5 British castles with romantic histories
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…
Looking for somewhere to visit for Valentine’s Day? Why not explore one of these British castles…
Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire
Where Robert Dudley attempted to woo Elizabeth I
Queen 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.
- Read more | The history of Valentine's Day
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.
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).
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.
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.
More like this
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.
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.
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'."
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."
Lauren Good is the digital editorial assistant at HistoryExtra, She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies, during which she studied ancient history and philosophy
Save 42% AND receive a copy of The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan when you subscribe BBC History Magazine! PLUS Get FREE access to HistoryExtra worth £34.99.