The Finest Medieval Castle in Britain
About Warwick Castle
Centre stage at the Armoury is the Knight. Kitted out in 1570s Italian jousting armour, astride his ebony steed, he oversees a collection of weapons, armour and paraphernalia of war dating back to the first century AD.
Among the oldest displays is a 5ft 5¼ inch long-sword. Legend has it that Guy Of Warwick was despatched by King Athelstan to kill a giant monster which had been plaguing villagers in 962AD. The monster turned out to be a large cow, but this giant two-handed sword that Guy is reputed to have used to dispatch the ‘monster’ is one of the many prized displays in the armoury.
The English Civil War features highly in the armoury display, as you would expect given key part that the Earl of Warwick and the castle played in proceedings. Visitors can wonder at the weight and inflexibility of a typical foot soldier’s armour and admire a metal hat similar to those worn by Charles 1st; although it should be noted the King’s protective headgear was covered with velvet and dressed with a feather! Worthy of special mention is a horseman’s helmet; this particular helmet worn by one Oliver Cromwell.
Crossbows, longbows, claymores and hunting swords; the armoury at Warwick provides a fascinating and comprehensive insight into medieval warfare. But it doesn’t end there, there are also flintlocks and pistols a plenty dating from the 1600s onwards. Among the most intriguing items is a collection of hunting swords complete with built in flintlock pistols. All are to be admired not just for their killing prowess but for the intricacy of their design and in many cases their beauty.
Whilst the castle and grounds are stunning in their beauty and majesty, the dank horror of the dungeons a mere 24 steps underground are equally stunning for other, more sinister, reasons. Starved of a decent diet, seeing not a glimmer of daylight and denied all exercise even mentally strong prisoners would soon find their bodies weak and frail. It can only be imagined what psychological anguish followed. For some a sentence in the dungeons could last days or weeks; for others months and even years. There was no sanitation to speak of, only a roughly hewn drainage ditch stretched across the middle of the floor and this was likely filled with stagnant waste. The dungeon was not designed to rehabilitate prisoners, as modern prisons are today; instead it was designed to rob inmates of their humanity. And the dungeon keepers were masters at this! For those who did not succumb to the dungeon even more deprivation awaited in the ‘oubliette’. Prisoners would descend into this hole in the ground knowing that they would be kept in this claustrophobic prison within a prison for as long as their captors desired.
The Great Hall moved to its current location in the 14th century. A fire damaged this part of the castle in 1871 and the Great Hall was heavily restored then. On entering the Great Hall one is struck by the sheer size and scale of the Hall and by the wealth of items on display. Not to be missed is Guy’s Porridge Pot the huge cauldron type cooking pot which is named for the 10th Earl and dates from the 16th Century. Of the many suits of armour on display the tiny armour that belonged to the 4 year old son of The Earl of Leicester is particularly eye-catching. The young Leicester never grew to wear a full suit of armour, dying from a childhood disease at age 6.
Moving on from the Great Hall the Red Drawing Room is the first of five state rooms commissioned and built in the 17th century by Robert Greville. The Red Drawing Room so called because of its red lacquer panelling is opulent; the room is dominated by a white marble Adams fireplace and above this hangs a beautiful Louis XV clock, to either side are portraits from the school of Rubens.
The Cedar Drawing Room is lit by five elaborate chandeliers. All are fine English crystal except the central chandelier which is from Waterford in Ireland. The Cedar Drawing Room is so named because of the beautiful cedar panelling which is set off perfectly by the intricately plastered ceiling, which although French in style was completed by two local craftsmen.
The Green Drawing Room is one of the most beautiful of the State rooms. The coffered ceiling is made up of sunken panels each bearing its own individual decoration. The overall effect is stunning. The paintings around the Green Drawing Room give you an account of the English Civil War from the Warwick perspective.
The Queen Anne Bedroom is named not for a regal visitor, as you might think, but after Queen Anne’s bed which dominates the room. The bed was sent from Windsor to Warwick in preparation for a visit by Queen Anne. Although the visit itself was cancelled, the bed remained.
The Blue Boudoir is dominated by a portrait of Henry VIII, it is one of the best know images of Henry showing him in his 40s. To the left of Henry are portraits of Anne and Mary Boleyn. Anne was to marry Henry and was mother to Elizabeth I, before being beheaded at Henry’s command just three years after Elizabeth’s birth. The beautiful silver faced clock on display above the fireplace was once in the possession of another of history’s tragic women; Marie Antoinette is said to have originally owned the clock.
Caesar’s Tower is the earliest of the Warwick Castle towers. It dates from the 14th Century and was commissioned by Thomas De Beauchamp. It is a fascinating example of medieval military architecture, rising 147ft straight up from the river rock below. Built over three storeys, the guard room atop the tower affords a view across the valley below.
Guy’s Tower also dates from the 14th Century. Guy’s is built of five stories and reaches 128ft. The Tower contains a sitting room and two side rooms as well as offering defensive shooting positions from its twelve sided construction.
Bear and Clarence Towers are built together in the middle of the castle’s North wall. They are all that remain of the Tower House commissioned by Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III) in 1478. The original tower was designed to be a fortified Keep; to provide Richard with a ‘safe room’ to which he could retreat if he were attacked from within the castle itself. Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field before the tower could be completed. It is thought that Clarence tower is named for his brother, the Duke of Clarence and that Bear Tower was used to house bears kept at the Castle for bear baiting.
Capability Brown is one of Britain’s finest landscape gardeners with his work attracting visitors from across the world. At Warwick Castle, Capability Brown fashioned a landscape that today looks so natural it is hard for the visitor to perceive it as manmade. The mark of his genius is that it is only now, hundreds of years after the design was first made and plants selected and placed in the ground that the true majesty of his work can be appreciated.
The grounds at Warwick Castle extend to over 60 acres. They take in The Mound which was built on the orders of William the Conqueror and formed the backbone of the Castles defence in the early years. Military advances saw The Mound lose its import as a defensive position and in the 17th century it was incorporated into landscape planning and became part of the scenery rather than a key part of the structure at Warwick.
Closer to the main Castle building are the Conservatory and the Peacock Garden and Pageant Field. The conservatory was built in 1786 and still functions today as a glasshouse for exotic plants. Immediately in front of the Conservatory is the Peacock Garden. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were involved in the planting of trees here and you can see Victoria’s thriving oak tree close to the driveway. Beyond the Peacock Garden, stretching down to the river is the Pageant Field.
Not to be missed on any visit to Warwick Castle is the Victorian Rose Garden. The garden was first planted in the 1860s. Sadly, it was paved over and replaced by two tennis courts in the 1940s. Drawings of the original gardens were discovered in the 1980s and work began to restore the Victorian Rose Garden to its former grandeur. There are roses in bloom throughout most of the summer, but, as any gardener will tell you, the best time to visit is late June and throughout July. Keep an eye out for the new English rose ‘Warwick Castle’ which was bred especially for the re-opening of the Victorian Rose Garden in 1986.
The History of Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle has stood for centuries as a symbol of might and power. There has been a fort on the site of Warwick Castle since the 10th Century and the Castle has undergone massive changes and bloody battles over more than a millennium.
From its beginnings as a stronghold of William the Conqueror to its prominence as a society social hub in the Victorian era, Warwick Castle reflects the social history of England as much as the political history. The original Mound that defended the medieval castle still remains within the grounds at Warwick. The castle today bears little resemblance to the basic fortress built by William. Over the centuries; the addition of rooms, refinements in decoration, use of landscaping and use of modern technologies like gas and electricity have transformed Warwick Castle into the magnificent stately home we know today.
Many of the original artefacts and decorations remain at Warwick, giving us a unique insight into life in the past. It is possible from seeing the display of armour and weapons in the Armoury to get a feel for the life of a foot soldier in the English Civil War. A visit to the dungeon can give an idea of the claustrophobic conditions in which prisoners were kept, sometimes year on end. A walk through the Great Hall and state rooms allows us to imagine life in Jacobean England. A tour of the Victorian Weekend rooms can give us a flavour of the simple, stress-free lives of the Victorian gentry (or the enormity of the work required by the domestic staff to keep the castle running).
Throughout her time, right from being built in the 10th century, Warwick Castle has been at the centre of things. Statesmen and politicians have walked the corridors at Warwick. Queens and kings have strolled through the gardens. Kingmakers and Kings have come from Warwick Castle and one ill-fated, short reigned Queen. England has many stately homes and castles but few have played such a central role in so many of England’s great events as has Warwick Castle.
History shows that military strategists have been using the land overlooking the Avon on which Warwick Castle now stands from at least 914 AD. It was then that Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, ordered a defensive post to built there to protect against Danish invaders from the North.
The first records of a castle proper at Warwick date to 1068. This stockade was built on the orders of William the Conqueror and bore little resemblance to the great fortress that we know today. Built on a cliff overlooking the river Avon, the original castle was a simple timber construction with a square watch tower the site of which can still be visited at The Mound within the castle grounds. In front of the tower the castle stretched across flat land. This area was surrounded by a wooden fence and beyond that a deep, wide ditch which helped to defend against intruders.
Stewardship of Warwick Castle was given by William The Conqueror to Henry de Beaumont in 1068. De Beaumont took the name de Newburgh and the castle passed down the line of de Newburgh descendents until 1242. Records show that in this time the structure of the castle saw many changes and that by 1260 the castle had already grown to include a Great Hall and Chapel.
By the mid 13th century Warwick Castle was beginning to transform into a stronghold, becoming increasingly fortified against would-be invaders. The early wooden construction was gone and was now almost entirely replaced with stone, a deep moat like ditch had been dug around the castle and a gatehouse with drawbridge had been added. The old timber watch tower had made way for a stone Keep complete with fighting platforms and ‘safe’ rooms. Warwick Castle was fast becoming a fortress castle; able to withstand attacks from enemies and prospective invaders, a militarily strategic castle from which attacks could be launched and a safe house which was able to offer protection and sanctuary to those who lived within the castle walls.
It was during the Medieval period that Warwick Castle first began to emerge as the great fortress castle that we think of today. The Middle Ages was a turbulent time with wars raging in Europe and England. The Earls of Warwick were never far from the action. They were well connected and were at the heart of major events both in England and in Europe.
In France, England was embroiled in what was to become known as The Hundred Years War (1338 to 1453). Warwick Castle at the time was the seat of the English de Beauchamp family. The family held enormous influence, Thomas de Beauchamp inherited the Earldom in 1329 and was to command troops at the battles of Crecy and Poitiers eventually becoming The Black Prince’s key military advisor. Whilst in later years, his grandson Richard became Captain of Calais and had a direct hand in the fate of Joan of Arc; supervising both the trial and Joan’s execution in 1431.
In England things were no calmer. The nobility were constantly fighting both amongst themselves and in opposition to the Crown. Titles were given and stripped, battles were fought, won and lost. Here again the Earls of Warwick were at the centre of event; never more so than when Henry VI settled the title Earl of Warwick on Richard Neville in 1450.
History knows Richard Neville Earl of Warwick as Warwick The Kingmaker. Richard took the title at a time when England was ruled by an increasingly ineffectual Lancastrian King in Henry VI. Henry’s authority and control, never the strongest, diminished over a period of years until almost anyone with the power and ambition for political position felt able to challenge the King’s authority. From this the country fell into civil war with the victors seeking to claim control of the King and even appointment of a new King. Richard’s family background saw him a Yorkist, in direction opposition to the Lancastrian King. In 1455 Richard commanded at the Battle Of St Albans and oversaw the defeat and capture of Henry. By 1461 the Yorkists had appointed Edward of York as King and in recognition of his part in the War of The Roses, Richard of Warwick rose to a position of even greater power within the Royal court. But these were unsettled times and Warwick was soon to find his influence fading. Never one to take a defeat lying down, Warwick mustered an army and captured the King, imprisoning him at Warwick Castle. The plan had been to rule England through the imprisoned King. When it became clear that this was not a workable proposition, Warwick fled to France. There he struck an alliance with his old enemy the exiled King Henry VI, eventually returning to England overthrowing King Edward and returning Henry to power.
In 1471 the story of Warwick The Kingmaker was to take one final twist. Edward returned from France with a strong army. In the April of that year, Warwick marched his army from Warwick Castle south towards London. He met Edwards army at Barnet in Hertfordshire. The two armies fought a fierce battle which saw Warwick captured. Richard of Warwick was stripped naked, killed and his body taken to London for public display. Warwick the Kingmaker was no more.
The Tudor and Jacobean Periods (1485-1625) saw a shift in style at Warwick Castle. The focus was no longer on the castle as a military encampment but as a home. By the end of the 18th century the castle was much as we see it today and even the grounds and gardens were beginning to take on their current shape under the eye of Capability Brown.
Those who lived in the castle still continued to exert influence with the Government of the day. In 1547 Edward VI appointed John Dudley Earl of Warwick. The Earl was to become the King’s Chief Minister. On Edward VI’s death in 1553, the Earl appointed his own daughter-in-law Queen. Lady Jane Gray was to reign for just two weeks before Mary Tudor reclaimed the throne and had the Earl and his fourth son executed for treason. The reign of Elizabeth I saw a shift in fortunes. Elizabeth pardoned Ambrose Dudley, son of the treasonous earl and released him from the Tower of London, reinstating his title and Warwick Castle in 1561. Elizabeth herself visited Warwick castle in 1572, an occasion which saw great excitement and celebration – not least as it saw the skies above Warwick light up to the first firework display in Britain.
The early 17th century saw changes at Warwick and the rumblings of change for England as a whole. For centuries the Kings and Queens of England had ruled by ‘divine right’ but there was a growing feeling that things needed to change. When Fulke Greville Earl of Warwick died in 1628 without heir the title passed to his cousin Robert Greville. Fulke had been a royalist, but Robert was an impassioned Republican and played a key role in the English Civil War, being appointed Commander of the Republican forces in Staffordshire and Warwickshire. Robert lost his life in the Civil War, he was shot in the eye by a sniper. His son was to inherit the title and, ironically, was one of the many nobles involved in the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660.
It is said that the ghost of Fulke Neville continues to haunt Warwick Castle to this day. Fulke, a published poet, was well regarded at court and was given the title Earl of Warwick by James I in 1604. The castle had stood derelict for some 14 years and was in desperate need of repair. Fulke lived in a tower at the castle whilst workmen and designers carried out his grand design in restoration. Fulke was never to see the castle restored to its full glory. He was stabbed by his manservant in a tussle and despite the best care of his doctors, died an excruciatingly painful 27 days later. His ghost can still be felt in The Ghost Tower that was once his home.
Victorian to Modern
By the Vicorian era (1837-1901) Warwick Castle had transformed from medieval military stronghold to an English country stately home of immense style. An army of servants ensured that the Castle was properly maintained and that the Earl’s family and guests wanted for nothing. The Industrial Revolution was embraced at Warwick and it was among the first of the large country estates to install a steam central heating system although by the 1890s this and gas lighting was replaced with the new and daring electricity.
The Earls and Countesses of Warwick continued to hold a place at the heart of society as they had done since the Middle Ages. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert lunched at the castle in 1858 and their son Edward Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) was such a frequent guest that he had his own bedroom. Playing hosts to political leaders current and future (the young Winston Churchill was a frequent guest) the Earls and Countesses of Warwick shaped society.
We are given a fascinating insight into Victorian life at Warwick Castle in a recreation of a Royal Weekend Party as experienced in twelve of the castle rooms. Using photographs and written records from the time, scenes from the weekend have been reconstructed allowing us a flavour of Victorian Society at play during a visit by Edward Prince of Wales. The Library, The Smoking Room, The Ladies Boudoir and The Bedrooms have all been set out to give us a snapshot of various events over that weekend.
Typically The Library would see the gentlemen of a country weekend gather in mid afternoon to read and discuss the affairs of the day. This is the scene set out at the Library at Warwick with the notable addition of Daisy Countess of Warwick who has clearly returned from riding in the grounds. The other ladies are gathered in The Music Room (where they are listening to renowned music hall star Clara Butt sing) and in the Ladies Boudoir where they are enjoying an informal gossip over afternoon tea. The remaining gentlemen, meanwhile, are ensconced in the smoking room enjoying cigars and a game of cards. The Bedrooms are set out to show the guests preparing for dinner. For a Victorian lady or gentleman changing for dinner was a time consuming affair and would have involved the help of a domestic servant. The servants can be seen helping to arrange the ladies hair, helping to dress the ladies and making sure that hemlines are straight! Among the guests on view for this particular weekend are Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill with their son Winston then in his early 20s; the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire owners of Chatsworth House; The Duke of Marlborough; The Duke Of York (later King George V 1910-1936) and Edward Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). Truly an insight into how the other half lived!
Location of Warwick Castle
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