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...
Built in the 11th century on Edinburgh’s Castle Rock, on the site of an Iron Age hill fort, Edinburgh Castle remained the Scottish royal residence until the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Home to many kings and queens, Queen Margaret (later St Margaret) died there in 1093 and Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to the future James VI in the castle’s royal palace in 1566.
The castle changed hands many times during the Scottish Wars of Independence – England’s Edward I captured the castle in 1296 and in 1314 Thomas Randolph, nephew of Robert the Bruce, retook it from the English in a daring night raid. To prevent its re-occupation by the English, Robert then had every building except St Margaret’s Chapel destroyed. Four months later, in June 1314, his army secured a landmark Scottish victory at the battle of Bannockburn.
Edinburgh Castle was also the site of a witchcraft trial. In 1537 during the reign of notorious royal witch-hunter James VI and I, Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, stood trial and was later burned at the stake just outside the castle walls.
The castle also saw action during the Jacobite risings: in 1715, during the first Jacobite rising (in support of James Stuart, the ‘Old Pretender’), the Jacobites tried overnight to scale the castle walls using a rope ladder. However, the ladder proved to be too short and the rebels were promptly arrested. In 1745, during the second Jacobite rising, Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) managed to capture Edinburgh but failed to secure the castle. This was the last military action seen at the castle.
Over the next century Edinburgh Castle was used to hold prisoners of war during conflicts including the Seven Years' War (1756–63), the American War of Independence (1775–83) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). More than 1,000 prisoners are thought to have been housed there before the castle’s use as a prison ceased in 1815 (after a mass-breakout by French prisoners).
Edinburgh Castle was bombed by German Zeppelin airship bombs in 1916 and the Honours of Scotland (aka the Scottish crown jewels, which were first used together at the coronation of the nine-month-old Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1543) were hidden in the castle’s David’s Tower during the Second World War.
Today Edinburgh Castle is home to the Stone of Destiny (a stone that was used for enthroning Scottish monarchs at Iona, Dunadd and Scone), which was brought to the castle in 1996 after 700 years in Westminster Abbey.
Thought to have been the inspiration for CS Lewis’s castle Cair Paravel in The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–56), the dramatic ruins of Dunluce Castle sit on the rugged coastal cliffs of North Antrim.
Built by the McQuillan family in around 1500, the castle was seized by the MacDonnell clan in the 1550s when Sorley Boy MacDonnell travelled over from Scotland to consolidate MacDonnell territories in Ireland. Writing about Colin Breen's Dunluce Castle: History And Archaeology, the Times Higher Education supplement says: “They [the MacDonnells] reshaped and reconstructed Dunluce in line with contemporary Scottish castles. Secure in their domination by the late 1580s, the family started to add grand design features, building a loggia along the southern curtain wall. This kind of columned gallery originated in Italy but was adopted by powerful families in northern Europe, a sign that they wished to keep up with the times and flaunt their increasing sophistication to visitors.”
The castle is said to have been filled with riches acquired by Sorley Boy MacDonnell’s son Randal’s visits to the royal court in London, including chairs of state and curtains from Cardinal Wolsey.
In October 1588 a Spanish Armada ship the Girona was wrecked during a storm on rocks near Dunluce Castle. According to legend, Spanish treasure was hauled from boats into Mermaid’s Cave, which sits 25 metres below the castle, and some believe Armada sailors are buried at the nearby ruins of St Cuthbert’s Church.
Dunluce Castle still belongs to the MacDonnell family, but it is today managed under a deed of guardianship by the Northern Irish Environment Agency.
Built in 1283 by Edward I following the English conquest of Gwynedd, Caernarfon is one of Wales’s most impressive castles.
Positioned on the site of a former Roman fort and Norman motte and bailey castle overlooking the River Seiont, Caernarfon was a medieval fortress. Its significant defences included seven polygonal towers, two turrets and two great twin towered gates, all joined by huge curtain walls tracing a figure of eight, and at the other end of the castle is the imposing ten-sided Eagle Tower. While the castle was being erected, town walls were built around Caernarfon. Military historian Reginald Allen Brown argues Caernarfon Castle was “one of the most formidable concentrations of fire-power to be found in the Middle Ages”.
Edward’s son, the first English prince of Wales, was born at the castle in 1284 and it became an important administrative centre; the heart of government in the northern part of the country. However, Caernarfon’s political importance gradually waned and by the time Henry VII ascended the throne in 1485 the castle had fallen into disrepair.
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Caernarfon Castle’s story does not end there, however. It was held by Royalists (supporters of King Charles I and his son Charles II) during the English Civil War and was besieged three times by Parliamentarian forces.
Caernarfon was neglected until the 1870s, when government-funded restoration work was carried out. In 1969, almost 700 years after the castle’s creation, the investiture of the current Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) took place at Caernarfon.
The only Tudor castle to have been opened as a hotel, Thornbury Castle in South Gloucestershire once housed Henry VIII and his new bride Anne Boleyn. Thornbury was not designed to serve as a fortress and is better described as a Tudor country house, today recognised as “one of finest examples of Tudor domestic architecture in the country”, says Historic England.
Thornbury’s history first dates to 1066, when it was recorded that the manor of Thornbury was held by Brictric, son of Aelfgar. Brictric, who served as an ambassador to the Count of Flanders, lost possession of Thornbury when he rejected the advances of the count’s daughter, Matilda of Flanders: Matilda went on to marry William I of Normandy (the future William the Conqueror), who seized Thornbury and awarded it to his bride before imprisoning Brictric.
The Thornbury manor changed hands many times over the coming centuries, being held at various intervals by the crown, and was forfeited at the execution for treason of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, following the rebellion of 1483, says Historic England. Stafford had sided with Richard III’s claim to the throne but later became disaffected from Richard and, with the backing of the exiled Henry Tudor (the future king Henry VII), raised an army of rebels with the aim of overthrowing Richard. The rebellion was crushed, however, and Henry Stafford was executed without trial.
The Thornbury manor house was later given back to the Stafford family, however, and was inherited by Stafford’s son Edward, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, in 1498. In 1511 “Buckingham set about building an elaborate palace-castle, which demonstrated the involvement of masons of the highest quality, and was apparently modelled on Richmond Palace, at that time England’s most splendid royal residence,” says Historic England.
Like his father before him, Edward was executed – in 1521 on the orders of Henry VIII following an investigation for treason – and the confiscated Thornbury estate remained in crown ownership until 1554. Princess Mary visited Thornbury in the 1520s and Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn enjoyed a 10-day stay there as part of their honeymoon tour in 1535.
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Having been restored to the Staffords in 1554 (Queen Mary granted it to Buckingham’s son, Lord Henry Stafford), Thornbury Castle fell into financial ruin after proving too expensive for the family to maintain. The castle was owned by the Howard family from 1637 until the 1960s.
Now open as a high-end hotel and wedding venue, today visitors can stay in one of Thornbury’s 28 bedchambers, all decorated in Tudor style, including the Duke’s Bedchamber in which Henry and Anne slept during their 1535 visit.
Emma Mason is Digital Editor of HistoryExtra.com
This article was first published by History Extra in 2016