From theorized beginnings as a Saxon fortress built during the early 900s, the main sandstone Tower of Kenilworth was constructed over 200 years later by Geoffrey de Clinton in the 1120s. What started as a highly defensible area for the Saxons, became one of England’s most well-known and grandest castles. Over the following centuries, kings and nobles would make improvements to the castle and its fortifications, constructing additional walls and buildings, and improving outdated apartments and kitchens.
Although no concrete evidence has been found to support the theory that a Saxon fort was built on the grounds prior to Kenilworth castle, some historians have concluded that the area was defensible and likely the site of an outpost or wooden fort. It is also theorized that, if there was an original wooden structure, it was likely destroyed during the wars between the Saxon King Edmund and Canute, King of the Danes.
Historians believe Kenilworth derives its name from Coenwulf or Kenulph, who was King of Mercia from 796 to 821.
There is no evidence in the 11th century of a fortress or structure that stood on the land where Kenilworth castle would be built, but there was a town there. The Domesday book, completed in 1086 for William the Conqueror and produced to give him a complete survey of all English land and holdings, mentions Kenilworth as a town with 17 households.
Kenilworth’s charter, a legislative document granted by the King for the founding of the castle grounds, was finally recorded when Henry I gave the land to his chamberlain and treasurer, Geoffrey de Clinton, a Norman who had settled in England, around 1120. The land was gifted to de Clinton by Henry I so that the king could have a political ally and rival to the Earl of Warwick. The charter records that the castle and an Augustinian priory were founded on the same day by de Clinton, but the record does not provide a year. Construction on the Tower, was begun around this time, but no official records remain today. Historians believe the Tower was completed around 1130. The large mere and moat was created by de Clinton or his son Geoffrey by damming two streams that flowed on the south and west sides of the mound.
Around 1173, Henry II used Kenilworth as a garrison against his rebellious sons. After utilizing the castle’s fortifications, the crown confiscated the structure in the 1180s.
At the end of the 12th century, King John spent a considerable sum of money on improvements to Kenilworth. Concentrating on improving the defenses, John built the outer curtain wall made improvements to the mere and moat.
In 1244, Kenilworth was gifted by Henry III to his sister Eleanor and her husband, Simon de Montfort. A few years later in 1265, a civil war broke out, recorded as the Second Baron’s War, between Henry and Simon after Simon led a revolt against the king. Kenilworth was later used after de Montfort’s death by his son, Simon the younger, who held out against the crown in 1266 for 6 months, the longest siege in England’s history.
Because of Kenilworth’s defenses, particularly the mere, or large lake surrounding the castle, and the impressive siege machines that they had acquired, the castle was nearly impregnable by crown soldiers and war machines. Eventually, the rebels surrendered due to disease and starvation, and the crown reclaimed ownership of Kenilworth.
After the civil war ended, Kenilworth was given to Henry’s son, Edmund, 1st Earl of Lancaster. For the next century, Lancasters would own and operate out of Kenilworth, turning it into a grand castle fit for kings. Most notably, in the 1360–1370s, John of Gaunt made vast improvements, including the addition of the great hall, lavish apartments, and extensive kitchens. John also made changes to the priory that was originally founded by de Clinton, adding a dance floor in the priory for Christmas in 1379. It is also rumored that Chaucer visited the priory during this time. John’s architectural additions were considered to be some of the finest representations of domestic architecture at the time.
Along with additional buildings, John of Gaunt also added an enclosed garden and bridges across the moat to reach parks and hunting grounds for entertainment.
During the reign of the Lancastrian kings, beginning with John of Gaunt’s son Henry IV in 1399, Kenilworth found itself passing between hands and being lavishly improved. Particularly, Henry V, constructed a “Pleasance in the Marsh,” a private island in the mere, north-west of the castle. At the Pleasance, a wooden banquet hall was also constructed and housed a garden in the center of an inner courtyard.
During his reign as king, Henry would escape to Kenilworth and his Pleasance to find peace away from his duties as monarch. Henry spent a great deal of time at Kenilworth, and it was here that he received the tennis balls from the Dauphin of France that led to the famous Battle of Agincourt. Agincourt, fought during the Hundred Years’ War in 1415, remains as one of history’s most well-known battles as England was greatly outnumbered against French forces but still managed an impressive victory.
As the Tudor kings came into power at the end of the 15th century, Kenilworth remained a stronghold used mainly for luxury. Henry VII built a tennis court and Henry VIII rebuilt the banquet hall using materials from the Pleasance. Henry VIII also had the priory destroyed in 1538 after his break with the Catholic church.
In 1563, Elizabeth I gave Kenilworth to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester who was the last lord to make significant improvements to the structure. Dudley created new structures and improved old ones to impress the queen in an attempt to win her hand in marriage during her 3 visits to Kenilworth, each time making more incredible improvements before her next arrival. Dudley’s structures included a lavish apartment building where the Queen would stay, a new gatehouse and bridge that created a grander entrance to the grounds, and an extensive garden area with an aviary.
Upon the Queen’s last visit in 1575, Dudley entertained her company for 19 days with extravagant parties and shows. A floating island was even built on the mere and is rumored to have been Shakespeare’s inspiration for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
During the Civil War, in August of 1642, Kenilworth was taken by the Parliamentarian army and partially destroyed in 1649 so that no opposing army could station themselves there. At the time, it was an impressive fortress that could have impacted the outcome of the war, so the north wall of the keep was destroyed and the outer curtain wall was breached. Following the Civil War, the castle was stripped and sold, some of the stones were used for new roads, the moat was drained, and the land was converted to farmland. The castle was renamed Castle Farm and since then has stood as a ruin and tourist attraction.