Nicola here. One of the things that I have missed the most about Lockdown is not doing my tours at Ashdown House, and not being able to visit other castles and stately homes whilst everything has been closed so it was very exciting when English Heritage started to re-open a number of their historical sites and I could get my history fix again. Last week, for the first time in 5 months, I went to a castle and I thought I would share the trip here for those who would enjoy a virtual history fix.
A place I’d never been to but had always wanted to see is Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. Kenilworth has a very long and fascinating history from the time of its building as a great tower in the 1120s, through a period when it was one of the favourite palaces of the Lancastrian kings, and the royal visits of Queen Elizabeth I. It was this aspect of Kenilworth’s history that particularly fascinated me, and Robert Dudley’s final, failed attempt to persuade Elizabeth to marry him. So I took The Forgotten Sister along with me on the road trip as I thought Amy Robsart would enjoy seeing the place (more on that later!)
Kenilworth was built on a low hill surrounded by two streams, and a causeway was constructed across the valley to create a dam and
a lake. The lake has gone now but in the old pictures it looks huge and magnificent. Originally a water defence – a giant moat – it also supplied fish and waterfowl for the castle and there were two water mills. Over time, though, it came to be most valued as a place where you could take pleasure cruises. At the far end of this mere was a harbour and “the pleasaunce in the marsh,” a mansion built by Henry V for banquets and entertainments, because one massive castle clearly wasn’t enough! From a distance Kenilworth looked like the ultimate castle of medieval romance. In 1279 an event called a “round table” was held there; inspired by fashion for romance literature it was a series of tournaments and festivities with an Arthurian theme. The same theme was employed when Elizabeth I visited in 1575 and was greeted by “the lady of the lake” who had allegedly lived there since Arthurian times! It’s fascinating that the legends we still read and write about now were equally powerful so many centuries ago!
One very cool thing about the approach to Kenilworth is that you walk over the causeway across what is now a dry lake and this was also used as the tiltyard. It was rather fun to imagine knights on horseback thundering along there during the joust!
Kenilworth started off as a Norman era tower keep but grew over the centuries. John of Gaunt added a set of buildings in the 14th century and in the 1530s Henry VIII added another range now known as “King Henry’s Lodgings.” Major renovations were made by Robert Dudley when he was granted the castle in 1563. He wanted to emphasise the grand royal and chivalrous associations of the castle whilst transforming it into somewhere more modern, a place that Queen Elizabeth would be prepared to visit and stay. With this in mind Robert built and entirely new building, the size of a country house, next to the great tower and designed it with huge glazed windows, plaster friezes and ceilings. Elizabeth first came to visit in 1572 but perhaps she wasn’t as impressed as Robert might have wanted her to be as he continued to develop Kenilworth and created one of the finest gardens in Europe.
It was this garden that was Robert’s secret weapon in his last attempt to woo Elizabeth in 1575. His lavish entertainment of her made full use of the landscape for hunting and riding; there was a new bridge built from which to view the mere, plays were enacted on the water, including Triton riding on an 18 foot mermaid, and fireworks dazzled overhead and under water. Elizabeth spent nineteen days at Kenilworth, eating, drinking, riding and making merry. The final not-so-subtle hint of Robert’s aims was a masque entertainment in which the chaste nymph Zabeta (a play on the name Elizabeth) debated whether she should wed. Unfortunately, the weather turned bad and the play was cancelled. Not to be discouraged, Robert then arranged for Elizabeth to be waylaid by torchlight by a “wild man” covered in moss and ivy who revealed that the gifts Robert had given Elizabeth were a sign of his true love for her. Finally, as she was leaving, an actor dressed as a holly bush, representing Robert, intercepted her and told her his name was “deep desire.” He recited a poem encouraging her to stay: “live here, good Queen, live here: You are amongst your friends. Their comfort comes when you approach and when you part it ends.” Perhaps it was all a bit too try-hard for Elizabeth, for although she retained a deep affection for Robert Dudley all her life, she would not marry him nor anyone else.
We visited Kenilworth on the 445th anniversary of the day Elizabeth left, the day on which she was accosted by the holly bush. Even without the lake, the whole site is tremendously impressive and the huge castle buildings exciting to explore. After the English Civil War the castle was “slighted” by Parliamentarian troops leading to the ruin that you see today, and it was this romantic appearance and the story of Elizabeth and Robert Dudley that inspired Sir Walter Scott to write the novel “Kenilworth,” which draws not only on Elizabeth and Robert’s love story but also on the death of Robert’s first wife, Amy Robsart.
Although Amy never went to Kenilworth and Robert would no doubt have preferred to forget the story of his wife’s suspicious death, someone with a sense of humour has named one of the rooms in the castle “Amy Robsart’s Chamber.” So I took my novel of Amy Robsart along so it could cuddle up with Elizabeth and Robert.
The recreated Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth really is gorgeous and I enjoyed strolling around it, taking in the scent of the flowers and admiring the aviary, the arbours and the fountain. It’s a stunning place and I feel sure that if Elizabeth I had been tempted to accept Robert Dudley, this place would surely have swung it for her more than a man dressed as a holly bush. However, Elizabeth had plenty of other palaces and gardens of her own and so not even this lavish love token was enough to persuade her. We’re lucky, though, that the castle and its beautiful re-created gardens are still there to give a history hit and transport us back to the past.
Which place have you missed visiting the most whilst everything has been closed? I must admit that the swimming pool comes a close second to all the historical houses for me!