 19th century state rooms. With roots in the Roman era, Cardiff Castle holds 2,000 years of fascinating history to explore in the centre of Wales’ bustling capital. With good access to the sea, the site of Cardiff Castle first caught the interest of the Romans in the mid-1st century, and was home to a succession of Roman forts. In the 11th century, the Normans built a motte-and-bailey stone castle on the site of the Roman fortifications, featuring a striking Keep that still survives today. Over the centuries, several aristocratic families came to own Cardiff Castle, many of whom added to the complex, yet it was not without conflict. Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries Cardiff Castle bore witness to many Welsh uprisings, and in the 15th was continuously passed through different hands during the Wars of the Roses. In the 16th century however, the Castle passed into the hands of Prince Henry – the future Henry VIII – whose Tudor dynasty both brought an end to the Wars of the Roses and quietened much strife in Wales, the family being Welsh in origin. In the 18th century, the incredible wealthy Bute family came into the possession of Cardiff Castle, undertaking an ambitious redesign and rebuild programme. Under the Butes, the Castle was expanded and renovated, creating the luxurious and grand House complex that survives today. Its lavish themed rooms were adorned with incredible artwork and architectural features, all designed by famous architect William Burges. Later, the Castle’s surrounding walls would be used as air raid shelters during World War Two, shielding many of Cardiff’s citizens from harm.

Cardiff Castle today Today visitors can tour Cardiff Castle’s opulent apartments, each complete with an array of elaborate murals, wood carvings, gilding, marble, and stained glass. The imposing shell of the Norman Keep remains high upon its motte and provides stunning panoramic views of the city, whilst affording visitors a look into the site’s medieval past. Reconstructions of both Cardiff Castle’s old Roman walls and World War Two air raid shelters may also be viewed, truly capturing the diversity of the site’s 2000-year-old history, while the military museum of the Royal Regiment of Wales is also featured on the site.

 

York Castle

York Castle is a fortified complex in the city of York, England. It consists of a sequence of castles, prisons, law courts and other buildings, which were built over the last nine centuries on the south side of the River Foss. The now-ruined keep of the medieval Norman castle is commonly referred to as Clifford's Tower. Built originally on the orders of William I to dominate the former Viking city of Jórvík, the castle suffered a tumultuous early history before developing into a major fortification with extensive water defences. After a major explosion in 1684 rendered the remaining military defences uninhabitable, York Castle continued to be used as a jail and prison until 1929. The first motte and bailey castle on the site was built in 1068 following the Norman conquest of York. After the destruction of the castle by rebels and a Viking army in 1069, York Castle was rebuilt and reinforced with extensive water defences, including a moat and an artificial lake. York Castle formed an important royal fortification in the north of England. In 1190, 150 local Jews were killed in a pogrom in the timber castle keep; most of them died by suicide in order not to fall into the hands of the mob. Henry III rebuilt the castle in stone in the middle of the 13th century, creating a keep with a unique quatrefoil design, supported by an outer bailey wall and a substantial gatehouse. During the Scottish wars between 1298 and 1338, York Castle was frequently used as the centre of royal administration across England, as well as an important military base of operations. York Castle fell into disrepair by the 15th and 16th centuries, becoming used increasingly as a jail for both local felons and political prisoners. By the time of Elizabeth I the castle was estimated to have lost all of its military value but was maintained as a centre of royal authority in York. The outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 saw York Castle being repaired and refortified, playing a part in the Royalist defence of York in 1644 against Parliamentary forces. York Castle continued to be garrisoned until 1684, when an explosion destroyed the interior of Clifford's Tower. The castle bailey was redeveloped in a neoclassical style in the 18th century as a centre for county administration in Yorkshire, and was used as a jail and debtors' prison. Prison reform in the 19th century led to the creation of a new prison built in a Tudor Gothic style on the castle site in 1825; used first as a county and then as a military prison, this facility was demolished in 1935.


York Castle today

By the 20th century the ruin of Clifford's Tower had become a well-known tourist destination and national monument; today the site is owned by English Heritage and open to the public. The other remaining buildings serve as the York Castle Museum and the Crown Court.

 

Lancaster Castle

Lancaster Castle is a medieval castle in Lancaster in the English county of Lancashire. Its early history is unclear, but may have been founded in the 11th century on the site of a Roman fort overlooking a crossing of the River Lune. In 1164, the Honour of Lancaster, including the castle, came under royal control. In 1322 and 1389 the Scots invaded England, progressing as far as Lancaster and damaging the castle. It was not to see military action again until the English Civil War. The castle was first used as a prison in 1196 although this aspect became more important during the English Civil War. The castle buildings are owned by the British sovereign as Duke of Lancaster; part of the structure is used to host sittings of the Crown Court. Until 2011 the majority of the buildings were leased to the Ministry of Justice as Her Majesty's Prison Lancaster, after which the castle was returned to the Duchy's ownership.


Lancaster Castle today

The castle is now open to the public seven days a week and is undergoing a large-scale refurbishment. There is a large sweeping public piazza, allowing access to the cloistered area, renovated in 2019. A new section of the café has been built, against the old outer curtain wall, which was reduced in height to afford views of the neighbouring Lancaster Priory. This is the first 21st-century addition to the castle. Another renovated building adjoining the café is leased to Lancaster University as a campus in the city with small conference facilities.

 

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle in Kent is a 19th century castle with roots dating back almost 1,000 years, that today draws visitors from far and wide to explore its beautiful structure, positioned picturesquely on an island in the middle of a lake. Leeds Castle was originally constructed as a fortification in 1119 by Robert de Crevecoeur, an Anglo-Norman lord under William II. In 1278, Leeds Castle was bought by Eleanor of Castile, following which it took on a different role as a royal palace to her husband King Edward I. He expanded it, likely adding further elements such as the lake and an impressive barbican spanning 3 islands. Leeds Castle passed through numerous royal hands over the coming centuries, hosting a myriad of important guests including Henry VIII, who visited it on several occasions. Henry VIII also extensively renovated the castle as a residence for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Eventually falling into private ownership under King Edward VI, Leeds Castle survived the English Civil War in the hands of the Parliamentarians and later acted as a prison for Dutch and French prisoners of war.

Leeds Castle today Today, Leeds Castle is a major leisure destination and houses a maze, a golf course, and what may be the world’s only dog collar museum. Though most of what survives today hails from the 19th century rebuild, the beautiful location of Leeds Castle and its eminent history draws people to explore this intriguing site, with guided and audio tours available for groups and schools. A number of items are on display throughout the castle, including a host of antique furniture, portraiture, and even the doublet worn by Parliamentarian General Fairfax at the Battle of Maidstone in 1648.

 

Arundel Castle

Arundel Castle is the historic home of the Dukes of Norfolk, having been occupied by their line for over 850 years. Amongst the dynasties to have inhabited Arundel Castle, the highly influential Howard family are most notable, and still occupy the eminent site today. With aspects dating from the medieval and early modern periods, Arundel Castle is the perfect visit for anyone looking to immerse themselves in Britain’s fascinating past. The first structure on the Arundel Castle site was built in the 11th Century by the Normans after the invasion of William the Conqueror, with the earthworks and first buildings completed by 1070. William d’Aubiny, the first Earl of Arundel, inherited the castle in 1138, followed by the FitzAlan family in the 13th century who undertook a large programme of renovation. In the 16th century, Arundel Castle came into the possession of the Howard family when FitzAlan heiress Mary married Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. His grandfather had been the eminent 3rd Duke of Norfolk and uncle of both Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s ill-fated second and fifth wives. Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk himself would be executed by Elizabeth I for his involvement in the Ridolfi plot, in which he conspired to marry Mary, Queen of Scots and place her on the throne. During the English Civil War, Arundel Castle was besieged twice – first by the Royalists who successfully captured the site and then by the Parliamentarians, whose siege lasted 18 days. Following this, Parliament ordered the slighting of the castle, a process that deliberately damaged it to reduce its value as a royal military stronghold. In 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed at Arundel Castle, before which the 13th Duke of Norfolk undertook a large remodelling scheme to accommodate them. The scheme paid off, with Victoria commenting on the beauty of the castle and the friendly reception she received.

Arundel Castle today Today, Arundel Castle remains a vast complex, with many original features still intact such as the Norman Keep, medieval Gatehouse, and Barbican. It is home to an impressive array of priceless artwork, such as works by Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Canaletto, as well as a vast collection of furniture, sculptures and tapestries. The displays also include possessions of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the collection of furniture especially purchased for Queen Victoria’s visit, including the bed she slept in! Arundel’s gardens also provide a fascinating visit, with Tropical and English gardens, a unique stumpery, and Warm Glasshouses that grow chillis, grapes and lemons to explore.

 

Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle is a ruined castle on the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland. The first castle at Dunluce was built in the 13th century by Richard de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster. However, the ruins left today are from the 16th and 17th centuries, when Dunluce became the seat of Clan McDonnell, who overthrew their rivals, the McQuillans, who were Lords of Route. Around 1608, Randal McDonnell, 1st Earl of Antrim, built the town of Dunluce next to the castle. It was rediscovered in 2011, having been razed to the ground in 1641, and archaeological discoveries suggest a sophisticated piece of town planning around a grid system, as well as evidence of indoor toilets, which were extremely rare at the time. The castle has its fair share of legends, including part of the kitchen collapsing into the sea, and a resident banshee, Maeve Roe, who tried to elope with her true love but drowned in the stormy seas lurking below. Dunluce served as the seat of the Earls of Antrim until the family’s fortunes changed following the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. As money dwindled, the castle was left to ruin – parts of it fell into the sea, whilst other stones were scavenged as building materials. Nevertheless, the site was passed down over the centuries, until it came into the part ownership of Winston Churchill through his marriage to Clementine Hozier. He gave his share of the castle to the Northern Irish government in 1928. Since then, Dunluce has been maintained by the state. It shot to fame as the seat of House Greyjoy, the castle of Pyke, in Game of Thrones.

Dunluce Castle today Dunluce is a romantic ruin today. Sitting atop the craggy rocks, with the blue sea crashing below, it truly does feel like something straight out of a film set. On a grey or stormy day, you’ll be surprised that the castle has survived this long in such a precarious position. Allow an hour or two to fully explore the ruins and soak up some of the magic. It’s worth trying to arrive early or late – Dunluce has become increasingly popular with tour groups, and when a coachload of people arrive, something of the atmosphere is lost. It’s particularly lovely in the late afternoon: try arriving 45 minutes before closing time to soak up the last of the dregs of sun and hit golden hour.

 

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world – home to over 900 years of royal history. Covering an area of approximately 13 acres, it contains a wide range of interesting features. These include the State Apartments, Queen Mary’s dolls house and the beautiful St George’s Chapel. It is also the burial place of 10 monarchs, including Henry VIII and his beloved wife (the one who gave him a son), Jane Seymour. The building of Windsor Castle began in the 1070s at the behest of William the Conqueror, with the intent that it was to guard the western approach to London. Since that time, the structure of Windsor Castle has been embellished by many of the monarchs of England and the UK, and has been the home of 39 monarchs. Notably, in the 1170s, Henry II (the first Plantagenet) rebuilt most of the castle in stone instead of wood, including the round tower and the upper ward, where most monarchs have had their private apartments since the 14th century. In the mid-14th century, Edward III, who had recently founded the Order of the Garter, built St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle for the use of the knights of this Order. A further addition, St George’s Chapel, was started by Edward IV, but was not finished until the time of Henry VIII. It is here that the ten British monarchs lie buried. During the English Civil War, Windsor Castle served as a prison and it was to St George’s Chapel that the body of Charles I was brought for burial after his execution. Charles II and George IV (formerly the Prince Regent) made further contributions to the architecture of Windsor Castle in the 1650s and 1820s respectively. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved Windsor castle, and Prince Albert died there of typhoid in 1861. Queen Victoria built a mausoleum in the grounds of the castle, Frogmore, where Albert and later Victoria herself were buried. In the Second World War, Windsor Castle became home to our present Queen, Elizabeth II, and her family, George VI, the (future) Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.

Windsor Castle today Windsor Castle remains a favourite home of Queen Elizabeth, and she spends most of her weekends there. There was a huge fire at the castle in November 1992 which took 15 hours and 1.5 million gallons of water to extinguish. It began in the Private Chapel and soon spread to affect approximately one fifth of the castle. It took 5 years to restore the castle, and was finished in late 1997. In May 2018, St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle hosted the wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. There are numerous exhibitions and tours at Windsor Castle. In fact, a typical visit can take up to 3 hours.

 

Castle Drogo

The rather deceptive Castle Drogo in Devon has all the appearances of a medieval castle, yet was actually constructed in the early 20th century! With all the features and furnishings of a great stronghold, it is said to be the last castle built in England, and provides an intriguing visit for history lovers and casual tourists alike. Built to resemble an imposing medieval fortress, Castle Drogo was the creation of businessman, retailer and entrepreneur Julius Drewe. Drewe had made his fortune at a young age through the Home and Colonial Stores retail chain, and wished to have his family home built with all the style and grandeur of a medieval lord. Designed by renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, construction of the castle began in 1911 and was completed by 1930, taking a total 20 years to complete due to delays surrounding World War One and the Great Depression. The site on which the castle was built was chosen on what Drewe believed was the land of his medieval ancestor, Drogo de Teigne, after whom the castle is named. In a perfectly succinct summary of Castle Drogo, architectural critic Christopher Hussey once quipped: ‘The ultimate justification of Drogo is that it does not pretend to be a castle. It is a castle, as a castle is built, of granite, on a mountain, in the twentieth century’. In 1974, Drewe heir Anthony and his son Christopher gave Castle Drogo to the National Trust, making it the first 20th century property they had acquired.



Castle Drogo today Today, Castle Drogo remains under the management of the National Trust and is open to the public. At its stunning setting above the Teign Gorge, visitors can tour the castle’s updated layout and newly displayed historic treasures. With design styles borrowed from the medieval and Tudor periods, both the castle’s exterior and interior features offer an intriguing visit, intertwined with all the modernity of the 20th century. A viewing tower may be climbed offering fantastic views of the surrounding area, while its expansive grounds and gardens also feature a range of pleasant flowers and plants to admire.

 

Dudley Castle

Dudley Castle is a ruined Norman motte-and-bailey castle that was once home of the Dudley family, to which Elizabethan favourite Robert Dudley belonged. It is now open to visitors and also hosts the popular Dudley Zoo within its grounds. Originally built in the 11th century, Dudley Castle was constructed by Ansculf de Picquigny, a Norman noble of William the Conqueror, who designed it in the motte-and-bailey style. Over the centuries it was rebuilt and extended, particularly in the mid-16th century when under the ownership of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Dudley was beheaded for his attempt to set Lady Jane Grey on the throne after the death of Edward VI, and Dudley Castle was given to his relatives in the Sutton family who had previously owned it. Dudley’s son Robert would later become a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, and in 1575 she visited Dudley Castle, where it was considered as a possible place to imprison Mary, Queen of Scots. The castle was held by the Royalists during the English Civil War and was besieged by Parliamentarian troops in 1644 and 1646, before it was at last surrendered on May 13, 1646. As with many Royalist strongholds of the time, the Parliamentarian forces later ordered the castle to be slighted, leaving much of it in ruins. In 1750 it saw further damage when a fire raged through the complex, finally gutting the once-magnificent palace. Never rebuilt, Dudley Castle became the picturesque ruin we see today.

Dudley Castle today Today the castle forms part of Dudley Zoo, with its atmospheric ruins open to the public. The 9-metre Norman motte and its 13th-century keep may be explored, where the remains of its two drum towers survive. The Sharington Range may also be viewed, built in 1540 by John Dudley, as well as the castle’s chapel and great chamber. Living demonstrations and re-enactments are often performed at the site, as well as bird-of-prey displays and open-air music concerts. Another of the castle’s popular attractions is its eery ghost walk, that explores the hauntings of the Grey Lady at the site. A visitor centre is also situated within the grounds that explores the site’s fascinating 900-year history, and includes a virtual recreation of how the castle looked in 1550.

 

Inverness Castle

Inverness Castle was built on the site of earlier fortifications, first mentioned in the early 11th century. The castle that stands today has become an emblematic Scottish monument, overlooking the River Ness at the north, and the ancient city of Inverness. This position has brought significant importance to the Castle, which has found itself at the centre of mercantile, political and religious life throughout history. Naturally, the strategic location of the city has attracted military incursions and the Castle has been the ground of many blood drenched battles. The first castle set up in the 11th century was established by King Malcolm III and shortly after, Inverness was granted the title of Royal Burgh. It was strategically positioned at the opening of the Moray Firth, an inlet of the North Sea. Inverness quickly became a flourishing pre-eminent Highland trade artery, bustling with harbour activity and exporting goods across the North Sea to Flanders and Scandinavia. Products exported to the rest of Europe included wool, cloth, fish, cattle and more. But like any castle in Scotland, Inverness didn’t remain peaceful for long. The first attack on the castle was led by Robert the Bruce in 1307 during the Scottish Wars of Independence, who was growing increasingly worried that the castle was becoming a defensive wall against his authority in the north of the country. The castle was partially destroyed in the attack. It was later rebuilt in a strong stone structure by the earl of Marl, before being passed to the Huntly family. However, the castle was only to be destroyed again in the 15th century. The iconic Mary Queen of Scots held siege to the castle in 1562, with the support of Clan Munro and Clan Fraser, although the castle remained under Huntly governance. While there was peace for a few years at Inverness Castle, this didn’t last long. Later, Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Commonwealth Government of England later invaded and took the castle from the Huntley’s, adding a tall, square, stone tower known as the Cromwell Clock. During this period, the castle was known as Cromwell’s Fort, or Cromwell’s Citadel. But this did not last long, either. At the death of the ruling king, Cromwell’s citadel was dismantled, and its stones used to build the Ness Bridge. (You can actually walk across this bridge today, now with a greater appreciation of where the raw materials came from!) After the first Jacobite Uprising, the castle was rebuilt and fortified, then extended by General George Wade. For a while it was known as Fort George. The Fort was shaped like a pentagon, providing accommodation for soldiers surrounded by wet ditches and ramparts, accommodating a garrison of around 1000 men. But as if the castle hadn’t already had enough bombardments, there is more to the story... The Jacobites rebelled against the then-current monarchy and believed the Stuart family should be restored to the throne of England and Scotland. They did not give up their cause after their first defeat at Inverness, and eventually, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, they won over Inverness Castle at the battle of Culloden… and proceeded to blow it up with explosives.

The Inverness Castle of Today The transformation of Inverness Castle and the Castle Hill site began in 2020, after the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service moved and the former court building was purchased by ThHighland Council. This allowed the entire site to be pl Transformation of the Castle Hill site The first phase of development will see the castle transformed into a world-class attraction for visitors and locals. The castle’s history as a court and prison means there are many intriguing spaces and stories to explore in the building. The refurbished castle will have areas for eating and drinking, shopping, and for learning more about the extraordinary landscape, language, and culture of the Highlands and Islands. The grounds of the castle will be transformed into a fantastic outdoor space that can be enjoyed throughout the year, as well as providing a perfect location for beautiful views of the river, the outlook to Loch Ness, and Ben Wyvis to the north. What will be in the castle? The Highland tradition of the seannachie – the storyteller – will be prominent in the new castle with stories coming from all over the Highlands and Islands. The transformed Inverness Castle and grounds will celebrate the Spirit of the Highlands in 100 stories – the area has so many to tell – capturing the essence of the region’s unique environment, culture and character. The Spirit of the Highlands will look to the future too and the ways in which the Highlands and Islands can lead in areas such as green energy, community land development, and cultural growth rooted in local communities. The innovative structure of the University of the Highlands and Islands is one of the ways the area has already shown how it can pioneer new ways of living, working and learning. The future of the building Part of the castle’s transformation will include creating a one storey building to link the two towers of the castle and create new opportunities to maximise the views from the west side (river-side) of the building. It also creates a wonderful, light space for visitors to the refurbished building. The former impressive main entrance to the Castle (behind Flora MacDonald’s statue) will be reinstated, after having been closed for decades. It will lead into a magnificent foyer, also reinstated, that recreates the former grandeur of the original building. Future plans for the Castle Hill area continue to evolve. The kind of ideas that have been discussed include the creation of new and larger spaces for a museum and gallery for the Highlands and Islands, new places to eat and drink, to stay and to shop, and a roof garden that increases the amount of green space around the castle. The whole area will be developed in ways that reflect the Spirit of the Highlands, celebrating its contemporary vibrancy as well as its historic roots. The beautiful Inverness Town House next door remains the civic home for the city and is a heritage jewel, inside and out. It will continue to be a core part of the Castle Hill.

 

I know that I jammed a lot of information into this post but by adding the videos I was able to break it up a bit. There are a bunch of videos that are no longer available because the account that created them was deleted so I have simply deleted those videos but they are available to watch on The Secrets of Great British Castles on Netflix.

 

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