The Best Castles to Visit in Britain | History Hit

The Best Castles to Visit in Britain

Celeste Neill

13 Jun 2023
Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
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Discover some of the best castles in Britain where you can immerse yourself in the rich history, architectural splendour, and captivating tales that these majestic fortresses have to offer.

Walk through the medieval magnificence of Edinburgh Castle, the legendary stronghold perched atop an ancient volcanic rock. Explore the enchanting halls of Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, where centuries of royal heritage come alive. Marvel at the fairy-tale beauty of Bodiam Castle, a perfect example of a moated medieval fortress.

Whether you’re a history enthusiast, an architecture lover, or simply seeking to wander through centuries of legends, our curated selection of Britain’s finest castles has something to captivate every visitor.

1. Tower of London, City of London

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

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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 of London has indeed served various roles over the ages. In addition to being a prison, it has also functioned as an armoury, treasury, menagerie (a collection of exotic animals), public records office, and 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

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle, Berkshire

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Windsor 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

Leeds Castle, Kent

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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

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 during the Cold War.

5. Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

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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

Caernarfon Castle, Wales

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Originally built using earth and timber, Caernarfon Castle was later reconstructed in stone by Edward I starting from 1283. Edward I’s renovation also included the construction of a fortified wall to accommodate the town. Despite serving as a garrison for the royalists during the English Civil War, the castle’s robust construction enabled it to withstand the challenges of that period.

In 1969, Caernarfon Castle gained significant historical significance as it became the site of the investiture ceremony for King Charles III, when he was the Prince of Wales.

Subsequently, in 1986, the castle was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, further cementing its status as a cherished cultural landmark.

7. Bodiam Castle, East Sussex

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex

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Bodiam Castle stands as a testament to the strategic defences erected during the tumultuous period of the Hundred Years War, specifically designed to safeguard southern England from potential French invasions. Constructed in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a former knight of Edward III, the castle served as a formidable stronghold.

in 1641, the castle changed hands when Lord Thanet, a staunch Royalist supporter, sold it to the government as a means to pay off his Parliamentary fines.

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. Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire

Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire

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The castle’s origins can be traced back to the 1120s when it was first established, presumably constructed using wood and earth materials. It was only when Henry II ascended to the throne and confronted a rebellion led by his son, also named Henry, that the castle was garrisoned between 1173 and 1174.

During the Second Barons’ War in 1244, the castle gained prominence as Simon de Montfort utilised it as a base for his operations. This conflict resulted in the infamous Kenilworth Castle siege, which lasted approximately six months and holds the distinction of being the longest siege in British history.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the building became a ruin and was used as a farm. After restoration, English Heritage took over maintenance of the castle.

9. Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

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Tintagel’s history can be traced back to the Roman Empire’s occupation of Britain. The site’s commanding position presented a remarkable natural advantage for the establishment of a fort.

In 1233, Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, constructed a castle on the Tintagel site. However, when Richard departed, subsequent Earls showed little interest in maintaining the structure, resulting in its gradual decay and ruin.

During the Victorian era, Tintagel Castle emerged as a popular tourist destination, and since then there has been continued work to preserve and protect the site.

10. Alnwick Castle, Northumberland

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland.

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Famed for being used today in Harry Potter films, Alnwick 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.

The castle frequently exchanged hands over the next few centuries. 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.

11. Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire

Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire

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A castle was built at Bolsover by the Peveril family in the 12th century, who also owned the 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.

Bolsover Castle was bought by Sir George Talbot in 1553 but later sold in 1608 to Sir Charles Cavendish, who invested in rebuilding it. The castle became uninhabited from 1883 and was given to the nation. It is now managed by English Heritage.

12. Framlingham Castle, Suffolk

Framlingham Castle, Suffolk

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The date that Farmlingham Castle was first built is unclear but there are historical references dating back to 1148. It may have been built by Hugh Bigod during the 1100s, or perhaps a development of a previous Anglo Saxon building.

In the 14th century the castle was given to Thomas Brotherton, the Earl of Norfolk and by 1476 the castle was owned by 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.

13. Portchester Castle, Hampshire

Portchester Castle, Hampshire

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Porchester Castle is believed to have been built in the late 11th century after the Norman Conquest by William Maudit.

It was rebuilt in stone in the first half of the 12th century by William Pont de l’Arche. 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. In anticipation of war with Spain, Elizabeth I strengthened the castle again and further developed it into a royal residence during 1603-9.

In 1632, the castle was bought by Sir William Uvedale and since passed through the Thistlethwaite family, who owned the castle from the mid 1600’s to 1984. It is now run by English Heritage.

14. Chirk Castle, Wrexham

Chirk Castle, Warwick

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Chirk Castle, located in Warwickshire, holds a rich history that dates back to its construction by Roger Mortimer de Chirk in 1295. The castle’s completion in 1310, during the reign of Edward I, marked a significant milestone in subduing the last Welsh princes.

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.

Acquired by Thomas Myddelton in 1595, the castle played a pivotal role during the English Civil War as it supported the Parliamentarians. However, the castle later shifted its allegiance to the royalist cause before being restored in 1659 when Thomas Myddelton’s son changed sides. It was entrusted into the care of the National Trust in 2004.

15. Corfe Castle, Dorset

Corfe Castle, Dorset

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Corfe Castle, likely a fort before the medieval castle, saw construction during William the Conqueror’s castle-building campaign after the Norman Conquest. Between 1066 and 1087, he built 36 castles across England and Corfe was one of the rarer stone varieties constructed at that time.

King John and Henry III made significant changes, adding walls, towers, and halls. In 1572, Corfe was put up for sale by Elizabeth I after serving as a royal fort, and during the English Civil War, it changed ownership several times. After the monarchy’s restoration in 1660, the Banks family, owners of the castle, chose to build a house on a nearby estate rather than rebuilding 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.


Celeste Neill