Britain’s best places to see: Castles 4

The oldest British castles standing today are around 1,000 years old. The magnificent structures tell tales of kings and queens, treachery, love and war. Lavish or ruinous Britain has an estimated 700 castles still standing – here’s our pick of some of the best

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East Midlands

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Newark Castle © Arran Bee (CC BY 2.0)
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Newark Castle

One of many castles wrecked after the English Civil War, during which the Royalist town of Newark was sieged three times by Parliamentarian forces, this picturesque Norman ruin was established by Bishop Alexander of Lincoln around 1135. It was restored – or rather saved from total destitution – in the 1840s by renowned Victorian castle restorer Antony Salvin.

Apart from its role in the English Civil Wars, Newark Castle is famous for being the place where King John died from dysentery in 1216, just a year after he signed the Magna Carta.

Today it remains an imposing and picturesque shell overlooking the river Trent and there are plans to open up and interpret the impressive King John gatehouse, which is the most complete example of a Romanesque gatehouse in England. In the meantime a range of pre-booked tours will take you into the extensive undercroft, the impressive Bottle, Barrel and Debtor’s Dungeons and the castle’s remaining towers, including the gatehouse.

Lincoln Castle

One of the most intact castles in Britain, thanks in part to its usage as a 19th century prison and a law court, which continues to this day, Lincoln Castle is one of the few to offer an unbroken 360° wall walk of its ancient stone walls, which deliver stunning views of the city and its cathedral.

The castle was established as a major defensive structure subjugating the old Danelaw and Mercia during the early reign of William the Conqueror and it is famous for its double motte design. Today both of these famous castle mounds have towers to explore – one offers yet more cityscape views, the other sits over an atmospheric dungeon space where the graffiti on the walls testifies to the miserable fates of its medieval occupants.

Lincoln’s bloody history includes two medieval sieges, which you can discover in an exhibition stuffed full of archaeological finds (including skeletons) and there’s an atmospheric, intact Victorian prison to explore. Add in the chance to see one of only four surviving original copies of Magna Carta and you will need to put aside a day to do it justice.

Bolsover Castle

Bolsover Castle was built in the early 17th century by the Cavendish family, on the site of a 12th century medieval fort that was originally established by the Peverel family, and although it’s a late addition to the castles of Britain it packs in a lot.

An exploration of Bolsover includes the intriguing ruins of the vast Terrace Range, once a vast dining room and set of stately rooms but now a roofless shell overlooking the rugged Derbyshire countryside. Thanks to its moss-covered walls, grand windows and the intriguingly exposed remains of a basement kitchen that you can explore, it remains an atmospheric place to encounter.

But the real gem is the Little Castle, William Cavendish’s opulent fantasy retreat, with its multiple floors and rooms boasting original and recreated decorations ranging from tapestries and panelling to thrones and sofas and tapestries, which you are invited to touch, sit and lounge upon.

A wall walk, ornamental garden and one of the oldest indoor Riding Schools in the country, augment the visitor experience to make Bolsover a vital addition to any castle itinerary in the region.

Tattershall Castle

More of a fortified mansion than a castle in the true sense, but Tattershall is important because its remaining tower is regarded by many as one of the finest pieces of medieval brick-work in England.

Rising over 100 feet and ranging over four floors, the tower was built in the 1440s for Ralph de Cromwell, Lord Treasurer of England, on the site of a 1231 castle whose original curtain wall was incorporated into the design.

Apart from the tower, only the remnants of the moat and a few foundations remain of this opulent undertaking, which was finally abandoned in the 18th century but saved and partially restored a hundred years ago.

A visit to the tower includes access to the roof terrace with its distant views of Lincoln Cathedral and Boston Stump and a chance to admire the many opulent fireplaces, which were rescued and preserved by its last benefactor, Lord Curzon of Kedleston (1859 – 1925) who left it to the National Trust on his death.

Peveril Castle

Peveril Castle in Castleton in Derbyshire was immortalised by Walter Scott in his romantic novel, Peveril of the Peak, and to this day it remains one of the most beautiful ways of surveying the Peak District National Park.

A classic Norman fortification that passed in and out of the hands of royals and nobles throughout the medieval period, a steep climb to the entrance of this stronghold rewards visitors with views across the Hope Valley towards the Bronze Age fortifications and barrows of the most famous hill of the High Peak, Mam Tor.

The castle itself is a ruin but there are battlements which loom above a natural vertiginous drop and a stunning medieval keep that dates back to the 12th century, standing almost to its original height as it towers above the remains of the curtain walls.

East of England

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Norwich Castle © Suzy Hazelwood (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

As one of Britain’s most popular Norman castles it seems a pity that, aside from a brief stay by Henry I in 1121, no Norman kings ever lived here. The recognisable square keep, built around 1095, was originally faced with expensive Caen stone, in an elaborate blank arcading design that was carefully reconstructed when the building was refaced in Bath stone in 1839.

The castle was converted into a gaol in 1220 and was used as a prison for more than 600 years.

Not only telling the story of Norman history, the castle and the prison, the castle is now a Museum and art gallery with galleries exploring British history, anthropology, fine art and natural history.

Orford Castle

The unusual keep of the 12th century Orford Castle is remarkably intact. The unique polygonal structure was constructed between 1165 and 1173 under the order of Henry II, to re-establish his power over the area previously dominated by the dissenting Bigod family.

Ascending the five floors to the keep’s roof earns you spectacular views over the otherworldly landscape of Orford Ness – part nature reserve, part Anglo-American atomic weapons research site.

Castle Acre

The village of Castle Acre owes its name to its history as a former fortified town. The village is strewn with the ruins of the town walls, the Bailey Gate, the castle and the priory, which were built by the Norman Warenne family shortly after the Norman Conquest.

The dramatic ruins of the Cluniac priory hint at a once imposing structure and are among the finest and best-preserved monastic ruins in the country. The nearby castle is a superb example of a motte-and-bailey castle and eloquently illustrates the impact that the Norman conquest had on the face of Britain.

Framlingham Castle

Ed Sheeran fans will be familiar with this castle on the hill, but for the rest of us Framlingham Castle and its towering curtain wall evokes a time in English history when tensions were felt between the Crown and the locally powerful Bigod family. The castle was home to the Bigods – the Earls of Norfolk – before becoming home to the Dukes of Norfolk for over 400 years.

Framlingham was inherited by Mary Tudor in the mid-16th century, and it was from here that she launched her successful campaign to oust Lady Jane Grey from the throne and became Queen of England. As well as an exhibition exploring its complex Tudor history, a visit offers the chance to walk the 10.5 metre high curtain wall.

 

London

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The Tower of London and Traitors’ gate at night from South Bank London, UK © chas B (CC BY 2.0)

Tower of London

One of the most iconic sights in one of the world’s most famous cities; founded towards the end of the Norman Conquest, the Tower of London is a spectacular landmark. Built by William the Conqueror from 1078 the castle was designed to dominate the skyline, and the people, of a recently-conquered London, and was constructed from Caen stone shipped over from France.

As the most secure castle in the land, the Tower of London has held the crown jewels for more than 600 years. Visitors can steal a glance at the coronation regalia – a powerful symbol of the British Monarchy and quite possibly the most visited collection of objects in Britain, if not the world.

Traitors’ gate, the infamous entrance to the tower, gives away possibly it’s best known (though not primary) use as a prison. The stone walls guarded some of history’s most famous prisoners, including Queen Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Gray, Princess Elizabeth, and Robert Devereux. Even London’s notorious Kray twins were incarcerated here, being amongst the last prisoners to be kept at the tower.

 

Northern Ireland

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Enniskillen Castle © Wes Eggins Images (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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Enniskillen Castle

Sat on the banks of the River Erne, Enniskillen Castle is strategically placed to defend one of the few routes into Ulster. The castle was built by the ruling Gaelic Maguires and had an important role in the Irish rebellions against English rule.

The castle now houses the Fermanagh County Museum, which reveals the history and culture of Northern Ireland’s smallest county, as well as regimental museums for the Royal Inniskillings Fusiliers and the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards – harking back to the castle’s use as barracks for almost a century.

Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle is one of the most dramatic castle locations in the British Isles. Perched on a rocky ledge, and surrounded on all sides by sheer rock faces, today it is still only reachable via a vertiginous and narrow bridge.

Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, first built it in the early 16th century but it often came under siege. In 1584 the infamous Sorley Boy MacDonnell of the local MacDonnell clan captured it from the English when one of his men, employed in the castle, hauled his comrades up the cliff in a basket.

It is just one of many tales that mingle with local legends and ghost stories making this an essential stopping off point for all those who revel in the romantic notion of the castle siege and the impregnable and inhospitable fortification.

Carrickfergus Castle

The mighty stronghold of Carrickfergus Castle, once the centre of Anglo-Norman power in Ulster, is a remarkably complete and well-preserved early medieval castle – intact despite 750 years of continuous military occupation.

From its strategic position on a rocky promontory, originally surrounded by sea, the castle commanded Belfast Lough, and the land approaches into the walled town that developed beneath its shadow. Today visitors can enjoy the castle battlements, visit the beautifully preserved medieval great hall and learn about the varied military strategic roles the castle has fulfilled in a long and turbulent history.

 

North East

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Warkworth Castle © James West (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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Warkworth Castle & Hermitage

Warkworth castle sits atop a hill that overlooks the surrounding valleys and hillscapes. Built in the mid-twelfth century, it was abandoned after a Scottish army invaded in 1173. It was rebuilt and since endured many attacks from Scottish forces. Although few of the castle’s walls remain, it casts an impressive figure high in the hillside and has incredible views of the North-eastern English countryside.

When climbing the steep hill to arrive at the broken castle walls, one can’t but help imagine the difficulty in attacking such an enormous uphill structure, let alone with a moat and defences surrounding the walls. It is a complex castle with many elements which have been added over the centuries from a stair tower, surrounded by a now empty moat, to a kitchen adjacent to a chapel.

Alnwick Castle

Built after the Norman conquest in Northumberland, Alnwick is the second most inhabited castle in the UK after Windsor, and receives almost one million visitors per year, as of 2012. Baron of Alnwick erected the first parts of the castle in about 1096. A beautiful but deadly garden surrounds the castle, added by the first Duke of Northumberland in 1750, with a water cascade centring the garden paths.

One of only three castles that was besieged during the war of the roses, visitors can stand on the battlements of Alnwick and look across the same fields where the Lancaster army would have awaited the surrender of the besieged inhabitants. The library is also holds a grand collection of book-filled bookshelves two stories high.

Dunstanburgh Castle

The 40 minute walk to the castle is one of the most scenic walks the country has to offer – while the castle’s ruins are extremely atmospheric, and its great gatehouse has been said to be one of the most imposing structures in any English castle, the true beauty lies in the iconic route to the ruins. Views of the dramatic ruins from the wave-battered coastline remind visitors of the insurmountable task that assailants would have had when attacking the castle. John of Gaunt, one of the richest men in England in the 14th century, fortified the castle against the Scots and the peasant uprisings by converting the towered gatehouse into a keep.

Newcastle Castle

The castle from which Newcastle takes its name was built ‘Upon Tyne’ by the son of William the conqueror who gave his approval to build the stone keep. The castle was built over the site of a Roman fort named Pons Aelius which guarded a bridge over the river Tyne. Visitors can stand atop the keep and see a very different view than the Roman residents looking out on the settlement almost two-thousand years ago would have known.

The black gate, an integral part of the keep, was added later by Henry III. From within, it is not difficult to imagine the castle’s swift conversion from garrison to prison in the 18th century. The solid rectangle of stone stands in the centre of the city and tells the unique story of how Newcastle came to exist from its humble Roman beginnings.

Lindisfarne Castle

Lindisfarne was the site of the first Viking raid upon England. Not only was it frequently attacked by Vikings, but it was also raided by the Scots who made a battleground of the area. The Vikings famously raided Lindisfarne in 793 in an act which sent shock waves throughout the Christian West. The Vikings killed many villagers and sacked the priory, taking as much as they could carry.

A second priory was constructed after the attack in defiance of the raid as Lindisfarne began to be repaired. The castle was built from the stones of this second priory which was eventually de-constructed in 1550, capturing the spirit of resistance which the Christian settlers used to resist the Vikings.

Bamburgh Castle

Archaeological evidence suggests that the site of Bamburgh Castle has been inhabited since 10,000 BC. The castle we see today, positioned along the ridgeway route which is considered to be Britain’s oldest road, is built on a Norman fortress.

During the Hundred Years War Scottish monarch King David II was imprisoned here following defeat at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. The castle also played a role during the Wars of the Roses and was the first English castle to be defeated by artillery.

This did not seal the castle’s fate. In 1894 it was purchased by Victorian industrialist William Armstrong, who completed restoration works started by the castle’s previous owner. A museum to Armstrong’s manufacturing company can be seen in the castle’s laundry rooms, with objects including aviation and weaponry artefacts from both World Wars.

 

North West

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Clitheroe Castle © Damian Entwistle (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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Clitheroe Castle

The Norman stone enclosure castle that dominates the skyline of the Lancashire town of Clitheroe is thought to have been built in the early 12th century. Built on a steep limestone rock overlooking the river Ribble, the castle offered extensive views over the Ribble Valley – a significant transport route.

During the Civil War the castle was used by the Lancashire militia, and when it was disbanded in 1649 the members occupied the castle in a dispute about their pay. Clitheroe, along with a number of other castles throughout England, was partially destroyed to prevent its future use. The early-medieval castle is now in ruin and only the castle keep, which is the second smallest stone keep in England, and part of the curtain wall remain.

Lancaster Castle

This medieval castle dominates the skyline of Lancaster. Built around the 11th or 12th century, the castle was in Royal control until being seized by a small Parliamentarian force during the Civil War.

Lancaster was used consistently as a prison for several centuries and was the site of over 200 executions. Some of the most notable executions to take place at the castle were that of the Pendle Witches, in 1612, whose trials were the most famous witch trials in English history. The Castle continued to be used as a prison right up until the start of the 21st century, lattery for high-security trials.

A combination of little military action and the castle’s continued use throughout the centuries has perhaps lead to the castle’s magnificent condition today. The John O’Gaunt Gatehouse is an impressive sight – perhaps the finest of its kind in England.

Beeston Castle

Perched atop a giant isolated rocky crag, Beeston Castle is a spectacular sight. Overlooking the village of Beeston, it is said that on a clear day you can see for 30 miles in each direction. The castle was built in the 1220s by Ranulf, 6th Earl of Chester but, despite being nearly 800 years old it was never fully completed. The castle today is a dramatic ruin, with winding woodland paths surrounding the fortress. This powerful landscape has been depicted by the Romantic artists, including JMW Turner.

Objects found here suggest that the site was an important location for metalworking during the later Bronze Age, and after this the site was used as an Iron Age hill fort. It’s a remarkable location accessed by a bridge that takes you over the moat, through the ruined gatehouse into the castle ruins, which are still marooned on an outcrop. As well as the views beyond the ruined walls the deepest castle well in England is steeped in legend as the hiding place of Richard II’s lost treasure.

Carlisle Castle

Claimed to be the most besieged in Britain, the prime strategic location of Carlisle Castle on the border of the north of England and Scotland meant it was the ideal spot to help defend England against the threat of Scottish invasion. The castle was originally built on the site of a former Roman settlement, during the reign of William II and its imposing keep dates from around the 1120s.

One feature not to miss is the fascinating stone carvings in the castle keep. Named the ‘prisoners’ carvings’ but more likely created by a guard on duty showing his allegiance to the lord warden and great local families the Percys and the Dacres, the intricate motifs and designs were finely carved in around the 1480s.

Brougham Castle

The medieval Brougham Castle, built on the site of a former Roman fort, was constructed by Anglo-Norman landowner Robert de Vieuxpont, one of very few supporters of King John in the North.

Given its position near the border with Scotland the castle became an important military base. During the Wars of Scottish Independence it was used by Robert Clifford, 1st Baron de Clifford, who was in charge of defending the border with Scotland. He ordered that the castles fortifications were improved, and had stone walls and a gatehouse added.

The castle stood empty from the early 18th century onwards, but during the Romantic era interest in the castle was piqued again as the Lake District became popular with artists and writers, who found inspiration in ruins such as Brougham. Today the picturesque ruin, still standing where the rivers Easmont and Lowther meet, can be admired up-close, so you can explore the sights that influenced the likes of Wordsworth and Turner.

 

Scotland

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Edinburgh Castle © Allan Watt (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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Edinburgh Castle

Like the previous entry, Edinburgh Castle is also vying for the title of most besieged in Britain. Quite possibly the most iconic castle in Scotland, the imposing 12th century fortress dominates the city’s skyline from the top of a craggy extinct volcano, known as Castle Rock. Whoever controlled the castle controlled Edinburgh, and therefore the whole of Scotland; because of this, the castle has been wrestled back and forth between the English and the Scots.

Visitors to the castle today can learn about its vast and varied history as an important home for Scottish royalty, the last castle held for James VII, the site of unsuccessful attempts of the Jacobites to restore the Stuarts to the throne, as a large military base and a prisoner of war camp.

Stirling Castle

Sitting atop a rocky outcrop Stirling Castle is one of the grandest of all Scottish castles and was one of the most used Scottish royal residences prior to the union with England.

Over 900 years of history has unfolded amidst the castle walls and, unsurprisingly, the castle has many a story to tell. Having homed James IV, V and VI at some timeduring their reigns, Stirling is perhaps the country’s best gateway to the Stuart monarchy.

Interestingly, the world’s oldest football was discovered within the castle, found behind panelling in the Queen’s bedchamber. Made from a pig’s bladder covered in leather, it is thought that it could have belonged to a young Mary Queen of Scots.

Eilean Donan

Although the building that now stands here is a recreation, built in the first half of the 20th century, the site of Eilean Donan is steeped in history. Eilean Donan (meaning Island of Donnán) was fortified in the early 13th century, to protect Scotland from the Vikings. Its position at the point where three sea lochs, Loch Long, Loch Alsh and Loch Duich, meet meant the castle had a strong defensive position.

Prior to its restoration the picturesque castle, sitting alone on a small island, stood for 200 years as a ruin. The fortress was demolished in 1719 by the Navy after a party of Spanish Jacobites occupied the castle, lead by the Duke of Ormonde and the 10th Earl Marischal. The castle structure was rebuilt using the surviving ground plan, and the stunning site today is one of the most photographed views in Scotland.

Urquhart Castle

The important strategic placement of castles often means they were built in some truly awe-inspiring locations. Urquhart Castle is no exception. Situated on a rocky ridge overlooking the famous Loch Ness, this imposing, now ruined, castle has stood through hundreds of years of Scottish history.

It is thought that the site was originally home to a Pictish fort, once visited by Christian missionary St Columba. The castle we see today was constructed in the 13th century and played an important role in the Scots’ struggle for independence. The castle was finally put out of action in the late 1600s when the 16th century gatehouse was destroyed by government forces to prevent the fortress from being used as a Jacobite stronghold.

Caerlaverock Castle

In the Dumfries area, there stands what most people might think of when they ponder the term castle. The uniquely-shaped triangular Caerlaverock Castle, which rises dramatically out of a moat, is like something from a storybook.

The castle was built by Clan Maxwell in the late 13th century and came under siege by Kind Edward I of England shortly after, during the Wars of Independence. By the end of the war the Maxwells had regained the castle and in the 17th century they built a grand residence within the fortress’ red sandstone walls.

Just 10 years later, in 1640, the castle was besieged again. The curtain wall was demolished and the castle was abandoned, leaving a ruin that serves as a reminder of the bloody battle between north and south.

 

South East

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Dover Castle © Harshil Shah (CC BY-ND 2.0)
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Dover Castle

One of the most important fortresses in medieval England, Dover Castle sits atop the town’s famous white cliffs, offering a vantage point over the shortest sea crossing between England and Europe. The construction of the castle we see today was started in the 1180s under the order of King Henry II, and the structure was improved, adapted and strengthened over the following 800 years, to keep it protected from changing weapons and warfare. The unusual shape of the site hints that it was possibly an Iron Age hillfort, and the spectacular Roman lighthouse within the castle complex proves that the castle’s history did indeed begin far earlier than the 12th century.

As well as surviving a major siege by the French in the early 13th century, the castle was also of huge importance during the Napoleonic wars. The tunnel barracks built to house thousands of  troops served in WW2, first as air raid shelters and then a military command centre for the Navy. It was here that Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay lead Operation Dynamo – the extraordinary evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk.

Walmer Castle

Walmer Castle is a remarkably well-preserved Tudor stronghold, built between 1539 and 1540 by Henry VIII to counter the threat of invasion from France and the Holy Roman Empire.

From the early 18th century the castle has been used as the official residence for the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Changing from an important role as keeper of the coast to a purely honorary title in the early 1700s the residence was moved from the more strategically-placed Dover Castle, to the more comfortable Walmer Castle.

Visitors can enjoy the well-kept and ordered Tudor gardens before moving on to explore the castle’s many turrets, bastions and gatehouses.

Bodiam Castle

Quite possibly the most perfect castle-shaped castle of all, the satisfyingly symmetrical moated fortress reminds you of a childhood drawing come to life. Aesthetics aside, Bodiam is rich with history; built in the 14th century by a former knight of Edward III, Edward Dalyngrigge, to protect his family and estate from a looming threat from the French.

Bodiam has its own original wooden portcullis dating nearly 700 years old – an extremely rare feature. Inside, enough of the structure remains to give a sense that this impressive building was designed for luxury, as well as protection. Bodiam Castle today is certainly the most picturesque ruin in Sussex.

Windsor Castle

Famous, of course, as the residence where the Queen spends many of her weekends, Berkshire’s Windsor Castle is both the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. The castle was constructed on the order of William the Conqueror around 1070, originally designed to guard the west of London. It has since been home to 40 monarchs and the famous Gothic St George’s Chapel in the castle grounds is the final resting place for 10 of them.

The castle’s buildings reveal almost 1,000 years of history, from surviving the bloody English Civil War when it was used as the Roundheads’ headquarters and a prison for Charles I, to hosting a plethora of royal weddings.

Arundel Castle

This sprawling stone structure dominates the landscape of the market town of Arundel in West Sussex. While it was originally built at the end of the 11th century by Roger de Montgomery, who had become the first Earl of Arundel by the graces of William the Conqueror, Arundel Castle was almost completely remodelled during the Victorian era.

The oldest remaining feature of this motte and double bailey castle is the nearly 1,000-year-old motte. Standing at over 100ft high, the artificial mound supports the keep, which offers incredible views of the town, the South Downs and the sea.

Portchester Castle

Given the ambiguity surrounding the term ‘castle’ and the fact that these structures are augmented, altered and reconstructed over hundreds of years, Porchester Castle in Hampshire is definitely a contender for one of the oldest in the country. A medieval castle built within a Roman fort, this site was originally fortified to protect Roman Britain from Saxon pirates in the 3rd century.

The castle’s still impressive Norman keep was built around the beginning of the 12th century, and from 1154 to 1632 Portchester was a royal castle. It was from here that Henry V launched an attack on France, which culminated in his triumph at the Battle of Agincourt – an important English victory in the Hundred Years’ War.

Hever Castle & Gardens

Once the childhood home of Anne Boleyn – Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife and mother to Queen Elizabeth I – Hever Castle is steeped in over 700 years of history. Though the oldest parts of the castle, including the glorious gatehouse, were built in the late 13th century, it’s its Tudor history that most captures the imagination.

The castle regales you with captivating tales of Anne Boleyn and the infamous King who moved heaven and earth to marry her, and had her executed just three years later. You can view Anne Boleyn’s modest bedroom, her prayer books, and the bedchamber that is thought to have accommodated Henry VIII himself.

You can also learn about the Astors – the family who lovingly cared for the castle. William Waldorf Astor purchased the Castle in 1903, and by 1906 the castle had been meticulously restored. Two years later he created the beautiful gardens which feature not one but two mazes for you to while away some time in.

 

South West

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St Michael's Mount © Werner Wilmes (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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St Michael’s Mount

Standing proud on a tidal island in Mount’s Bay is perhaps Cornwall’s most iconic sight, St Michael’s Mount, whose earliest buildings date from the 12th century. The church and priory at the heart of the island were built by monks from its sister isle in Normandy – Mont St Michel, and still hold services today.

The mount was captured later in the 12th century by a group of supporters of Prince John, and the buildings were later used as fortresses during the Wars of the Roses, the Cornish Rebellion and the English Civil War. After the end of the Civil war the mount was used by Colonel St Aubyn, Governor of the island, who was in charge of keeping the peace in the area.

Today the history, folklore and beauty of the island can be visited from the seaside town of Marazion which is just a stroll, wade or boat ride away (depending on the tide, of course).

Tintagel Castle

The west country boasts many a dramatic castle location, but most famous of all is the fortification at Tintagel. Known worldwide as the seat and birthplace of the mythical English King Arthur, the Arthurian connection is merely one reason to visit Tintagel Castle.

Joined to the mainland by a narrow stretch of land – it makes for a stunningly dramatic location – visitors can explore coves and caves and let the mystery surrounding the castle’s origins stir the imagination.

Pendennis Castle

Dominating a rocky headland not far from Falmouth, Pendennis Castle was built by Henry VIII between 1550 and 1552 to protect against the ever-increasing threat from the French and the Holy Roman Empire. One of the country’s finest coastal fortresses, the vast castle walls contain a 16th century circular keep and gun platform, which offer spectacular views over the sea.

An important strategic location connecting Britain with the continent, the castle was held by Royalists during the Civil War until eventually succumbing to the Parliamentarians in 1646 after a long siege. The castle was then used by the British Army as an important supply base during the Napoleonic Wars. The castle is home to many spectacular guns, which were in action as recently as the Second World War.

Corfe Castle

Constructed by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and remaining a royal household until 1572, a thousand years of history are waiting to be revealed at Corfe Castle.

During the Civil War Corfe Castle was one of the last remaining Royalist strongholds. Testament to its strength, the castle was subjected to two sieges, and eventually fell to the Parliamentarians after a bloody fight and many fatalities on the attacking side. The castle was slighted so that it could no longer be used and after the war ended was left in ruin.

Today you can walk the ruins, which are still extensive and impressive, and marvel at the scale of the structure that used to stand here.

Totnes Castle

Situated in the centre of the Saxon town of Totnes, perched right at the top of the high street overlooking the town, this classic motte and bailey Norman castle is one of the best preserved in England. Apart from watching over the Saxon town, the Normans chose their site well as the castle occupies a key strategic spot, covering the approach of three valleys.

The surviving stone keep and curtain wall date from around the 14th century and outside the castle walls a steep-sided ditch and outer bank which would have formed part of the original defences for the entrance can be explored. It’s a small castle, but if you want to get a real sense of the scale of an early Norman castle, Totnes is one of the best and important examples we have.

Visitors can climb the sweeping stairs up to the large circular castle keep and take in the wonderful 360° views over the town, river and rolling hills, visit the ancient Holm Oak, thought to be over 150 years old.

Berry Pomeroy Castle

Tucked away in a wooded valley, this 15th century family castle is one of the last personal castles built in England. It was constructed for the de la Pomeroy family, who held the feudal barony of Berry Pomeroy since the Norman Conquest. It then passed to Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset in the mid 1500s.

Inside is the shell of the Elizabethan house, built by the Seymours, and the remains of a great hall, which now lies semi ruined and open to the elements to offer sweeping views of the Devon countryside. One of the fifteenth century towers has a dungeon – said to be haunted by Elizabeth Pomeroy – and on the first floor of the late medieval gatehouse there is a high ceilinged room with a fifteenth century wall painting depicting the adoration of the magi.

 

Wales

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Caernarfon Castle © Harshil Shah (CC BY-ND 2.0)
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Caernarfon Castle

Caernarforn Castle is one of Britain’s most historic and intimidating pieces of military architecture. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site it was built in 1283 under the rule of Edward I, who used it to control north Wales.

Designed by world famous 13th century architect James of St George, it’s majestic polygonal towers, multi-coloured stone and hourglass shape is still intact to represent a rich history. The Welsh rebelled against English rule in the town of Caernarfon and the first English Prince of Wales, Edward I’s son, was born in the Castle. The current Prince of Wales, Charles, was given his title there.

A visit today offers plenty of opportunity to explore its many towers, spiralling stone stairways, atmospheric passageways and battlements, which offer stunning views downriver towards the sea. An interactive museum charts the castle’s history and the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum is packed with uniforms and objects charting 300 years of Wales’ oldest infantry regiment.

Harlech Castle

Considered one of the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe, Harlech Castle is one of Britiain’s most magnificent castles.

Part of the ring of castles Edward I had built to defend Wales designed by James of St George, Harlech is another classic concentric construction, meaning there are two large walls defending this impressive building. These were vital during the Wars of the Roses when Harlech Castle was in Lancastrian hands and withstood seven years’ of attacks. Located on a hill with a moat that once connected the castle to the Irish Sea (which has since receded) food could be shipped in whilst the castle was under siege.

As well as battlements towering over a vertical cliff face offering stunning views of Snowdonia National Park it also boasts four large round towers and an imposing gatehouse.

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff castle is a unique structure. Its blend of periods and architectural styles include Roman, Norman and Gothic Victorian and a visit journeys from the medieval to the modern periods.

The original castle is a motte and bailey type originally built in the 11th century, commissioned either by William the Conquerer or Robert Fitzhamon. Today the ruined but still impressive keep sits atop the original motte and is said to be the best of its type in Wales.  A climb to its viewing platform rewards you with panoramic views of the city. Elsewhere the castle boasts an accurate replica of a 13th century siege engine, and a sumptuous Victorian Gothic fantasy palace built for the 3rd Marquess of Bute whose taste for over the top medieval fantasy complements the castle’s heritage.

Beneath the castle walls are tunnels that were used as World War Two air raid shelters, which can be explored and Firing Line: Cardiff Castle Museum of the Welsh Soldier offers a state of the art exploration of the history of the 1st The Queens Dragoon Guards and The Royal Welsh regiments.

Powis Castle

The beautiful Powis Castle, located near Welshpool, was built by a Welsh prince in the 13th century – not for military purposes but as a royal residence. The castle has been a home for much of its life, giving it the look and feel of a stately home and its state rooms – including a bedroom surviving from the 1660s – boast many original treasures and exquisite decorations.

Today it is famous for its museum holding the many treasures ‘acquired’ in India by the controversial Robert Clive and his son Edward Clive during the 1700s.

Powis is also renowned for its attractive formal gardens – a rare survivor of the baroque style of terraced eighteenth century garden design – and its parkland. And as you might expect in Wales, visitors who walk to the top of the castle are met with gorgeous views of the Welsh countryside.

Caerphilly Castle

Caerphilly castle is Britain’s second biggest castle with an astonishing 30 acres (120,000m) of space to explore. A spectacular place, it was constructed by Gilbert de Clare in 1290 in order to conquer Glamorgan. Since then this castle experienced invasions by the English, wars between the Welsh and the Anglo-Normans and the Welsh revolts.

Britain’s first concentric castle, Caerphilly has tall inner and outer walls and a leaning, semi ruined tower which has become a popular tourist attraction. A beautiful large moat and flooded lakes surround much of the castle and visitors walk on a bridge over the moat through a magnificent gatehouse – a wonderful way to enter this old medieval fortress.

Inside there are towers to climb, curtain walls to explore a, a grand hall to enter and a display of siege engines. New family activities for 2018 include an immersive and interactive maze exploring the history of the castle and its defences and a dramatic dragon’s lair installation in the leaning tower.

Conwy Castle

Conwy castle was built in the 13th century as part of Edward I’s chain of fortifications across Wales and was designed by the pre-eminent castle builder James of St George.

In 1294-95 it withstood the siege of Madog ap Llywelyn, and acted as a haven for Richard III in 1399. During the Tudor period it was also used as a prison by Henry VIII before being held by forces loyal to Charles I during the English Civil War, which meant it was slighted by parliamentary forces in the war’s aftermath.

An extensive restoration of what had become a picturesque ruin means that today the castle boasts eight towers and a high curtain wall forming a rectangular shape. Climb to the top of one of the towers and you will be met with a stunning view over the Welsh countryside and mountains. Visitors can also walk three quarters of a mile of walls and view the many rooms inside as well as the great hall. If spiral stone stairs and turrets are your thing, then Conwy is a must visit.

Raglan Castle

It may have arrived late in the medieval castle building chronology (it was begun in 1430), but Raglan Castle in Monmouthshire is a spectacular ruin with a massive gatehouse and towers that have the prerequisite wow factor to make it an essential stopping off point for any self-respecting castle buff.

Having passed from Sir William ap Thomas to his son William Herbert, Raglan became one of the finest and best fortified Welsh castles of the late medieval period, during which it was added to and developed by successive owners. By the time of the English Civil War it was a Royalist stronghold, and like many castles of Britain that chose that path, the fateful allegiance sealed its fate.

Today, Cromwell’s attempted destruction of the fortress does not dampen the experience of visiting – and thanks in part to the 19th and 20th century restorations, he may have even heightened it. The impressive gatehouse leads to a sprawling courtyard with gothic windows that survey the surrounding fields and the Great Tower, protected by its own moat, can be climbed to take in the stunning views of Monmouthshire. A restored grand staircase gives you a glimpse into the grandeur of the castle’s apartments.

Pembroke Castle

Famous as the birthplace of Henry VII, Pembroke Castle was established as a stone structure in the early medieval period when William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, built the commanding fortification on the banks of the Pembroke River. Despite the inevitable destruction that followed in the wake of the Civil War, extensive restorations in the late and early twentieth centuries make this an impressive and rewarding visit.

Exhibition rooms feature full scale dioramas depicting everything from the birth of Henry VII to a medieval banquet and the great keep, an imposing round structure dating to 1204, stands to a height of 80 feet and boasts a stone domed roof that, thanks to the lack of flooring, you can view from the interior. If you have a good head for heights you can climb to the top for stunning views of Pembrokeshire.

Beneath terra firma an atmospheric natural cavern, called Wogan’s Cavern, can be explored that dates back to the Paleolithic period and was incorporated into the medieval design of the castle and a 13th century dungeon tower has a dramatic medieval pit dungeon you can peer into. The guided tour is recommended and, as well as a plethora of suitably attired mannequins, you are likely to encounter ‘real life’ knights wandering around who are on hand to entertain the kids.

Chepstow Castle

The oldest building at Chepstow Castle is the Norman great tower but such was this imposing fortification’s longevity that improvements to its design and battlements were still being made in the 17th century.

It survived the Civil War relatively intact, but after a period as a garrison following the war, the castle fell into disrepair and by the eighteenth century it had become a picturesque ruin that soon gained popularity as a tourist destination.

Apart from its stunning location, hugging the banks of the River Wye, the still imposing Chepstow Castle boasts a remarkable twelfth century wooden door and a wide range of accessible castle ruins ranging from battlements to Marten’s Tower.

 

West Midlands

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Warwick Castle © Colin Howley (CC BY-ND 2.0)
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Warwick Castle

As one of the greatest tributes to the Norman Conquest surviving into the modern era, Warwick castle has no rival in terms of sheer magnificence and splendour. It also encapsulates one of the most famous examples of 14th century architecture when it was refortified during the Hundred-Years War.

With a huge open space inside the castle walls, the structure offers one of the most incredibly atmospheric experiences of UK castles, including battlements, boardrooms, trebuchets, and an intricate collection of medieval armour. Although renowned as tourist attraction with many commercial attractions on offer within its walls it is one of the most intact surviving motte-and-bailey castles in the country.

Kenilworth Castle

A ghostly red-keep, glazed with emerald moss in the summer and snowy tops in the winter, Kenilworth castle is an all-encompassing castle-palace layered with history. It endured the longest siege in English history during the Second Barons’ War, and formed a base on Lancastrian operations during the War of the Roses. The same halls where medieval war generals planned their attacks on rival houses can be traversed by visitors eager to unearth the roots of history buried beneath these walls. It has been described by historian Anthony Emery as: “The finest surviving example of a semi-royal palace of the later middle ages, significant for its scale, form and quality of workmanship.” All semi-intact parts of the castle, as well as the Elizabethan keep, can be fully explored.

Goodrich Castle

A great castle in a strategic position close to the Welsh border, overlooking the river. Goodrich changed hands between Parliamentary and then Royalist forces in the English Civil War of the 1640s and was battered when Colonel John Birch successfully besieged the castle in 1646. The bombardment of the castle was carried out with ‘Roaring Meg’ mortar cannons, slighting the castle and leading to its ruin. The events at the castle became the inspiration for Wordsworth’s famous 1798 poem “We are Seven.”

Shrewsbury Castle

A red sandstone castle, Shrewsbury overlooks the river Severn and the nearby town, and is an impressive military history museum. The collection within includes unique items such as personal diaries from soldiers who fought in the Second World War, as well as a German eagle taken by the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. The red stone and collection provides an exclusive insight into the local history of the town and the British military service.

Stafford Castle

A steep walk up the hill in a forest clearing reveals Stafford castle, a 14th century keep constructed to control and extract taxes from the Anglo-Saxon community in preparation for the Norman conquest of Wales.

In 1521, the crown seized control of the castle and its lands in the name of Henry VIII, who had its owner Edward Stafford executed because of the perceived threat to his regality. It was later defended by the Royalists against the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. The castle’s narrow hallways provide insight into a historical edifice which has been worn down by the centuries yet survived through history.

Ludlow Castle

Sitting innocuously tucked away at the end of the town square in Ludlow, Shropshire you will find one of the first stone castles built in Britain. Founded by Walter de Lacy in about 1075 Ludlow Castle occupies a commanding position on a steep-sided ridge overlooking the valleys of the River Teme and the River Corve, with the town nestled into its south east side.

The castle has a long and complicated history that saw it pass between nobles and royals but it was an important stronghold in both the Barons War and the War of the Roses and became the seat of the Council of Wales and the Marches, which effectively ruled the principality of Wales and the bordering counties from the 15th to the 17th centuries.

Although many of its buildings are in a ruinous condition, this often forgotten castle is a treasure trove of features that illustrate how castles in Britain developed over five centuries of changing use. It’s also surprisingly extensive, covering a large site filled with nooks, crannies and winding staircases, including the Great Tower and a rare medieval circular chapel, which was modelled on the shrine in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

 

Yorkshire

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Clifford's Tower © Jon Benson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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Clifford’s Tower

Clifford’s Tower, the only remaining original piece of York Castle which was begun during the reign of William the Conqueror is the old castle keep built in the reign of Henry II using a four-lobed design, which some believe to be French in origin.

The open-air wall walk, once used as a vantage point for castle guards, offers panoramic views of the city as well as an insight into the remaining clues of the layout of the original castle across the city. A simple but important building with a fascinating history that includes pogroms, Dick Turpin and a famous explosion.

Scarborough Castle

This stronghold boasts a history stretching back to the Bronze age but it had its zenith in the 12th century when it was developed by Henry II and King John but was eventually decimated by a series of Civil War sieges.

Covering a 16 acre site, this sprawling ruin dominates the headland above the seaside town and its history can still be explored thanks to the English Heritage audio guide, which uncovers the story of its ruined remains including the 12th-century enclosure castle, 18th-century battery and an Anglo Saxon chapel.

Conisbrough Castle

Conisbrough castle boasts a stone-curtain wall as well as a fortified inner and outer-bailey. It was built in the 11th century but quickly fell into disrepair. It served as the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe and contains several impressive structures inside such as a hall, solar, and chapel. The castle allows great access to these areas and a lot of its interior remains intact, with three floors accessible by stairs. If you can climb the many steps it takes to reach it, the top of the castle’s fortified tower can also be explored.

Ripley Castle

A shimmering lake, with clear water the colour of green pastures can be found at the bottom of Ripley Castle. But instead of a medieval fortress you will find a 14th century country-home, complete with smart brick chimneys and ivy-ensnared window frames. Edeline Thwenge acquired the manor-house as part of her dowry after her marriage with Sir Thomas Ingleby, whose son saved king Edward III, earning the family the boar’s head symbol as its crest. This ‘castle’ is famous for its mesmerizing gardens and leisurely country walks in the nearby grounds.

Helmsley Castle

Built in 1120 under the rule of Henry I, this castle has a mysterious and largely hidden past. It has survived a civil war siege, the second world war and a politician’s procurement. In sunshine, light streams through the crevices in the damaged tower and lands on the humble ruins of what was once a magnificent castle. A stone bridge allows visitors a short but sweetly alluring trip to a castle with great surrounding wildlife and scenery.

Contributors: Kate McNab, Richard MossTom Brown, Luke Perdrix (GCSE student)

4 comments on “Britain’s best places to see: Castles

  1. Lynda Burns on

    I am a regular reader of Museum Crush and have to say I was CRUSHED ! to see so short a list for Scotlands Castles ? I realsie there could be too many to list but a better list like the regional o0ne of England of more important structures would have been helpful.
    Love the newsletter however, thank you.
    Lynda Burns

    Reply
    • Kate McNab on

      Hi Lynda, sorry to disappoint. You’re right, there are loads of Scottish castles that could have made the list so we’ll be putting some more time into researching Scotland, as well as a couple other regions. The article will grow as more castle are researched and added, and so needless to say we’ll be adding more from Scotland in a future update – keep your eyes peeled! What are some of your favourites?
      – Kate

      Reply
  2. Maya Harrison on

    Whaaaaat? No Pontefract Castle??????

    Once known as The Key to the North.
    Features in William Shakespeare’s play Richard II.
    Where Catherine Howard was caught having an affair with Thomas Culpepper leading to her beheading in 1542.
    Scene of Civil Wars sieges.
    Used for liquorice cultivation.
    Home to a beautiful new visitor centre…

    Come visit and I’m sure it would make the list….
    🙂

    Reply
    • Kate McNab on

      Wow, quite a case you make there Maya! We will definitely be adding more castles to the list in due course and I’m sure we can accommodate Pontefract Castle on our next update!
      – Kate

      Reply

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