Back to Medieval Times: English Castle Day

There are TONS and TONS of castles across all of Great Britain.  Now, I am obviously a huge fan of history, but for whatever reason, tromping around to castle after castle is not what this trip was about.  I did see my fair share, but it was mostly contained to interesting ones that happened to be already on my route.  Luckily for me, there are two quite historically important (& cool) options right near each other, almost exactly on my route north from the Cotswolds to the Peak District, bypassing the major industrial city of Birmingham (thank goodness, no offense to the I'm sure lovely people who live there).

The first up was important to me because it is the former home to the Kingmaker, aka Richard Neville, the Duke of Warwick.  This guy is basically the reason the Wars of the Roses lasted so long.  He started out with the Lancasters, swapped over to put the Yorks on the throne, then stupidly tried to get the York brothers to fight against each other to try to get one of his 2 daughters on the throne (and therefore de facto rule through her).  Even though he succeeded (younger daughter was married to Richard III), he still jumped ship back to the desperate former Lancastrian Queen (and got killed in battle for it).  So, yeah- I wanted to see where he lived.  It's now quite the tourist attraction (owned by Madam Tussaud's), chock full of school-group-friendly exhibits which are likely more historically accurate than Medieval Times, but that's the idea, complete with catapult demonstrations.  However, if you sort of ignore the cheese & avoid the crowds, there's lots worth looking at.  You can climb the ramparts (pretty views of the surrounding town & fields!) and learn a bit about defense mechanisms. YES- they did apparently have a place to trap oncoming enemies to drop hot oil on them!

After my trip up the towers & across the ramparts, I explored further.  You could head down into one old wing for the Kingmaker "preparing for battle" exhibit that was mostly terrible, but mildly interesting.  (Oh, what tons of poor farmers went through in the name of honor & glory for the Duke!)  There were other exhibits that I didn't bother with but would be super kid-friendly (like Merlin's World), but I did head into the main "living" area of the castle which was lovingly restored by the heir in the 1800's.  This was particularly cool partly because he was a MAJOR collector of armor & the collection includes a full child's set which is thought to be young King Charles II's.  Also providing a cool factor?  Said heir & his wife were MAJOR party animals, and threw such lavish parties that they were reported about in national papers.  Supposedly during one such extravaganza the giant stone cauldron from olden times located in the great hall was refilled about 15 times w/some sort of gin punch.  I don't have a pic of it, but it was impressively large.  There was also a fun little upstairs tour of the rooms centered around the "scandals & secrets" of a house party - like Downton Abbey except for real with actual letter excerpts from real people with documented philandering.  

For lunch I grabbed a fairly terrible burger & headed out to the lovely gardens for some peace.  Who decided to join me?  Oh, just one of the peacocks that "guard" the castle.  (There are tons of them wandering around the fittingly named "Peacock Gardens".)  He literally chilled out in front of me for my entire lunch, and for dessert decided to pop his tail up & pose for some photos.  Too cool!  

After lunch, I decided to skip the trebuchet demonstration (!) & head to my next castle stop of the day.  Located about 20 minutes away, Kenilworth Castle is perhaps more historically important (and a strategic balance to the power held at Warwick Castle), but 100% less touristy & spit-shined.  I mean- it's really just ruins with a wall around it.  Just enough of the formerly magnificent complex remains that you get some picture of what life may have been like for any of the MAJOR figures who spent time there.  So- there are really three main periods when Kenilworth was important.  WAAAY back when King John was around, they built the massive Norman tower which survived a major seige, and would be in perfect condition because of how strongly it was built, but it was purposely "slighted" after the English civil war in the 1600's.  You can see how thick the walls were built with the pic of the wall which was torn down.  

The second major builder to Kenilworth was John of Gaunt back in the 14th century. He's basically the father of the Lancaster branch of the Wars of the Roses, in a way, and was by all reports amazing - the perfect chivalrous knight.  Only a little bit of his great hall remains, but enough does that you can tell how advanced & luxurious it must have been back in those times - giant frames for stained-glass windows, massive fireplace bays, etc.  

And finally its last "glory days" were back in the Tudor period when Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester was a favorite in the court of Elizabeth I.  He added on a whole new wing specifically for when she came to visit one time (when he tried to get her to marry him), along with the first Italian-style organized gardens in England.  They actually have completed now a viewing platform so you can get up the tower to see rooms where Elizabeth would have stayed, but that part was off-limits to me (you can see some scaffolding in the tower to the left in the 1st pic below).  There are still the Tudor-style stables (which is now a cafe), and they have also restored the little Gatehouse that Dudley built (in a 12c-style to match the keep) which has a little museum w/Elizabeth & Dudley artifacts.  Being a Tudor nut, I liked this part a bunch!  

After wandering around the ruins I was well & truly cold, and needed to get on the road to make it to my guesthouse in Derbyshire before dark.  I was really quite happy with my first two castle visits, so I definitely took advantage of others I saw on my way.  There are SO MANY MORE though... Take a look at this site if you don't believe me, or if this post tempts you to explore further: http://www.castlexplorer.co.uk/

Up next- the Peak District, aka another Pride & Prejudice mecca.