A Castle A Week: Kenilworth Castle

The castle of this week’s post is Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire in the English Midlands. It is one of the more famous castles in Britain, namely for the romantic nostalgia surrounding it. Such nostalgia becomes apparent in the Mary Darwell poem “Elegy on the Ruins of Kenilworth Castle”:

“Chance led me, as I meditating rov’d,
Where KENILWORTH its gothic glories rear’d,
Which CLINTON built, which great ELIZA lov’d,
ELIZA, to th’ historic Muse endear’d.

Stupendous walls! to ruin’s rage consign’d,
Mould’ring, submissive to the arm of fate;
Thro’ your lone arches let me entrance find,
And, silent, ponder on your pristine state…” [1]

Kenilworth was built during the Norman occupation of England under the reign of Henry I in 1120. The castle changed various royal hands over the decades until the Angevin king John expanded it significantly, resulting in the creation of the Mere, or an entirely man-made lake as well as a circle of walls. Under another John, this time John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, the castle became transformed into a palace with royal apartments. The castle fell back into royal hands when Henry IV (formerly Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt) overthrew Richard II, and it remained in the British royal family until Elizabeth I granted it to her favorite courtier.

Kenilworth’s Great Tower, image courtesy of English Heritage

Probably Kenilworth’s most renowned inhabitant was of the illustrious Dudley family. Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester and companion and supposed lover of Elizabeth I, came into possession of this castle in 1563. He feted and entertained Elizabeth many times here, and it is even thought that they used this palace as a romantic hideaway. Dudley added a new gatehouse, formal gardens, and even a stabling block, some of which exists to the present day. I always found the story of Elizabeth and Dudley interesting, and I wouldn’t doubt in any way, shape, or form that this is what contributed to the romantic nature of the castle.

The inner court as seen from the base court; left to right are the 16th-century Leicester’s building; Gaunt’s 14th-century Oriel tower and great hall; and Clinton’s 12th-century great keep, Image courtesy of the Wikimedia commons

Now, something that I had never considered until I took a class at the University of Lancaster on Renaissance literature, was the extreme romantic nostalgia which took hold of the British psyche during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Of course, we learn in school about the American romantic movement, but I never knew that something very similar existed in Britain as well. The genre of country house poetry, which not only highlighted the nervousness and apprehension which often accompanied the industrial revolution but also marked a desire to return to the old rural-type of living. This nostalgia also gave rise to an increased appreciation of ruins. Kenilworth, already a ruin by this time (after the Parliamentarian Cromwell gave orders for Kenilworth to be crippled as a defensive base during the English Civil Wars), became romanticized as indicated in the above poem.

Fireplace with Dudley’s initials, Image courtesy of the Wikimedia commons

To this day, one can still visit the castle ruins and the gardens. One can stay in the room where Dudley and Elizabeth supposedly shared their time. One can even get married here! For more information, look at the following sites:

The English Heritage Site for Kenilworth

The City of Kenilworth

For the full text of Mary Darwell’s “Elegy on the Ruins of Kenilworth Castle”:

“Elegy on the Ruins of Kenilworth Castle”

Works Cited:

[1] Mary Darwell, “Elegy on the Ruins of Kenilworth Castle,” from Walsall: for the author, 1794.
2 vols.; 8vo. Microforms: (The Eighteenth Century; Reel 7652, No. 02.) http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?action=GET&textsid=7612 (accessed 27 June 2012).

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