Some Great Castles of England
Created | Updated Apr 19, 2014
This Edited Guide Entry is one of six sub-divisions of the mammoth Community collaboration on Great Castles. Links to the remaining five entries can be found at the bottom of the page.
This is the seat of the Percy family and one of the North of England's great castles and one of several in Northumberland worth a visit. Go at Alnwick fair time and you can have double the fun. Alnwick has wonderful battlements and is in pretty good shape due to almost continuous occupation from the 12th Century.
Much of what you see at Arundel is 19th Century but it also has two splendid gatehouses, complete battlements, moat and the original motte (mound). The town face of the castle is very photogenic and incredibly impressive.
Beeston Castle, Cheshire, UK
Situated in the village of Beeston in the heart of Cheshire, this is a very old motte and bailey castle, with one side being a vertical cliff. It is a bit of a walk to the top, but it is worth it. The view is amazing and on a clear day you can see three counties and the mountains of Wales.
I took my boyfriend there, he grumbled all the way up, it is a bit steep. He finally got to the top and shut up. He agrees that Beeston is the best castle, too.
There is also a very nice ice cream factory in the area, apparently...
Picture postcard Bodiam is set in the middle of its lake and was one of the last castles built under a 'licence to crenellate' (fortify). It is a short drive south from London and a better destination for many than Leeds or Hever. You've seen it in films and postcards all the time but never knew where it was. The grounds are great for picnics if the weather is fine.
Corfe Castle in Dorset is probably the 'perfect' ruined castle. It is a National Trust property now, and costs about £5 to get in, but there are some great walks around the area where you can get a fantastic view of the castle without being impoverished by the entrance fee. The car parking fees are also quite pricey so get plenty of people in the car! The village of Corfe is very definitely geared towards the tourist trade so there are plenty of tea rooms, gift shops and accommodation around.
Certainly a castle of intrigue, with the steam railway nearby and the beautiful village, there's also the history of the English Civil War and the Saxon intrigue... In 978, King Edward the Martyr visited his brother Æthelred and Æthelred's mother Ælfthryth, Edward's step-mother, at their home in Corfe. Whilst there, he was murdered, presumably by Ælfthryth, and Æthelred became King Æthelred II.
For a very cheap alternative not too far away there is Maiden Castle. An Iron Age hillfort, its all banks and ditches, but is extremely impressive even though there's no stone or mortar in sight. The entrance is free and so is the car park.
True to it's name (unlike another confusingly named castle in Kent, Leeds) Dover Castle is in Dover. It is accessible by car and has plenty of free parking, but can also be travelled to by bus, train and of course ferry. Visitors should be warned though; buses, trains and ferries drop you off near the castle but it is a very steep climb up its hill defences to the ticket booth. It is a climb worth making though as it offers spectacular views of the English Channel, allows closer inspection of the magnificent defences and provides an insight into how daunting ancient invaders must have found the task of attempting to besiege the castle.
The entrance fee to the castle1 is £7 for adults, £5.30 concessions and £3.50 for children. A family ticket costs £17.50. Entrance is free to all English Heritage members. The entrance price is well worth it though as there is enough to see to fill a day and as the entrance price includes not only the castle but also the Princess Of Wales/Buffs museum and the Second World War Tunnels in the cliffs, you are actually receiving three days out for the price of one.
The history of the castle spans over two thousand years. It is built high on the cliff tops, overlooking the English Channel. It was originally an iron age site, and evidence of the Iron Age earth works can be seen. It was then used by the Romans. Half of the Roman pharos, or lighthouse, still remains. Next to the pharos is the restored Saxon church. Following the Norman invasion, William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard as he was known in Kent) built his keep on the site. This was then replaced by a stone keep by Henry II and this still remains in its entirety. The keep has housed many famous visitors including Henry VIII.
A key feature of Dover Castle is its many defensive tunnels, first built after a great siege in 1216. These tunnels were added to and more dug throughout the castle's history. The fortifications became the largest to be built during the Napoleonic Wars but came into their own during World War II when Churchill himself had his own living quarters down inside the cliffs and when much of the war effort was directed from these secret passages. Further information that has only in the last few years been released, as it was still governed by the Official Secrets Act, is that in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the tunnels below Dover Castle were going to provide a Regional Seat of Government following a nuclear attack.
Throughout the year the many periods of the castle's history are brought to life in special events. These include military displays of various periods, craft demonstrations and actors bringing history to life. There are also permanent displays and plenty of English Heritage volunteers to answer any questions. If all the sights mentioned still aren't enough to fulfil the interested tourist, then be sure to walk around each ring of the castle's defences and view them from the battlements of the keep, or for those a little daunted by the walk, ride on the free road-train provided. It truly is worth a visit.
Being a true Kentish girl, I couldn't choose any other castle than Dover as my favourite place to visit. It has been the first line of defence for Britain for more than two thousand years and remained an important part of planned defences until the end of the 20th Century.
Built on the great sill on the Northumberland coast, Dunstansburgh can only be reached by a hike down a footpath and is a couple of miles from the nearest road. Like Corfe, it is a romantic ruin and the rocks are great to climb over. Wonderful on a nice day.
The Isle of Wight and Hampshire
The Isle of Wight has many fine castles - a necessity considering the amount of time that it was under constant attack from the 'foul forces of France'.
Carisbrooke Castle in particular is a very fine castle, with Saxon/Roman roots, and a fine history including:
- Being under siege in the Civil War between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in 1136.
- Being besieged by the French in 1377.
- Holding King Charles I captive between 1647 and September 1649, where he made 3 failed attempts to escape.
- Being where his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, died in on 8 September, 1650.
The castle also houses a donkey-powered well, and was central to the plot of the classic novel Moonfleet by J Meade Faulkner. Carisbrooke Castle is near Newport; follow the signs from there. It costs £4.50 for adults, and £2.30 for children.
Henry VIII also built castles on the Isle of Wight to defend it from the French, including Sandown Castle, East Cowes Castle and Cowes Castle and Yarmouth Castle.
Sandown Castle, while still being built, was attacked by the same French force that attacked the Mary Rose. It was later rebuilt, and the successive Sandown Castle was attacked during the American War of Independence by American privateers - most of whom died in the attempt.
Yarmouth Castle was built to defend the port of Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, and originally was built as a square, walled enclosure surrounded by a ditch, with a triangular bastion on the south-eastern corner. It was expanded in the 1560s, but it is the earliest surviving angle-bastioned fortification in the British Isles and is open to the public. It costs £2.20 for adults, £1.10 for children. It is next to the Wightlink ferry in Yarmouth.
Yarmouth castle is quite a nice castle, but it has one feature which is outstanding, the roof. Whilst everyone else on the island was crammed on the coast, to see the America's Cup round the island race this summer, I was sitting on the battlements (think that's what they are called) with a perfect view. For only £2.20 or whatever I must have had one of the best views of the closing stages of the race. (I also got sunburned). There was the added advantage of the castle which had displays on the history of castles on the south coast and some very nice comparison paintings of now and 'olden times'.
Cowes Castle, on the other hand, has a long and distinctive history involved in yachting, being the home of the Royal Yacht Squadron. It was from Cowes Castle that the original America's Cup in 1851 started. Only once did it fire its guns in anger: during the English Civil War in 1642. The canon now begins the races that take place there, including the Admiral's Cup and the Round-the-Island Yacht Race. In 1650, Sir William D'Avenant was held in Cowes Castle. He was the godson of William Shakespeare and was Poet Laureate after Ben Jonson, and rumours at the time suggested that he was Shakespeare's son, .
There are three ways to enter the Royal Yacht Squadron's headquarters:
- Be royalty.
- Be a multi-millionaire who owns several yachts and knows how to sail them.
- Be able to sail to the local standard.
However, the local standard not only includes Ellen MacArthur MBE, but Cowes also hosts several Olympic Gold Medalists (won in the Sydney Olympics) and the America's Cup GBR Challenge team...
Palaces on the Isle of Wight
There have also been Palaces on the Island as well. In the 1790s, two castles were built at East Cowes. One was called East Cowes Castle and was more of a mansion than a castle; it should not be confused with the original castle. It was built by John Nash, the famous architect who designed Regent Street and Regent's Park in London. Sadly, it no longer exists.
The other, Norris Castle, does still exist. It is a romantic castle featuring both square and round towers. Although designed as an imitation castle and not a real one, it is still impressive, especially with the enormous cellars below, and the spectacular sea view.
They were palaces for the wealthy, and not royalty, yet there is a Royal Palace in the form of Osborne House. Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901), despite having Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Brighton Pavilion to live in, did not rate any of them to be suitable as a family home. In 1845, she purchased the original Osborne House and an estate of 342 acres from Lady Isabella Blachford. This was too small so Thomas Cubitt was contracted to build a new Osborne House on the site, to the design of Victoria's husband Prince Albert. In June 1845 the foundation of the new pavilion wing was laid, and it was occupied in 1846. The household wing was completed in 1848, and work was started on demolishing the remainder of the old house and building the main wing in its place. By 1851 all the construction work was complete, except for the Durbar wing which was finished in 1891.
Queen Victoria lived here as often as she could, and found that the Isle of Wight's ambience and weather were similar to the Bay of Naples in Italy. The house was three stories high, with a 90ft clock tower and a 107ft flag tower. The estate soon grew to be over 2000 acres, and included a summer house, Swiss cottage, a museum and a mock fort. It was here thatQueen Victoria died on 22 January, 1901.
Castles of Hampshire
Hampshire, too, has some good castles - seeing Southampton's town walls and castle is a must and Portchester Castle in particular is definitely worth seeing - it was originally a Roman Castle - featuring the most complete Roman walls in Northern Europe. It was here that Carausias declared himself Emperor of Britain between 285 - 293 AD. It was also the home of King Edward the Eldar, King John, King Henry II and King Edward II. It was here that King Edward III rallied his troops before his victory at Crecy. In 1396, King Richard II built a palace inside Portchester Castle. Henry V also set off from Portchester Castle on his way to France.
Complete list of Castles In Hampshire:
Ashley Castle - only earthworks remain.
Barley Pound Castle - only earthworks remain.
Basing House - built inside a Medieval castle, but the castle no longer exists.
Bishop Waltham's Palace - built by the brother of King Stephen, Henry de Blois, but was destroyed by Henry II. It was rebuilt, but destroyed by Parliament during the English Civil War on the 11 April, 1644.
Calshot Castle - built by Henry VIII in 1540 with Isle of Wight Binstead stone from Beaulieu and Netley Abbeys, and is at the end of a spit projecting into the Solent, and was designed to function in conjunction with Hurst, East Cowes and Cowes Castles.
Christchurch Castle - technically in Dorset since 1974. Originally called Twynham Castle, only the Keep and Constable's House remain. It was used against King Stephen, but captured in 1148, and again in 1153. It was captured in the English Civil War of 1646, and Oliver Cromwell ordered it to be demolished.
Godshill Castle - built in 1148, only earthworks remain.
Hamble Castle - eroded by the River Hamble, so only stones at low tide remain.
Highcliffe Castle - a Gothic house built in 1830.
Highclere Castle - a mansion built 1839-1842 - the biggest mansion in Hampshire.
Hurst Castle - on the end of a mile-long spit, built in 1538 from stone from Beaulieu and Netley, strengthened against attack in 1589, 1593 and 1873 as part of Palmerston's defences. It was still manned during the Second World War. It is said to be haunted by a monk, and is without doubt one of the finest Henrician castles.
Merdon Castle - built in 1138 by Henry de Blois on the remains of an iron-age fort, and was used to help besiege Empress Matilda in Winchester Castle. Henry II dismantled all of Henry de Blois' castles, but this became a bishop's palace. It is now a set of ruined walls, with several local legends surrounding its well.
Netley Castle - a castle built by Henry VIII in 1542 as a single-storey crenelated (provided with battlements) parapet. It was transformed in 1857 into the Gothic tower it is today.
Odiham castle - built around 1212 for King John, it soon became his favourite castle. It remains as an octagonal keep. In 1216, it was defended by 13 men against Prince Louis the Dauphin's French army of 140 knights and 7000 men. The men surrendered, but only on highly favourable terms. In 1224, it was given to Princess Eleanor - Henry II's sister, and was later used by Edward II against Robert le Ewer. In 1340, King David II of Scotland was imprisoned at Odiham Castle after his unsuccessful claim to the English throne. It is now in a ruined state.
Portchester Castle - see above.
Portsmouth - no castle as such, but several defences. First fortified in 1194, a point battery built in 1494 and a tower was built in 1635, although many defences are from 1827. The Round Tower was built in the 1540s, rebuilt in 1683, and a battery was built alongside in 1870.
Powderham Castle - a motte and bailey castle - only earthworks remain.
Southampton - see above.
Southsea Castle - built between 1539 and 1544, this castle was designed by Henry VIII himself. It was updated in 1850, and was in use by the military until the 1960s. Southsea castle was described in 1544 as 'praised by all men that have seen it'. It was from Southsea Castle that Henry VIII saw the Mary Rose sink in the French Invasion of 1545. It was captured by Parliament in the English Civil War.
Warblington Castle - a large manor house that was granted a licence to crenelate in 1340, only an octagonal turret of the gatehouse remains.
Winchester - As the capital of Wessex, it had two castles - one for the Bishop (called 'Wolvesey Castle') and one for the King . The King's castle was built in 1067 by William the Conquerer, and held the Domesday Book. It was held by the Empress Matilda when attacked by King Stephen - Matilda is said to have escaped by pretending to be a corpse in a coffin. It was Henry II's favourite castle, and Richard I held his second coronation here. In 1207, Henry III was born in the castle. In 1216, Prince Louis easily captured the castle, after which it was extensively fortified. In 1486, Henry VIII's son Arthur was born at Winchester Castle, and in 1603 it was were that Sir Walter Raleigh was sentenced to death. It was a Royalist castle in the Civil War, and was captured by Parliament and slighted. Sir Christopher Wren started to rebuild it as a palace for King Charles II, but this was not finished. Only the hall, one of the finest Medieval halls in England, remains - at one end hangs the round table of King Arthur.
Wolvesey Castle - the other castle of Winchester built in 1110 by Henry of Blois, King Stephen's brother and Bishop of Winchester. The keep was built in 1138. It was destroyed when Henry II ascended to the throne, but was rebuilt by 1171 as a palace. The keep and north end of the hall survive to this day.
Wootton St Lawrence - only earthworks remain.
Forts on the Isle of Wight
In the late 1850s onwards, following the threatened invasion from France, several forts were also built on the Isle of Wight. These include:
- Old Needles Battery - a museum owned by the National Trust.
- New Needles Battery - also owned by the National Trust, but as it isn't a pretty cottage that can be used as a picture on the front of a box of fudge they don't care about it.
- Hatherwood Point Battery
- Warden Point Battery
- Fort Albert - now flats.
- Cliff End Battery
- Fort Victoria - contains a planetarium, Britain's largest model railway, an aquarium, sunken History Museum and a large country park.
- Golden Hill Fort - put up for sale in January 2002 - asking price: £1,000,000.
- Freshwater Redoubt - a very nice café.
- Bouldnor Battery
- Sandown Barrack Battery - now part of the Battery Gardens park, with the Barracks now part of the Heights swimming pool.
- Sandown Granite Fort - part of the PLUTO pump network during the Second World War, pumping petrol to France, now Sandown Zoo.
- Yaverland Battery - very little remains.
- Redcliff Battery- no longer exists.
- Bembridge Fort - owned by the National Trust but leased to industry.
- Culver Battery - still survives (just) despite being owned by the National Trust.
- Steynewood Battery
- Nodes Point Battery
- Puckpool Mortar Battery - a park, containing a radio museum that contains some of Marconi's experimental equipment.
The Sea Forts
These sea forts were built to prevent any ship from entering the Solent on the east without coming into range of their big guns.
- St Helen's Fort - privately owned.
- No Man's Land Fort - recently up for sale for £10,000,000.
- Horse Sand Fort - owned by the Ministry of Defence
- Spitbank Fort
Kenilworth had outer water defences and withstood many sieges. Sadly, they are now gone but they have been replaced by pretty water meadows. The tilt yard can still be seen and is well worth a visit.
Lancaster Castle, Lancashire, UK
Lancaster Castle was once an important royal building being a seat of power for the Lancastrians during the period of the wars of the roses. Like most castles, its position was chosen for strategic regions with its glorious view of Morecambe Bay and the Lune Estuary, its commanding height to guard against land attack and its control of the river below. However, the hill was fortified long before the castle was built and there are the remains of a 4th Century Roman fort on the hill to prove it. The castle is owned by the Duke of Lancaster who just happens to be the Queen and as well as being a fortification, is one of Europe's oldest serving prisons.
Indeed some of the castle's most famous moments come from its history as a place of justice. You can see the Assize Courts where prisoners were sentenced to transportation and sent to Australia. Also, it is famous for witchcraft. Among many alleged witches who were brought to Lancaster for trial were the Pendle Witches, who were sentenced to death at the castle. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, was imprisoned in the castle for two years. You can get locked in the dungeons today to see what it was like. There are guided tours between mid-March to mid-December There are also several events during the year like the Georgian festival in summer and the excellent firework display.
Tintagel, Cornwall, UK
Tintagel is not a castle for those who dislike heights and steep steps - there's lots of both. There are usually lots of visitors there too.
Although the official castle blurb goes to great lengths to point out the distinct lack of an Arthurian connection, a wander round the village will soon show that's what folks go there for. The whole place is shrouded in Arthurian Legend and it is believed to be the place where that legendary king was born.
The site offers amazing views from the cliff tops and there's a coastal path to walk along as well, should the mood take you.
A reasonably close neighbour to Kenilworth, Warwick is in good shape and one of the UK's premier attractions. You can climb Guys Tower for a huge vista over the Warwickshire countryside. The original Norman motte is incorporated in latter works and it is set on a river. There is also a good museum, dungeon and oubliette (a secret dungeon whose only access was via a trap door). You can also mooch around the extensive gardens, if you like that kind of thing.
One of the (many) homes of the Queen of England and the largest residential castle in the world (apparently). The highlights of the castle for visitors include:
Queen Mary's Dolls' House - a huge palatial doll house built in the 1920s.
St George's Chapel - a 14th Century chapel and burial place of ten British sovereigns. It is also where Edward and Sophie (the Duke and Duchess of Wessex) were married in June 1999.
Paintings - the Queen's collection of art is one of the greatest collections in the world, and Windsor Castle has a great deal of it on show, including works by Da Vinci, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and Canaletto.
The Gardens - recently restored to their original splendour - definitely a must for a picnic on a sunny day.
The State Apartments make up the bulk of the castle which you can visit and are well worth spending half a day touring round. Thousands of items of furniture, paintings, sculpture, porcelain and armour are there for all to enjoy. Look out for the bullet that killed Admiral Lord Nelson, in one of the display cabinets.
Some of the armament rooms are an incredible sight - there are thousands of weapons (swords, pistols, pikes, etc) mounted on the walls in huge intricate designs.
There is also currently a display showing the restoration work that was needed after much of the castle was destroyed by fire in 1992 which is worth a look.
The castle is open all year round, bar one or two dates (such as Christmas, etc - do check in advance just in case). You can get there by train from London (from Waterloo or Paddington), by coach from Victoria coach station, or by road - M4 to Exit 6, M3 to Exit 3. Entry prices are usually £11 for adults and £5.50 for children (other variations do exist).
Other Entries in the Great Castles Collaboration
- Some Great Castles of Germany
- Some Great Castles of Poland
- Some Great Castles of Scotland
- Some Great Castles of Wales
- Miscellaneous Great Castles