My essay on Kenilworth Castle – text only
Here we go. This is a very big essay of some 20,000 words, and probably well past what most people would be interested in reading. However if that’s the case, hope you like the photos I posted on my Facebook page! Seriously, I did try posting the content on there, but it is WAY too big for Facebook to accept. For you enthusiasts out there, I hope you enjoy my history of Kenilworth Castle. If you use any of it elsewhere, please make sure to credit me. This is all my own work…
From the walls of Warwick I headed a few miles away to a more tranquil site of equal – if not more – historical importance. This was Kenilworth. I’ve been to Kenilworth a few times now; it’s one of my favourites in the middle of the country, and managed by English Heritage. The first time I went it was on bike, and it hasn’t changed a great deal since then, although some parts have been improved and the gatehouse is finally open to the public.
At the time of the Domesday Survey, Kenilworth was a settlement whose lord was King William. It had previously been held by Edward the Confessor despite its central position in Mercia, and it lay in the hundred of Stoneleigh. In 1086 it was held by an individual called Richard the Forester, who held a number of properties from King William across Warwickshire and Staffordshire. Richard held the post of royal forester of Cannock (Staffordshire) for both William the Conqueror and William Rufus, and was succeeded by his son, another Richard, who died leaving a daughter Margery in 1100.
Margery married William Croc, and the couple had a son Walter who inherited much of his estate. But not all of it. When Margery died in 1129, if not before, Kenilworth reverted to the Crown, and King Henry I granted it to his minister Geoffrey de Clinton, whom he had placed in the local area to counteract the political power of Roger de Beaumont, earl of Warwick earlier in the 1120s. In 1122 the Beaumont Earl of Worcester was compelled to give large portions of his Warwickshire estates to Clinton after he rebelled against Henry.
Although there was almost certainly a manorial centre at Kenilworth, no trace of this is known, and it is instead the castle founded by Clinton that is the earliest structure here we have knowledge of – and this knowledge is incomplete. It is notable that all references to the earliest castle state that it “is thought to have been” a motte and bailey castle. The later keep certainly contains a raised earth platform which is enclosed within the lowest levels of the keep walls – and this is taken to represent the motte, with the inner court of the castle representing the site of the bailey. But is there any evidence which conclusively proves this? The simple answer is no.
It is undisputedly the case there is an impressive difference in height between the ground level inside the keep and the garden to the north. However, this impressive height difference continues around the western side of the inner courtyard, particularly in the south-west corner, and starts to taper away as one progresses eastwards along the southern side. To the east of the inner courtyard, where the curtain wall is missing, the ground slopes comparatively gently away to the east. Whilst this has clearly been landscaped, it is clear that the raised platform itself could not have measured more than 75 metres by 100 across the summit, which is insufficient to allow for a motte.
Around Easter 1130, accusations of treason against Clinton resulted in a tribunal. He was acquitted, but his opponents the Beaumonts regained royal favour, and Clinton himself never recovered his previous influence. Sometime between 1133 and the end of the reign of Henry I he died, leaving a son, Geoffrey, to succeed him. Geoffrey junior was a minor at the time, and in 1138 a marriage was arranged between him and Agnes, daughter of the earl of Warwick. It seems possible that the Beaumonts were behind the treason charge, and certainly they were the main beneficiaries of the downfall of Geoffrey senior.
Again, it is widely stated that the keep of Kenilworth was commissioned by Geoffrey de Clinton. However this is by no means certain. The date of the grant of Kenilworth to Clinton is unclear, but according to the VCH for Warwickshire, when Geoffrey de Clinton senior founded Kenilworth Priory, the foundation charter of 1122 grants the priory “all his lands and woods at Kenilworth, save those reserved for the castle and its surrounding park”. Since Margery daughter of the Forester lived until 1129, it is clear that the Kenilworth grant was either non-inheritable, or else taken back into the hands of Henry I for other reasons. Clinton therefore had several years in high office with all its financial benefits before his downfall at the hands (perhaps) of the Beaumonts.
English Heritage in their guidebook suggest that the presence of the great tower at Kenilworth together with that at Brandon (now lost), both of which were manors held by the Clintons, is evidence that the Clintons were responsible for both. Oddly Brandon was not inherited by the younger Geoffrey but formed part of the dowry of his sister Lescelina when she married her husband Norman de Verdun, perhaps in about 1135. Verdun first appears in Clinton’s company in 1129/30, before Clinton’s death, and Verdun and Geoffrey junior did not get on at all well, probably because of the dowry.
Between 1137 and 1138, Geoffrey made an agreement with the canons of Kenilworth that “if he recovered Brandon” he would grant them a different set of lands to those he had just granted them. He was successful in this and in the agreement with Warwick concerning marriage to Agnes Beaumont, Geoffrey junior was granted the service of ten knights that he owed to the earl to do castle guard duty at Brandon.
It has been suggested that when Geoffrey junior fell out with Roger de Beaumont, it was over Kenilworth. A charter of this period of lands at Milverton, two miles from Kenilworth, refers to the recovery of Geoffrey’s (unnamed) castle and honour. Whichever property this referred to, it did not come without a fight, and a charter issued by the steward of Roger Beaumont made heavy compensation for damage to the lands of Kenilworth priory. Geoffrey is known to have retained Brandon until his death, and it was Henry de Clinton who eventually relinquished it to the Verduns for good. However, whilst there are several references to the honour of Brandon, there are none to the honour of Kenilworth. This is an important distinction, as an honour was a designation which gave an estate status. Brandon had status. Kenilworth does not appear to have had.
So, whilst it is true that Geoffrey de Clinton junior held Brandon from about 1140, and held Kenilworth, in both cases it is the case that the inheritance was not smooth – in fact the opposite – and involved considerable struggle to achieve with his relations the Verduns and Beaumonts. What does this tell us about the structures at Kenilworth, which passed to the crown in 1173-4, about the time of the younger Geoffrey’s death?
To begin with, we need to address the suggestion in the English Heritage guidebook, that Geoffrey junior would not have had access to sufficient funds to have carried out work on such a scale as the great towers at Brandon and Kenilworth, and that therefore (since the great towers of both are similar in concept) they were both erected – or at least founded – by the elder Geoffrey. Understanding the implications of this being true – or not – will help to determine what was at Kenilworth in the middle of the 12th century.
First is the fact that the younger Geoffrey de Clinton’s inheritance was considered large enough for his father to grant the honour of Brandon to his sister as a dowry. Unless (and this is not beyond the realms of possibility) father and son had a serious falling out, it is unlikely that the father would have impoverished the son. Instead, what seems likely is that in the aftermath of the seizure of the throne by King Stephen, many of the elder Geoffrey’s grants and estates turned out to be non-heritable, or were claimed back by the Crown.
It is worth pointing out that c1130 Geoffrey senior and Norman de Verdun became closely connected. Verdun was very much in the political orbit of the Earl of Chester, a mercurial character who in 1135 was a supporter of Matilda, and Verdun was not ever prominent at Stephen’s court. From this one might expect the younger Geoffrey to have shifted his own support to Stephen, which would imply that the Earl of Warwick was a supporter of Matilda when he raided Kenilworth. However, Roger attests several of Stephen’s charters in 1135/36 and was still present at his court of 1139, and although he was present at the siege of Winchester in 1141 on the side of Matilda, he witnessed another of Stephen’s charters in 1146. Warwick, it would appear, was pro-Stephen, particularly in the 1130s. This means that any raiding he carried out on Geoffrey’s lands may have been because Geoffrey was a supporter of Matilda, and that in 1135 his link with the Verdun family extended to political support for Matilda. This would have given Stephen ample reason to confiscate estates which had been granted to Geoffrey senior, particularly if they were life grants only.
It is clear that at the presumed foundation date of the priory in 1122 Geoffrey senior had planned, if not founded, a castle at Kenilworth. This was passed to his son upon his death in 1135, and then the lands around it were harried by the Beaumont earl of Warwick. It is possible that in the process the castle at Kenilworth had been sacked, but if so, no mention of it is made by Geoffrey, who merely refers to the recovery of Brandon from his brother-in-law and sister.
Both Kenilworth and Brandon had castles at the start of the Anarchy. Brandon, which was destroyed in the 13th century, is the easier to assess. In 1947, archaeological excavations were carried out here which revealed the foundations of the keep. This excavation determined that this keep was “not earlier than the first half of the 13th century”, although it dies not give a reason for this. Coins of King John were discovered during the excavation, pottery and other finds may contribute to this assessment. That is to say, it was not built for the Clintons. It was not built for Norman de Verdun, who died in 1153. It was not built even for his son Bertram, who died in 1192. It may have been built, therefore, for either of his two sons, Thomas (d1199) or more likely Nicholas (d1231). When Nicholas died, he was succeeded by his widowed daughter Roesia, and she by her son John, who assumed the Verdun name, and had inherited substantial estates in Ireland from his father, who had benefitted greatly from King John’s activities there.
So, we can be fairly certain that the 13th century keep at Brandon was nothing to do with the Clintons, and any similarities between that and the keep at Kenilworth are entirely coincidental. If this assertion about the common origin of the keeps to Geoffrey de Clinton senior is flawed, we have to look much closer. How old is the keep at Kenilworth, and who could have built it? It is only through understanding this that we can really strip away the later construction and identify fully the nature of the Clinton castle of the 1120s.
To begin with, we need to properly understand the topography of the castle site. Kenilworth Castle is built on a natural outcrop which has reasonable steep slopes dropping away to the north, west and south. From the north a stream called the Finham Brook flows around the western side of the castle, which is joined by a second stream, the Inchford Brook just to the south of the castle and a third to the east. A substantial L-shaped ditch cuts the site of the castle off from the land to the north and east. The base of this ditch is broadly similar in height to lower-lying, flatter ground to the south and west, and is not contemporary with the original structure. Excavations repeatedly described as immediately to the north of the keep indicate that a ditch lay in this area, and a trace of a ditch can also be seen to the east of the 16th century Leicester building. However, there is insufficient space between the base of the keep and the edge of the path for a ditch to be identified, and I suspect that if a ditch did, in fact, exist on this side of the castle, all trace of it has long since been destroyed with the groundworks required for the construction of the Elizabethan Garden area.
Between the keep on the high ground and the wide ditch to its north, the ground has been landscaped to provide a flat and level formal garden area, which is accessed down a flight of stone stairs. However towards the west, it becomes clear that the platform from which these steps descend is in itself partially a later construct, and that the high ground on which the keep stands is a platform which curves away to the south as it heads westwards. At the top of the slope is the old curtain wall of the inner ward. I do not see how excavations in this area could be made to find any evidence of a former ditch, and suspect that the keep – whenever it was built – was built on the edge of the platform with natural slopes dropping away to the north. To the east we are on firmer ground since evidence of the ditch survives.
It is clear that on this side of the castle there was a ditch which wrapped around the eastern edge of the inner court. Centrally spaced along here was a causeway which accessed a simple gate in the curtain wall. The presence of a portcullis groove and part of an archway on the stub of masonry attached to the southern wall of the keep show the position of the entrance – and the scale of the curtain wall, the line of which can be traced around the rest of the inner court buildings. For most of this line it is clear that the wall followed the edge of the high ground, although this becomes confused on the western side because of the erection of the 14th century great hall by John of Gaunt – and the possible rearrangement of the ground levels on that side. Nevertheless it seems unlikely that the ditch would have extended around the southern side, where the ground again slopes away steeply before becoming more gentle as it approaches the outer curtain wall, which acts as a retaining wall in part, indicating that the original slope was steeper.
What we seem to be left with, then, is a natural promontory into what were probably marshy wetlands – which has been isolated by the excavation of a ditch on the eastern side. Examination of the joints between the keep and the curtain wall tell us that – at the lower levels at least – the two are contemporary, although the outer face of the wall fronting the portcullis groove of the gate, and the plinth do seem to be less eroded and therefore potentially of later date than the keep – suggesting that perhaps the gate was inserted in an existing wall, or else reworked at some point.
To the west, where the John of Gaunt range was added in the 14th century, there are two pieces of earthwork which appear to be part of the natural mound, between which is a sunken way leading up to the access passageway. However, from examining the plan, these correspond very closely to the locations of the Strong Tower to the north, and the cellars and Saintlowe Tower to the south, which I do not think is coincidental. Since both the towers and part of the hall project strongly forward from the likely line of the old curtain wall, these have to have been created to support the new work, which could otherwise have been crowding the area of the inner court.
One other factor needs to be taken into consideration when thinking about the 12th century castle. Concealed within the ruins of Mortimer’s Tower – the 13th century twin-towered gatehouse leading out to the long bank which was later to serve as the tiltyard and dam for the massive water defences. This appears to have been a simple gate tower, and although the outer curtain wall that we see today is later, a stub of masonry on the east side of the 12th century work shows that even in the 12th century, Kenilworth Castle was a very substantial structure.
At about the same time as the rebellion of the Young King in 1173/74, the younger Geoffrey de Clinton died, leaving his son Henry to succeed him. King Henry II chose not to regrant Kenilworth to the Clintons, retaining it for the Crown, and compensated Henry de Clinton with lands elsewhere. In 1179, he was granted the manor of Swanbourne, and soon afterwards he gained possession of Lavendon Castle – his wife was the elder daughter of John de Bidun, and co-heiress. From this point onwards Kenilworth was a royal castle.
In the Pipe Rolls for King Richard in 1190, mention is made of repairs being made to the “buildings and towers” of the castle of Kenilworth, which is sometimes taken to indicate that the keep was in existence in 1190 (the cost was £46 8/-). However this is not necessarily the case – and a grant of the manor of Swanbourne even if the Bidun marriage and Lavendon was Henry’s doing was hardly compensation for the loss of a castle the scale of which is suggested the Clintons may have built at Kenilworth.
The Pipe Rolls are complete for the reign of Henry II, King Richard and for most of King John’s. No significant spending on Kenilworth is recorded under Henry or Richard, but in Johns reign, £1115 3/11 ½d were spent between 1200 and 1215 – a similar amount to the cost of Johns new castle at Odiham, which consisted of a new octagonal keep built on one of three rectangular platforms supplied with water from the River Whitewater, This was a smaller castle than Kenilworth, but was built from scratch.
The challenge that we are faced with when trying to establish what was at Kenilworth in 1173/74 – and therefore what the Clinton castle looked like – is that we have a contradiction. On the one hand there is an argument put forward that King Henry confiscated the castle because it was too large and important to allow it to be held by anyone other than the Crown. This is supported by the lack of money spent on it by the Crown between 1173/74 and c1200. However, Henry de Clinton was not adequately compensated for the seizure of a large and impressive castle. This could suggest that Henry de Clinton was in rebellion in 1173/74 as this could be seen as a punishment. The castle was able to hold a garrison of 160 at this point, which does suggest that the castle was a reasonable size.
But was the keep built? In size it measures 25 metres by 20, with a projecting square turret at each corner. The walls at the base are nearly seven metres thick, but the massive batter brings this in to just under 4.5 metres. The entrance to the keep is raised up, although the forebuilding with stairs was added to the original building, the entrance floor is still at least three metres above the external ground level of the inner court, and perhaps double that to the north, where a portion of the slope is contained within the batter.
It is the massive amount of earth contained within the batter of the keep that has led to an assumption that the earliest castle here was a motte and bailey castle, and that the motte was retained within the footprint of the keep. It is certainly the case that a small motte with a diameter in the region of 30 metres diameter at the base, and 10 metres across on the summit, could have occupied this footprint. A ditch could have been excavated around three sides of this motte (I am discounting the comment of a ditch being identified to the north of the keep as I cannot see how this could have existed) and left a kidney shaped bailey to the south and west of it. However I remain unconvinced of this. Typically motte and bailey castles were erected in times of war and/or conquest and served (initially at least) a predominantly military function, and given the proximity of the castle at Warwick, I am not sure one here would have been necessary. Although it is feasible that Richard the Forester or his son Richard erected a motte and bailey here in the latter 11th century, across all the estates listed as being in his possession in the Domesday Book, there is no evidence that he constructed any such building across the rest of his properties. It is likely that if the Forester had a property at Kenilworth it was a lightly defended manor, perhaps on the site of the castle, although no trace of it has ever been uncovered. This being the case, it is unlikely that anything of substance at Kenilworth really pre-dated the grant in the 1120s to Geoffrey Clinton the elder.
Geoffrey de Clinton the elder was wealthy enough to be able to spend £2000 on ensuring the election of his nephew Roger to the bishopric of Coventry. He certainly had sufficient funds to build big at Kenilworth, and depending upon the date that he actually took possession of Kenilworth, he had sufficient time to build a stone castle here; King John’s castle at Odiham was built from scratch in 7 years. We have already established that his son and grandson did not have the resources to do so, meaning that on balance we have to look either at the elder Geoffrey or the English Crown as the principal builders of the earliest stone castle, and the keep, which was certainly in existence by the reign of King Richard. Since there is no evidence supporting the idea that it was built by King Henry II, we must revert back to the keep being primarily work carried out for Geoffrey de Clinton.
All this brings us back to the question of the earth and timber castle. The documentary evidence points towards any such structure here being of limited size and duration. The architectural and archaeological evidence do not point towards it at all, and on balance it seems to me that the earliest phase at Kenilworth that we could conceivably call a castle was built at the orders of Geoffrey de Clinton the elder before 1135. It doesn’t seem very likely that anything of significance then happened at Kenilworth until King Henry took it on.
So, we can say with a degree of confidence that the castle of Kenilworth consisted of a stone walled courtyard and great tower on a level bluff surrounded by marshy land, and defended by a ditch which protected the eastern approach. Although no evidence for this can be seen today, this ditch extended along the southern side of the castle and was identified by excavation in the 1960s, together with its external bank. It was about 10 metres wide, about 4.5 metres maximum depth below the upcast bank, and had a fairly shallow U-shaped profile. It’s possible this bank was provided with a timber palisade, but it was used as the foundation point for the later curtain wall so cannot be excavated. Access to the courtyard was perhaps through a gateway facing the causeway which was overlooked by the south-eastern corner turret of the keep. There are two remaining quandaries to consider though. First is the question of the height of the keep, which was remodelled in the 16th century to allow for larger windows to be installed on the upper floor.
The lower floor of the castle was not vaulted. Instead, the Great Hall above had a timber floor which was supported on great joists resting on timber columns. The lower floor contained a well, and it was the point at which visitors would enter the keep. It would have been easy to partition this area with timber walls, but it is not known whether this was actually the case or not. A small chamber in the north-west turret adjacent to the entrance may have served as a guardroom. Two slit windows open out over the batter to the east; three larger openings to the south overlooking the courtyard were altered to create large arched openings overlooking the courtyard. A recess in the west wall suggests there may have been a window facing this way as well, but this has been blocked up.
Ascending the spiral stair one entered the Great Hall, which was a large (15m x 10m) single area and which was lit by three windows to the south, and two each to the east and west. A pre-1649 image shown in Dugdale’s “Antiquities” appear to show that there were no large windows facing northwards. The fireplace is in the west gable and is small; latrines were once more in the north-eastern turret, and the winding stair in the north-western turret continued upwards. The two southern turrets each had a small chamber within them, and it has been suggested that the westernmost served as a chapel, although I don’t know on what evidence this suggestion is made. Directly above the well was a small room which allowed water to be drawn directly to the hall level.
Above this level, it is impossible to say what the earliest form of the great tower looked like. It is certain that the fishtail arrowslits are 13th century in style, and this is believed to be part of the significant works carried out by King John at the castle. The difficulty is that because of the redesign of the windows in the 16th century, it is by no means clear what the wall looked like beneath this, or where the break is between the original work and John’s work. The decorative string is an obvious place to start, as it is a clear horizontal break, but it lies below the top of the 16th century windows and the earlier recesses that they inhabit, meaning that the 12th century ceiling height was higher than this point; it is also the case that adjacent to the north-east turret on the east gable, the string course continues at the same level as far as the northernmost window – as well as dropping to the lower level shown on the rest of the east gable an south wall. In addition, examination of the internal walls shows that (refacing aside) there is continuity of the use of rubble on the interior walls up to this wallhead level. What is odd are the four recesses in the south wall. They are reminiscent of joist holes, but the top of the holes is perhaps three or four courses of masonry lower than the top of the 16th century windows, meaning that if they served this purpose, there is a mismatch between the windows and the ceiling level of the great hall. They are, however, at about the same height as the string course and narrowing of the external width of the turrets.
A clue might be seen above the access passageway cut through the west gable to the first floor of the Forebuilding. This passageway has a ceiling that shows a shallow curve. Yet above it is a semicircular Norman-style arch. Is this a structural feature – a load-spreading arch? This may well be the case as a matching arch can be seen on the exterior of the tower. In both cases, the arch is incomplete, and the natural vertical descent point is just within the thickness of the turret wall. Rather curiously it is almost exactly the same dimension as the reconstructed Normanesque windows in the gable. Also curiously, there are square holes (better preserved) in the exterior of the gable which can only be joist holes, and they are the same dimension as the mystery holes in the south wall, although notably lower in height.
My suspicion is that the halls inside the great tower are the remnants of a hammer-beam roof, and are holes left when decorative corbels were removed. Hammer-beam roofs, whilst usually seen as a medieval feature, were still being built in great houses in the 16th century. Henry VIII had one at Hampton Court for example. Given the span of the roof at Kenilworth, it is very possible this method was used to cross the hall.
This does not, however, solve the problem of identifying how tall the Clinton tower actually was. Given the massive platform upon which it was built, and the scale of the solid turrets, it is unlikely that a single storey hall was intended, which means we can assume the great hall was used by the Clinton family, and we must therefore assume that the great tower dates to the time of Geoffrey Clinton the elder. Whether the work was completed in his lifetime, is not so certain since we cannot say with confidence exactly when he was granted Kenilworth, although it seems likely. We know from the date of the foundation charter that he founded Kenilworth Priory in 1122, and the castle is mentioned in that charter. He therefore planned the castle here at a very early date. I suspect that the castle was completed before Geoffrey’s court case in 1130, though, and that its existence was part of the reason for the lands being targeted by the Beaumonts early in the Anarchy. In a later charter to the priory, Geoffrey granted the canons the tithe of everything brought to his castle, whether to the cellar, larder, kitchen, granary, or hall, which gives an indication that the castle was a fully functioning building by the end of his life in about 1135. This does not, however, mean that the great tower was completed; the White Tower (Tower of London) took about twenty years with the funding of the crown behind it.
It may therefore be the case that when Geoffrey de Clinton the younger, with his reduced finances and the Anarchy to deal with, died, the tower was still incomplete. If so, it was still fully functional, and would have taken the form of a massive two storey hall with square turrets.
Within the walled courtyard would have been a range of domestic buildings, including the granary, kitchens, larder and cellar mentioned in the grant to the priory. In addition there would have been stables, kennels, a brewery and perhaps a separate bakehouse – and accommodation for his retainers and guests if the great tower was unable to accommodate them. There do not appear to have been any mural towers around the inner courtyard wall to provide this. We do not know for certain when the Forebuilding was added, but it is clear that some form of stepped access to the great tower would have been required from the outset.
So what of the outer areas? The English Heritage guidebook highlights that Mortimer’s Tower – the gatehouse at the inner end of the causeway as you approach the castle – had a 12th century origin as a simpler rectangular gate tower. There are visible remains of this tower to the rear – the two sections of wall flanking the entrance passage stand well over two metres tall, but they are not flagged up as such. That to the left (west) as you approach the castle shows that there was a projecting cornice of sorts which probably framed an arched tunnel and may have contained a pair of wooden doors (no trace of the fittings survives) at the outer face. Towards the rear is a slot for a portcullis, and behind it is another projecting cornice suggesting an arch to the rear as well. On the exterior and to the rear of the eastern section are traces of walling which the guidebook plan suggests are also 12th century and represent an earlier phase of curtain walling heading towards the Water Tower along the later line of King John’s curtain wall, and at an angle to the NNW, destination unknown.
The key to understanding and interpreting these fragmentary remains is to grasp the nature and dating of the water defences at Kenilworth, which were perhaps the most impressive feature of the medieval defences. By damming the Finham Brook, the lords of Kenilworth enabled a substantial area to the south and west of the castle to be flooded. The guide book suggests that the earliest damming of the stream took place in the 1120s, and that King John raised the height of the dam, which vastly increased the size of the mere, as it is called.
The supporting documentation of this is pretty clear. In 1125, Geoffrey de Clinton the elder granted a charter to the canons of the priory to catch fish “with boat and nets” in his pool on Thursdays (presumably to enable them to eat fresh food on Fridays, when meat was not permitted to be eaten). What this doesn’t tell us is where the pool was, although it was large enough for boats! In addition to the mere, there is a lower pool the other side of the dam, and there is another pool further downstream now known as the Abbey Pool; neither of these are likely to have required boats to fish in.
It seems that the origin of the causeway is a pair of projecting sections of bedrock which connect the higher ground of the car park area to the castle area. In order to dam the stream, the causeway was built between these two areas. When the stream was originally dammed, an opening was kept at the south-eastern corner (by the car park to prevent flooding), but obviously over time the channel would have eroded away, and it is true that at this point, the channel is now cut into the bedrock. Originally a timber sluice gate could have kept the level of the mere up, and if besieged, this could be made permanent by dumping rubble or soil in the way.
On the assumption that the causeway entrance was made at the time of Geoffrey de Clinton the elder, it becomes a relatively straightforward matter to see that a gatehouse of sorts was a comparatively cheap and easy way to control access to the castle. The causeway was perhaps 2.5 metres above natural ground level, meaning that the level of the water rose across the low-lying land by at least 1.8 metres. This created a pool that stretched about 500 metres to the west of the castle, and widened the Finham Brook where it ran to the west of the castle. To the south, where it met the causeway, the mere was perhaps 100 metres wide.
Given that the excavations carried out between the outer curtain wall to the south, and the old inner courtyard wall just to the east of the Gaunt buildings revealed there was a ditch and bank aligning with the outer curtain, it is tempting to think that Geoffrey de Clinton’s castle had an outer surrounding wall, and was therefore a very early example of a broadly concentric castle. The stump of masonry projecting east from the old gatehouse seems to support this supposition. However, the enclosed area would put Kenilworth on a par with the royal castle at Dover as built by King Henry II, or the contemporary Tower of London. Is this, perhaps, too much to expect of the castle of a minister – albeit a very wealthy one – of the crown?
It would not be the first time that a minister of the crown acted way above his station. Thomas Becket and Thomas Cromwell both spring to mind – and both of these offended their royal masters greatly. In the case of Geoffrey de Clinton this does not appear to be the case. However, this may be just because many of his land grants were for life only, and it may also be because his death and the Anarchy appear to have intervened. The court case in 1130 resulted in a massive reduction in his influence and power, and his son struggled to secure his inheritance. This may be in part because he did not have the resources to compete with the earls of Warwick, and partly because the protagonists in the Anarchy did not see him as sufficiently important to court for his support.
The excavations carried out suggest that the outermost of the two ditches between the Inner Court and the south curtain “belonged to the later 12th century”. Given the known history of the site, the implication is that it postdates the Anarchy, and therefore belongs to the reign of King Henry II, or potentially to that of King Richard. This is much later than the date assumed for the damming of the stream in 1120. It is also before the heightening of the dam by King John c1210. The records do not give any indication that any money was spent on ditch digging by the Crown, and we must therefore assume that it represents work carried out by the younger Geoffrey de Clinton before his death c1174. The castle being garrisoned for the Crown by Bertran de Verdun, the Sheriff of Warwickshire, during the rebellion, it has been suggested that it was repossessed after the death of Geoffrey, as would be normal procedure, and then not given to his son Henry, who may have been implicated in the rebellion of that year. However the same records seem to suggest that it was given to Henry de Clinton when the rebellion was over and exchanged for other lands in 1179.
What is curious to remember is that Verdun and the Clintons were closely related. Bertran de Verdun’s mother was one Lescelina, the daughter of the elder Geoffrey, and therefore the younger Geoffrey was Bertran de Verdun’s uncle. In an undated charter to Kenilworth Priory, Henry de Clinton confirms a charter made by Lescelina and her son, who had previously held the Clinton property at Brandon. The charter was for the revenues of the church at Hethe, near Bicester. Hethe had been the property of the elder Geoffrey’s wife, and she had given it to Lescelina as dowry, so quite why the grant needed Henry’s confirmation is unclear unless it relates to the disputes between the two over her inheritance as a whole, perhaps after the King had taken possession of Kenilworth.
The question has to be, therefore, why did the younger Geoffrey excavate a ditch around the outside of the already extant Inner Court and Great tower, and was he responsible for the erection of an outer curtain wall, the tower at the end of the dam, and (presumably) other defensive works at the far end of the dam? The only context for this would seem to be the rebellion of 1173/74, and perhaps the strengthening of the castle was to do with local tensions between the Sheriff, the Clintons, and perhaps the earls of Warwick. The excavation of a ditch was almost certainly accompanied by the erection of a timber palisade – timber from the surroundings was quickly and cheaply available – and a stone gate tower serving as a postern gate across the dam could have been part of longer term plans to protect the principal defences of the castle to the south and west.
It is believed that the principal entry to the castle at this point was from the town to the north on the site of the later Leicester’s Gatehouse. However, no trace of earlier masonry has been discovered along the lines of the outer curtain wall at any point other than the small postern gate to the dam. It may be that the work was planned, but never took place, or else it was erected entirely from timber at this point. In the absence of the wide outer ditch to the north and east of the castle, which did not exist at this point – and the landscaping works creating the garden, envisaging defences here is difficult. It may be that the area was low lying and marshy, in which case the primary approach could have been from the east.
In 1179, then, Kenilworth was acquired by the crown. Having been garrisoned for King Henry in 1173/74, doubtless his sheriff informed him of the extensive defences, and reminded him that the Midlands were an area in which royal castles were rare. It is likely that – regardless of whether Henry de Clinton had allied himself with the Young King or not – a baronial fortress of such strength held by a relatively minor member of the aristocracy would have been viewed with suspicion by a king who took a dim view of the diminution of royal authority. However, the eventual trade-off which was accepted by Henry de Clinton seems to show that he was not viewed with favour. The manor he gained was worth less than Kenilworth, and although the castle he gained in right of his wife was not small, it was a fairly modest motte with two baileys, and is likely to have been primarily of timber. This was a substantial step down from Kenilworth, and it is not difficult to accept that he was given a bad deal by the king, suggesting that he had rebelled.
Having acquired the castle of Kenilworth, however, it is not the case that the king spent much on it. Repairs and minor building works are charged by the sheriff in 1184, but that is the only time money was actually spent that we know of – and it was Bertran de Verdun who was responsible. It is possible that Bertran was occupying the castle at this time, although he was sent to Ireland the following year, and he remained high in the estimation of King Richard after King Henry died in 1189, accompanying him to the Holy Land where he died. Further minor repairs were recorded under Richard in 1190, 1191, and 1193, and the latter year the castle was garrisoned again by the Crown. In this year King Richard was in captivity on the Continent and his brother Prince John was colluding with his captors to keep him there.
Richard had bigger fish to fry than Kenilworth when he was eventually set free, and with England largely settled spent much of the rest of his reign campaigning in France, where he was killed in 1199, leaving John to become king in his stead. And it is with John that a massive building programme got under way at Kenilworth.
During the 17 years of King John’s reign, Kenilworth changed dramatically and became without doubt one of the most impressive castles in the realm. Any work that had been done on the outer circuit of walls was almost completely wiped away as far as we can tell, with only the postern gate surviving to any degree, and then as the rear half of a strengthened twin-towered gatehouse. The dam was heightened by 2.5 metres, and revetted on both sides in stone. Whatever measure was in place to protect the sluice gates was substantially strengthened with the creation of a building over the top of it which included a D-shaped tower. It is possible that The Brays, an irregularly shaped courtyard to the south of the dam was added at this time as well to provide an additional layer of defence for this vital feature.
To the north of the castle, an extension to the water defences of the castle was made possible by the raised levels of the mere, and the large L-shaped ditch was excavated. A further sluice gate would have been required here to prevent the mere draining through the ditch, and although no such measure has been identified, I suspect either the lost north gatehouse or the Water Tower must have played a part. A final measure dating to John’s reign is strange – the ditch around the southern half of the Inner court was filled in to be replaced with a deeper V-shaped ditch closer to the inner walls.
Despite the substantial amounts spent upon the castle by King John, it does not appear to have been particularly favoured by him, and he is only recorded as having been there a handful of times. It is also the case that it is not until 1210 that significant sums started to be spent upon it. In the Pipe Rolls, the following sums are recorded – 1210/11 – £464 6/3 ½ d, 1211/12 – £224 17/8d, 1212/13 (missing), 1213/14 (missing), 1214-15 £402 (for only part of the year). It has been estimated that John spent well over £2000 on the castle all told, enough to have built a small castle of the time from scratch.
By this time, John had to all intents and purposes lost a substantial part of his continental dominions to the aggressive expansionism of King Philip Augustus of France. This caused many of his vassals to have to choose between retaining their continental or insular lands since both kings confiscated lands held by men fighting for the other side. This cut an irrevocable slice down the middle of the nobility, most of whom held lands on both sides of the Channel. In addition to the King of France, John was in dispute with the papacy over appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury, and despite England being placed under interdict and the king himself being excommunicated, John continued to profit from seizing the revenues from vacant church estates. Despite all his losses, John was supreme within England, and repeatedly imposed his will over Ireland, Wales and Scotland without too much difficulty. However, his impositions were alienating his own nobility, and in the end this resulted in the baronial rebellion later in his reign that was to culminate in his being forced to issue the Magna Carta.
The first signs of trouble came from the north and west of the kingdom. In 1212 Robert fitzWalter joined Eustace de Vesci and Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in a plot which was alleged involved the murder of the king, and the same year the Pope absolved the barons from serving John as their liege lord. This led John to abandon a planned campaign in Wales, and return to London from Nottingham, his favoured northern residence. As has been noted previously, royal control of the midlands had not been reflected in castle ownership, and Kenilworth was clearly intended to serve as the primary royal stronghold in the region. Perhaps in this time of intrigue, its position part way towards the north and to Wales was of particular strategic importance, but doubtless regional dominance was of most importance to John.
It was also important to his barons – and it is of particular interest to note that when Magna Carta was drawn up, Kenilworth was one of four royal castles that it was specified should be handed over to baronial control in order for them to police the implementation of the terms of the charter. It is only of passing interest to note that one of the rebel barons was Henry de Clinton, and not particularly surprising that Kenilworth seems to have remained in John’s control. In the deterioration of his affairs that followed, the barons invited Prince Louis of France to become king, and he did in fact lead an army onto English soil, but the invasion was foiled by the death of King John, leaving his young son Henry as a child king. Led by the elderly William Marshal, Henry’s adherents grew in number, and eventually the French prince left England again. Kenilworth appears to have played no part in this affair.
In the aftermath, the formidable royal castle was all but ignored, and it is likely that when custody of the castle was granted to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, in 1244, he found it somewhat the worse for wear and in need of repairs. Henry’s relationship with Montfort was always stormy, not least because the sister of the king had chosen to abandon a vow of chastity to marry the earl, and at one point Montfort had seen fit to give Henry’s name as a guarantor of his debts. In addition, Montfort showed a lack of sympathy when dealing with Henry’s remaining lands in France as his deputy. Having been on crusade once, Montfort had vowed to go to the Holy Land a second time, but Henry persuaded him to change his mind, and in 1253 granted him Kenilworth Castle for life. By 1258 the earl had become a focus of opposition to the favouritism and poor governance shown by King Henry, and was instrumental in negotiating the Provisions of Oxford, which were designed to impose good governance on the crown. When Henry reneged on this in 1261, Montfort again left the country.
In 1263 he returned to England and led a rebellion against the crown culminating in his defeat and capture of Henry and his heir Edward at the Battle of Lewes the same year, and which led to baronial government for a short time. However Montfort was no stranger to nepotism and his family and close advisors profited greatly at the expense of the crown – and other nobles like the earl of Gloucester were frozen out. In 1265 Prince Edward escaped and raised an army which defeated the army of Montfort, who was targeted by a “death squad” appointed by the prince. Edward had no intention that Montfort would leave the field alive, although it is possible he had not intended the grisly actions that his men inflicted upon Montfort’s corpse. The earl’s eldest son Henry also died on the field, and another, Guy, was badly wounded.
Kenilworth, which had been further strengthened by de Montfort (which consisted at the very least of defensive siege machinery, and may have included the fortification of the Brays), then became the focus for the rebels, and another of the Montfort sons, Simon junior, led resistance there. Having at first promised to surrender the castle to the king, Simon junior changed his mind, and a lengthy siege followed, commencing on 21st June 1266 and coming to a close on 14th December.
The siege commenced with an assault upon the northern defences by engines such as mangonels and trebuchets as it was considered that the water defences to the south were too wide for an effective attack. However, the artillery assembled by Earl Simon were more than equal to the task of defending the castle, and in fact had greater range than those on the outside, forcing the king to send for larger machinery. The narrowness of the active front would have meant a veritable barrage of rocks flying through the air, and doubtless collisions did occur. The failure of this assault led to an equally ineffective attempt to cross the ditch and storm the defences. Philip Warner suggests that the ditch was dry at this point, which I find improbable, although it is possible that parts of the ditch had been filled in to permit men to cross. A further attempt to storm the defences was carried out at the instruction of the king, who had ordered that a number of barges from Chester be brought to the siege. It appeared that the rebel stronghold was impregnable, and Simon junior had escaped to France.
In August, Henry changed tack, and summoned a parliament to his siege camp. This was partially due to papal intervention – the papal legate Ottobuono was pressurising him to be more conciliatory – and it is also quite likely that some of the baronage were looking at his concerted efforts to destroy the Montforts and remembering the oppression of his father John, and wondering about the reforms that had been promised. A commission of four bishops (Exeter, Bath & Wells, Worcester & St Davids) two earls (Gloucester and Hereford) and six barons produced a set of provisions for a settlement known as the Dictum of Kenilworth, which extended a pardon to rebels in return for their paying a fine. The Dictum was published on 31st October, but rejected by the garrison, including the commander Henry de Hastings.
The result was that Henry summoned the resources available to him from Northampton Castle, and prepared to mount a final assault on the castle, by now inhabited by a weakened and starving garrison, possibly suffering from a typhoid outbreak. On December 12th the castle offered to surrender, and the garrison were allowed to leave. The further persecution of the rebels resulted in Gloucester rebelling in April, setting himself up as a champion of those who had been disinherited, and forced a more clement settlement allowing rebels to occupy their lands in order to pay their fines.
The surrender of Kenilworth was immediately followed by the keeping of it being granted to the younger son of the king, Prince Edmund, who had already been granted the title and entire estate of the earldom of Leicester in 1265, was granted the town, castle and county of Lancaster at roughly the same time, then holding the titles Earl of Leicester and of Lancaster. Edmund accompanied his brother on crusade and returned to act as one of King Edward’s principal advisors and courtiers. In 1279 he held a grand tournament at Kenilworth attended by the king and to honour Roger Mortimer. It is to be assumed that Edmund improved the accommodation at Kenilworth, but there is no firm evidence of any work carried out here in his time, either as keeper or when he was later granted it in perpetuity. He died in France in 1296, and was succeeded by his son Thomas when he came of age in 1298.
Earl Thomas was not as loyal to the crown as his father. But then, Edward II was not the same kind of king as his father either. Thomas was granted the title and lands of the Ferrers earls of Derby, and in right of his wife also became Earl of Lincoln and Salisbury. In charge of five earldoms, he was the wealthiest magnate in the kingdom of Edward II by far, and rivalled the king in his splendour, maintaining a household of 500 knights. It is believed that he was responsible for the erection of the Water Tower at the south-east corner of the castle, and certainly he founded a collegiate church within the outer bailey of the castle between 1314 and 1322, dedicated to St Mary and intended to be served by 13 priests.
Despite his vast wealth, Earl Thomas did not contribute massively to the development of Kenilworth, which was in fact one of his most southerly castles. His power base was in the north, and he chose to found the extensive castle at Dunstanburgh in Northumberland as his primary residence. Having served extensively under Edward I in his Scottish wars, Earl Thomas, he was six years older than the king, and although he initially supported Edward II in his disagreements with the nobility, he opposed the promotion of Piers Gaveston and was one of those primarily responsible for his arrest, trial, and execution in 1312. After the English defeat at Bannockburn, Thomas took over the running of the kingdom, but was unable to prevent Scottish raids and was eventually driven to rebellion himself in 1321, with the rise of the new royal favourites, the Despensers.
He was captured and executed, but even before the battle of Boroughbridge which saw this, Kenilworth had surrendered to the king. Thomas’ execution once more brought home to the nobility that a vindictive king who relied upon favourites was dangerous even for the most powerful, and the royal authority was soon brought low again at the hands of the Queen and Roger Mortimer of Wigmore. In 1326 Thomas’ younger brother Henry (who had not involved himself in rebellion, and had been confirmed as Earl of Leicester in 1324) captured the fugitive king in south Wales in 1326 and brought him to Kenilworth, where he was the kings keeper. It was here that Edward II was forced to abdicate, and all the Lancaster estates were restored to Earl Henry by the minority regime of Edward III. In 1330 he was involved in the overthrow of Mortimer in favour of King Edward III, but was forced to retire from public life due to blindness, spending most of the rest of his life at Leicester Castle.
There was a great hall at the western end of the Inner Court by this time. It is likely to have been built by either Earl Thomas or Earl Henry, but may have had origins earlier than this. In 1347, two years after Earl Henry’s death and perhaps having been neglected for some considerable time, the hall was completely reroofed by his son, Henry of Grosmont, at a cost of 250 marks.
This building was incorporated into the later reworking and great expansion of the accommodation at the western end of the Inner Court. As has already been discussed, there are sections of the 12th century curtain wall surviving around the Inner Court; a section extending westwards from teh great tower, and two sections along the southern side of the courtyard, flanked by the 14th century great hall complex and split by the insertion of a square tower. However in both cases the old wall was refaced, and it also seems to be the case by projecting the westernmost ends of the old walling that part of the old wall was incorporated into or formed the rear wall of the 13th century great hall. However, the 14th century reworkings also appear to have involved a substantial amount of earth moving, some of which appears to serve no logical purpose.
These earthworks project beyond what might be the natural edge of the platform upon which the Inner Court stands. To the north is a narrow projecting platform corresponding to the width of the “Strong Tower”. Then is a narrow depression which leads up from the western end of the Base Court (and the contemporary Water Gate) to a sunken passageway accessing the Inner Court. Finally to the south is a larger platform corresponding roughly to the width of the Great Hall itself, but the projecting Saintlowe Tower at the southern end extends over the slope.
The passageway occupies the northern end of a large vaulted cellar area which lay beneath the Great Hall proper, and what is notable is that there is no significant increase in altitude between the ground level of the sunken doorway at the end of the passage and the Inner Court. IT is therefore the case that the ground level at the top of the external platforms is well over a metre higher than the internal ground level of the courtyard. As both the internal and external walls of the great hall have a large batter between the pilasters, and this is buried by the platforms, it stands to reason that these platforms are actually later than the hall buildings themselves, although I still cannot see a logical function for them from the medieval period.
The earliest great hall that we know of was founded by Earl Thomas in 1313/14. The English Heritage guidebook asserts this would have been an arcaded ground floor hall, which is a reasonable enough suggestion, but there isn’t any evidence that I have found to support the statement about its design. Great Halls of this period could be very large indeed, and as the wealthiest magnate in the realm, Earl Thomas would justifiably have wanted his new hall to reflect this. At his brand new castle at Dunstanburgh (which incidentally was provided with extensive water defences perhaps inspired by Kenilworth) his hall was on the second floor of the great twin-towered gatehouse, and had his solar and private chambers adjacent. His hall at Kenilworth would also have provided access to these chambers, and it would be unusual if these were on the ground floor. We might therefore assume that at one end of Earl Thomas’ great hall were stairs leading to an adjacent block containing his apartments.
However, this is about all we can say about the first hall. In 1347 when Henry of Lancaster remodelled the hall it was a major undertaking. The removal of the arcades and replacement with a single span roof created the widest hall roof of any building in England with the exception of Westminster Hall, which was the seat of government and the power of the crown. It is very unlikely that there was any reason other than prestige for replacing the roof after 30 years unless there were some fairly serious structural issues. Given the wealth of Earl Thomas this seems improbable, but we have to bear in mind that Earl Henry had not really left Leicester for the last 18 years of his life, and neglect may have been an issue. We can therefore say that Henry of Grosmont’s hall was one of the most impressive – if not the most impressive – baronial hall in England at the time.
In 1351, Henry of Grosmont was created the first Duke of Lancaster by Edward III, and the county of Lancaster was granted to him as a palatinate – to be governed virtually independently of the Crown. He was a trusted and prominent lieutenant of Edward III in France, and it was undoubtedly a blow when he died at Leicester in 1361, perhaps of the plague. With his death, his estates were divided between his daughters, although in practice it was Blanche and her husband John of Gaunt (the third son of King Edward) who inherited the vast wealth and power of the Lancaster estate.
In 1362, at the age of perhaps 22, John of Gaunt was confirmed as Duke of Lancaster, and three years after the death of Blanche in 1368, he married Constanza, the heiress of Pedro I of Castile in Spain. Pedro had been assassinated, and from 1372 John styled himself as King of Castile and Leon. From this date forward, clearly intending to be certain that his main palaces were up to the standard one would expect of a king, John of Gaunt embarked upon ambitious and expensive building projects, including the Savoy Palace in London, which was systematically sacked and destroyed during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381.
At Kenilworth, the main works started in 1373 and continued for seven years. By the time works started, one of John’s elder brothers, Lionel of Antwerp had died at the age of 30 in Italy, and Edward the Black Prince had fallen ill with dysentery in Spain, a sickness that he never recovered fully from, and eventually resulted in his death in 1376. As King Edward III declined in the 1360s and his chief advisors died, the position of John of Gaunt increased steadily in importance, and it was the Duke of Lancaster and King of Castile and Leon who became the de facto ruler of England in the last year of the king’s life, although he retired to his estates at his father’s death and did not seek the regency for his nephew Richard II.
The works that he commissioned at Kenilworth were a near complete revision of the high status buildings, which would be those he held court in on his occasional visits. Thus the great hall and apartments, plus the service buildings – and not the walls, towers and defences – were his chief concern. The works were carried out under the supervision of Henry Spenser and William Wintringham as chief mason and chief carpenter, both of whom had previously worked at the new royal lodgings commissioned by Edward III at Windsor Castle, and it is no coincidence that there are strong similarities between the architecture of the two.
As stated in the guidebook, the most innovative feature of the Windsor apartments was the unification of the façade so that it all looked like one continuous piece of work rather than a rather hodge-podge affair, and this is one of the features which finds an echo at Kenilworth. The exterior façade of the new hall and projecting mock towers at either end are given very similar treatment architecturally, with the angled turrets, pointed arched windows and the style of pilasters, although the effect is slightly marred by the windows of the northern Strong Tower. By raising the level of the Great Hall, it was also necessary for the building to be raised in height considerably to allow for the required ceiling and roof height, and it may be that the battering of the lower courses was actually an addition required by the increased scale of the building. The great hall itself was supported on two rows of pillars running down the basement, creating 15 rib vaults (three rows of five) lit only by deeply set slit windows facing the courtyard.
The northern curtain wall running from the rear of the forebuilding to the Great Tower westwards has previously been identified as having been refaced, and buttresses added to the exterior of the wall. Upon closer examination of the plans, however, it is apparent that the refacing disguises the fact that the direction of part of this wall has been slightly altered, with the older core of the wall having been thinned out the further west it goes. There used to be a slight angle in the curtain wall here as it enclosed the Inner Court as a polygonal area, but this has been straightened on the internal side to allow a single straight wall running down the length of the kitchen building, and allow three massive fireplaces to be installed along its length. Where the kitchen butts up to the outer wall of the forebuilding to the east, a fourth, smaller fireplace with an adjacent bread oven has been installed. The foundation of the southern (outer) wall of the kitchen can still be seen, along with the cobbled floor and a central drain. At the western end of the kitchen building, a large service stair leading up to the first floor of the Strong Tower, which also housed the buttery and pantry, the serving passage passing between the two. The basement of the Strong Tower contained a series of cellars accessed from the kitchens only.
The foundation wall of the southern side of the kitchens was not a courtyard-facing wall, but an internal one. To the south of this kitchen was a second, privy kitchen, which was the area that food for John of Gaunt and his highest status guests was cooked and prepared. A long straight flight of twenty stairs led from the Inner Court (the bottom was by the Forebuilding) over the top of the entrance to the kitchens to the screened passage at the lower end of the Great Hall. Beneath this screened passage was the postern gate leading down to the western side of the Base Court, and directly opposite this was the Watergate.
The two bays of the Strong Tower project strongly westwards from the line of the old curtain wall, which we may assume was followed by the outer wall of the Great Hall. Each floor was lit by small windows, the ground floor larders having two tiny ones facing west and two smaller ones facing north. At this level the octagonal turrets are solid. The L-shaped Buttery on the first floor has the strong room in its angle, reached from the great hall only, and small rooms can be found in the turrets. Small windows again can be seen in the west wall on either side of the triangular pilaster, but only one of the presumed two windows survive. The second floor contained an apartment with a fireplace, and a lost third floor was reached via a stair in the southern turret.
By comparison, the so-called Saintlowe Tower at the southern end of the hall actually contains the southern fifth of the length of the Great Hall, and is not a tower as such at all. The projecting pair of bays show no windows at the ground floor level, tall windows at the first floor and smaller twin-lighted windows on the second floor – again the top floor has been lost. A door at the south-western end of the vaults leads to a series of three cellars, which lie beneath an L-shaped gallery overlooking the mere and chase – in addition to the two tall windows facing west was one facing south; the two bays on this side were again separated by a triangular pilaster, and octagonal turrets were at both corners of the “tower”.
The Great Hall itself was provided with three large windows of unusual height overlooking the courtyard, divided into three panels – they are more ecclesiastical than secular in their design, although only the top section was glazed and the lower were provided with shutters. A set of three matching windows faced away from the courtyard – hardly the most defensible of features – and in the central bay of each side was a large fireplace, the southernmost bay having no window to the south (Instead an arched opening led to the gallery to the south-west). Opposite the entrance to the gallery, a large projecting bay window (octagonal of course) balanced the entrance stairs to the north; this was solid at the base. The hall was provided with no less than six fireplaces all told – the central two mentioned, one in the bay, and three in the southern end of the hall, which has not survived above the ground level of the hall.
Behind these three fireplaces, the gallery also served as an access lobby to the chambers to the south-east. These were the more private chambers of John of Gaunt, where he would have conducted business and entertained more high status guests. It is likely that on most occasions he would have dined here rather than in the more public Great Hall. The outermost of these was the Great Chamber.
In the northern end of the basement of the Great Chamber is a 13th century window, reflecting that buildings existed on the southern side of the Inner Court long before John of Gaunt upgraded them. Unfortunately little has survived of this building to reflect what it looked like. However the indications are that there was a harmonious continuity with the Great Hall buildings. It is clear that the building had three courtyard facing, and three outward facing bays, the courtyard having the ubiquitous triangular pediments. The basement is believed to have served as the wardrobe, which contained much of the precious possessions of the lord, including silver plate. Cutlery, bedclothes, wall hangings and the like. There was no access to the basement of the Saintlowe Tower, and a single door at the south-eastern corner was the only entrance point. It is fairly clear from the scale of the recesses in the curtain wall that the façade of the Great Chamber matched that of the Great Hall.
The basement doorway leads to a roughly triangular room occupying the angle of the courtyard wall, which is almost entirely the original 12th century wall up to first floor level. At the southern (outward facing) end is an angular tower which has been added in the 14th century, and on the courtyard side is a projecting multangular tower, with a tall arched doorway facing the great hall buildings, and with tall windows on the first floor.
The courtyard tower had a vaulted entrance, and a winding stair gave access to the first floor, which was very well lit, being provided with tall windows in all directions, and from which direct access was gained to the lobby separating the Great Chamber and the second of Gaunt’s state rooms to the east. Since this was further from the Great Hall, it was of higher status, and it may therefore be assumed that this projecting entrance tower was a private high status entrance for Gaunt himself or those who were permitted quicker access to his person. This is a concept created for the palace of Edward III at Windsor, with the “La Rose” Tower, and it is also noteworthy that the only access to the wardrobe is through this area.
The angled tower to the rear, known as the John of Gaunt Tower, contained at least three storeys above the basement. All the floors within this tower were of timber supported on a continuous corbel string, and the upper two storeys were provided with large windows. Only the west side of this tower survives above the first floor level, but this surviving section shows that the masonry was of high quality throughout, and it is likely that the upper rooms were for the private use of John of Gaunt, suggesting that there may have been fireplaces in the collapsed section; the basement contained latrines and was reached from the ground floor only, whereas the upper rooms were accessed via a winding stair. Outside the base of the tower is provided with some unusual battering where it extends out over the edge of the platform.
As with the Great Chamber, very little survives of the second chamber. This was later known as the Presence Chamber, and it has been suggested that it also served as the private dining room of John of Gaunt. It appears to have been lit by two large windows facing outwards, the space between may have contained a fireplace; there is certainly one directly beneath in the basement, which is reflected in the belief that this room may have served as a further privy kitchen for the lord of Kenilworth, although this may be a later insertion.
Beyond this area, very little can be seen of the medieval buildings. The foundations of the castle chapel have been exposed, and it is possible to see the basement which lay beneath the privy chamber. However, with the construction of the new range in the 16th century, the old privy chamber was destroyed and the east range which stood beyond this, along with the curtain wall and gate, have been lost.
A second phase of work attributed to John of Gaunt took place between 1389 and 1393. These were of a more practical nature, including much repair work to bridges, gates and walls, and some work on the Great Tower, which was used as a high-security area for the Duke’s jewels. At this point there were several gates named in the accounts – Bayesgate, the park gate, Kings Gate, Colletourgate and the Watergate. It is possible from a later reference to Baynes Bridge being outside the castle that Bayes Gate was also outside the castle itself, and it seems to me this is a reference to the Brays.
Prior to this work being commissioned, John of Gaunt had spent much of his time overseas, including a (failed) campaign in 1386 to take control of Castile from John of Trastamara, with the support of the king of Portugal. The end result of this very expensive business was a secret treaty between Trastamara and Gaunt in which Gaunt and his wife renounced all claim to Castile in return for a large annual payment and the marriage of their daughter to Trastamara’s son. He then went to Aquitaine, avoiding the major crisis between Richard II and the Lords Appellant in 1388.
John of Gaunt died in 1399, but his son Henry was disinherited by Richard II who confiscated the entire Lancaster estate. Henry of Bolingbroke was a minor player in the 1388 rebellion of the Lords Appellant, but seems to have escaped retribution immediately afterwards, being made Duke of Hereford. He was well-renowned, being a crusader who had been to Jerusalem, but was exiled along with the Duke of Norfolk when knowledge of a private duel between the two was revealed to the king. Exiled and without any estates to his name, Henry returned to England with the exiled former Archbishop of Canterbury declaring his intention was solely to reclaim his duchy estates, but he knew Richard would not accept this. Having laid waste to much of Cheshire, which was loyal to the king, Henry eventually captured Richard, who was later to die in prison, probably of starvation. Ignoring the heir-presumptive Edmund de Mortimer (who was seven years old), Henry was crowned King Henry IV on 13th October.
It is in this early period of Lancastrian lordship that Kenilworth was at its peak. The massive expansion of the accommodation by John of Gaunt resulted in Kenilworth being one of the primary royal palaces in the country, and certainly the largest and most impressive in the Midlands. However, having seized the throne, Henry of Lancaster did not have a peaceful or happy reign. Repeated rebellions, plots and even assassination attempts were the order of the day, and the largest and longest lasting of these was that of Owain Glyndwr, which resulted in a tripartite agreement with Henry Percy of Northumberland and Edmund Mortimer (uncle of the heir-presumptive of Richard II) in 1403. However, despite the death of Northumberland’s heir at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, the earl did not personally rebel and survived. In 1405 a pact was agreed under which Northumberland would have taken control of Kenilworth as Warwickshire along with three other counties south of the Trent. By 1409, Glyndwr was largely defeated, Mortimer was dead, as was Northumberland, and the young Edmund Mortimer was still in captivity. However, the king was seriously ill, and died in 1413, leaving his son Henry of Monmouth to succeed him as Henry V.
Monmouth had been made Prince of Wales and Duke of Lancaster upon his father’s coronation, and it seems likely that Kenilworth was still retained as part of the Duchy estates at this time. Kenilworth was a favoured residence of his, and in the first few years of his realm, he had an impressive moated site laid out at the north-western end of the Mere. This is on farmland today and not accessible to the public, but some of the earthworks do survive. The overall site measures about 200 metres by 180, and consists of two moats surrounding a central platform and a 28 metre wide channel which was originally the dredged access and harbour for the site.
The outer moat is about 10 metres wide with an external bank; the inner is about 14 metres wide. Only part of the outer moat still contains water, this area on the north-western side, and it is probably relevant that a break in the bank towards this area is believed to have been the inlet channel for a stream providing water to the moats. On the north-eastern side the levelled terrace between the two moats narrow, and here the level of the terrace rises until it reaches the same height as the central platform. It is widely and reasonably assumed that this is the site of a bridge used to access the platform.
The central platform is rhomboid in shape, with sides about 110 metres long. It was enclosed by a stone wall, and there was a square tower with a staircase in the eastern angle; its reasonable to assume the other corners were similarly provided. The platform itself was occupied by timber buildings including a banqueting hall; the buildings here were maintained and used into the reign of Henry VIII, relocated the hall into the Base Court of the main castle in 1524.
The first few years of the reign of Henry V were spent in England. There were plots to replace him with Edmund Mortimer, but Mortimer himself appears not to have known about them, and remained loyal to the king. Having put domestic affairs firmly to bed (and it is this early part of his reign that saw the work at Kenilworth), he was able to turn his attention to the matter of France, which he is justifiably famed for, and after some minor activity in 1417 he set out in earnest, conquering large parts of the country and having himself declared heir to the ailing Charles VI by 1420. He died suddenly in August 1422, the French king surviving him by two months only. It was supposedly at Kenilworth that he had received the gift of tennis balls sent to him by the French that caused him to choose to invade France, showing that it was perceived to be of primary importance to the king.
Having married the daughter of King Charles, Henry’s infant son was the heir to France as well as England. However the young Henry VI of England, crowned Henry II of France in 1431, was not to become the man his father was. He was declared of age to rule in 1437 at the age of 16, and married Margaret of Anjou in 1445. However, England was riven by factions, and amid losses in France and allegations of misrule by the supporters of the Queen, companies of soldiers returned to England to form private armies of the major magnates. The rebellion of Jack Cade in 1450 which saw an army of malcontents march on London from Kent. The king sent a small army under Sir Humphrey Stafford, but the rebels ambushed it and were victorious. Henry, fearing for his life, fled to Kenilworth with the Queen.
In August 1453 having heard the news of the loss of Bordeaux, Henry then had the first of a series of mental breakdowns, and the factions fell into civil war. In 1454 Henry’s cousin the Duke of York was named as regent protector, and he excluded the Queen from government, imprisoning Edmund Beaufort, her principal supporter, in the Tower of London. The Beaufort family were the (originally) illegitimate children of John of Gaunt, and Edmund was the deadly rival of the Duke of York. It seems probable that Beaufort was headed for an early grave, but in December 1454, Henry regained his senses. Somerset was released and York removed from office. A Great Council was declared, and York (probably with good reason) considered he would probably face charges. He raised an army and met the royal party at St Albans. After failed negotiations, the battle that followed was a complete victory for York, and he was able to capture the king. Somerset and several others of the chief Lancastrian supporters were killed or wounded, and York was restored to his role as regent.
In 1456, Henry VI was sufficiently in control of his affairs to have had 30 cannon despatched to Kenilworth for its defence along with other stores. However, there is no surviving records or archaeological evidence to suggest where these would have been stored or placed. Through much of 1457, Henry remained at Kenilworth with the Queen, which was considered a strong area for her supporters despite the proximity of Warwick Castle, the earl being a supporter of York. In 1459 a private army of the Queen was destroyed by York, but this was more than offset by the battle at Ludford Bridge soon afterwards. York and his supporters fled the country. It was set out in the Acts of Attainder that followed that York had intended to march on Kenilworth to capture or kill the king. There may be a grain of truth in this, since Warwick did march within 13 miles of Kenilworth, but this was the quickest route to join York. In 1460 Warwick actually captured Henry at Northampton, allowing York to return from exile. At the news, the Queen and her son Edward Prince of Wales fled Kenilworth with their remaining treasure, heading for north Wales. Kenilworth was left for the Yorkists to take over.
Despite the Lancastrian victory at Wakefield which saw York and his second son Edmund executed, and the subsequent defeat of Warwick at St Albans (which freed Henry VI, abandoned on the battlefield again, and suffering another bout of insanity), 1461 was a year which ended in comprehensive victory for the family of York. Only six weeks after St Albans, Edward of March had been crowned as Edward IV and fought and won the vicious and bloody battle at Towton in Yorkshire. Henry VI had fled to Scotland, and although there were risings in the north in his cause, in 1464 he was captured and put in prison in the Tower of London.
Kenilworth appears to have taken a back seat at this point. The battles that were fought were pitched battles on the field, and although artillery was used by both sides, by and large sieges of castles were a thing of the past at this point. Edward IV had little interest in Kenilworth, and neither did his brother Richard III; and despite a brief flurry of warfare again when Warwick rebelled against Edward, it does not appear in further accounts of the period. The Lancastrian heir, Prince Edward, was killed either at or after the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4th May 1471, Henry VI was killed in the Tower a few days later, and Queen Margaret was imprisoned, first at Wallingford and then in the Tower In 1475 she was ransomed and returned to France, never to return.
The brief reign of Richard III saw further repairs and refitting, with the Gun Tower, Great Hall, storehouse, “Scaldynghous”, “Bulwerke”, and houses in the outer ward. The wardrobe was repaired and work also done at the Pleasance. After the Battle of Bosworth, which secured his victory over Richard III, Henry Tudor is recorded regularly at Kenilworth, and was responsible for the building of a tennis court in the Pleasance. The records of the reign show that the buildings at Kenilworth were requiring of repairs, and these were faithfully carried out. After the accession of Henry VIII in 1509, Kenilworth was identified by that king as one of only three “ancient castles” within his realm that he wished to be maintained. Between 1530 and 1532, the range of buildings occupying the eastern end of the Inner Court was rebuilt in timber in advance of a royal visit. It is not clear whether they replaced more expensive stone buildings. Towards the end of Henry’s reign, a survey of the castle was made. This survey was carried out with the “Lordship of Kenelworth” still being classified as part of the Duchy of Lancaster, but the castle being considered the property of the Crown as part of the manor of Stoneleigh.
I list a few excerpts from this description of the castle below (language has been updated).
“all environed about three parts of the same (the castle) with a great large standing water called the Mere containing in length half a mile and in breadth 500 feet in diverse places”
“very large and great ponds (by the site of the abbey) which be full filled with the waste water of the great castle mere”
“The said castle is double ditched and the outer ditch may be full filled with water of the great Mere at all times”
“The said castle is well walled round about with six towers built upon the same wherein be 4 or 5 lodging chambers in every tower with chimneys in good repair. And at the entry into the said castle stands a plain gatehouse of stone and covered with lead and without turrets wherein be two chambers with chimneys opening into the outer ward of the castle which contains in length 400 feet and breadth 200 feet. And about the walls there be houses built for 200 persons to lodge in. There is a large great house newly built of timber and tiled wherein is 12 chambers above and below with chimneys and large windows. And within the same is a mount leading to the Inner Ward which is built about a square court three parts of stone and covered with lead and the fourth part of timber part newly built”
“The said inner ward contains square of every side 140 feet. The great tower called the Watch stands over the northern part and encloses the same which is of a great height strong and large wherein be three heights and in every loft three chambers where strong walls and thick and in good repair. And the hall encloses the west part of the said court the which is very great and large with great high bay windows one every side well proportioned and stands stately with a large pair of stairs of stone leading up to the same and sealed above. Wherein is of every side two chimneys and at the over end three chimneys. At the corners of the hall is four turrets leading up to two chambers built at every of the said corners all stone and covered with lead. At the outer end of the said hall toward the east is a hall place leading to the door opening to the great chamber wherein is a large great bay window and a small chimney for waters. And the said great chamber is large and well proportioned with bay windows over every side and sealed above with two chimneys.”
“And at the upper end of the same a hall place leading to a door opening into the second chamber wherein is a large bay window and a chimney for waters and the said second chamber is leese then the other chamber and of like building and proportion and sealed. And within the same a small closet with a little privy chamber and a chapel of timber and covered with tile; it is of mean building and decayed. At the upper end of the hall toward the west a door opening into a low gallery which leadeth from the strong tower wherein is two heights and in every height two fair chambers with chimneys to the privy chambers and great chambers. And in the said tower be large windows opening towards the park and the great mere… And at the nether end of the said hall is the pantry and buttery and a cellar leading down to the (?great) kitchen and privy kitchen, larderhouse scullery and pastry all of stone and covered with lead.”
Unfortunately the full text of this document is not available online, and it is clear that a substantial part of the description relates to the landscape around the castle, including a note that the “well-built” town of Kenilworth was “half and a quarter of a mile” from the castle. It is clear that whilst defensible, Kenilworth was an early Tudor Palace of the first order.
Despite this, on 6th March 1553, Edward VI signed over the castle to the Duke of Northumberland. The King had been seriously ill the previous month, and during this time had drawn up a plan, possibly with Northumberland’s input, to have Lady Jane Grey succeed him instead of his half-sister Mary – on the basis that he did not want a Catholic to succeed to the throne. He died on 6th July, and Northumberland was tried for treason on 18th August, and executed a few days later. His family were also condemned to death, but were spared, although John Dudley, the eldest, died after his imprisonment in 1554. It is the third son, Robert, who concerns us. Released from prison with his brother in 1554, he was rehabilitated to Queen Mary’s court by serving abroad in Philip of Spain’s army, and in 1558 was restored to his estates. He was, however, perceived to be among the closest advisors of the Princess Elizabeth a week before Mary’s death, and by October 1562 had been made a Privy Councillor of Queen Elizabeth. In June 1563 he was granted Kenilworth.
When his wife had died in 1560, Dudley’s enemies made the most of this, and the scandal prevented him from marrying Elizabeth; although it is only a (very widely circulated and believed) rumour this was his plan. He was certainly the Queen’s favoured courtier, and he was put forward to marry Mary Queen of Scots; Elizabeth was even prepared to name Mary her heir of the marriage took place. In 1564 Robert Dudley was made Earl of Leicester, and although Mary agreed to marry him, Dudley did not comply.
A further survey of Kenilworth was carried out when Leicester took ownership of the castle, and this reveals that his father Northumberland further heightened the dam and turned it into a tilting yard, adding the large stable along the eastern curtain wall of the Base Court which now serves as the castle shop and café. Regrettably this survey is only available to visitors of the National Archive in London and I have been unable to source the text online.
In 1566 the Queen visited Kenilworth, by which time Leicester had concluded that the Queen intended to remain unmarried. Perhaps the Queen was unimpressed by the condition of the accommodation since by about 1568, Leicester had drawn up plans for a substantial redesign of the eastern part of the Inner Court, with the intention of demolishing the Tudor range and all the medieval works between John of Gaunt’s Tower and the great tower.
Plans discovered at Longleat and reproduced in the guidebook show that the intention was to create a new formal east front running north to south oriented with the new stables. The new façade would have been 75 metres long, with a central grand entrance to the inner court. The inner ditch was to be recut as a rectangular dry moat on either side of the new entrance, and a new block was to run between the east front and John of Gaunt’s Tower. The northern end of the east front was to connect directly to the Great Tower. This was abandoned, for reasons unknown, and instead he was to build to an entirely different plan adjacent to the John of Gaunt tower, as well as providing a grand gatehouse to the north, which is presumed to be sat on the site of an older one. This was modelled on the gatehouse at Warwick Castle; his brother Ambrose was Earl of Warwick, and the two brothers were descended from the Beauchamp earls, going so far as to adopt the Bear and Ragged Staff of the Beauchamp earls of Warwick.
The majority of these works were carried out in 1570-72, when Leicester was to expect another visit by the Queen; after her initial visit in 1566 she returned in 1568; it is tempting to think that Leicester showed her the plans for the east front and she didn’t like them! Substantial works were under way on the “New Tower” and “Caesar’s Tower” when Leicester’s architect wrote to him updating him on progress; work on the State Apartments was also being carried out. The Queen visited in 1572, and most famously a final time in 1575, by which time the privy garden had also been completed.
Leicester’s Building, as it is referred to, is basically a rectangular four storey tower block with a rectangular turret in the south-west corner projecting diagonally to the south-west. Most of it lies outside the line of the curtain wall of the Inner Court, and therefore extends out over the edge of the platform of the inner court as well as the inner ditch. The block is divided into three bays, a northern, central, and southern bay; the central section being subdivided to allow a main staircase at the rear (west).
The principal entrance to Leicester’s building was at first floor level looking from the courtyard, and was reached through the old state rooms of John of Gaunt. The entrance itself is long gone, but led straight to the new Privy Chamber, to the south of which was a Withdrawing chamber and access to the main stair. The stairwell led to an inner chamber, off which one accessed the projecting stair turret, and from the Withdrawing Chamber a door led to the bedroom – it is believed a timber wall separated the bedroom from the inner chamber.
The turret stair can be accessed from both the Inner chamber and the main stairwell, and leads upstairs to the gallery, the external walls of which have fallen, and from which private views across the Mere could be enjoyed. The gallery could also be accessed from the main stairwell and the top floor bedroom above the Withdrawing chamber. There was no top floor room on the courtyard side of the building, but there may have been a wallwalk as a doorway led off the stairwell to this area.
The ground floor and basement could be reached via the internal stairs – turret and the main stairwell, and there would have been a lower-status access as well. From the kitchen below the second chamber of the Gaunt state rooms, a wooden stair today provides access to the basement, and it seems logical that a doorway would have led from the kitchen in the 16th century as well; a doorway certainly enters the main stairwell here. A room beneath the Withdrawing Chamber and a room beneath the inner chamber and bedroom are both classified as “Lodgings” in the guidebook, and in the basement are two rooms lit by slit windows of the same size referred to as “Wardrobes”. Beneath the Privy Chamber, the eastern wall of the ground floor room has not survived (the line of the old curtain wall is instead highlighted with paving), and the basement room is smaller, perhaps ¾ the size of the Privy Chamber.
What is very striking about the building that Robert Dudley had built for the Queen is the size of the windows. Each of the three bays in the east façade was provided with large angled bay windows, the tallest being on the principal floor (three vertical panes as opposed to two elsewhere). The north part of the building is set slightly back from the rest, but has a wider window as well. To the south, each of the floors had two large windows, and on each floor the projecting turret had three window openings. The southern suite of rooms also had a window facing west, and the main stairwell was lit with large windows as well. The extravagance of so much glass contrasted strongly with the older castle buildings, and was the most flamboyant display of wealth for the queen.
It is also the case that – as with the Gaunt buildings – Dudley provided his new structure with plenty of fireplaces. Two on the ground floor serving the “Lodgings”, four on the principal floor serving the privy, withdrawing and inner chambers as well as the bedroom, and two on the top floor serving the “Bedroom” and Gallery. Rather bizarrely, the main stairwell was also the location of the latrine chutes.
The projecting turret was a later addition to the building, which was presumably added between the queen’s last two visits in 1572 and 1575. Vertical cracks in the southern gable of the building reveal that the adding of the tower threatened to cause the building to collapse, reflecting the inherently unstable nature of the ground here. It is, perhaps, notable that the bottom of the stair is a solid block of masonry, and that there is a solid base perhaps two metres thick acting as a raft for the building to stand on. Even this shows signs of cracking under the strain. Other points of interest on the Leicester Building are the decorative string courses between each floor, and the raggle lines showing the height and scale of the planned east wing that can be seen in the northern end of the building. This building from the reign of Henry VIII was of timber, and was not, in the end, replaced by Leicester. A first floor doorway can also be seen in this end of his building adjacent to the window opening, which causes us to ask questions about how the two buildings butted up to one another, since the window would have been internal.
The visit of the queen to Kenilworth in 1575 was her last, and she remained here for 19 days – the longest stay that any of her courtiers ever received her for. Dudley was at this date 43 years old, and 15 years had passed since the death of his wife. Queen Elizabeth was a year younger than Dudley – and it is usually said that the great display that he put on was his last attempt to woo the queen. There was certainly much allegory involved in the festivities which the queen would have been all too aware of. The following year, an idealised account of the entertainments was published by George Gascoigne, called “The Princely Pleasures, at the Court at Kenilworth”, and a further account was published in 1580 by Robert Langham.
However, it may be that high politics was more of interest to both; it has been suggested that some of the allegory was intended to encourage the queen to support the Dutch in their revolt against Spain. There may also have been an aspect of pacification and getting his own way through flattery; the previous year Dudley had produced an illegitimate son from his relationship with Douglas Sheffield, whom he was unable to marry through fearing his “utter overthrow” through loss of the queen’s favour. At the same time, his flirtation with the wife of the Earl of Essex resulted in an outburst of jealousy from the queen, and Essex was expected to come home in late 1575 with much enmity towards Leicester. The following year Essex returned to Ireland, where he died of dysentery.
The widow firmly in his sights, Leicester married her secretly in 1578, and it was nine months before the queen found out, although she had known of the plans in 1577. The marriage caused much friction between Leicester and the queen, and he spent much time in the Netherlands; however the venture was a political and military failure, and financially ruinous; in the end he had to ask to be relieved of his post. He was by this time seriously unwell, and died near Oxford on 4th September 1588.
Although it is the building that he had built for Queen Elizabeth that was probably the main focus of Leicester’s works at Kenilworth, he is also responsible for the new gatehouse built on the northern side of the castle. Although stylistically built like a gatehouse, serious defence was not a consideration for this building. The three storey rectangular building has four octagonal corner turrets rising above the crenellated wallhead with an additional single room at the top of each turret. The ground floor was built around a large entrance passageway secured by gates only, and which was large enough for a carriage to pass through comfortably. The outer turrets had porters lodges in each of them, and the south-west turret had a staircase serving the upper floors. The whole was provided with large glazed windows, together with a plinth at the bottom and decorative string at the roofline. The only description of what stood before is the 1563 survey mention of a “fair gatehouse of stone with a portcullis, going into the town, much in decay”, which suggests a single gate tower rather than a twin-towered gatehouse, and may therefore have been 12th or 13th century in date. Today the building is used as an exhibition centre for the castle, having been extended in the 17th century and remaining in use, although it was altered and the roof replaced in the 18th century.
When Robert Dudley died, he left no legitimate heir. His son by his wife the Countess of Essex died in 1584 at the age of three, to the earl’s great sadness, and his illegitimate son by Douglas Sheffield attempted to claim an inheritance, claiming a secret marriage some 30 years previously had taken place. His father’s will was, in the end, honoured, and Sir Robert Dudley inherited the castle and estate of Kenilworth, In 1603, when Queen Elizabeth had died, Sir Robert attempted to claim the titles of Leicester and Warwick, but this was unsuccessful.
Sir Robert, like his father, had an unusual domestic history. In early 1591 he was contracted to marry Frances Vavasour, but the lady secretly married elsewhere and was banished from court. He himself then married secretly (to a sister of the explorer Sir Thomas Cavendish) and was banished from court for a few days. She died not long afterwards, and in 1596 he married again, this time to Alice Leigh of Stoneleigh.
A survey carried out in 1603 by commissioners for the king records that the castle was kept in good repair, with the roofs of the buildings and four gatehouses covered in lead. The state rooms are described as “the same, and such as are able to receive His Majesty, the Queen and Prince at one time, and with such stately cellars all carried upon pillars and architecture of freestone carved and wrought as the like are not within this kingdom”. The wording suggests that Lord Dudley’s personal affairs had once again become messy by this date. The commissioners were supposed to find out the “true worth” of the estate, which resulted in a figure of £38,554 15/- “Out of which for Sr. Robert Dudley’s Contempt there is to be deducted £10,000 for the Lady Dudleys Jointure” which shows that Lady Dudley was very clearly seen as the injured party.
The survey concludes “His Majesty has herein the mean profits of the castle and premises through Sir Robert Dudley’s Contempt during his life or His Majesty’s Pardon.” In 1605 Sir Robert left England with his lover and cousin, Elizabeth Southwell, and the couple converted to Catholicism and married in Florence. Angrily King James revoked his travel permissions and ordered him home, outlawing him when he refused and confiscating his estate.
Prince Henry Frederick, the eldest son of King James, took a fancy to Kenilworth and offered to buy it from Dudley for £14,500. £3000 had been paid by the time the prince died in 1612, and Prince Charles (the future Charles I) moved in, but refused to pay Dudley the balance of the money due. In 1621, Prince Charles obtained an Act of Parliament allowing Lady Dudley to sell him the estate for £4000, Dudley himself still in Italy. In 1626, when Charles married, the castle of Kenilworth was granted to his new wife Henrietta Maria, and was held for her by the Earl of Monmouth, Henry Carey.
The castle remained a royal possession and was well maintained as a palace into the reign of Charles I. In 1642, having fought the battle of Edgehill, King Charles withdrew the garrison, and Parliamentarian troops moved in. The castle was not besieged, although it probably suffered somewhat from having soldiers billeted in it. In January 1643, Hastings Ingram (having escaped from Oxford prison) was appointed commander at the castle, but after the battle of Hopton a letter implicating him in a plot to have Warwick Castle handed over to the royalists was found, and as a suspected double agent he was removed and replaced by Colonel William Purefoy. There does not appear to have been universal local support for the Parliamentarian garrison, however. In 1644 and 1645 the commander at Kenilworth issued fines to 22 Warwickshire towns for their failure to send men and teams to the garrison.
When rebellion against Parliament broke out in 1648, however, Kenilworth was a cause for concern, and orders were given to slight the buildings. Henry Carey, son of the previous keeper of Kenilworth, and steward of the widowed queen, successfully petitioned that Kenilworth be “Slighted with as little spoil to the dwelling house as might be“, and when the slighting took place, it was largely confined to the great tower and sections of the curtain wall to make the place indefensible. In the knowledge that destruction was soon to take place, William Dugdale drew three sketches of Kenilworth in September 1649, which were published in his “Antiquities of Warwickshire” in 1656. Along with these he published a ground plan of the castle, the first such known.
This groundplan, which is reproduced in the current guidebook, shows a number of features in the 17th century palace-castle that have long since been lost. It shows that along the north front of the castle, where the curtain wall has been completely removed and only the great gatehouse survives, there were two towers of a sort. From the Swan Tower in the north-western corner, the curtain wall headed more or less due east along a line just to the north of the aviary; in approximately this location there was a rectangular tower with an opening to the south. The curtain wall then continued to the east until it turns slightly southwards, a short distance into this line there was a semi-circular open backed tower or bastion, and then the curtain wall extended to the side of the 16th century gatehouse. This latter part of the wall, and the semi-circular tower/bastion are echoed by a carefully maintained hedge today. To the east of the gatehouse, the wall continued to Lunn’s Tower in the north-east corner. Between the north curtain and the great tower (called Caesar’s Tower on the plan) was the formal garden, which extended further than the renovated one in existence today.
The layout of the gate complex at the southern end of the dam is also shown, and this confirms that a D-shaped tower to the west and a rectangular building to the east sat either side of a gate entrance into a small courtyard area. It also shows a plan of the gatehouse at the northern end of the dam which is not quite consistent with the visible remains today, and the missing section of curtain wall between this gatehouse and the Water Tower. A group of buildings referred to as “The Pleasance” occupy the space between the Strong Tower and the curtain wall to the north-west, and which were presumably associated with the gardens.
Most obvious, however, is the plan of the eastern end of the Inner Court. Here the line of the curtain wall beyond the Leicester Building can be traced, together with “Sir Robert Dudley’s Lobby” immediately to the north of it within the courtyard, and which overlay the foundations of the old chapel. This was roughly triangular, and provided with a rectangular projecting turret containing a stair. Beyond this was the rectangular building known as “King Henry’s Lodgings” beyond which was the gate in the curtain wall. These lodgings extended as far into the Inner Court as the second step alongside the great tower, making the courtyard considerably more crowded than it seems today. It is also of interest that another projecting stair turret along the lines of that at the front of the Gaunt state apartments sat at the junction of the second and privy chambers, which has now vanished.
Colonel Purefoy remained in a position of authority throughout the time of the Commonwealth; having been High Sheriff of Warwickshire and MP for Coventry, he was a member of the Council of State, and was one of those who had signed the death warrant for King Charles I. He was then elected as MP for Coventry and Warwickshire in the first, second and third Protectorate Parliament before he died in 1659 at the age of perhaps 79. It was not, however, Colonel Purefoy who was responsible for the slighting of Kenilworth. This responsibility was instead given to Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth, who was the governor of Warwick Castle.
The destruction that took place was, as requested by Monmouth, restricted to areas which resulted in the castle being indefensible and still habitable. These centred on the water defences, the great tower, and the curtain walls. As noted above, the entirety of the north curtain wall between the Swan Tower and Lunns Tower was removed. In addition a section of curtain wall next to Mortimers Tower (the southern gatehouse) was removed, along with parts of the gatehouse itself. The Gallery Tower and sluice complex was demolished at the southern end of the dam was taken down, and a large breach in the dam itself was made, draining the Mere. All this meant that it was no longer possible to defend the outer ward of the castle. However, this still left the Inner Court as a massively defended courtyard about 100 metres across, with a strong tower at one corner. Both of these could easily be defended, and so the decision was made to demolish the eastern front of the courtyard, leaving the main apartments intact as requested. Finally, the northern wall of the great tower was removed.
It is by no means clear how this demolition was contrived. It is the common wisdom to suggest that gunpowder was used, particularly with relation to the great tower, but I am not so sure in this latter case. It would make sense for a breach in the dam to have been achieved by gunpowder to save time and effort, but I suspect this was not done so dramatically – and it would have had a fairly impressive effect upon the lands downstream of the dam. There is evidence of a channel being dug which would have drained the Mere through the Gallery Tower sluices which suggest that the Mere was drained prior to the creation of the “Hawkesworth Gap” in the dam. It is also notable that although this appears as the Gallery Tower on Dugdale’s plan, this complex was also referred to as the Floodgate Tower, which suggests to me that it was an overflow facility rather than the main drainage point for the watercourses when the Mere was in use, and therefore that we do not fully understand the drainage of this massive lake. With the northern curtain wall, I suspect that with the draining of the Mere, the formerly wet moat was waterlogged ground, and that it was relatively easy to undermine the walls above so that they fell into the ditch, where they were probably used as a source of masonry for the town. The destruction of Mortimer’s Tower and the walls to either side is again more complex than we might think, since an archaeological report has suggested there was a gap between it and the outer bailey area, which may be indicative of another set of sluices through the dam and therefore that the dam itself was discontinuous at one point, with a series of drawbridges defending the approach from this direction. If so, again the rapid loss of water would have been a concern until the Mere was drained.
There is insufficient evidence to confirm how the breaches in the Inner Court defences were achieved either. Use of gunpowder usually resulted in indiscriminate damage, and serious structural issues associated with it, and in the case of the Great Tower at least, there is no real evidence of this. One might have expected the windows on the south side to have been damaged if an explosion large enough to remove the north wall had taken place! Indeed, it appears more likely that the work was done by hand, it is so tidy. Similarly, indiscriminate destruction of the east wall would have had an effect on the great tower and Leicester’s Building, which suggests that the work may also have been somewhat more sedate here.
It is unclear exactly what point Henry Carey and the Queen released custody of Kenilworth. On 14th July 1644, the queen sailed for France, where she remained until the Restoration. She technically retained an income as wife of the monarch until King Charles was executed in 1649. As Monmouth retired from political life in 1642, and the royalist garrison had been removed the same year, it seems likely that Parliament took over from this point, and although it is possible that the queen drew revenue from her estates in exile, practically I don’t know how she could have done it.
From the 1650s Colonel Hawkesworth had been in charge not just of Warwick Castle but also of the local militia, and it would appear that the militia had not been paid for some time in the mid 1640s. Hawkesworth was granted the Kenilworth estate and the castle in 1651 to enable him to draw the revenue from it and pay his militia from the income of the estate; he purchased the life interest of the Duke of Monmouth in the castle for £2000, and moved into the Great Gatehouse himself and much of the rest of the estate ended up divided up amongst the officers of the militia for the payments to be passed down. Hawkesworth was a particularly zealous Puritan who had refused to accept the command of another officer in Cheshire a few years previously, believing that he doubted the zeal and godliness of the new officer. One might assume that such a zealous individual, who served as a JP from 1656 onwards, would have been white than white, but in the early 1660s, Hawkesworth was one of the men harassed by the Exchequer during a search for a missing £50,000 from the Warwickshire accounts.
He was never convicted, however. What is curious about the slighting of Kenilworth is that despite the requests of Monmouth being honoured with regard to focussing the destruction away from the principal apartments, they were never used again. Hawkesworth himself lived in Leicester’s Gatehouse, extending the building and remodelling it to serve as a residence. The rest of the castle was pillaged as a quarry, with most of the fixtures and fitting disappearing, presumably including the glass, timber and lead from the rooves. For all their grandeur, the buildings fell into steadily worse disrepair, and even when Hawkesworth was evicted at the Restoration in 1660, when Kenilworth was returned to the dowager queen, and the Dukes of Monmouth once again served as her officers, the castle was not repaired. In 1665, the dowager queen granted the castle and manors of Kenilworth to Laurence Hyde, later made Earl of Rochester, who was the brother-in-law of James, Duke of York (the future James VII & II).
Rochester was an absentee landlord really, and had tenants installed in the gatehouse who gradually converted the Base Court into a farmyard. When he died in 1711, he was followed by his only son Henry, who died in 1753, having outlived all his children. Eventually it was his grand-daughter Charlotte and her husband who successfully claimed the Clarendon estate and title in 1776 – and with it Kenilworth. By thus time the ruin was becoming a tourist attraction as a romantic ruin, and the first guidebook to Kenilworth was published in 1777. Fifty years later it was the main subject of Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Kneilworth” which sealed the fate of the castle as a top-drawer attraction with thousands of visitors.
However the castle was not maintained, and the buildings continued to decay. In 1817, a large section of the north-west turret fell to the ground, and the thirty tons of debris were enough to trigger the start of repairs and stabilisation works which were ongoing – a considerable amount of work including some restoration was done in the 1860s. This included the removal of the much beloved ivy which was destroying the buildings. This continued into the 20th century, with Lord Clarendon spending £10,000 between 1926 and 1936, but it just wasn’t enough, and in 1937, the castle was purchased by Sir John Siddeley, the motor magnate who lived at Crackley Hall near Kenilworth. 1937 was the year of his retirement, and he bought the castle for the nation, being created Lord Kenilworth the same year. In 1938 he placed the building in the care of the Ministry of Works, and in 1958 his son donated the castle to the town of Kenilworth. In 1984, English Heritage took over management of the site, a role they continue to have; the town remains the owner of the castle today.
Phew….. Well done if you got it all the way through that!