For nearly a thousand years Warwick has been one of the most important and influential aristocratic estates in Central England. The Earls and Dukes of Warwick played a role in almost every important event in medieval English history. Because of this, Warwick has been one of England’s most prized castles. The property is now privately owned by the Tussaud’s Group, which has completely restored and refurbished the castle to its medieval splendour. They have also turned it into something of a living history museum, with costumed staff giving the place a renaissance faire-like atmosphere. The whole has the effect of transporting visitors back to olden days, a unique experience even among England’s many unique castles.
For all of the colorful and influential nobles who have called Warwick home, the history of the castle itself is only moderately exciting. The site of the modern-day castle has been used since at least as far back as Saxon times. According to legend, the first significant wooden fortification on the site was constructed in 914 AD by Ethelfleda, daughter of the Saxon King Alfred. It protected the local region from Danes and other maurauders for more than a century until falling into the hands of William the Conqueror and the Normans.
Like many other Saxon strongholds he conquered, William repaired and expanded the small Saxon castle at Warwick. From 1088 to 1264 the castle passed through a succession of Earls who held Warwick in trust as Constable. The wooden castle was rebuilt with stone construction in 1260. However, this did not prevent the place from falling into the hands of Simon de Montfort in 1264. The rightful Earl, William Maudit, was imprisoned in his own castle and held for ransom. Although ultimately freed, his family’s control of Warwick ended with his death in 1268. He was replaced by the Beauchamps, which controlled the castle for the next 181 years, becoming one of England’s most powerful and influential noble houses.
Under the Beauchamps Warwick Castle was substantially expanded. Much of the modern castle dates from their tenure. When Guy’s Tower was completed in 1395, it was one of the tallest in England. In 1449, possession of the Warwick estate changed hands. The successor, Richard Neville, was probably the most important noble to hold the position. For twenty-two years he was a critical figure during the War of the Roses, becoming so influential that he was known as the Kingmaker. After the ascension of the Tudors, the Earls of Warwick were generally held in suspicion by the crown. Several Earls were executed for treason during the reign of Henry VIII.
After the Tudors, Warwick passed quietly into a new succession of aristocrats. One of the more minor yet intriguing events of the castle’s later years was the murder of one of its residents, Sir Fulke Greville, by a disgruntled employee. The legendary ghost of Greville is now the castle’s most famous resident. In 1642, Warwick Castle had its one true taste of warfare when it was besieged during the Civil War in 1642. It was later used as a prison for Royalist soldiers. Because of its long years of uninterrupted peace, as well as a long succession of caring and well-off occupants, Warwick is now one of the best-preserved and beautiful castles in Central England.
Despite its large size, Warwick Castle is a militarily simple, albeit visually elegant, fortress. Warwick’s basic layout consists of single, trapezoidal wall surrounding a large courtyard and castle apartments. The curtain walls are protected by seven towers and gatehouses. At 128 feet in height, Guy’s Tower easily dominates the castle profile. Caesar’s Tower is actually taller if measured from base to crown, but was built on lower ground. Adjacent to the gatehouse on the outside of the castle is the armory, now used to hous exhibits. The brilliant white walls and towers stand out sharply against the thick green countryside. Within the walls is a large open green courtyard circumscribed by an oval pathway fronting the castle apartments. Also within the courtyard is a small hill and grove of trees known as the Mound. It was on this point, the highest point of land on Warwick’s grounds, that the original Saxon and Norman castles were located.
Also within the courtyard is the Ghost Tower, a residential tower added to the castle in the 14th century. This is the place where Sir Fulke Greville was murdered and where, rumor has it, his spirit still roams. The castle apartments run the length of the castle, incorporating a main building and slightly smaller wing, with portions dating as far back as the 13th century. The main building houses the Great Hall, as well as the extravagant state rooms and castle chapel. The smaller wing includes Warwick private apartments. Since its private acquisition, many rooms of the castle have been painstakingly restored and refurnished. The castle is also sprinkled with an extensive collection of antiquities from Warwick’s long history.
Warwick Castle is located approximately eight miles northeast of the city of Stratford-Upon-Avon. It is open to the public every day of the year except for December 25. From April to September the Castle is open from 10:00am-6:00pm; and from October to March from 10:00am-5:00pm. Admission is L15.95 for adults and L9.95 for children (discounts for students and senior citizens; prices reduced during off-season). Web: www.warwick-castle.com (official website).
Central England, once home to many castles, still boasts a few great sites. Unfortunately, Nottingham Castle has long since been replaced with a mansion-turned-museum. However, its foundations still remain, as well as the adjoining Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, the world’s oldest tavern, dating from the time of Richard the Lionheart. Further north can be found Leeds Castle, probably the region’s second best after Warwick. Also nearby is the worthwhile Kenilworth Castle.