5 British castles with romantic histories

As Valentine's Day 2019 approaches, we've rounded up five British castles with thoroughly romantic histories – from the site of Robert Dudley's lavish three-week proposal to Elizabeth I, to a 'castle' literally built for love…

Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, Wales. (Photo by Getty Images)

Looking for somewhere to visit this Valentine’s Day? Why not explore one of these British castles…

Advertisement
1

Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire

Where Robert Dudley attempted to woo Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I never took a husband – but it certainly wasn’t through a lack of effort from the men in her life. She had dozens of suitors over the years, from Philip II of Spain to Archduke Charles of Austria.

The queen’s long-time favourite, Robert Dudley, went to particularly spectacular lengths to woo the Virgin Queen. In July 1575, he embarked on a mammoth three-week proposal at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire – coming “closer than any other to making Elizabeth his wife”, according to historian Elizabeth Goldring.

Robert Dudley.

The Kenilworth proposal was Dudley’s final attempt at winning Elizabeth, following almost 15 years of trying. Over three weeks, Dudley entertained the queen and her staff with diversions ranging from music, masques and dancing to tilting, hunting and bear-baiting. The entire affair cost Dudley a small fortune, with building works alone setting him back around £60,000. Although he didn’t succeed in winning the queen’s hand in marriage, the festivities have gone down as being “the longest, most expensive party” of Elizabeth’s 44-year reign.

Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, England – where Elizabeth I's favourite, Robert Dudley, "came closer than any other to making the queen his wife". (Photo by Getty Images)
Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire – where Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Dudley, “came closer than any other to making the queen his wife”. (Photo by Getty Images)
2

Oxford Castle, Oxfordshire

Where a pregnant wife saved her husband’s life

When political revolutionary John Lilburne was imprisoned in Oxford Castle in 1642, it was his pregnant wife who came to his rescue.

Lilburne was the leader of the Levellers, a radical political movement prominent during the Civil Wars of the mid-17th century. He was constantly in conflict with the authorities; in 1638, for example, he was fined, whipped, imprisoned and pilloried for illegally smuggling Puritan pamphlets into England.

Following the outbreak of the first Civil War between King Charles I and parliament, he was arrested for treason while defending a Parliamentarian position at Brentford in Middlesex. He was taken to Oxford Castle, where he was imprisoned alongside three of his associates and forced to await trial (and the possibility of being sentenced to death).

A 1646 engraving of John Lilburne behind bars. The outspoken critic of successive governments spent half his life imprisoned or in exile. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

On 13 December 1642 – a week before the trial was due to take place – Lilburne succeeded in smuggling a letter to the House of Commons explaining his predicament. It proposed that the House threaten to execute four royalist officers in retaliation if a sentence was carried out against Lilburne. Lilburne’s wife Elizabeth delivered the letter personally to the House, who granted her permission to take their reply to Oxford on 17 December. Despite being three months pregnant, she took a horse and galloped overnight to the castle – arriving just in the nick of time. The trial was ultimately called off, and her husband was saved.

Oxford Castle, a Norman medieval castle that once housed the 17th-century rebel John Lilburne. (Photo by Getty Images)
Oxford Castle, Oxfordshire – a Norman medieval castle that once housed the 17th-century rebel John Lilburne. (Photo by Getty Images)
3

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

Where legendary lovers met

According to the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, the warlord King Arthur was conceived within the walls of Tintagel Castle in North Cornwall. The story goes as follows: the legendary king Uther Pendragon was besotted with Igraine, the beautiful wife of his enemy Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. With the help of the wizard Merlin, he disguised himself as Gorlois and tricked his way into the latter’s castle at Tintagel. It is here, Geoffrey tells us, that Arthur was conceived.

Geoffrey’s version of Arthur’s conception is not the most romantic of stories (Uther’s trickery is a pretty heinous and unforgivable act by both modern and medieval standards). However a later version of the story, written by the English writer Thomas Malory, does cast the tale in a softer light. In this version, Arthur is conceived only after Gorlois’s death, and his birth is later legitimised by the marriage of Uther and Igraine.

An illustration of King Arthur's coronation, from the 13th-century Flores Historiarum. Taken from ‘The Island Race’, a 20th-century book written by Sir Winston Churchill that covers the history of the British Isles from pre-Roman times to the Victorian era. (Photo by World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

As far as tales of legendary lovers go, Tintagel isn’t short of them: Cornish and Breton writers have also linked the castle to the story of Tristan and Isolde, a fictional knight and princess who began an adulterous affair after consuming a love potion. Large parts of their tale appear to be set at Tintagel, claims Mark Bowden, a senior investigator at Historic England. Of particular note is the castle’s chapel, which Bowden says bears a “remarkable resemblance” to one used by Tristan to evade capture in a version of the tale by the Norman poet Béroul.

Tintagel Castle, a medieval fortification in Cornwall that is alleged to have been the birthplace of King Arthur. (Photo by Getty Images)
Tintagel Castle, Cornwall – a medieval fortification that is alleged to have been the birthplace of King Arthur. (Photo by Getty Images)
4

Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire

A ‘castle’ built for love

Dobroyd Castle isn’t actually a castle, but the story associated with the extravagant Yorkshire mansion makes its inclusion on this list worthwhile. The historic building was built in the latter half of the 19th century by John Fielden, the son of a wealthy industrialist, who had fallen in love with a local weaver called Ruth Stansfield. According to local legend, when John proposed marriage, Ruth replied that she would only marry him if he promised to build her a castle on a hill. The couple wed in 1857, and 10 years later the promised ‘castle’ materialised. The architect John Gibson designed and oversaw the construction of the build, which took place between 1866 and 1869 at a reported cost of £71,589.

Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire. I'll only marry you if you promise to build me a castle, the weaver Ruth Stansfield is believed to have told John Fielden in the latter half of the 19th century. (Photo by William Warby)
Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire. I’ll only marry you if you promise to build me a castle, the weaver Ruth Stansfield is believed to have told John Fielden in the latter half of the 19th century. (Photo by William Warby)
5

Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, North Wales

Where a young girl harboured a forbidden love

In 2012, staff working at Penrhyn Castle in North Wales cracked the mystery of a curious piece of graffiti etched into one of the tower windows. The phrase “essere amato amando” – scratched into the glass with an unknown instrument – had for years been considered a meaningless mixture of Latin words. It was only when the Italian Resi Tomat was hired as a learning manager by the National Trust property that a new meaning came to light.

“Resi pointed out that the graffiti was actually in Italian, albeit with a few grammatical errors,” Clare Turgoose, house steward at the castle, revealed to BBC News. “It actually reads, ‘to be loved, whilst loving’.”

Penrhyn Castle, Gwyneedd. In 2012, the mystery of a curious piece of graffiti etched into one of the tower windows was revealed to read "to be loved, whilst loving". (Photo by Getty Images)
Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. In 2012, the mystery of a curious piece of graffiti etched into one of the tower windows was revealed to read “to be loved, whilst loving”. (Photo by Getty Images)

Who would write such words, and why? One theory is that the phrase was etched by the teenager Lady Alice Douglas-Pennant, daughter of the wealthy industrialist and Conservative MP Lord Penrhyn, who lived at the castle more than 100 years ago. “We kept coming across the same story that as a young woman Lady Alice had fallen for one of the castle staff, possibly a gardener,” Turgoose told the BBC. “Such a crush would not have gone down well with her father… and the story goes that he forced her to stay in the nursery to keep her away from her love.”

An Art Deco mechanical valentine (moving the cape causes the arms to move up and down) from the 1930s. (Photo by Alan Mays)

Rachel Dinning is Digital Editorial Assistant at History Extra

Advertisement

Read our 6 historical movies to watch this Valentine’s Day