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The secrets of 6 of Britain’s most famous castles – with Dan Jones

From the kings of Scotland who played a real life Game of Thrones at Edinburgh Castle to the Pendle Witches tried at Lancaster, Britain’s castles boast countless stories of rebellion, romance and murder. In his Channel 5 series, historian Dan Jones explores the turbulent history behind six of Britain’s most famous fortresses…

Published: October 27, 2016 at 7:32 am
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Recounting tales from 1,000 years of British history, Secrets of Great British Castles captures the might and majesty of Edinburgh, Cardiff, York, Lancaster, Leeds and Arundel castles and brings to life the heroic and notorious characters who once walked their corridors.


Here, writing for History Extra, Jones explores their hidden history…

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is one of Britain’s most famous landmarks, which is why millions of people walk up the Royal Mile to visit it every year. Built on a volcanic crag above the city the castle looks out to the Firth of Forth; walking around its sprawling courtyards and rooms is a journey through nearly 1,000 years of Scottish history.

Probably the most notorious event in Edinburgh Castle’s history is the Black Dinner, which took place in 1440 during the minority of King James II of Scotland. The Earl of Douglas, himself little more than a boy, was invited to dine at the castle, but at a pre-arranged moment a black bull’s head was carried out on a platter: it was the signal for Douglas and his brother to be wrestled from the table, dragged outside and murdered. The story has gained several layers of salacious detail in its many retellings down the years, and most recently it became, in mutated form, the Red Wedding in the fantasy television series Game of Thrones. In that version, the Starks are… well, if you’ve seen Game of Thrones, you’ll remember. No spoilers, as they say!

There’s so much history to absorb in Edinburgh that it is almost overwhelming. The castle is wound into the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, her son James VI and I and the epic, long-running inter-family feud between the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, which took place during the 16th century. It is also home to the Scottish crown jewels and a healthy array of heavy artillery including the One O’Clock Gun, which sounds the time for shipping in the Firth of Forth. But perhaps my favourite building of all is a simple but beautiful chapel dedicated to St Margaret. It was built around 1130 and is reputed to be the oldest building in Scotland.

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle is very dear to my heart, as I’ve spent many happy hours drinking in the shadow of its great gates, in the Goat Major pub on High Street. It’s rather different in character and scale to many of the more famous Welsh castles of Snowdonia, not least because unlike Caernarfon, Conwy, Beaumaris and its other northern cousins, Cardiff Castle has spent much of its life as a fortified home rather than simply a military garrison.

The keep in the centre of the castle grounds dates to Norman times, and Cardiff had one very illustrious Norman occupant: William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert Curthose, who was imprisoned there for more than a decade by his younger brother, Henry I of England. Curthose eventually died in prison at a grand old age, but he left behind his maudlin reflections on life in jail. One poem in Welsh is associated with Curthose: “woe to him who is not old enough to die,” it reads.

The most eye-catching parts of the castle today are the rooms created by the architect William Burges on behalf of Cardiff’s super-wealthy 19th-century owner, John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute. The marquess’s vast industrial wealth combined with Burges’ genius for neo-gothic interior design produced a range of exotic and extraordinarily lavish rooms, lending a cod-medieval sensibility to high aristocratic living.

The Secrets Of British Castles Se2 Ep2 Cardiff Castle - Dan Jones at Cardiff Castle.

Dan Jones outside Cardiff Castle. (Channel 5 Productions)

York Castle

York Castle is mostly ruined now, and locals call the keep that remains on its mound Clifford’s Tower, after the family who became hereditary constables in the late 16th century. Unusually, the tower is clover-shaped and you can still climb up its slippery stone staircases to explore rooms dating to York Castle’s Plantagenet-era glory days.

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So much of York’s unique, rich and sometimes very dark history can be linked to Clifford’s Tower. The castle originated with William the Conqueror, who put two fortresses by the River Ouse as he attempted to subject the Viking-influenced north to his rule. In 1190 it was the scene of a terrible pogrom, which wiped out the city’s entire Jewish population at the hands of a rioting mob inflamed by the crusading fervour of the day. In the early 14th century it was used to house Templar prisoners as they awaited trial following the dissolution of the order under Edward II.

When the north rose in protest at Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, York castle was again at the heart of the action. Robert Aske, a lawyer who led the protests, was taken as a prisoner from London to York and hanged in chains from the castle walls. Rather later, another famous prisoner died after being imprisoned in the cells of the jail across the road from Clifford’s Tower. He was Richard Turpin, an Essex horse-thief now immortalised in the legend of Dick Turpin and his wonder-horse, Black Bess. Today you can sit in Turpin’s (supposed) cell. Fortunately, they let you out!


The remains of York Castle. (© Kevintate/Dreamstime.com)

Lancaster Castle

Lancaster Castle was, until 2011, a working prison, and there were few eerier moments filming the new series than walking around the abandoned cells attached to the old medieval fortress. The Birmingham Six were held there during their notorious trial in 1975, which also took place at Lancaster Castle, in the crown court that is still in operation there. The ‘Birmingham Six’ were six Irishmen resident in Birmingham who were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 for two pub bombings in the city that killed 21 people. Their convictions were later quashed and they were released after serving nearly 17 years in jail.

Having functioned as a court, a prison and a centre of royal justice, Lancaster Castle is a window into 800 years of crime and punishment. Fittingly, it was once a possession of King John, the Plantagenet king who was a keen student of the law in his own right and who was forced in 1215 to agree to Magna Carta, a document revered today as a pillar of British constitutional principles.

One of the most notorious cases to have been heard at Lancaster was that of the so-called ‘Pendle Witches’, eight women and two men from nearby villages who were accused of summoning demons and cursing their neighbours. They were almost all convicted at the court on the evidence of a disturbed nine-year old girl named Jennet Device and were taken to be strung up on nearby Gallows Hill, as were so many of Lancaster’s other convicts over the centuries.

Some convicts, however, were spared the noose and instead sent to the transportation hulks in the south of England, which took them on to a term of penal servitude in far-flung places like Australia. Making the new series we met the descendent of a sheep-rustler sentenced to exactly this fate – in a delicious irony, she is now a successful criminal prosecutor ‘down under’.


Lancaster Castle. (© Steve Allen/Dreamstime.com)

Leeds Castle

Described as “the loveliest castle in the world”, Leeds Castle has hosted everything from Plantagenet banquets to G8 summits. It is in an undeniably stunning location not far from Maidstone in Kent. (Don’t go to Leeds in Yorkshire: you’ll be hunting a long time for their castle!)

Leeds once had a close association with Eleanor of Castile, first wife of Edward I ‘Longshanks’. Eleanor was a successful property magnate and she transformed Leeds Castle, making improvements that included erecting the central building known as the Gloriette and installing a bathhouse, the remains of which have recently been investigated by archaeologists digging in a drained section of the moat.

In 1520, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon stopped at Leeds Castle on their way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in northern France, an event which is commemorated in a painting that is replicated in the castle today: the ‘Embarkation from Dover’. You can also spot Catherine’s personal symbol, the pomegranate, carved into the castle’s fireplaces.

Much of the stately splendour of Leeds today is the work of Olive, Lady Baillie, an American heiress who purchased the castle in the 1920s and renovated its interiors over many decades. The castle became the venue for parties with guests including European royalty, American films stars and leading British politicians. But Lady Baillie was a philanthropist as well as a hostess; she turned the castle into a hospital in the Second World War and left it in trust when she died so that it could be enjoyed after she was gone.


Leeds Castle, Kent. (© Emanuele Leoni/ Dreamstime.com)

Arundel Castle

Arundel Castle is today someone’s house, and I almost felt rude pitching up there this summer to nose around. It is the seat of the Duke of Norfolk, England’s first peer, and it has been home to his family for centuries. The Fitzalan-Howards (earls of Arundel as well as dukes of Norfolk) have a family story that ranges from medieval war to 17th-century art collection. Arundel Castle is a superb showcase for their particular rich slice of British history.

There has been a castle at Arundel since William the Conqueror gave this swathe of southern England to his friend and supporter Roger de Montgomery in 1067/68. During the 12th-century ‘Anarchy’ (the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin Empress Matilda) there was a stand-off here that nearly ended in Matilda’s capture. Royal connections have continued ever since.

During the 14th century Arundel was home to Richard Fitzalan, a friend, comrade and financier to the great Edward III, who made a fortune out of funding and fighting the Hundred Years’ War. Suits of armour adorning Arundel’s walls still speak to those medieval glory years.


Arundel Castle. (© Areinwald/Dreamstime.com)The art of Arundel castle tells the story of another great era, when the 17th-century ‘collector earl’, Thomas Howard, toured Europe cherry-picking artefacts and sending them home to England. Many of the marble statues he collected can now be seen in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, but Arundel Castle is fairly heaving with works by the painters he patronised, among them Anthony van Dyck and Daniel Mytens.

Almost as grand as Arundel’s huge buildings are its extraordinary gardens, but my favourite spot is the cricket pitch on the other side of the pretty little town. There aren’t many more picturesque grounds in England, maybe even the world. Not a bad back garden, I guess.


Dan Jones’s six-part Secrets of Great British Castles aired on Channel 5 in October 2016


Dan JonesHistorian and presenter

Dan Jones is a historian, presenter and journalist, and theauthor of numerous internationally bestselling books about medieval history.


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