History of Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth is one of England’s most magnificent castles. First built in the 1120s and a royal castle for most of its history, it was expanded by King John, John of Gaunt and Henry V. In 1563 Elizabeth I granted it to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who converted Kenilworth into a lavish palace. The castle’s fortifications were dismantled in 1650, and the ruins later became famous thanks in part to Walter Scott’s 1821 romance Kenilworth.
The First Castle at Kenilworth
Henry I (reigned 1100–35) granted land from his manor of Stoneleigh to his chamberlain and treasurer, Geoffrey de Clinton (d.1133), in about 1120, seemingly to counter the influence of his neighbour the Earl of Warwick. De Clinton retained the southern part of the land for a castle, park and mere; the sandstone keep dates to the 1120s. He assigned the northern part to an Augustinian priory he founded there in about 1124; its canons were given permission to fish in the mere and graze their livestock in the park.
Only a generation later this strategically important castle was in royal hands. Henry II (r.1154–89) garrisoned it against his rebellious sons in 1173–4, acquiring it outright in the 1180s.
The House of Lancaster
Immediately after the surrender, Henry III gave de Montfort’s castle, land and titles to his second son, Prince Edmund (1245–96), who had been a commander during the siege. Edmund subsequently became the 1st Earl of Lancaster, and accumulated the vast collection of lands that would form the duchy. Kenilworth remained in the hands of this branch of the royal family for a century. In 1303 Edmund’s son Thomas (d.1322), the 2nd Earl, acquired rights that allowed him to enclose a vast hunting park south and west of the mere. He also had a chapel built between 1314 and 1322.
Estranged from his first cousin Edward II (r.1307–27) early in the century, Thomas was in outright rebellion against him by the 1320s. After his capture and execution in 1322, Kenilworth was briefly back in royal hands. Yet it was here only four years later that Edward was held prisoner by Thomas’s brother Henry (1326–45), 3rd Earl of Lancaster, and forced to relinquish the throne.
Kenilworth in the 15th and 16th Centuries
When Gaunt’s son became Henry IV in 1399, Kenilworth was brought into the Crown estate, where it would remain for 150 years. Throughout the 15th century, the castle was a favoured residence of the Lancastrian kings, who were drawn here by the excellent hunting. Henry V (r.1413–22) created the moated pavilion at the western end of the mere known as the Pleasance. Works undertaken during this period were mainly repairs.
The Tudor kings continued to use the castle. Henry VII (r.1485–1509) built a tennis court, and Henry VIII (r.1509–47) dismantled a ‘banqueting house’ at the Pleasance, re-erected it within the castle, and built a timber structure closing the inner ward to the east. One surveyor felt that if the latter were rebuilt in sandstone, Kenilworth ‘wold be then the best pporcyoned olde buyldyng for the quantyte wtin yngland’.
John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1551–3), de facto regent in the later years of Edward VI’s reign, was granted Kenilworth in 1553. It was Dudley who had the existing stables built, before his execution later that year.
Kenilworth after the Dudleys
Almost two decades after Leicester’s death in 1588, Kenilworth was sequestered by the Crown after his son, Sir Robert Dudley, refused to comply when James I (r.1603–25) ordered him to return from the Continent.
Four years later the heir to the throne, Henry, Prince of Wales, bought the castle and its estates, a purchase that reflects the importance attached to the castle by the early Stuart monarchy. The future Charles I inherited Kenilworth following his brother’s death in 1612, and used it occasionally, before granting custody to his retainer, Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth, in 1626.
Kenilworth was taken by the Parliamentarian army in the opening month of the Civil War, August 1642, although it saw no substantial action. In 1649, anxious to avoid the cost of maintaining a garrison, the new regime ordered that it be made ‘untenable’, so the north wall of the keep was destroyed and the outer curtain wall beyond breached.
From Romantic Ruin to Historic Monument
Despite changing fortunes, Kenilworth has long been a tourist attraction. Curious travellers came even before the Civil War, and by the 1770s visitor numbers were sufficient to warrant production of a guidebook. The Prince Regent himself came in 1819. The mauled majesty of the ruins – its stonework depleted first for road-building and later for aesthetic effect – appealed to Romantic visitors’ sense of the picturesque.
The castle achieved international fame with the publication in 1821 of Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, a tragic novel revolving around Queen Elizabeth, Robert Dudley and his wife, Amy.
In 1937 the car manufacturer Sir John Siddeley bought the castle from George Villiers, 6th Earl of Clarendon, and put it in the hands of the Ministry of Works with a substantial sum of money to fund repairs. The castle became a full-time visitor attraction. In 1958, Siddeley’s son gave the freehold to Kenilworth Town Council.
The 20th century witnessed repairs and works to enhance public access, including the opening of the Brays and causeway as the main visitor entrance in about 1960, the repair and opening of the gatehouse in 2006, the recreation of the Elizabethan garden in 2009, and the installation of viewing platforms in Leicester’s Building in 2014.
About the Author
Anna Keay, Director of the Landmark Trust and formerly Curatorial Director at English Heritage, led the team that recreated the Elizabethan gardens at Kenilworth Castle in 2009.