Kings, queens, knights, and extravagance. Here’s a look at some curiosities about five of the most breathtaking castles in England.
Castles are inherently fascinating. Their towers and battlements speak of kings and queens, ladies and knights, intrigue, and sometimes even ghosts. They’re the backdrop for fairytales— perhaps that is why we are so interested in the British Royal Family? We can’t help but be intrigued by these imposing royal residences, so here are five of the most beautiful castles in England along with a bit about their history and curiosities.
1. Lancaster Castle
Let’s start with a castle that’s a far cry from the romanticized residence of princes and princesses. A stronghold of the city nicknamed “city of the hanged men,” Lancaster Castle housed the criminal court and the area’s largest prison. The history of its prisons (which were actually dungeons where prisoners were tortured and lived in terrible conditions) began with King John of England, the “mad king.” As bloody as he was paranoid, King John made improvements to the castle so that it was unassailable both for his enemies and his subjects, whom he expected to betray him at any given moment. He had dungeons built in which all opponents, legitimate or presumed, were tortured. Lancaster Castle was also the scene of the most famous witchcraft trials in British history as well as the infamous miscarriage of justice that saw six innocent people sentenced to life imprisonment for a June 1975 IRA attack in Birmingham pub. Today Lancaster Castle is one of the few castles in England used for one of its original purposes, that of court.
2. York Castle
York Castle stands on a hill in the city center and features the most peculiar shape of all of England’s castles: a four-leaf clover. The fulcrum of England’s royal power for almost a thousand years, the castle is located near the splendid York Cathedral, which was built from the same materials as the castle to symbolize the connection between the two, a common practice in the Middle Ages as the power of the Crown went hand in hand with that of God. York Castle is sadly known for the massacre of the Jews in 1190 as well as the prison for the most famous bandit in English history Richard Turpin, who is often mistakenly regarded as the inspiration for Robin Hood.
3. Leeds Castle, Kent
A veritable fairytale castle surrounded by water, Leeds Castle is one of England’s most elegant. Norman nobleman Robert de Crèvecœur had the castle built in the Middle Ages, and Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, acquired it in the 13th century. She implemented several changes, including the gloriette that stands on the water, the courtyard, living room, and apartments. Six subsequent monarchs owned or lived in the castle, the most unfortunate being Joan of Navarre, who was imprisoned there after her stepson accused her of witchcraft. In 1926, Lady Olive Baillie, an American, purchased then restored the castle to its former glory after years of neglect. It soon became the place to be, hosting the most exclusive parties in England frequented by the likes of Winston Churchill, Ian Fleming, and Charlie Chaplin. With the advent of war, Lady Baillie did her part and offered the castle as a hospital for the wounded. Fun fact: it is said that the Tudor dynasty was literally conceived in this castle.
4. Arundel Castle
Arundel Castle was one of Queen Victoria’s favorites, and she lived there for a couple of years starting in 1846. Half fortress and half stately home – with a cricket pitch! -, the castle is still the home of the Duke of Norfolk, the first in the hierarchy of the Peers of England. Despite civil wars, infighting, and religious clashes, from 1243 onwards, Arundel Castle has always been the property of the Fitzalan family, later Fitzalan-Howard. Among the most important (and curious) members of this lineage are Thomas Howard and Charles Howard. The first rebuilt the house after Elizabeth I had destroyed it for religious reasons (the Fitzalan’s were Catholic and never converted to Protestantism). His passion for collecting led him to fill the castle with artworks that are now scattered throughout the United Kingdom. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, for example, is home to the Arundel Marbles, his collection of ancient Greek sculptures and epigraphs. Charles the 11th Duke of Norfolk, on the other hand, is nicknamed “the Drunken Duke.” A libertine with two wives, many lovers, and a number of illegitimate children, Charles was a member at one of London’s beefsteak gentlemen’s dining clubs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, he spent the equivalent of £40 million to renovate the castle, giving it the Gothic revival style it has today. He was the one who started charging for entry to the castle.
5. Bamburgh Castle
In addition to being one of the most beautiful castles in England, Bamburgh Castle is a listed building, one that’s recognized and protected by the United Kingdom for its exceptional historical, architectural or cultural appearance. Its location atop a basalt outcrop placed it in a strategic position, and today makes a strong impact on visitors. The Normans built the core of the present castle while the various owners over the centuries did the rest —its last owner William Armstrong bought it during the Victorian era. The location is optimal as the air quality is excellent and birds such as common terns, puffins, and great cormorants live in its vicinity. Cinephiles might recognize the castle from the big screen, as it’s served as the backdrop for many films, from Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1972), Elizabeth (1998) to the more recent Macbeth (2015) starring Michael Fassbender.