9 of Britain’s best castles
From medieval fortresses to dramatic clifftop ruins, Britain boasts countless awe-inspiring castles. Here we round up nine of the best and explore their fascinating histories...
By Emma Mason
July 11, 2018
BBC History Castle
1 Tintagel Castle
Named by 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth as the place where King Arthur was conceived, Tintagel Castle in Cornwall is one of the most famous castles in Britain.
The site of Tintagel Castle has been inhabited at least since the late Roman period, and in the fifth to seventh centuries was “economically one of the most important sites in the whole of Britain, closely involved in trade with the eastern Mediterranean”, says English Heritage.
Interestingly, after the mid-seventh century there is little evidence of activity on Tintagel for more than 500 years. It wasn’t until around 1138 that Tintagel was made famous, when it was named in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as the place where King Arthur was magically conceived.
According to Monmouth’s book, an ancient king of Britain, Uther Pendragon, lusts after Ygerna, the wife of one of his barons, Gorlois of Cornwall. The ‘prophet’ Merlin administers a magic potion to transform Pendragon into the exact likeness of Ygerna’s absent husband and that night at Tintagel the pair conceive King Arthur.
This legendary fame is thought to have inspired Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, to build his castle at Tintagel some 100 years later, in 1233. “A cultured and literary man who would have known these legends extremely well, the overwhelming likelihood is that [Richard] built the castle at Tintagel to recreate the scene from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story and, in so doing, write himself into the mythology of King Arthur,” says English Heritage.
Today the ruins of the 13th-century castle offer dramatic views and you can visit the nearby Merlin’s Cave. A bronze sculpture of King Arthur (above) was recently unveiled at the site and the head of Merlin was carved into the rock face beneath the castle.
2 Stirling Castle
The scene of the 1314 battle of Bannockburn and the crowning of the nine-month-old Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1543, Stirling is one of Scotland’s most historically important castles. Sitting atop the volcanic crag of Castle Hill, surrounded by steep cliffs, Stirling Castle has been attacked or besieged at least 16 times and several murders have taken place within its walls, including that of William, 8th Earl of Douglas, who in February 1452 was stabbed to death at the command of James II of Scotland.
The first record of Stirling Castle dates from around 1110, when King Alexander I dedicated a chapel there. The castle was seen to be of great strategic importance thanks to its position near the border of Highland and Lowland Scotland, says BBC iWonder.
Consequently, in the spring of 1314 Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland, laid siege to Stirling Castle, which was then held by English forces. In retaliation Edward II, son of Edward I, marched north with an army to relieve the siege – the ensuing battle of Bannockburn, fought on 23 and 24 June, took place within sight of Stirling Castle.
The infant Mary was crowned Queen of Scots in Stirling’s Chapel Royal in 1543. The only child of James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise, Mary was betrothed to Henry VIII’s son, Edward, amid tensions between English and Scottish powers. However, Mary’s Catholic guardians opposed this betrothal and took the young Mary to Stirling Castle, breaking the agreement. Henry responded by attacking Scotland, ordering a series of violent raids that later became known as ‘The Rough Wooing’.
In recent years the castle grounds have been used for open-air concerts performed by the likes of Bob Dylan and R.E.M, and every year the castle hosts Stirling’s Hogmanay celebrations [on New Year’s Eve], which are broadcast live on television.
3 Cardiff Castle
Commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1081, Cardiff Castle was built on the site of a Roman fort, originally in wood.
The castle was involved in a number of conflicts between Anglo-Normans and the Welsh and in 1404 was stormed by Welshman Owain Glyndŵr, who over the course of six years tried – ultimately unsuccessfully – to rebel against the English rule of Wales.
Cardiff Castle changed hands multiple times following the Wars of the Roses and eventually became property of the Crown. In 1495 Henry VII revoked the castle’s Marcher lordship status [which allowed specific rights for Marcher lords – nobles appointed by the king of England to guard the border, known as the Welsh Marches, between England and Wales – exercised to some extent independently of the king] bringing the castle and its surrounding territories under English law as the County of Glamorgan.
Cardiff Castle was badly damaged during the English Civil War, being passed back and forth between the rival armies. The castle became Bute property in 1776 through the marriage of Charlotte Jane Windsor to Lord Mountstuart, who later became the 1st Marquess of Bute. The Bute family “brought power and prosperity to Cardiff, which they turned from a sleepy backwater into one of the greatest coal exporting ports in the world,” says Cardiff Castle. “They transformed the Castle into the gothic fantasy we see today, as well as revealing the castle’s Roman past.”
In the 1770s ‘Capability’ Brown and his son-in-law, Henry Holland, were employed to landscape the castle grounds and modernise the lodgings. In the years that followed the castle itself was renovated and expanded, with the clock tower, guest tower, library and banqueting hall being added in the late 19th century.
In 1947 the castle was given to the people of Cardiff by the 5th Marquess of Bute, John Crichton-Stuart. Today visitors can explore the richly decorated castle apartments, a 12-sided Norman keep and tunnels within the castle walls that were used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War.
4 Carrickfergus Castle
Possibly the most famous castle in Northern Ireland, Carrickfergus has been the setting of many defining moments in Irish history.
Moated by the sea on three sides, the castle is situated in the town of Carrickfergus in County Antrim, on the northern shore of Belfast Lough. Built on the orders of the Anglo-Norman knight John De Courcy soon after his 1177 invasion of Ulster, Carrickfergus was the only English stronghold north of ‘The Pale’ in the Middle Ages (that is, the part of Ireland that was directly under the control of the English government). For many years the castle commanded Carrickfergus Bay (later known as Belfast Lough) and has changed hands multiple times, from the Normans to the Scots and then the English, after King John laid siege to it in 1210.
The castle was besieged for more than a year in May 1315 by Edward Bruce, brother of the Scottish king Robert, and during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 became a refuge for fleeing Protestants. Having changed hands throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Carrickfergus again found itself at the heart of politics in 1689 when it was captured in the weeklong Siege of Carrickfergus. As the northern rebellion against James II’s rule grew, the Jacobite garrison of Carrickfergus had become a refuge for Catholic inhabitants of the region.
In 1711, Carrickfergus Castle saw the last witchcraft trial in Ireland. There, eight local women were put on trial after a girl named Mary Dunbar accused them of bewitching her. The women were convicted and sentenced to a year in prison and four sessions in the pillory.
Carrickfergus was also involved – albeit in a minor capacity – in the American War of Independence: in 1778 American privateer John Paul Jones, one of the founding fathers of the American Navy, lured HMS Drake from its moorings into the North Channel and won an hour-long battle off Carrickfergus Castle. The castle became a prison in 1797 and was heavily defended during the Napoleonic Wars.
Carrickfergus Castle served as a British military stronghold and prison from the 18th century until the Second World War and was in constant military use until 1928. That year the state gained ownership of the castle and declared it a national monument open to the public. It remains one of the best-preserved medieval structures in Ireland.
5 Highclere Castle
The setting of ITV’s Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle in Hampshire is one of Britain’s most breathtaking castles.
Established on the site of a medieval palace built during the 12th/13th century, which was later succeeded by a red-brick Tudor house, the Highclere we recognise today was the work of the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon, who in 1838 hired famed architect Sir Charles Barry (best known for rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster) to transform his home into a resplendent mansion.
Faced in Bath stone and in the Jacobethan style (inspired by the English Renaissance, with elements of Elizabethan and Jacobean), the new Highclere Castle “dominated its surroundings in a most dramatic way”, says its website. A mahogany desk and chair that once belonged to Napoleon, purchased by the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon in 1821, were positioned in the music room, and Highclere’s saloon, the heart of the house, was designed in a gothic style with rich decoration including 17th-century Spanish gold-embossed leather wallpaper brought back by Carnarvon. The 3rd Earl did not live to see the completion of Highclere in 1878, however (he died in 1849). It is said Benjamin Disraeli’s first words upon seeing the new Highclere were “How scenical! How scenical!”
Highclere was used as a hospital during the First World War by its owner, Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, with the first patients arriving from Flanders in September 1914. The end of the First World War saw Almina’s husband, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, return to Egypt, where in 1922 he funded Howard Carter’s search and excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Back at home Highclere was returned to a private home.
During the Second World War Highclere Castle briefly became a home for evacuee children from north London. Today it boasts more than 200 rooms (even the mistress of the house doesn’t know exactly how many) and opens to the public for between 60 and 70 days a year.
6 Edinburgh Castle
Built in the 11th century on Edinburgh’s Castle Rock, on the site of an Iron Age hill fort, Edinburgh Castle remained the Scottish royal residence until the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Home to many kings and queens, Queen Margaret (later St Margaret) died there in 1093 and Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to the future James VI (James I of England) in the castle’s royal palace in 1566.
The castle changed hands many times during the Scottish Wars of Independence – England’s Edward I captured the castle in 1296 and in 1314 Thomas Randolph, nephew of Robert the Bruce, retook it from the English in a daring night raid. To prevent its re-occupation by the English, Robert then had every building except St Margaret’s Chapel destroyed. Four months later, in June 1314, his army secured a landmark Scottish victory at the battle of Bannockburn.
Edinburgh Castle was also the site of a witchcraft trial. In 1537 during the reign of notorious royal witch-hunter James VI and I, Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, stood trial and was later burned at the stake just outside the castle walls.
The castle also saw action during the Jacobite risings: in 1715, during the first Jacobite rising (in support of James Stuart, the ‘Old Pretender’), the Jacobites tried overnight to scale the castle walls using a rope ladder. However, the ladder proved to be too short and the rebels were promptly arrested. In 1745, during the second Jacobite rising, Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) managed to capture Edinburgh but failed to secure the castle. This was the last military action seen at the castle.
Over the next century Edinburgh Castle was used to hold prisoners of war during conflicts including the Seven Years War (1756–63), the American War of Independence (1775–83) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). More than 1,000 prisoners are thought to have been housed there before the castle’s use as a prison ceased in 1815 (after a mass-breakout by French prisoners).
Edinburgh Castle was bombed by German Zeppelin airship bombs in 1916 and the Honours of Scotland (aka the Scottish crown jewels, which were first used together at the coronation of the nine-month-old Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1543) were hidden in the castle’s David’s Tower during the Second World War.
Today Edinburgh Castle is home to the Stone of Destiny (a stone that was used for enthroning Scottish monarchs at Iona, Dunadd and Scone), which was brought to the castle in 1996 after 700 years in Westminster Abbey.
7 Dunluce Castle
Thought to have been the inspiration for CS Lewis’s castle Cair Paravel in The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–56), the dramatic ruins of Dunluce Castle sit on the rugged coastal cliffs of North Antrim.
Built by the McQuillan family in around 1500, the castle was seized by the MacDonnell clan in the 1550s when Sorley Boy MacDonnell travelled over from Scotland to consolidate MacDonnell territories in Ireland. Writing about Colin Breen’s Dunluce Castle: History And Archaeology, the Times Higher Education supplement says: “They [the MacDonnells] reshaped and reconstructed Dunluce in line with contemporary Scottish castles. Secure in their domination by the late 1580s, the family started to add grand design features, building a loggia along the southern curtain wall. This kind of columned gallery originated in Italy but was adopted by powerful families in northern Europe, a sign that they wished to keep up with the times and flaunt their increasing sophistication to visitors.”
The castle is said to have been filled with riches acquired by Sorley Boy MacDonnell’s son Randal’s visits to the royal court in London, including chairs of state and curtains from Cardinal Wolsey.
In October 1588 a Spanish Armada ship the Girona was wrecked during a storm on rocks near Dunluce Castle. According to legend, Spanish treasure was hauled from boats into Mermaid’s Cave, which sits 25 metres below the castle, and some believe Armada sailors are buried at the nearby ruins of St Cuthbert’s Church.
Dunluce Castle still belongs to the MacDonnell family, but it is today managed under a deed of guardianship by the Northern Irish Environment Agency.
8 Caernarfon Castle
Built in 1283 by Edward I following the English conquest of Gwynedd, Caernarfon is one of Wales’s most impressive castles.
Positioned on the site of a former Roman fort and Norman motte and bailey castle overlooking the River Seiont, Caernarfon was a medieval fortress. Its significant defences included seven polygonal towers, two turrets and two great twin towered gates, all joined by huge curtain walls tracing a figure of eight, and at the other end of the castle is the imposing ten-sided Eagle Tower. While the castle was being erected, town walls were built around Caernarfon. Military historian Reginald Allen Brown argues Caernarfon Castle was “one of the most formidable concentrations of fire-power to be found in the Middle Ages”.
Edward’s son, the first English prince of Wales, was born at the castle in 1284 and it became an important administrative centre; the heart of government in the northern part of the country. However, Caernarfon’s political importance gradually waned and by the time Henry VII ascended the throne in 1485 the castle had fallen into disrepair.
Caernarfon Castle’s story does not end there, however. It was held by Royalists (supporters of King Charles I and his son Charles II) during the English Civil War and was besieged three times by Parliamentarian forces.
Caernarfon was neglected until the 1870s, when government-funded restoration work was carried out. In 1969, almost 700 years after the castle’s creation, the investiture of the current Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) took place at Caernarfon.
9 Thornbury Castle
The only Tudor castle to have been opened as a hotel, Thornbury Castle in south Gloucestershire once housed Henry VIII and his new bride Anne Boleyn. Thornbury was not designed to serve as a fortress and is better described as a Tudor country house, today recognised as “one of the finest examples of Tudor domestic architecture in the country”, says Historic England.
Thornbury’s history first dates to 1066, when it was recorded that the manor of Thornbury was held by Brictric, son of Aelfgar. Brictric, who served as an ambassador to the Count of Flanders, lost possession of Thornbury when he rejected the advances of the count’s daughter, Matilda of Flanders: Matilda went on to marry William I of Normandy (the future William the Conqueror), who seized Thornbury and awarded it to his bride before imprisoning Brictric.
The Thornbury manor changed hands many times over the coming centuries, being held at various intervals by the crown, and was forfeited at the execution for treason of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, following the rebellion of 1483, says Historic England. Stafford had sided with Richard III’s claim to the throne but later became disaffected from Richard and, with the backing of the exiled Henry Tudor (the future king Henry VII), raised an army of rebels with the aim of overthrowing Richard. The rebellion was crushed, however, and Henry Stafford was executed without trial.
The Thornbury manor house was later given back to the Stafford family, however, and was inherited by Stafford’s son Edward, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, in 1498. In 1511 “Buckingham set about building an elaborate palace-castle, which demonstrated the involvement of masons of the highest quality, and was apparently modelled on Richmond Palace, at that time England’s most splendid royal residence,” says Historic England.
Like his father before him, Edward was executed – in 1521 on the orders of Henry VIII following an investigation for treason – and the confiscated Thornbury estate remained in crown ownership until 1554. Princess Mary visited Thornbury in the 1520s and Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn enjoyed a 10-day stay there as part of their honeymoon tour in 1535.
Having been restored to the Staffords in 1554 (Queen Mary granted it to Buckingham’s son, Lord Henry Stafford), Thornbury Castle fell into financial ruin after proving too expensive for the family to maintain. The castle was owned by the Howard family from 1637 until the 1960s.
Now open as a high-end hotel and wedding venue, today visitors can stay in one of Thornbury’s 28 bedchambers, all decorated in Tudor style, including the Duke’s Bedchamber in which Henry and Anne slept during their 1535 visit.
Emma Mason is Digital Editor of HistoryExtra.com