24 of Britain’s Best Castles | History Hit

24 of Britain’s Best Castles

History Hit

01 Aug 2018

The following article offers a brief history of some of the best castles existing in Britain today. Some are well preserved, while others are ruins. All possess a rich history, making them some of the most fascinating places to visit in Britain.

1. Tower of London, City of London


The castle was founded towards the end of 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest, but its White Tower (which gives the castle its name) was constructed in 1078 by William the Conqueror and became a symbol of the oppression being levelled on London by the new rulers.

The tower was used as a prison from 1100 and whilst this wasn’t its sole use in 1952, the Krays were incarcerated there for a period. Over the ages, the Tower has had various roles, including an armoury, treasury, a menagerie, public records office and a Royal Mint.

As a prison before the 1950s it was famed for housing William Wallace, Thomas More, Lady Jane Grey, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Anne Boleyn, Guy Fawkes and Rudolph Hess.

2. Windsor Castle, Berkshire


The castle was built in the 11th century as part of the Norman Conquest and since the time of Henry I has been used as a royal residence. The site was chosen to protect Norman dominance on the fringes of London and to be near the strategically important River Thames.

The castle withstood an intense siege during the First Barons War in the 13th Century and Henry III followed up by building a luxurious palace within the grounds.

Edward III performed a bit of a grand designs project on the palace to turn it into one of the most spectacular secular buildings of the Middle Ages. Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I made increasing use of the palace as a royal court and centre for entertaining diplomats.

3. Leeds Castle, Kent


Built in 1119 by Robert de Crevecoeur as another Norman demonstration of their strength, Leeds Castle is situated in the middle of a lake on two islands. King Edward I took control of the castle in 1278 and as it was a favoured residence, invested further in developing it.

Leeds was captured by Edward II in 1321 and after he died in 1327, his widow made it her preferred residence. The castle was transformed in 1519 for Catherine of Aragon by Henry VIII.

The building escaped being destroyed in the English Civil War because Sir Cheney Culpeper – its owner – decided to side with the Parliamentarians. Leeds Castle remained in private ownership until its most recent custodian died in 1974 and left it to a charitable trust to open it to the public.

4. Dover Castle, Kent

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Dover Castle was built on a site thought to date back to the Iron Age or earlier, which explains the many earthworks that surround the building. The site had been used for centuries to protect England from invasion and it was in the 1160s that King Henry II began building the huge stone castle.

Of strategic importance to the Plantagenets, the castle formed a gateway to the realm and a place to house Henry II’s travelling court from France. Whilst medieval royalty made great use of the building, it was also in use during the last war.

Tunnels were built for defence under the building during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s and were more recently used as an air raid shelter during World War Two and as a nuclear shelter for local government during the Cold War.

5. Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Although we remember it predominantly for its involvement in several conflicts during the medieval period, Edinburgh Castle’s history stretches some 3,000 years, from prehistoric times right up to the present day.
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Edinburgh Castle headlines the view of the Scottish capital as it has been built on top of an extinct volcano overlooking the city below. The original settlement dates from the Iron Age, with the site serving as a royal residence from the reign of David I in the 12th century until the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

The earliest detailed documents referring to a castle at the site, rather than a rock, date from the death of King Malcolm III in 1093.

Since 1603, the castle has served various purposes, including spells as both a prison and a garrison.

6. Caernarfon Castle, Gwynedd


After the Norman Conquest of England, Wales was next on the list. William the Conqueror turned his attention to Wales. After the Norman Robert of Rhuddlan, who was in charge of north Wales, was killed by the Welsh in 1088, his cousin Hugh d’Avranches, the Earl of Chester reasserted control of the north by building three castles, of which Caernarfon was one.

The original was of earth and timber construction, but was rebuilt in stone by Edward I from 1283 and included a wall to house the town. During the English Civil War it became a garrison for the royalists but its sturdy construction saw it survive this period well.

In 1969, Caernarfon was the scene for the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales and in 1986 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

7. Bodiam Castle, East Sussex


Bodiam Castle was created to defend southern England from the French during the Hundred Years War. The castle was built in 1385 by a former knight of Edward III called Sir Edward Dalyngrigge. In 1641 Royalist supporter Lord Thanet sold the castle to the government to help pay his Parliamentary fines. It was then left to become a ruin.

The castle was then purchased by John Fuller in 1829 and undertook a number of partial renovation projects until it was handed to the National Trust in 1925.

8. Warwick Castle, Warwickshire


The strategically important castle site on a bend in the river Avon hosted an Anglo-Saxon burgh in 914, but William the Conqueror built Warwick Castle in 1068 from a wood construction, and it was later rebuilt in stone during King Henry II’s reign.

The building was expanded over the years of Norman power and captured by Simon de Montfort in 1264 for a short time. During the English Civil Wars the castle was occupied by Parliamentarians and used to house prisoners. A garrison of 302 soldiers was placed here between 1643 and 1660, complete with artillery.

In 1660 Robert Greville, 4th Baron Brooke took control of the castle and it remained in his family for 374 years. The Greville clan had a continued program of regeneration and it was sold to the Tussauds Group in 1978 to become a key UK tourist attraction.

9. Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire


The Castle was first established in the 1120s and is thought to have been of wood and earth construction, then the development of the castle was delayed by the years of the Anarchy between 1135-54. When Henry II came to power and faced an uprising by his son, also called Henry, he garrisoned the building between 1173-74.

In 1244, when Simon de Montfort led the Second Barons’ War against the king, Kenilworth Castle was used to base his operations and led to the longest siege in British history at around 6 months.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the building became a ruin and was used as a farm until in Victorian times it received some restoration. Maintenance continued and English Heritage now own and operate the castle.

10. Tintagel Castle, Cornwall


Tintagel dates from the Roman Empire’s occupation of Britain. The vantage point provided a fantastic natural opportunity for a fort. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Britain fragmented into a number of kingdoms and the South West was named the Kingdom of Dumnonia.

A castle was built on the Tintagel site by Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, in 1233 and was designed to look older than it actually was in an effort to gain the trust of the Cornish.

When Richard departed the following Earls weren’t interested in the building and it was left to go to ruin. During Victorian times the site became a tourist attraction and preservation has been a focus since.

11. Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight


The Carisbrooke Castle site’s use is thought to reach back to the Romans. The remains of a ruined wall suggest the Romans developed a building but it wasn’t until 1000 that a wall was built around the earth mound to fend off the Vikings. As the Normans developed many sites of the time, Richard de Redvers’ and his family took control from 1100 for two hundred years and added stone walls, towers and a keep.

In 1597 a new fort was built around the existing development and Charles I was incarcerated in it prior to his execution in 1649. The daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Beatrice, occupied the castle between 1896 and 1944 before it was passed to English Heritage to administer.

12. Alnwick Castle, Northumberland


Famed for being used today in Harry Potter films, this castle is well strategically placed on the banks of the river Aln where it protects a crossing point. The first parts of the building were developed in 1096 by Yves de Vescy, Baron of Alnwick.

King David I of Scotland took over the castle in 1136 and it saw sieges in 1172 and 1174 by William the Lion, King of Scotland. After the Battle of Alnwick in 1212, King John ordered the castles demolition, but the orders were not followed through.

In 1309, Henry Percy, 1st Baron Percy, bought the modest castle and redeveloped it to make it a very grand statement on the Scotland-England boarder.

The castle frequently exchanged hands over the next few centuries and after Thomas Percy’s execution in 1572 it remained uninhabited. In the 19th century, the 4th Duke of Northumberland altered and developed the castle and it remains the seat of the current Duke of Northumberland.

13. Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland


The site has been home to a fort since prehistoric times and as with many great vantage points, the Normans took control in the 11th century and developed a new castle. The castle became property of Henry II who used it as a northern outpost, which was subject to occasional raids by the Scots.

Whilst the War of the Roses was being fought in 1464, it became the first English castle to be overrun by artillery, following a long siege.

The Forster family ran the castle for a few hundred years until they were declared bankrupt in the 1700s. After a period of disrepair, during Victorian times the building was renovated by industrialist William Armstrong and it still is owned by the same family today.

14. Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland


The Dunstanburgh site was likely to have been occupied from the Iron Age, and the Castle was built between 1313 and 1322 by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. Thomas had many interests, including much greater land ownership in the Midlands and Yorkshire, so the strategic decision to build in this part of Northumberland remains unclear.

Some believe it was a status symbol and a safe retreat from his cousin, King Edward II, with whom he had a fractious relationship.

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The Wars of the Roses saw the castle change hands a number of times between the Lancastrians and Yorks. The castle fell into disrepair in the 1500s and by the time the Scottish and English crowns were united in 1603 there was little need for a border outpost for protection.

Dunstaburgh passed on to a number of owners over the following centuries and fell into heavy disrepair leaving the ruin we see today that is surrounded by a golf course.

15. Warkworth Castle, Northumberland


The first castle was thought to be built during the Norman Conquest by Henry II to secure his Northumberland lands. Warkworth became the home to the all-powerful Percy family who also occupied Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

The fourth Earl redesigned the castle in the bailey and started to build a collegiate church in the grounds and in 1670, the last Percy Earl died resulting in ownership being passed on. The castle somehow eventually weaved its way back into the Percy clan after it was taken over by Hugh Smithson who married a Percy heiress, resulting in them changing their name to Percy and founding the Dukes of Northumberland.

The 8th Duke of Northumberland passed on custody of the Castle to the office of works in 1922 and English Heritage has managed it since 1984.

16. Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire


A castle was built at Bolsover by the Peveril family in the 12th century and they also owned nearby Peveril Castle. During the First Barons War, Henry II invested in developing both buildings to accommodate a garrison.

Later King John gifted the two castles to William de Ferrers in 1216 in order to garner his support during a nationwide rebellion, but the castellan blocked the move. Eventually the Ferrers forcibly took the castle in 1217, but it was returned to the crown six years later.

The castle was bought by Sir George Talbot in 1553 but later sold in 1608 to Sir Charles Cavendish, who invested in rebuilding it. The Civil War took its toll on the building, but by 1676 it had been restored to good order again. The castle became uninhabited from 1883 and was given to the nation. It is now managed by English Heritage.

17. Beeston Castle, Cheshire


There are indications that the site was a gathering point in Neolithic times, but from this vantage point with views across 8 counties on a good day, you can see why the Normans chose to develop it. The castle was erected in the 1220s by Ranulf de Blondville on returning from the Crusades.

Henry III took over in 1237 and the building was well kept until the 16th century when strategists felt it didn’t have further military use. Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War saw the castle return to action, but it was damaged by Cromwell’s men to the point whereby in the 18th century the site was used as a quarry.

Beeston is now in ruins and is a Grade I listed building and also a Scheduled Ancient Monument administered by English Heritage.

18. Framlingham Castle, Suffolk


The date this castle was built is uncertain but there are references to it in 1148. Current thinking suggests it may have been built by Hugh Bigod during the 1100s or it could be a development of a previous Anglo Saxon building. During the First Barons War in 1215, Bigod surrendered the building to King John’s men. Roger Bigod later retook it in 1225, but he passed it back to the crown on his son’s death in 1306.

In the 14th century the castle was given to Thomas Brotherton, the Earl of Norfolk and by 1476 the castle was given to John Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. The castle was passed back to the crown in 1572 when the 4th Duke, Thomas, was executed by Elizabeth I for treason.

The area escaped being drawn heavily into the English Civil War between 1642-6 and as a result the castle remains intact. The castle is now a Grade 1 listed monument owned by English Heritage.

19. Portchester Castle, Hampshire


A Roman fort was built here in the 3rd century to counter raids by pirates and it is thought that the Romans also kept their navy tasked with protecting Britain in Porchester. The castle that we know today was probably built in the late 11th century after the Norman Conquest by William Maudit.

It passed through the Maudit family and was thought to be rebuilt in stone in the first half of the 12th century by William Pont de l’Arche who had married a Maudit daughter. During King Henry II’s sons revolt between 1173 – 1174, the castle was garrisoned and fitted with catapults by King Henry’s men.

The castle was developed further in the 1350s and 1360s to strengthen the sea wall and introduce improved domestic space and Royal apartments were constructed around 1396. In 1535, Henry VIII visited the castle with Queen Anne Boleyn, the first royal visit in a century. In anticipation of war with Spain, Elizabeth I strengthened the castle again and then developed it to be fit for royal living between 1603-9.

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In 1632, the castle was bought by Sir William Uvedale and since passed through the Thistlethwaite family – also becoming a prison in the later part of the century. During the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century it housed over 7,000 French.

The Thistlethwaite family owned the castle from the mid 1600’s to 1984 and it is now run by English Heritage.

20. Chirk Castle, Wrexham


Roger Mortimer de Chirk started to build the castle in 1295 and it was completed in 1310, whilst Edward I was on the throne, to subdue the last princes of Wales.

The castle was strategically placed at the meeting point of the rivers Dee and Ceroig to defend the Ceirog Valley, which had become the areas base for the Marcher Lordship of Chirkland. It also acted as a demonstration of English intent in these lands that were long battled over.

Chirk Castle was acquired by Thomas Myddelton in 1595 and his son used it to support the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. The castle switched its allegiances to become ‘royalist’ and was restored in 1659 after the son changed sides. The Myddeton family lived at the castle all the way through to 2004 when it was passed to National Trust ownership.

21. Corfe Castle, Dorset


Corfe Castle is likely to have been a fort before the medieval castle built on the site removed evidence of previous settlements. Soon after the Norman Conquest, between 1066 and 1087, William built 36 castles across England and Corfe was one of the rarer stone varieties constructed at that time.

Whilst Henry II was in power the castle wasn’t changed a great deal until King John and Henry III came to the throne when they built significant new structures including walls, towers and halls. Up until 1572 Corfe remained a royal fort, but it was then put up for sale by Elizabeth I.

Whilst the castle was then bought and sold a number of times during the English Civil War, Corfe was held for Royalist purposes and suffered from being sieged. After the monarchy was resurrected in 1660 the Banks family (the owners) returned but decided to build a house on a local estate rather than rebuild the castle.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Ralph Bankes left the Bankes estate – including Corfe Castle – to its current owners, the National Trust.

22. Dunster Castle, Somerset


There was evidence that an Anglo-Saxon burgh existed prior the medieval castle being built by William de Mohun in 1086. In the 1130s England descended into the Anarchy and King Stephen besieged the castle, which was successfully defended by a Mohun’s son, also called William. The castle left the Mohun family when descendent John passed away in 1376 and it was sold to a leading Norman, Lady Elizabeth Luttrell.

During the English Civil War in 1640, the Luttrell family, who were siding with the Parliamentarians, were ordered to increase the size of its garrison to protect it from Royalists, who took until 1643 to take it. Still with the Luttrell family in 1867, they delivered a big modernisation and refurbishment plan.

Incredibly, and with a few twists and turns involving crown ownership, the castle remained in the Luttrel family until 1976 when it was left to the National Trust.

23. Sizergh Castle, Cumbria


The Deincourt family owned the land that Sizergh Castle sits on in the 1170s, but it became a possession of the Strikeland family when Sir William of Strikeland married Elizabeth Deincourt in 1239.

In 1336, Edward III granted permission for Sir Walter Strikeland to enclose the land around the castle to make a park. Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, lived here after her first husband died in 1533, as she was a relative of the Strikelands.

During the Elizabethan period, Sizergh castle was expanded by the Strikelands and in 1770 it was developed again by adding a great hall in a Georgian style. Whilst the Strikeland family still live in the castle, it was given to the National Trust to run in 1950.

24. Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire


Tattershall was originally a medieval castle built in 1231 by Robert de Tattershall. Ralph, the 3rd Lord Cromwell – Treasurer of England at the time – extended the castle and pretty much built it again using bricks between 1430 and 1450.

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The style was influenced by Flemish weavers and the 700,000 bricks Cromwell used created the greatest example of medieval brickwork in England. The Great Tower and the moat still remain from Cromwell’s original.

Cromwell died in 1456 and his fine building went to his niece who subsequently had it claimed by the Crown after her husband died. It was reclaimed by Sir Henry Sidney in 1560, who then sold it to the Earls of Lincoln who ran it until 1693.

Lord Curzon of Kedleston rescued the building in 1910 when an American buyer attempted to strip it to send back to his homeland. The Lord restored the castle between 1911 and 1914 and left it to the National Trust after he died in 1925.

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