Our Top 10 Favorite British Castles to Visit
One thing the British Isles have plenty of is castles. Some are still lived in today. Some are museums and, sadly, many lie in ruins. Each, however, has its own unique history and characteristics.
The e-Royalty staff has humbly put together a Top 10 list of castles that are worthy of a visit. It is by no means a complete list and we imagine a Top 10 MORE list in the very near future.
We suggest you get a good Guide Book and try to plan what things you absolutely want to see, but stay flexible. Many of the most interesting things we’ve seen in our visits are things we have stumbled upon. Wear comfortable shoes (castles are huge) and layer clothing (castles are usually chilly).
Most importantly of all, take time for breaks to give your mind a chance to absorb all you have seen. So here are 10 Castles to start your tour of Britain.
10.) DOVER CASTLE
Dover Castle has bridged the centuries quite nicely. Henry II built this massive structure on the white chalk cliffs overlooking the English Channel. Built next to the Roman Phaeros (a lighthouse still intact and probably usable if necessary), Dover played its part through the centuries providing an excellent place to watch for and intercept ships from the continent. During the Napoleonic Wars Dover became “a garrison town”. Needing housing for the troops, a series of tunnels were dug into the chalk cliffs under the castle. All told these tunnels are 3 ½ miles long. During WWII the tunnels were used as a top secret location for directing Naval Operations and other secret missions. One such operation was the evacuation of the army from Dunkirk. A visit here to the castle atop The White Cliffs of Dover is an amazing trip through almost a thousand years of useful history.
For more information go here: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/dover-castle/
9.) Alnwick Castle
Alnwick Castle was the stronghold of the Percy Family in the County of Northumberland. The Percys were Lancastrians and lost many sons in the War of the Roses. After the Battle of Towton in 1461, the Percys managed to become successful Yorkists up until the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. And again, the Percys were able to adjust once more and pledge their allegiance to Henry Tudor. The 6th Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, is known for almost marrying or perhaps secretly marrying Anne Boleyn, until Henry VIII cast his eye upon her. The Percys were staunch Catholics and ran afoul of Elizabeth I when the 7th Earl participated in a “northern” rebellion supporting the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots. He was branded a traitor and lost his head. The castle is currently lived in by the 12th Duke of Northumberland and his family. When you first arrive, you may notice the carved 13th-century knights artfully placed around the Battlements giving the appearance of perpetual defenders. If the castle looks familiar to you it may be because it’s Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films, as well as being used as a location in this season’s Downton Abbey. The castle is reopening for visitors on March 27, 2015.
For more information go to: http://www.alnwickcastle.com
8.) Raby Castle
Raby Castle is the childhood home of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III. She was known as the Rose of Raby. It was here that she met her husband, Richard Duke of York, who was for a while a ward of her father, the first Earl of Westmoreland. The castle is located in County Durham in the North of England and was heavily fortified as it stood near the Scottish Border. The 6th Earl was the last Neville to hold the title. Another staunch Catholic, he and Thomas Percy participated in the Rising of the North in support of Mary, Queen of Scots. When Westmoreland lost, his title and lands were placed in attainder (taken back by the crown) and he died in poverty. In 1628 the castle was purchased by the Vane Family. In 1698, Christopher Vane was raised to the peerage as the 1st Baron Barnard. Today, the castle is lived in by the 11th Baron Barnard and his family. The art alone (all selected by the Vanes) makes the visit well worthwhile. The schools of art are mainly Dutch and Flemish but are often unusual pieces. And if you are really lucky, a kindly docent will offer to point out Cecily Neville’s bedchamber. The castle will reopen to visitors on Easter Weekend.
For more information go to: http://www.rabycastle.com
7.) Skipton Castle
A little off the beaten path, this 900-year-old castle is one of the best preserved medieval castles we have seen. It retains many of its’ medieval components and what restoration has been done has been done well. Edward II granted the property to Robert Clifford in 1310 and named him the First Lord Clifford of Skipton. Robert died at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. A domain of the Clifford family, Skipton boasts many stories of truly interesting men and their strong-minded wives and daughters. It is located in the charming market town of Skipton in North Yorkshire.
For more information go to: http://www.skiptoncastle.co.uk/
6.) Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle can trace its beginning to William the Conqueror, who built it in 1068. It sits on the River Avon, just a short distance from Shakespeare’s home. It’s perhaps most famously known as being the home of the Kingmaker, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. But when Warwick rebelled against Edward IV, the very king he helped create, and was killed at the Battle of Barnet, the castle passed to his son-in-law, George, Duke of Clarence. When George was executed for treason by his brother, Edward IV, the crown took George’s title and lands in attainder. Today, the castle is rich in history and retains much of its medieval architecture. Warwick is open to the public although some fear that Warwick Castle is becoming a bit of a “theme park”. (Don’t judge a castle by its website.)
For more information, go to: https://www.warwick-castle.com/
5.) Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest castle still in use as a royal residence in England today. The original parts were built by William the Conqueror and greatly expanded upon by Henry II. Today it is the queen’s favorite weekend residence. As a working palace, Windsor has managed to retain some of the early medieval atmosphere. Edward III was born at Windsor Castle and announced the formation of the Order of the Garter, which still holds its ceremonies at the castle to this day. Especially impressive is St. George’s Chapel housing the final resting place of ten English rulers, including Henry VI, Edward IV and Henry VIII and, more recently, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and their daughter, Princess Margaret. You can visit the State Apartments and don’t miss Queen Mary’s Doll House with its incredible detail.
For more information, go to: http://www.royal.gov.uk/TheRoyalResidences/WindsorCastle/WindsorCastle.aspx
4) Hever Castle
Hever Castle is a must-see for all devotees of the Tudor era. Hever was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and a place to which she often returned (or some say fled?) during her courtship by Henry VIII. Henry later gave Hever Castle to Anne of Cleves. Renovated in the early 20th century by the American Astor family, a real effort was made to preserve the Tudor aspects of the property. It was Astor who built the magnificent gardens. Hever contains many pieces of Anne’s history including two Books of Hours with her handwriting inside. You can visit Anne’s bedroom, Henry VIII’s Bedchamber (he was a frequent visitor to Hever), the Queen’s Bedroom with Tudor portraits of Henry VIII and each of his six wives, and so much more. Truly, for Tudor lovers this castle is not to be missed. Hever Castle is located in Kent.
For more information, go to: http://www.hevercastle.co.uk/visit/hever-castle/
3.) Leeds Castle
Set like a jewel surrounded by water, this exquisite castle in Kent was a great favorite of English Queens. Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, bought the castle in 1278. After Eleanor died, Edward remarried and gifted the castle to his new bride, Margaret. Thus began the tradition of the king gifting Leeds Castle to his royal bride. Other queens who have “owned” Leeds Castle have been Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard II, Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV, and Catherine of Valois, wife of Henry V. She and her second husband, Owen Tudor, spent much of their marriage here. The castle was totally renovated in the 20th century by a wealthy Anglo-American and it lacks the historical cohesion of some of the other castles on this list. It can be startling to walk from a room purporting to be a medieval bath and finding yourself in a gracious 19th-century drawing room. In addition to the Castle, there are beautiful, gardens, a multitude of water birds (lots of swans), a falconry center with daily demonstrations, and for those with really esoteric interests, a dog collar museum. Leeds is an easily doable day trip from London.
For more information, go to: http://www.leeds-castle.com/home
2.) Hampton Court Palace
Located in London, Hampton Court Palace is, in a word, exquisite. Built by Cardinal Wolsey and either gifted to or seized by Henry VIII, it incorporates the finest points of Tudor/Italianate architecture. Technically a fortified manor house, it is built of brick, with lots of windows, a groundbreaking departure from the much more severe and gloomy medieval castles and palaces. Wandering through the rooms gives a very clear picture of what it was like to live in the highest echelons of Tudor society. (I especially liked the kitchens.) The art work and tapestries are splendid as is the beautiful Tudor woodwork. Hampton Court is said to be haunted by several ghosts, the most chilling one is allegedly a screaming Katherine Howard pleading for her life. Plan on at least a day as there is much to see.
For more information, go to: http://www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/
1.) The Tower of London
In our humble opinion, the Tower is the ultimate castle in Britain. Set in the heart of London, the Tower is a huge player in English history from William the Conqueror who built the famous White Tower, to the present day. (It’s also said to be the site of a Roman fort.) But perhaps the Tower is best known for its famous stream of prisoners including monarchs, queens, princes, nobles, the common folk, and even World War II spies. The Tours by the Beefeaters are not to be missed with their chilling (yet often humorous) tales of terrified prisoners passing in through Traitor Gate. You’ll be dazzled by the Crown Jewels. The Armory, with Henry VIII’s ever expanding suits of armor, is certainly worth seeing. The Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains) is the parish church within the Tower of London. It’s especially moving to know that the graves of so many well-known victims of the Tower, Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard to name a few, are beneath the church’s floor. If you’re in London, the Tower is an absolute must-see.
For more information, go to: http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/