My Favourite Ruin — Kenilworth Castle, by Claire Ridgway

by Claire Ridgway

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Kenilworth Castle Photo Credit: The Anne Boleyn Files
Kenilworth Castle
Photo Credit: The Anne Boleyn Files

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Kenilworth Castle, which features in my new book Tudor Places of Great Britain, has a special place in my heart. I studied at the University of Warwick for four years and spent many a weekend in nearby Kenilworth with my fiancé Tim and friends picnicking in the lovely park near the castle and visiting the castle. It was particularly good to visit on 5th November, Bonfire Night, as the castle would have a firework display which would light up the ruins beautifully. Happy memories.

Kenilworth Castle Photo Credit: The Anne Boleyn Files
Kenilworth Castle
Photo Credit: The Anne Boleyn Files

But happy memories are not the only reason for this castle having a place in my heart, it was on a visit there in 2010 that it struck me just how parts of the castle are a surviving testament to one man’s love for the woman he could never have. I’d already read what Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, did to his home in 1575 for the Queen’s visit there, but those had just been words on a page until I stood in front of the imposing Leicester’s Gatehouse, walked around the recreation of the privy garden and viewed the ruins of the state apartments. Here was a man who pulled out all the stops to impress his queen and dearest childhood friend.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

Here is what Dudley did for Elizabeth I’s nineteen-day visit in July 1575:

Luxury Accommodation – Dudley ordered the building of a block of private, luxury state apartments for the queen and her servants.

Leicester’s Gatehouse – Dudley had a new gatehouse built to give the castle a grand entrance from the church and the Coventry road.

A new privy garden – This was a private paradise for the queen to enjoy. Features included a terrace, arbours perfumed by fragrant trees and flowers, a marble fountain made from Tuscan white Carrara marble, an aviary and huge obelisks of porphyry. Robert Langham, who managed to get a sneak peek at the garden, said that it was “a garden so appointed to feel the pleasant whisking wind above, or delectable coolness of the fountain-spring beneath; to taste of delicious strawberries, cherries and other fruits… to smell such fragrancy of sweet odours, breathing from the plants, herbs and flowers; to hear such natural melodious music and tunes of birds.”

Kenilworth Castle Photo Credit: The Anne Boleyn Files
Kenilworth Castle
Photo Credit: The Anne Boleyn Files

Pleasure grounds – Dudley improved the castle’s surrounding landscape, adding a bridge to connect the chase and gatehouse, a viewing platform over the mere, and seats to enjoy shady arbours. He also made sure that the park and chase were well-stocked with deer and game.

Entertainment – Dudley’s entertainment for Elizabeth I included a magnificent firework display over the mere and a play in which Triton rode an eighteen-foot long mermaid and moving islands carried the Lady of the Lake and her nymphs.

Unfortunately, one of the planned entertainments, a masque written by that great Elizabethan poet George Gascoigne, was never performed after being cancelled due to bad weather. The masque was called “Zabeta”, a play on the queen’s name, and the Kenilworth Castle Guidebook describes this masque as having a “story hinged on a debate about whether the chaste nymph, Zabeta, should wed, and concluded with a speech urging the queen to marry”, and who better to marry than the Earl who was one of her oldest friends and who had gone to such lengths to please her? I’m sure that was the not so subtle hint that Elizabeth would have gleaned from the play if she’d been given the chance to watch it. But, it wasn’t mean to be and Leicester ended up marrying Lettice Devereux (née Knollys), daughter of Elizabeth I’s maternal cousin, Catherine Carey, and Elizabeth stayed single.

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Elizabeth, Regina and Robert Dudley. Earl of Leicester
Elizabeth, Regina and Robert Dudley. Earl of Leicester

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Clearly Dudley’s love for Elizabeth was not unrequited. When Dudley died in September 1588, a grief-stricken Elizabeth locked herself away in her chambers for several days and only came out when the doors were broken open, and she treasured the last letter he wrote to her, inscribing it “His Last Letter” and keeping it in a box by her bedside. It was a love that just couldn’t be, there were always far too many obstacles. It’s such a sad story and that always hits me hard when I walk around Kenilworth Castle.

There is far more history to Kenilworth Castle, though, than Robert Dudley’s ownership. The castle dates back to the early 12th century, when it was founded by Henry I’s lord chamberlain, Geoffrey de Clinton, but was built over several centuries, benefiting from lavish spending by John of Gaunt in the late 14th century before Dudley made his improvements in the 16th century. Unfortunately, in 1649, during the English Civil War, the castle was partially destroyed by Parliamentary forces and is now in ruins apart from two of its buildings – Leicester’s Gatehouse and the Tudor stables.

English Heritage have done much to improve the castle and you can now see exhibitions, an audio tour and a spectacular recreation of the garden designed for Elizabeth I. It really is well worth a visit.

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Claire Ridgway
Claire Ridgway

Claire Ridgway is the author of the best-selling books George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat  (co-written with Clare Cherry, On This Day in Tudor History, The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, The Anne Boleyn Collection and The Anne Boleyn Collection II, Sweating Sickness in a Nutshell, and Tudor Places of Great Britain. Claire was also involved in the English translation and editing of Edmond Bapst’s 19th century French biography of George Boleyn and Henry Howard, now available as Two Gentlemen Poets at the Court of Henry VIII. 

Claire worked in education and freelance writing before creating The Anne Boleyn Files history website and becoming a full-time history researcher, blogger and author. The Anne Boleyn Files is known for its historical accuracy and Claire’s mission to get to the truth behind Anne Boleyn’s story. Her writing is easy-to-read and conversational, and readers often comment on how reading Claire’s books is like having a coffee with her and chatting about history.

Claire is also the founder of The Tudor Society.

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New Release!
New Release!

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Tudor Places of Great Britain

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IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT!!!!

Claire Ridgway and MadeGlobal Publishing is graciously offering a complimentary copy of  Tudor Places of Great Britain to one lucky QAB member or browser. If you are interested in being included in a drawing for a chance of winning this wonderful book, send the administrator a message via the website’s contact form. To complete the contact form, click here –> CONTACT US! We will draw a random winner on December 8, 2015. Good Luck!!!

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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