9 of Britain’s best castles

From medieval fortresses to dramatic clifftop ruins, Britain boasts countless awe-inspiring castles. Here we round up nine of the best and explore their fascinating histories...

The ruins of Dunluce Castle, which sit on the coastal cliffs of North Antrim in Northern Ireland. They are thought to have been the inspiration for CS Lewis’s castle Cair Paravel in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ (1950–56). (Photo by Andrea Ricordi/Contributor/Getty Images)


1

Tintagel Castle

Named by 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth as the place where King Arthur was conceived, Tintagel Castle in Cornwall is one of the most famous castles in Britain.

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The site of Tintagel Castle has been inhabited at least since the late Roman period, and in the fifth to seventh centuries was “economically one of the most important sites in the whole of Britain, closely involved in trade with the eastern Mediterranean”, says English Heritage.

Interestingly, after the mid-seventh century there is little evidence of activity on Tintagel for more than 500 years. It wasn’t until around 1138 that Tintagel was made famous, when it was named in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as the place where King Arthur was magically conceived.

According to Monmouth’s book, an ancient king of Britain, Uther Pendragon, lusts after Ygerna, the wife of one of his barons, Gorlois of Cornwall. The ‘prophet’ Merlin administers a magic potion to transform Pendragon into the exact likeness of Ygerna’s absent husband and that night at Tintagel the pair conceive King Arthur.

This legendary fame is thought to have inspired Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, to build his castle at Tintagel some 100 years later, in 1233. “A cultured and literary man who would have known these legends extremely well, the overwhelming likelihood is that [Richard] built the castle at Tintagel to recreate the scene from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story and, in so doing, write himself into the mythology of King Arthur,” says English Heritage.

Today the ruins of the 13th-century castle offer dramatic views and you can visit the nearby Merlin’s Cave. A bronze sculpture of King Arthur was recently unveiled at the site and the head of Merlin was carved into the rock face beneath the castle.

Please note that Tintagel Castle is closed for the construction of a new footbridge. The castle will reopen in summer 2019.

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The ruins of Tintagel Castle. (Photo by Carolyn Johns/Dreamstime.com)
2

Stirling Castle

The scene of the 1314 battle of Bannockburn and the crowning of the nine-month-old Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1543, Stirling is one of Scotland’s most historically important castles. Sitting atop the volcanic crag of Castle Hill, surrounded by steep cliffs, Stirling Castle has been attacked or besieged at least 16 times and several murders have taken place within its walls, including that of William, 8th Earl of Douglas, who in February 1452 was stabbed to death at the command of James II of Scotland.

The first record of Stirling Castle dates from around 1110, when King Alexander I dedicated a chapel there. The castle was seen to be of great strategic importance thanks to its position near the border of Highland and Lowland Scotland, says BBC iWonder.

Consequently, in the spring of 1314 Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland, laid siege to Stirling Castle, which was then held by English forces. In retaliation Edward II, son of Edward I, marched north with an army to relieve the siege – the ensuing battle of Bannockburn, fought on 23 and 24 June, took place within sight of Stirling Castle.

The infant Mary was crowned Queen of Scots in Stirling’s Chapel Royal in 1543. The only child of James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise, Mary was betrothed to Henry VIII’s son, Edward, amid tensions between English and Scottish powers. However, Mary’s Catholics guardians opposed this betrothal and took the young Mary to Stirling Castle, breaking the agreement. Henry responded by attacking Scotland, ordering a series of violent raids that later became known as ‘The Rough Wooing’.

In recent years the castle grounds have been used for open-air concerts performed by the likes of Bob Dylan and R.E.M, and every year the castle hosts Stirling’s Hogmanay celebrations [on New Year’s Eve], which are broadcast live on television.

UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 24: Stirling castle (15th-16th century), located on the Stirling Sill, Scotland, United Kingdom. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Stirling Castle. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
3

Cardiff Castle

Commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1081, Cardiff Castle was built on the site of a Roman fort, originally in wood.

The castle was involved in a number of conflicts between Anglo-Normans and the Welsh and in 1404 was stormed by Welshman Owain Glyndŵr, who over the course of six years tried – ultimately unsuccessfully – to rebel against the English rule of Wales.

Cardiff Castle changed hands multiple times following the Wars of the Roses and eventually became property of the Crown. In 1495 Henry VII revoked the castle’s Marcher lordship status [which allowed specific rights for Marcher lords – nobles appointed by the king of England to guard the border, known as the Welsh Marches, between England and Wales – exercised to some extent independently of the king] bringing the castle and its surrounding territories under English law as the County of Glamorgan.

Cardiff Castle was badly damaged during the English Civil War, being passed back and forth between the rival armies. The castle became Bute property in 1776 through the marriage of Charlotte Jane Windsor to Lord Mountstuart, who later became the 1st Marquess of Bute. The Bute family “brought power and prosperity to Cardiff, which they turned from a sleepy backwater into one of the greatest coal exporting ports in the world,” says Cardiff Castle. “They transformed the Castle into the gothic fantasy we see today, as well as revealing the castle’s Roman past.”

In the 1770s ‘Capability’ Brown and his son-in-law, Henry Holland, were employed to landscape the castle grounds and modernise the lodgings. In the years that followed the castle itself was renovated and expanded, with the clock tower, guest tower, library and banqueting hall being added in the late 19th century.

In 1947 the castle was given to the people of Cardiff by the 5th Marquess of Bute, John Crichton-Stuart. Today visitors can explore the richly decorated castle apartments, a 12-sided Norman keep and tunnels within the castle walls that were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War.

Cardiff Castle. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Cardiff Castle. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
4

Carrickfergus Castle

Possibly the most famous castle in Northern Ireland, Carrickfergus has been the setting of many defining moments in Irish history.

Moated by the sea on three sides, the castle is situated in the town of Carrickfergus in County Antrim, on the northern shore of Belfast Lough. Built on the orders of the Anglo-Norman knight John De Courcy soon after his 1177 invasion of Ulster, Carrickfergus was the only English stronghold north of ‘The Pale’ in the Middle Ages (that is, the part of Ireland that was directly under the control of the English government). For many years the castle commanded Carrickfergus Bay (later known as Belfast Lough) and has changed hands multiple times, from the Normans to the Scots and then the English, after King John laid siege to it in 1210.

The castle was besieged for more than a year in May 1315 by Edward Bruce, brother of the Scottish king Robert, and during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 became a refuge for fleeing Protestants. Having changed hands throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Carrickfergus again found itself at the heart of politics in 1689 when it was captured in the weeklong Siege of Carrickfergus. As the northern rebellion against James II’s rule grew, the Jacobite garrison of Carrickfergus had become a refuge for Catholic inhabitants of the region.

In 1711, Carrickfergus Castle saw the last witchcraft trial in Ireland. There, eight local women were put on trial after a girl named Mary Dunbar accused them of bewitching her. The women were convicted and sentenced to a year in prison and four sessions in the pillory.

Carrickfergus was also involved – albeit in a minor capacity – in the American War of Independence: in 1778 American privateer John Paul Jones, one of the founding fathers of the American Navy, lured HMS Drake from its moorings into the North Channel and won an hour-long battle off Carrickfergus Castle. The castle became a prison in 1797 and was heavily defended during the Napoleonic Wars.

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Carrickfergus Castle. (Photo by Krzysztof Nahlik/Dreamstime.com)

Carrickfergus Castle served as a British military stronghold and prison from the 18th century until the Second World War and was in constant military use until 1928. That year the state gained ownership of the castle and declared it a national monument open to the public. It remains one of the best-preserved medieval structures in Ireland.

From Monday 25 March 2019 the Inner Ward and Great Tower at Carrickfergus Castle will be closed to the visiting public to enable the start of on-site works in preparation for the replacement of the roof on the Great Tower.

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Highclere Castle

The setting of ITV’s Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle in Hampshire is one of Britain’s most breathtaking castles.

Established on the site of a medieval palace built during the 12th/13th century, which was later succeeded by a red-brick Tudor house, the Highclere we recognise today was the work of the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon, who in 1838 hired famed architect Sir Charles Barry (best known for rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster) to transform his home into a resplendent mansion.

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Faced in Bath stone and in the Jacobethan style (inspired by the English Renaissance, with elements of Elizabethan and Jacobean), the new Highclere Castle “dominated its surroundings in a most dramatic way”, says its website. A mahogany desk and chair that once belonged to Napoleon, purchased by the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon in 1821, were positioned in the music room, and Highclere’s saloon, the heart of the house, was designed in a gothic style with rich decoration including 17th-century Spanish gold-embossed leather wallpaper brought back by Carnarvon. The 3rd Earl did not live to see the completion of Highclere in 1878, however (he died in 1849). It is said Benjamin Disraeli’s first words upon seeing the new Highclere were “How scenical! How scenical!”

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Highclere Castle. (Photo by Stan Green/Alamy Stock Photo)
Highclere was used as a hospital during the First World War by its owner, Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, with the first patients arriving from Flanders in September 1914. The end of the First World War saw Almina’s husband, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, return to Egypt, where in 1922 he funded Howard Carter’s search and excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Back at home Highclere was returned to a private home.

During the Second World War Highclere Castle briefly became a home for evacuee children from north London. Today it boasts more than 200 rooms (even the mistress of the house doesn’t know exactly how many) and opens to the public for between 60 and 70 days a year.

Highclere Castle is closed on Good Friday 2019.