Despite castles being found all over the world, there is something about the typical medieval fortifications that always seems to hark back to British culture and heritage. The first castles were constructed in Norman times to protect Britain from naval invaders – built as defensive points along the coastline. Later, they were also constructed further inland, where they served as both protection and regal homes.
Castles were an integral part of British culture for centuries, and their construction was one of the many factors that enabled Britain to develop at such a pace in the Middle Ages. Nowadays, castles are an awe-inspiring must-visit for all who are interested in English heritage and history. There are lots of medieval castles all over Great Britain, but plenty near London that you can visit on a day trip from the capital. Here’s my six favourite:
Just an hour from London lies this glorious double moated seven-century old castle. It was built in 1270 as a medieval defensive castle, and later passed to the Boleyn family – who were at the time one of the most influential families in the country. It was thus the childhood home of Anne Boleyn; Henry VIII’s second wife, Elizabeth I’s mother, and one of British history’s most colourful characters.
The furniture, tapestries and portraits of the castle are fantastically well preserved and a fine collection of Tudor possessions still remain. One of the castle’s rooms, ‘The Book of Hours Room’ contains two prayer books used and annotated by Anne Boleyn herself. The castle was restored in the early 20th century by William Waldorf Astor, who also created the gorgeous Italian gardens which are open for the public to enjoy.
Emerging proudly from its plot in the centre of a moat, Leeds Castle still oozes prestige nearly a millennium after its establishment. It has been used for various notable purposes throughout the centuries: a Norman stronghold, the residency of six medieval queens and Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s palace.
The castle became a royal residence in 1278 and remained as such for 300 years. It therefore still boasts an impressive fusion of medieval and Tudor history and tells fascinating stories of its residents since then and up to the present day. Visit Leeds castle for castle tours, punting on the moat and the largest collection of dog collars in the world, the oldest of which dates back from the 15th century!
Dover Castle has been called ‘The Key to England’ and has been an important defensive structure to the country, due to its naval proximity to the continent. Originally the site of a Roman Lighthouse, the castle as we know it was constructed in the 1180s under Henry II. For some time, it was used as a residence to welcome noble visitors to England, but often proved significant in the protection of the country from foreign troops. Its defensive worth was increased in the Second World War, where the Napoleonic tunnels provided the setting for the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk.
1066 is a year that every British schoolchild learns; it was when William the Conqueror triumphed at the Battle of Hastings. At Hastings Castle, you can listen to ‘The 1066 Story’, which is an engaging twenty minute audio-visual discussing the battle and subsequent story of the castle.
The oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, Windsor Castle is without a doubt a jewel of Britain. The castle spreads out over 13 acres and the current Queen of Great Britain spends many weekends there – if the flag from the Round Tower is the Royal Standard, it means the Queen is around! You can look around the State Apartments with Royal Collection works of art, visit St George’s Chapel where 10 monarchs are buried, experience Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House which is the largest and most famous dolls’ house in the world and (in the winter months) explore the Semi-State rooms which are used by The Queen when she has guests. Also, don’t miss the Changing of the Guards ceremonies!
The Tower of London
If you’re a bit pushed for time on your London break, or don’t want to have to deal with trains, one of the country’s finest castles is right in the city centre. The Tower of London is based on the north bank of the River Thames in the heart of the capital. It was founded during the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 and the White Tower was built in 1078. Integral to British society, defending the building has represented protecting the whole nation. It was used as a medieval royal residence and later as a prison; the most notable captive being Elizabeth I before she became Queen. This is how the British phrase ‘sent to the tower’ to describe somebody being detained or banished was coined.
A castle is an essential visit for anybody interested in British history and how the complex European nation developed. And with so many in such easy reach of London; a visit to one (or all, depending on your timescale!) should be a fundamental part of any London tourist’s itinerary.
Have you visited any of these castles? Are there any others close to London that you would recommend?
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