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The History of Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle is an important historical site located in Warwickshire, England. It has a rich and fascinating history spanning over 900 years. It has Norman origins and was originally built in the early 1120s by Geoffrey de Clinton – the Chamberlain and Treasurer to King Henry I of England. The Castle was constructed using local stone and consisted of a large central tower known as the Great Tower or Keep. The Castle was strategically positioned in the heart of Warwickshire, providing a strong defensive position and a symbol of authority.

Picture Credit:Kenilworth Castle” by carolyngifford is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Here’s an overview of the key events and periods associated with Kenilworth Castle:

  • Royal Connections: Kenilworth Castle came into royal possession when King Henry I’s son, King Henry II, acquired the Castle through marriage. Subsequent monarchs, such as King John and King Henry III, invested in the Castle’s expansion and improvement, turning it into a grand fortress.
  • Simon de Montfort’s Rebellion (1263-1266): In the mid-13th century, Kenilworth Castle gained historical significance during the conflict known as the Second Barons’ War. Simon de Montfort, an influential noble, seized control of the Castle and used it as a base of operations against King Henry III. The Castle withstood several lengthy sieges before being recaptured by the royal forces.
  • Royal Palace (14th-16th centuries): In the 14th century, Kenilworth Castle became renowned as a royal palace rather than a purely military stronghold. It was expanded and enhanced by King John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, who transformed it into a luxurious residence. Subsequent monarchs, including Edward III and Henry V, also made improvements to the Castle.
  • Tudor Period: During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Kenilworth Castle gained further prominence. Kenilworth Castle reached the pinnacle of its fame during her reign in the 16th century. Robert Dudley (the Earl of Leicester), a close companion of the Queen, owned the Castle. Aiming to impress and court Elizabeth, he hosted her on two notable occasions: in 1563 and 1575. These visits were renowned for their extravagant pageantry and festivities, showcasing the Castle’s unashamed luxury and grandeur. Dudley spared no expense in entertaining the Queen, and the events became legendary in the annals of Tudor history.
    Decline and Ruin: After the death of Robert Dudley in 1588, Kenilworth Castle gradually fell into a state of disrepair. It was no longer a primary residence and was left abandoned. During the English Civil War in the 17th century, the Castle saw occasional military use, but it was largely neglected. In 1649, following the war, Parliament ordered the Castle to be “slighted,” meaning intentionally destroyed to prevent it from being used as a military stronghold. The Castle’s fortifications were partially dismantled, and its valuable materials were sold off.
  • Restoration and Present Day: Kenilworth Castle came into the possession of the state in the 1930s and is now managed by English Heritage. Restoration efforts have been undertaken to stabilise the remaining structures and create an engaging historical site for visitors. Although much of the Castle remains in ruins, significant sections have been partially reconstructed or preserved, allowing visitors to imagine its former grandeur. The Great Tower, the Elizabethan Gatehouse, the Leicester’s Building (see below), and the expansive Castle grounds are among the highlights that visitors can explore.

Picture Credit: Lord Robert Dudley c. 1560.
Attribution: Attributed to Steven van der Meulen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL:

Although now ruined due to the slighting or partial destruction of the Castle by Parliamentary forces in 1649 to prevent it from being used as a military stronghold after the English Civil War, Kenilworth illustrates five centuries of English military and civil architecture. The Castle is built almost entirely from new red sandstone sourced locally.[2]

In 1173, the palace became a Royal Castle. In 1252, King Henry III gave it away to Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester. The Castle was handed to John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, and later became a royal palace.[3]

Kenilworth Castle stands on a low hill that was once at the heart of a 4,000-acre park and is surrounded by a vast man-made lake. The spectacular ruins reveal much of its medieval and Tudor past.

Kenilworth Castle is steeped in English history, thanks to its connections to various monarchs and its involvement in medieval conflicts. It was founded after the Norman conquest of England in 1066 with development through to the Tudor period. Throughout its existence, the Castle has witnessed the rise and fall of kings, witnessed sieges, and served as a royal residence[4].

The Leicester’s Building
The Leicester’s Building, also known as Leicester’s Gatehouse, is a notable structure within Kenilworth Castle. It was named after Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, the owner of the Castle during the Tudor period.

The Leicester’s Building is a four-story gatehouse located in the northeastern corner of the Castle complex. It served as the main entrance to the Castle during Dudley’s ownership and was a significant addition to the existing fortifications. The gatehouse was constructed in the 1570s and designed to showcase Dudley’s wealth and power.

The Leicester’s Building features impressive architectural details, including ornate carvings, decorative mouldings, and a grand entrance. It is considered a fine example of Elizabethan architecture. The upper floors of the gatehouse would have housed the gatekeeper and provided living quarters for the Castle staff.

During Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Kenilworth Castle in 1575, the Leicester’s Building played a central role in the grand entertainment and festivities organised by Dudley to impress and court the Queen in the hope of marriage. The building served as a focal point for the elaborate pageantry and theatrical performances that took place during her stay.

Today, the Leicester’s Building stands as one of the well-preserved structures within the Castle ruins. While the interior is no longer intact, visitors can still appreciate the impressive exterior and architectural features of this significant gatehouse, which reflects the grandeur and aspirations of Robert Dudley during the Tudor era.

Who Built the Castle and When?[5]
The Castle was built over several centuries. Founded in the 1120s around a powerful Norman great tower, the Castle, built in the early 1120s by Geoffrey de Clinton, was significantly enlarged by King John at the beginning of the 13th century.

Huge water defences were created by damming the local streams, and the resulting fortifications proved capable of withstanding assaults by land and water in 1266 (see below).

John of Gaunt spent lavishly in the late 14th century, turning the medieval Castle into a palace fortress designed in the latest perpendicular style of the time. The Earl of Leicester then expanded the Castle during his tenure in the 16th century, constructing new Tudor buildings and exploiting the medieval heritage of Kenilworth to produce a fashionable Renaissance palace.

Picture Credit: Kenilworth castle” by barnyz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

1266: The Siege of Kenilworth
In 1266, Kenilworth Castle was the site of a significant event known as the Siege of Kenilworth. This siege occurred during the Second Barons’ War, a conflict between King Henry III of England and a group of rebel barons led by Simon V de Montfort. The rebel forces had taken control of the Castle earlier in the war, and it had become a key stronghold for their cause.

The siege began in the summer of 1266 when King Henry III and his forces laid siege to Kenilworth Castle to retake it from the rebels. The Castle was defended by a garrison commanded by Sir John du Plessis, a trusted supporter of Simon de Montfort.

The siege lasted several months, with the royal forces attempting to breach the Castle’s defences while the defenders held strong. The garrison used various defensive tactics, including counter-mining[6], to undermine the royal forces’ siege tunnels.

The siege became one of the longest and most formidable in medieval English history, lasting from June to December 1266[7]. The defenders resisted multiple assaults and endured a prolonged blockade. However, they eventually began to suffer from food shortages, and the Castle’s fortifications showed signs of weakening.

In December 1266, negotiations took place between the two sides, resulting in the surrender of the Castle. The terms of surrender were relatively favourable for the defenders, allowing them to depart safely with their lives and some of their belongings. The surrender marked the end of the siege and the recapture of Kenilworth Castle by the royal forces.

The Siege of Kenilworth was a notable event due to its duration and the Castle’s resilience. While ultimately unsuccessful in holding the Castle long-term, the defenders showcased remarkable tenacity and resourcefulness in withstanding the siege for such an extended period. The siege highlighted the strategic importance of Kenilworth Castle during the Second Barons’ War and underscored the challenges faced by both sides in medieval siege warfare.

Questions and Answers
Kenilworth Castle, located in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, England, has a complex history with various stages of construction spanning several centuries. The Castle’s origins date back to the early 1120s, when Geoffrey de Clinton, chamberlain and treasurer to King Henry I, began its initial construction. It was later expanded and rebuilt by various owners, most notably John of Gaunt in the late 14th century, and significantly enhanced by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the late 16th century under Queen Elizabeth I.

What Military Features Did it Have?
As a Norman Castle, Kenilworth featured an array of military defences common in its time, including thick stone walls, a strong keep (the Great Tower), a defensive curtain wall, and a gatehouse. Perhaps most significantly, it boasted an impressive water defence system, including a large lake and moat system, making it a formidable fortress. The fortification was also equipped with a causeway and drawbridge.

Why was its Location Chosen?
Kenilworth Castle’s location provided strategic advantages that made it an ideal choice. It is situated in the heart of England, which made it a nexus of power and control. The natural landscape allowed for the creation of extensive water defences, which made the Castle almost impregnable. Its location also facilitated easy access to Royal hunting grounds in the nearby Forest of Arden.

When the Castle was Functional, How Many People Lived and Worked there?
The exact number of people living and working at Kenilworth Castle varied across different periods, with its size and function changing throughout history. It is reasonable to speculate that several hundreds of people could have been present at the height of its use, including the nobility, their families, servants, soldiers, and staff needed for maintenance, farming, and other necessary operations.

Was the Castle Attacked?
Kenilworth Castle was famously sieged in 1266 during the Second Barons’ War. This siege, known as the Siege of Kenilworth, was a significant conflict between a rebel faction of barons and the monarchy led by King Henry III. Lasting six months, it was one of the longest sieges in English history, eventually resulting in a negotiated settlement, the Dictum of Kenilworth[8].

How Many Prisoners Were Incarcerated in the Castle?
While it’s known that Kenilworth Castle was used as a prison at various points in its history, exact records of the number of prisoners it held are scarce. One of its most notable prisoners was the 1st Earl of Cornwall, Piers Gaveston, the favourite and possibly lover of King Edward II, who was held in the Castle and later executed by the Earl of Lancaster in 1312. Beyond this, the number and names of other prisoners who were held at Kenilworth Castle are largely undocumented.

The Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle
Much of the right-hand court of Kenilworth Castle is occupied by the Castle garden. For most of Kenilworth’s history, the role of the Castle garden, used for entertainment, would have been very distinct from that of the surrounding area, which was used primarily for hunting.[9]

Picture Credit: Kenilworth Castle Gardens, 17th June 2014.
Attribution: Nilfanion, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL:

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

From the 16th century onwards, there were elaborate knot gardens[10] in the base court.[11]

Today’s gardens are designed to reproduce their original appearance in 1575 as closely as possible, according to the main historical record – with a steep terrace along the south side and steps leading down to eight square knot gardens.[12]

In Elizabethan gardens, the design focused on sculptures, and “the plants were almost incidental”. There were four wooden obelisks painted to resemble porphyry and a marble fountain with a statue of two Greek mythological figures.[13]  A timber aviary contains a range of birds.[14] The original garden was heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance garden at Villa d’Este.[15]

A few words of explanation:

  • Porphyry is a type of igneous rock with a characteristic purple-red colour. It is composed of large crystals embedded in a fine-grained matrix. Porphyry was highly prized in ancient times for its beauty and was often used for decorative purposes, such as sculptures, obelisks, and architectural elements.
  • The type of birds that would have been housed in the timber aviary at Kenilworth Castle is not mentioned in historical records. The aviary could have contained various species of birds, depending on the preferences of the garden’s designers and owners. Common birds that were often kept in aviaries during the Elizabethan era included finches, canaries, thrushes, larks, and various species of parrots.
  • The Italian Renaissance garden at Villa d’Este served as an influential model for the design of the gardens at Kenilworth Castle. Villa d’Este is located in Tivoli, Italy, near Rome. It is renowned for its exquisite gardens, which were created during the Renaissance period. These gardens featured intricate and elaborate designs, incorporating elements such as terraces, fountains, water features, sculptures, and carefully arranged plantings. The Italian Renaissance garden at Villa d’Este was known for its formal layout, use of water as a central design element, and incorporation of classical architectural features. The Villa d’Este garden was considered a masterpiece of Renaissance garden design and served as a source of inspiration for garden designers throughout Europe, including those involved in creating the gardens at Kenilworth Castle.
  • Villa d’Este is situated in Tivoli, approximately 30 kilometres northeast of Rome, Italy. It was built in the 16th century for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, a prominent figure in the Italian Renaissance. The villa and its gardens were intended to symbolise the cardinal’s wealth, power, and cultural refinement. The connection between Villa d’Este and Kenilworth Castle lies in the influence of the Italian Renaissance garden design principles employed at Villa d’Este on the gardens created at Kenilworth. The designers of Kenilworth Castle’s gardens sought to replicate and adapt the beauty and elegance of Villa d’Este’s gardens in an English context, showcasing the influence of Italian Renaissance aesthetics on garden design during the Elizabethan era.

Commissioned by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Kenilworth Castle’s Elizabethan garden is one of its most unique and historic features. The specific garden designer is not recorded in historical documentation. As was common in the Elizabethan period, likely, a team of craftsmen, under the instruction and direction of Dudley, designed the garden. The garden’s specific features and design choices were influenced by Dudley’s intentions to create an elaborate and symbolic garden that would impress Queen Elizabeth I during her 1575 visit.

The garden was recreated and opened to the public in 2009 by English Heritage, using the detailed description written by Robert Langham, a minor official in Dudley’s household, in a letter from the time. That description was one of the earliest detailed accounts of an English garden, and it allowed the restoration to be as faithful as possible to the original design. The design team for the restoration project would have included garden historians, archaeologists, and landscape designers working together to faithfully recreate the Elizabethan garden as accurately as possible, given the available historical sources.

The garden is relatively small but lavishly designed, covering only about a third of an acre. It includes features typical of an Elizabethan garden, such as a large terrace, a marble fountain, ornamental trees and shrubs, and colourful, highly fragrant flowerbeds. The garden also boasts a beautiful aviary that would have housed a variety of exotic birds.

Perhaps the most special aspect of Kenilworth’s garden is the symbolic and ornate nature of its features, intended to reflect Dudley’s aspirations and love for Queen Elizabeth. For instance, the garden’s obelisks, arbours, and sculptures echo themes of chivalric romance and classical mythology, designed to complement the variety of entertainment staged for the Queen during her visit.

While many aspects of the original garden, such as its plant varieties, remain a mystery, the reimagined space provides a tantalising glimpse into the opulence and symbolism of Elizabethan garden design.

Original Form of the Castle
The original form of Kenilworth Castle is uncertain, and there are varying theories regarding its construction. One theory suggests the Castle initially consisted of a motte (an earthen mound topped with wooden buildings). However, it is also possible that the stone Great Tower, also known as the Keep, was part of the original design. The exact details of the Castle’s early structure are not well-documented, leading to speculation and debate among historians.

The town of Kenilworth, not far from Coventry and Warwick, dates back to the Roman occupation and was mentioned in the Domesday book in 1086 AD.

Clinton’s Rival
Geoffrey de Clinton was a powerful figure in the Royal court but rivalled Roger de Beaumont, the Earl of Warwick and owner of Warwick Castle, which was located nearby. King Henry I appointed Clinton as the sheriff in Warwickshire to counterbalance Beaumont’s influence in the region. This move was intended to establish a local power to rival Beaumont and prevent him from gaining too much control, as the King did not trust Beaumont and saw him as a threat.

However, over time, Geoffrey de Clinton fell out of favour with King Henry I. The exact circumstances of their falling out are unclear, but it is believed that Clinton’s position and power diminished as the reign progressed. Despite disagreements or declining influence, Clinton’s role in the early construction of Kenilworth Castle remained significant, as he is credited with its initial establishment in the early 1120s.

Picture Credit: Wenceslaus Hollar‘s 1649 plan of Kenilworth Castle
Attribution: Wenceslaus Hollar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL:

Sources and Further Reading



CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.

End Notes and Explanations

  1. Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: [chat] and
  2. Source: Emery, Anthony. (2000) Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300–1500: East Anglia, Central England and Wales, Volume II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-58131-8. Cited at:
  3. Source:
  4. Explanation: The Castle formed a base for Lancastrian operations in the Wars of the Roses. Kenilworth was also the scene of the removal of Edward II from the English throne, the perceived French insult to Henry V in 1414 of a gift of tennis balls (said by John Strecche to have prompted the campaign that led to the Battle of Agincourt), and the Earl of Leicester‘s lavish reception of Queen Elizabeth I in 1575. Source:
  5. Source:
  6. Explanation: Counter-mining, in the context of a siege, refers to the defensive tactic employed by the defenders of a castle or fortification to undermine the progress of enemy siege tunnels or mines. It involves digging tunnels or passages from within the besieged structure towards the enemy tunnels, with the goal of intercepting or disrupting their efforts. When a castle or fortress was under siege, attackers often resorted to mining as a means to breach the defences. Mining involved digging tunnels towards the walls or gates of the stronghold and placing explosives or other means of causing structural damage. This tactic aims to create breaches or collapse sections of the fortifications, allowing the attackers to gain entry. To counter the threat posed by these enemy siege tunnels, defenders would engage in counter-mining. They would identify the general direction of the enemy tunnels by listening for sounds of digging or by using other methods, such as spies or prisoners. Then, the defenders would dig their own tunnels from within the castle towards the enemy tunnels, aiming to intercept them or create obstacles. Once the counter-mining tunnels reached the vicinity of the enemy tunnels, defenders would often listen for sounds or vibrations, and upon locating them, they would dig additional tunnels or chambers to break into the enemy tunnels. This would allow the defenders to disrupt the enemy’s progress, confront them underground, and engage in close combat or employ defensive measures, such as collapsing sections of the tunnels or flooding them. Counter-mining was a dangerous and challenging task that required skilled miners and engineers among the defending forces. It demanded secrecy, as well as speed and precision, to effectively neutralise the threat posed by enemy mining efforts. The success of counter-mining could significantly impede the progress of siege tunnels and undermine the attackers’ ability to breach the fortifications. Source: Author’s research.
  7. Note: The 6-month siege of Kenilworth Castle in 1266 is thought to be the longest siege in Medieval English history. Source:
  8. Explanation: The Dictum of Kenilworth, issued on 31 October 1266, was a pronouncement designed to reconcile the rebels of the Second Barons’ War with the royal government of England. After the baronial victory at the Battle of Lewes (in Sussex) in 1264, Simon de Montfort took control of the royal government, but at the Battle of Evesham the next year Montfort was killed, and King Henry III was restored to power. Source:
  9. Source: Colvin, Howard M. (1986), p. 12, “Royal Gardens in Medieval England,” in MacDougal (ed) 1986. Cited at:
  10. Explanation: A knot garden is a garden of formal design in a square frame, consisting of a variety of aromatic plants nd culinary herbs including germander, marjoram, thyme, southernwood, lemon balm, hyssop, costmary, acanthus, mallow, chamomile, rosemary, Calendula, Viola and Santolina. Most knot gardens now have edges made from box (Buxus sempervirens), which is easily cut into desired shapes, like dense miniature hedges, and stays green during winters when not all of the “filling” plants are visible or attractive. The paths in between are usually laid with fine gravel. However, the original designs of knot gardens did not have the low box hedges, and knot gardens with such hedges might more accurately be called parterres.

    Most Renaissance knot gardens were composed of square compartments. A small garden might consist of one compartment, while large gardens might contain six or eight compartments. Source:

  11. Source: Hull, Lise E. (2006) p. 114, Britain’s Medieval Castles. Westport: Praeger. ISBN 978-0-275-98414-4. Cited at:
  12. Sources: [1] Morris, Richard K. (2010) pp.32–3, Kenilworth Castle. (Second edition) London: English Heritage. ISBN 978-1-84802-075-7, and [2] Greene, Kevin and Tom Moore. (2010) p. 298, Archaeology: An Introduction. Abingdon, UK: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-49639-1. Cited at:
  13. Source: Morris, Richard K. (2010) pp.32–3, Kenilworth Castle. (Second edition) London: English Heritage. ISBN 978-1-84802-075-7. Cited at:
  14. Source: Ibid, p. 33.
  15. Source: Ibid, p. 34.

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