The 118-year reign of the Tudors left an indelible mark on modern Britain, says Nathen Amin. Here, the author and historian takes you on a fascinating tour of eight castles of England and Wales with significant Tudor links…
The Tudors are undoubtedly one of the most celebrated dynasties in English and Welsh history, their 118-year reign having left an indelible mark on the make-up of modern Britain: politically, religiously and culturally. Architecturally, meanwhile, the legacy of the Tudors is found throughout this island, whether in our largest cities or more rural surroundings. From Pembrokeshire to East Anglia, and from Cornwall to Northumberland, every part of England and Wales possesses its own Tudor gem waiting to be explored. Historian and founder of the Henry Tudor Society Nathen Amin has selected eight castles that every aficionado should visit at least once during their lifetime, quite literally following in the footsteps of that most captivating of families – the Tudors.
Hampton Court Palace is the quintessential Tudor location, irrevocably linked to Henry VIII. From the very first moment you catch sight of the great gatehouse’s sprawling red-brick façade, you will be spellbound by the greatest existing testament to the splendour of the Tudors.
Lying on the banks of the Thames, a dozen miles upstream from the centre of London, Hampton Court as we know it owes its origins to Henry VIII’s imposing favourite Cardinal Wolsey, who commissioned the building in 1515. Inspired by the vast Italian Renaissance palaces, Hampton Court took seven years to be completed and was the finest of its kind in England. Ownership of the palace passed to the king in 1528, and between 1532 and 1535 Henry added the magnificent Great Hall, which features possibly the most outstanding 16th-century hammer-beam roof in existence, followed by a new inner gatehouse in 1540, upon which features an extraordinary astronomical clock. Other features of the Tudor palace which survive include the vast kitchens which once fed Henry’s court, and the unrivalled Chapel Royal with its mesmerising blue and gold-starred wooden ceiling.
Henry VIII’s three children – Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I – all made use of their father’s palace. Edward was born at Hampton Court in October 1537, his mother Jane Seymour tragically passing away in her chamber just a fortnight later. Although parts of the palace received a Baroque makeover during the late 17th century, no other location in England is more recognisable for its Tudor connections.
Ludlow Castle is renowned for its picturesque position in the Welsh March high above the River Teme, once the seat of the influential Mortimer family, ancestors of the House of York, and from where generations of Anglo-Norman lords strove to subdue their restless Welsh neighbours. Originally constructed in the 11th century and regularly extended in subsequent centuries, by the Tudor period Ludlow was home to the council in the Marches of Wales, an administrative body nominally governed by the Prince of Wales.
Henry VII granted Ludlow to his eldest son Arthur in 1493, and it was here in 1501 that the heir to the Tudor throne returned after his ostentatious wedding to Katherine of Aragon, holding court as man and wife during the Christmas festivities that winter. Ludlow, therefore, became the scene of one of the greatest ‘did-they-or-didn’t-they’ questions in English history – was their marriage consummated? – which would have far-reaching consequences a quarter of a century later.
This union with Europe’s principal royal dynasty was expected to herald a Tudor golden age, but alas fate, possibly in the form of the plague or even tuberculosis, would intervene, afflicting both Arthur and Katherine. Between six and seven o’clock on the morning of 2 April 1502, Prince Arthur passed away aged only 15 within the confines of Ludlow Castle. Katherine, however, recovered from her own affliction and famously went on to marry Arthur’s younger brother, Henry.
Henry and Katherine’s only surviving child, Princess Mary, was the only other royal Tudor who spent considerable time at Ludlow, residing in the castle between 1525 and 1528 during her tenure as heir presumptive. Ludlow, therefore, can claim to have been, at one time, home to two future Tudor queens of England. The castle still possesses considerable ruins that would have been recognisable to Arthur, Katherine and Mary, including the evocative Solar Block in which they lived, the Great Tower and Hall, and most fascinatingly of all, the circular Norman chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene.
Thornbury Castle in South Gloucestershire is purportedly the only Tudor fortress that operates as a hotel, providing guests the quirky experience of sleeping in the same bedchamber once occupied by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
Although part of the Stafford family estates throughout the 15th century, the castle was briefly in the hands of Jasper Tudor, an uncle of Henry VII, during the minority of his stepson Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham. Jasper even passed away at Thornbury on 21 December 1495.
As an adult, Buckingham grew into a strong-headed and haughty individual, and with his exceptional wealth, commenced an ambitious rebuilding programme at Thornbury that, when finished, would have no equal. Trying to upstage a paranoid king like Henry VIII was never a good idea, however, and in April 1521 Buckingham was arrested for treason, and executed upon Tower Hill in London. As a result, tools were downed at Thornbury and construction halted indefinitely.
In August 1535, Henry VIII visited Thornbury for ten days with his new queen Anne Boleyn, supposedly staying in an octagonal tower room known today as the Duke’s Bedchamber. The castle, never fully completed because of Buckingham’s early demise, gradually fell into ruin, before its restoration in the 20th century and reopening as a luxury hotel.
Sudeley Castle is another Gloucestershire castle with a remarkable claim to fame – it is the only private residence in England which has a former queen buried in its grounds.
In the late 15th century, Sudeley was briefly held by the future Richard III, who used the castle as his base prior to the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, and later by Jasper Tudor, although by the dawn of Henry VIII’s reign it had returned to crown hands. The mighty king visited with Anne Boleyn during his western progress of 1535.
When Edward VI acceded to the throne, he bestowed Sudeley upon his uncle Thomas Seymour, who had secretly married Henry VIII’s cultured widow Katherine Parr just a few months after the old king’s death. Katherine quickly fell pregnant and retired to Sudeley to give birth to a child on 30 August 1548, who was named Mary. The 36-year-old dowager queen never recovered, however, passing away just six days later from complications.
Embalmed and wrapped in cloth, the former queen of England was buried in St Mary’s Chapel in the castle grounds, with her chief mourner Lady Jane Grey, the later Tudor queen-that-wasn’t. Her fine marble tomb is still visible in the chapel, and is particularly poignant for its quiet, secluded location.
Of all the Tudor queens, it is Anne Boleyn who captures the public imagination more than any other, a sophisticated, intelligent and captivating woman who compelled Henry VIII to famously break with Rome to obtain her hand in marriage.
It is little surprise to therefore learn that Anne’s childhood home in Kent is undoubtedly one of the more popular Tudor locations in England, a breath-taking jewel in the south-east’s well-embellished crown. A Boleyn family home from the mid-15th century, Hever was inherited by Thomas Boleyn in 1505, who assumed residence in the crenellated keep with his wife Elizabeth and three children, George, Mary and Anne. Scholarly opinion, meanwhile, remains divided whether Anne was born at Hever, although visitors do get the humbling experience of viewing the tragic queen’s personal Book of Hours, complete with her own writing.
Although the castle’s chief attraction remains Anne Boleyn, the premises did fall into possession of Henry VIII’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves between 1540 and her death in 1557, as part of her generous divorce settlement. Ironically, there was also a hidden Catholic chapel built in 1584 by its then-occupiers the Waldegraves, recusant papists who worshipped covertly during the reign of Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I when Catholicism was outlawed.
Situated on the Kentish coast facing the continent, Deal and Warmer castles are unique on this list as having never been home to a Tudor sovereign. Nevertheless, the forts are historically fascinating because of their design; from the air, because of their semi-circular bastion towers, both pointedly resemble the Tudor Rose, an extreme if innovative attempt to brand the Tudor dynasty. The ports, situated just under two miles apart, were constructed on the orders of Henry VIII in 1539 to defend the realm against anticipated French or Holy Roman Empire aggression following the king’s break with Rome. Built using Kentish ragstone and Caen stone recycled from locally dissolved monasteries, the forts were strictly military, consisting of guard quarters and gunpower stores, with dozens of cannons on the roof pointed out to sea.
Henry VIII, who always fancied himself a military man, personally inspected the forts upon completion, although ultimately the invasion threat never truly materialised during his lifetime. His daughter Elizabeth I also visited Deal in 1573 to ensure the castle was still fit for purpose during her own issues with continental neighbours, in her case Philip II, the Catholic king of Spain who sought to unseat the Protestant English queen.
Quite literally the birthplace of the Tudor Dynasty, although no one would have expected as much during the winter night of 28 January 1457 when Margaret Beaufort, a widow of just 14 years old, gave birth to a boy who, at the age of 28, would seize the throne by killing Richard III.
Situated on a rocky promontory beside the charming Cleddau estuary, Tudor involvement in Pembroke started in 1452 when Jasper Tudor, Henry’s devoted uncle, was granted the earldom of Pembroke. After his brother Edmund’s death four years later, Jasper assumed care for his pregnant sister-in-law. Tradition states that it was in one of the castle’s robust outer wards near the gatehouse the young Tudor child was born, a difficult birth for the young and slender mother that probably rendered Margaret infertile for the remainder of her tumultuous life.
Henry Tudor spent his first few years living under his uncle’s care until national politics, and the advent of the House of York in 1461, prompted his forced removal across South Wales to Raglan Castle. He would briefly return to Pembroke with his uncle a decade later, when the pair sought refuge behind the castle walls from pursing Yorkists, before fleeing into exile across the Channel that would only end during his unlikely march to the throne in 1485.
Henry’s connection with Pembroke was never forgotten, however, with his son Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn briefly holding the title Marquess of Pembroke. More recently, an eight-foot statue of the only Welsh king of England was proudly erected in the shadows of one of the mightiest medieval fortresses in the kingdom.
Raglan Castle is a grandiose Welsh ruin close to the English border, which was aptly described in 1587 by Thomas Churchyard as a “rare and noble sight”, in part due to the spectacular gatehouse, possibly one of the finest in the country. More pertinently to the tale of the Tudors, Raglan holds the honour of being the childhood home of the first Tudor monarch Henry VII, placed here with the Herbert family in 1461 at just four years old.
Although William Herbert was a devoted Yorkist, a sworn enemy of Henry’s Lancastrian relations and instrumental in the death of the boy’s father in 1456, the young Tudor nevertheless enjoyed an honourable upbringing at Raglan across the next decade. Henry received a fine education, prompting his court biographer Bernard André to later recall how the child quickly “quickly surpassed his peers”. When he became king, Henry did not forget his formative years in Monmouthshire, summoning the widowed Lady Herbert to court, where she was graciously rewarded in the twilight of her life. While Henry never returned to Raglan, in 1502 his queen Elizabeth of York did nevertheless pay a short visit.
Architecturally, the remains of Raglan are extensive, with the five-storey, French-style hexagonal keep and the exceptional gatehouse – with two half-hexagonal towers topped with considerable machicolations – particularly worthy of mention. A flurry of Tudor fireplaces, along with surviving Elizabethan oriel windows, the long gallery, and evidence of once scenic Fountain Court are testament to the castle’s once-lavish past when it helped raise a Tudor king.
Nathen Amin is the author of the first full-length biography of the Beaufort family, The House of Beaufort, released in 2017 and an Amazon #1 Bestseller for Wars of the Roses. He is also author of Tudor Wales (2014) and is currently working on his fourth book, Pretenders to the Tudor Crown, due for release in 2019.