England's 8 most amazing castles

From Norman fortresses to medieval strongholds, England is home to hundreds of castles. Here we round up eight of the best…

 

1) Dover Castle

William the Conqueror quickly began reinforcing his kingdom’s defences following his triumph at the battle of Hastings in 1066. Being so close to English shores, William I needed a castle at Dover to be strong enough to defend the country from possible invasion.

For Henry II, Dover Castle was also of strategic importance. In the 1180s he began to rebuild the great tower into a palace so that he could receive, entertain and impress visitors. The building work for this palatial design continued into the reigns of King John and Henry III in the 13th century.

Following the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170, Henry built a chapel in his honour on the second floor of the tower.

While the castle continued to be used by monarchs throughout the medieval and early modern period, the castle was adapted during the 18th century when England was under threat of invasion from Napoleon’s troops. Barracks for English troops were created underneath the castle in tunnels.

The stories for which Dover Castle is most famous emerged during the Second World War. The tunnels constructed during the Napoleonic years became a headquarters facility for the navy. It was here that the Dunkirk withdrawal, codenamed Operation Dynamo, was devised. Under the command of Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, some 338,000 troops were rescued from where the Germans were closing in at Dunkirk, and taken to the secret tunnels at Dover to safety.

Visitors can today explore the tunnels for themselves and watch real film footage from the rescue operation at the castle.

To find out more about Dover Castle, click here.

Prime minister Winston Churchill viewing activity in the Channel from an observation post at Dover Castle, 28 August 1940. (Credit: Capt. Horton/ IWM via Getty Images)

 

2) Warwick Castle

William the Conqueror established Warwick castle in 1068 when he built a motte and baily fort on top of a large mound of earth. It was nearly 200 years later that the wooden frame was replaced by grand stone fortress.

During the Second Barons’ War (1264-1267), Simon de Montfort’s forces were too strong for the castle’s defences, upon which they inflicted a great deal of damage.

In 1268, William de Beauchamp succeeded as the next Earl of Warwick, beginning a dynasty that continued to hold the castle for the next 148 years. Throughout this time, the Beauchamps rebuilt Warwick Castle and they developed Guy’s and Caesar’s Tower, which still survive today.

In 1449 Richard Neville was made the Earl of Warwick. He later become known as the ‘Kingmaker’ after he helped to depose Henry VI, before he changed sides and was involved in the deposing of Edward IV in 1470.

The castle withstood a siege in 1642, during the first Civil War. A number of royalist soldiers were imprisoned in the dungeon of the castle.

The castle was bought in 1978 by The Tussauds Group, which transformed it into a tourist attraction. Visitors can now explore parts of the castle that have been converted to look as they would have done during different centuries.

To find out more about Warwick Castle, click here.

Warwick Castle. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

 

3) Bodiam Castle

Renowned as one of the most picturesque castles in Britain, Bodiam Castle in East Sussex was built in 1385.

The reasons behind the building of Bodiam have been debated greatly by historians: was it an imposing fortress built to defend the English from foreign invasion? Or was it an impressive home that reflected the social prestige and majesty of the inhabitants?

Owing to a lack of adequate defences, the castle was twice besieged – once by Richard III’s forces in 1484, and then again in 1643 when royalist John Tufton faced a siege orchestrated by parliamentarian Sir William Waller.

The 1643 siege left the inside of the castle in ruins until it was restored during the 19th century. The National Trust was granted ownership of the castle in 1925.

To read more about Bodiam Castle, click here.

Bodiam Castle. (Credit: Andrea Ricordi / Contributor / Getty Images)

 

4) Alnwick Castle

Recognised by many as the set of the Harry Potter films and the 2014 Downton Abbey Christmas special, Alnwick castle has for centuries dominated the landscape of Alnwick in Northumberland.

There has been much debate around when Alnwick castle was first constructed, but there was most probably a fortress erected there by the late 11th century. The majority of the castle was constructed during the 14th and 15th centuries under the ownership of the Percy family, who still inhabit the castle today.

Positioned close to the Scottish border, the castle was for the majority of the medieval period a key stronghold for English forces safeguarding the people from a Scottish invasion. With an almighty portcullis, strong battlements, a 21-ft drop below the drawbridge and walls more than seven feet thick, the castle was successfully defended throughout its history.

The impressive octagonal towers were built during the middle of the 14th century and they are adorned with 13 stone shields that symbolise the different families who have lived in the castle or married into the Percy family.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Dukes of Northumberland repaired a great deal of the castle after it fell into disrepair. These dukes transformed the medieval remains into an impressive gothic residence.

Today, many parts of the castle are open throughout the year for the public to view.

To read more about Alnwick Castle’s history, click here.

© Fransen | Dreamstime.com

 

5) Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle in Kent boasts an eventful history: constructed by a Norman baron during Henry I’s reign, the castle then came under the ownership of Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, in 1278. Over the next three centuries, the castle served as a residence for the royal family.

The castle underwent some major changes during Henry VIII’s reign to turn the fortress into a palatial residence for Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. An inventory from 1532 notes that there were fireplaces decorated with Spanish symbols (reflecting Catherine’s nationality) alongside Henry’s royal arms. On his journey to northern France in 1520 to meet with Francis I at the Field of Cloth of Gold, Henry and Catherine, along with 5,000 nobles, servants and entertainers, stayed at Leeds Castle for an evening before continuing their journey.

In 1618 the St Leger family, who owned the castle, were required to sell it to Sir Richard Smythe, a wealthy family member, after they were faced with financial ruin from their association with Sir Walter Raleigh’s unsuccessful expedition to find gold in El-Dorado. Soon after this, the Smythes commissioned a Jacobean house to be built after destroying all of the north end buildings of the castle.

The castle suffered further damage in the 1660s when French and Dutch prisoners of war that were imprisoned there set fire to their quarters, destroying parts of the building.

Large-scale improvements were made to Leeds Castle in the mid 18th century under the direction of the Fairfax family. It was also in this century that George III and Queen Charlotte paid the castle a visit in 1778. In preparation for the royal visit the owner, Robert Fairfax, refurbished the reception rooms at a large cost.

To find out more about Leeds Castle, click here.

© Megan Forbes | Dreamstime.com

 

6) Arundel Castle

Built by Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Arundel, at the end of the 11th century, Arundel Castle’s history spans nearly 1,000 years. For more than 850 years the Dukes of Norfolk and their relatives have owned the castle.

The castle was seriously damaged in the 1640s after being besieged twice during the first Civil War. The royalists first took control of the castle, and then a parliamentarian force commanded by William Waller seized the fortress. The damage was not resolved until the 8th Duke of Norfolk began repairs in around 1718.

During the second half of the 18th and start of the 19th centuries, the 11th Duke, Charles Howard, undertook further restoration projects of the castle.

In 1846 Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, visited the castle for three days. To mark her visit, the furniture for the bedroom and library were custom made, and the 13th Duke commissioned a portrait of the queen in 1843.

The castle was one of the first country houses in England to be fitted with electricity for lighting, lifts, central heating and fire fighting equipment.

To find out more about Arundel Castle, click here.

© Roughcollie | Dreamstime.com

 

7) Hever Castle

Recognised by many as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, this motte and bailey castle in Kent was built in 1270. Over the next century the owners of the castle expanded its battlements, transforming the exterior. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Boleyn family oversaw further changes to the castle, which included creating an east and west wing.

The castle was lived in by Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, and Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, became the owner of the castle following the annulment of their marriage in 1540.

Later, families such as the Waldegraves, the Meade Waldos and the Humphreys owned Hever Castle. Its condition declined until William Waldorf Astor authorised the restoration of the castle and the gardens in the early 20th century. Some 800 men were employed to excavate an impressive 35-acre lake, while another 748 worked to restore the castle itself.

To find out more about Hever Castle, click here.

© Chris Moncrieff | Dreamstime.com

 

8) Rochester Castle

The Bishop of Rochester built this castle in Kent in the 1080s, and it remains one of the best examples of Norman architecture in England.

Henry I assigned the fortress to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1127. It was under the Archbishop’s control that the great keep was constructed – the tallest surviving building of its kind in Europe. The decorative arches, fireplaces, doors and windows have all survived the test of time, meaning today’s visitors can imagine how the keep would have looked hundreds of years ago.

One of Rochester Castle’s most famous tales is that of King John’s attempts to seize it in 1215. While rebel barons garrisoned the castle, John was able to construct a mine under the castle and use the fat from 40 pigs as an explosive under the castle’s floor. The south-eastern corner of the keep was brought down as a result. Despite this, the garrisons continued to hold the castle until they had run out of resources and had to surrender to John’s will around seven weeks later.

The castle was rebuilt and developed during the 14th century under Edward III and Richard II. However, the condition of the castle began to deplete as it ceased to be used for military purposes during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Today, the castle and the gardens are the setting for numerous festivals and music concerts.

To find out more about Rochester Castle, click here.

© Saphire Ovadia | Dreamstime.com

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