Feuds and Folklore: The Turbulent History of Warwick Castle | History Hit

Feuds and Folklore: The Turbulent History of Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
Image Credit: Michael Warwick / Shutterstock.com

Warwick Castle is today a tourist attraction where medieval displays can be seen and where a trebuchet is regularly fired for the amazement of visitors. Located in the East Midlands on the River Avon, it has been a strategically important site for centuries, and is the location of a castle steeped in history and legend.

The stronghold played an important role in both the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War. Moreover, local folklore has given rise to the fanciful theory that Warwick Castle is home to the rib bone of a legendary slain monster. Here’s the history of Warwick Castle.

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Anglo-Saxon Warwick

A burh, a fortified settlement capable of protecting the local population, was established at Warwick in 914. This was done under the instruction of Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia. A daughter of Alfred the Great, she ruled the Kingdom of Mercia alone after the death of her husband. Like her father, she established burhs such as Warwick to protect her kingdom against incursions by Danish Vikings.

13th century depictions of Æthelflæd

Image Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, a wooden motte and bailey castle was erected at Warwick by 1068. These were a new form of power imported with the Norman Conquest and William I used them to stamp his newly-won authority on strategic locations like Warwick.

Guy of Warwick

There is a mythical hero on a par with King Arthur who is connected to the story of Warwick Castle. Guy of Warwick was popular in medieval romantic literature. Legend dates Guy to the reign of King Alfred’s grandson King Athelstan (ruled 924-939). Guy falls in love with the daughter of the Earl of Warwick, a lady out of the reach of his social standing. Determined to win the lady, Guy sets out on a series of quests to prove his worth.

Guy kills the Dun Cow, a huge beast of unknown origin, a bone from which was kept at Warwick Castle (though it turned out to be a whale bone). Next, he kills a giant wild boar before moving on to slay a dragon in Northumberland before continuing his adventures abroad. Guy returns to Warwick and wins the hand of his lady, Felice, only to be racked with guilt for his violent past. After a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he returns in disguise and is required to slay a giant named Colbrond whom the Danes have unleashed on England. He travels back to Warwick, still in disguise, and lives in a cave near the castle as a hermit, only to be reunited with his wife just before his death.

Historian Matt Lewis delves deep into the history of the Arthurian legend.
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Earls of Warwick

Henry de Beaumont, a Norman knight, became the 1st Earl of Warwick in 1088 as a reward for the support he offered William II Rufus during a rebellion in that year. The earldom would remain in the hands of the de Beaumont family until it passed by marriage to the Beauchamp family in the 13th century.

Earls of Warwick were frequently at the heart of English politics over the centuries. Guy de Beauchamp, 10th Earl of Warwick was involved in opposition to Edward II in the early 14th century. He ordered the execution of Edward’s favourite Piers Gaveston in 1312. As the century continued, the family became close to Edward III and benefited during the Hundred Years’ War. Guy’s son Thomas Beauchamp, 11th Earl of Warick commanded the English centre at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 and also fought at Poitiers in 1356. He was a founding member of the Order of the Garter.

Thomas de Beauchamp, 11th Earl of Warwick

Image Credit: Photo British Library; painted by or for William Bruges, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Kingmaker

Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Warwick Castle is Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. He married Anne, the daughter of Richard Beauchamp and inherited the earldom in 1449 aged 20. He would become allied to the Yorkist faction during the Wars of the Roses. He helped his cousin Edward IV to the throne in 1461, but the two fell out spectacularly as the decade came to a close.

In 1470, Warwick drove Edward from England and placed the deposed Henry VI back on the throne, earning his epithet the Kingmaker. He was killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471 as Edward took back the crown. After the execution of Richard Neville’s grandson Edward in 1499, the earldom fell out of use until the mid-16th century when the Dudley family briefly held it. In the 17th century, it was granted to the Rich family.

Tourist attraction

The Greville family acquired the castle in 1604 and became Earls of Warwick in 1759 under George II. During the Civil War, prisoners were kept in Caesar’s and Guy’s Towers. Amongst the prisoners was Edward Disney, who scratched his name into a wall in Guy’s Tower in 1643. Edward was an ancestor of Walt Disney. Afterwards, the castle was extensively refurbished, having fallen into disrepair.

The east front of Warwick Castle from inside the courtyard, painted by Canaletto in 1752

Image Credit: Canaletto, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Guy Greville still holds the earldom as 9th Earl of Warwick in the fourth creation, but the last earl to live at Warwick Castle was his grandfather, the 7th Earl. Charles Greville travelled to Hollywood in the 1920s and sought to launch a movie career. As the most prominent English aristocrat in Tinseltown, he was known as the Duke of Hollywood and Warwick the Filmmaker, a play on the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick.

In 1938, Charles had a lead role in The Dawn Patrol, but this was the limit of his success and he returned to England with the outbreak of World War II. In 1967, Charles handed control of his estates to his son, who sold Warwick Castle to Madame Tussauds in 1978, outraging Charles.

Now part of Merlin Entertainments, Warwick Castle continues to tell stories of almost a millennium of history. The centre of nationally important events and the home of some of medieval England’s most significant noblemen, Warwick Castle welcomes visitors all year with special displays and events focussing on its long and illustrious history.

Matt Lewis