Dating from around 1120, Kenilworth Castle has been described as “the finest surviving example of a semi-royal palace of the later middle ages, significant for its scale, form and quality of workmanship”. It may also be significant for its number of reputed ghosts.
Three of the ghosts are said to haunt the gatehouse, these being a little girl who asks for her father, A man wearing black thought to have been killed in a sword fight and an old woman.
A fourth ghost, thought to be that of a young boy supposedly haunts the stables, as do some phantom chickens and horses.
‘A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 6’ (1951) gives the following description of the castle. ‘Kenilworth was originally part of the royal manor of Stoneleigh and was given by Henry I to Geoffrey de Clinton, his chamberlain, who when he founded the Priory of Kenilworth gave to the canons all his land there except so much as he required to make his castle and park. The position which he selected for his castle was a slight rise, protected on the south and west by small streams; by damming these streams just east of their junction, he, or his son and successor Geoffrey, created the Mere, or Great Pool, ½ mile long and, in places, 500 ft. wide, which defended the castle on the south and west, and supplied the moat on the other two sides. The early castle consisted of a great keep, some 80 ft. (external measure) from east to west by 60 ft. from north to south, with a projecting square turret at each angle. The walls are 20 ft. thick, battering to 14 ft. 6 in. at a height of 10 ft., up to which height the whole was filled in solid with earth. Entrance to the first floor was through an outbuilding on the west (remodelled by the Earl of Leicester in 1570). The keep stood at the north-east angle of the bailey, or inner court, against the walls of which were built the kitchen and other domestic offices. Its military importance led Henry II to take it over during the rebellion of his son ‘the Young King Henry’ in 1173–4, when provisions and military forces, including at least 20 hired troopers and 140 foot, were placed in the castle. Some arrangement seems to have been made, perhaps in 1182, by which Henry de Clinton made over the castle to the king in exchange for the manor of Lower Swanbourne (Bucks.). It was one of the castles repaired and set in order at the beginning of the reign of Richard I, but it was under John that the old castle was surrounded by an outer curtain wall with towers. King John spent £2,000 on the work, but he seems to have visited the castle on only five occasions, and then for not more than three days at a time. It was one of the four castles which were to be put in the hands of the barons as security for the observance of the Great Charter, but the king seems to have kept control of it. Henry III rarely visited Kenilworth and the castle fell into disrepair, so that in 1241 the porch of the keep had fallen down, the great chamber was roofless, part of the outer wall was threatening to fall into the Mere, and repairs were needed to the jail, two gates, the chapel, and the other chapel in the keep. In 1244 Henry appointed his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, warden of the castle, and in 1253 he granted the custody of the castle to Simon and the Countess Eleanor for their lives. It was probably at this time that the earthwork now known as ‘the Brays’, but more correctly ‘the Bayes’ (from its being built at the end of the bays, or dam, of the pool), was constructed to guard the main southern entrance. After the collapse of the baronial party and the death of Earl Simon at Evesham in 1265, Kenilworth defied the king’s efforts to capture it until famine compelled the garrison to surrender in December 1266, the vanquished being allowed to compound for the recovery of their estates under the Decree (Dictum) of Kenilworth.
The king at once granted the castle to his son Edmund, whom he created Earl of Lancaster. Edmund in 1279 held a famous concourse here, called ‘the Round Table’, consisting of 100 knights, who engaged in tilting and martial exploits under the presidency of Roger Mortimer, and 100 ladies. The jousting place was, no doubt, the later ‘Tilt Yard’ on top of the dam separating the Mere from the Lower Pool, and it was probably in memory of this tourney that the gateway tower leading on to the Yard was given the name of Mortimer’s Tower. On Edmund’s death in 1296 he was succeeded by his son Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who in 1313 began to build a chapel within the castle, which he intended to convert into a great chantry or collegiate church of St. Mary, to be served by thirteen secular canons. This seems to have been more or less completed by 1318, but the chantry was never founded. The remains of the building may well be those in the Outer Wards, near ‘Leicester’s Barn’, now ascribed to John of Gaunt. By this time Earl Thomas was leading the opposition to Edward II, which culminated in his open rebellion in 1322, when the sheriff was ordered to prevent anyone entering the castle, which was held against the king. Later in that year the earl was attainted and beheaded, and the castle was taken into the king’s hands. Here Edward II kept Christmas in 1323, and hither he was brought as a prisoner by Henry, the earl’s brother, on 22 November 1326, and here he was compelled to acquiesce in his deposition, being later removed to Berkeley Castle, where he was murdered. The estates of his brother, including Kenilworth, were restored to Earl Henry, whose son Henry, later created Duke of Lancaster, in 1347 spent 250 marks on the great hall of the castle. He died seised thereof in 1361, and the castle passed by the marriage of his daughter Blanche to John of Gaunt, fourth son of Edward III, who was created Duke of Lancaster.
Under the wealthy and ostentatious John of Gaunt the castle was first put into repair and then, from 1391 onwards, converted from a feudal stronghold into a palace. To this period belongs the Great Hall, occupying the whole of the west side of the inner court. The Hall itself was on the first floor, with vaulted cellars below, and had a timber roof of the exceptional span of 45 ft. At the north end was the screens passage, approached by a flight of stairs from the court, and beyond it was the ‘Strong Tower’, which served as a treasury; at the south was the so-called ‘Saintlowe Tower’, containing the oriel of the Great Hall and giving access to the state apartments which occupy the south side of the court. On the death of John of Gaunt his estates devolved to his son Henry, who seized the throne as Henry IV, whereby the Duchy of Lancaster, including Kenilworth, became attached to the Crown. Beyond necessary repairs little was done to the castle, but Henry V built a pleasure-house, known as ‘the Pleasaunce in the Marsh (en Mareys)’, on the other side of the Mere, about ½ mile west of the castle. The latter was still a fortress of importance and at the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, in 1456, Henry VI sent some 30 cannon, and other stores, for its defence. (fn. 58) Henry VIII dismantled the Pleasaunce and used its material for buildings in the north-west angle of the outer court, near the Swan Tower, possibly the ‘large gret howse newly buylded of tymber and tyelled wherin ys xij chaumbers above and belowe wyth chymneys and large wyndowes’, as described in a survey of c. 1540, which also mentions a range on the (east) side of the inner court ‘of tymber parte newly bylded’.
John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, obtained a grant of Kenilworth in 1553, but on his attainder in the autumn of that year it reverted to the Crown. In 1563 Queen Elizabeth included it in a lavish grant of estates to her favourite Robert Dudley, the Duke’s son, whom she created Earl of Leicester in the following year. By 1570 Leicester had begun extensive alterations and additions to bring the castle into accord with the fashion of the time. Even in the Keep large mullioned and transomed windows were introduced, and the western fore-building was entirely remodelled, leading out to pleasure gardens. ‘Mortimer’s Tower’ was also much altered and ceased to be the main entrance, a new Gatehouse being built at the north-east corner of the outer court. The chief addition was the block, of which the shell still stands, known as ‘Leicester’s Buildings’, south of, and in line with, the timber-framed range built by Henry VIII. John of Gaunt’s state apartments were renovated, and on the west side of his Hall a great platform of earth was thrown up to give a view over the Mere, probably for the benefit of Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of her famous visit in July 1575, when she was entertained with a lavish prodigality of feasting and pageantry.
Leicester’s Gatehouse was converted in 1650 into a residence by Colonel Hawksworth, who blocked the entrance passage with bay windows and made other alterations, including additions on the east side, largely with materials from Leicester’s Buildings, including the porch and probably some of the doorways and chimneypieces. It is built of red sandstone ashlar, rectangular in plan with octagonal turrets at each angle and a continuous moulded plinth. The main block is three stories high, with a semi-basement, and the turrets one story higher. The main block has a battlemented parapet with a moulded string at its base continued round the turrets. The turrets have plain parapets on a moulded string-course. The windows are all squareheaded with ovolo-moulded features. Blocking the original entrance archways are canted bay windows and above, slightly projecting, four-light windows to the first and second floors. The turrets have two-light windows on two faces. The north and south fronts are practically identical. In the centre of the west wall is a square porch having straight joints to the main wall. It has a semicircular-headed door flanked by niches, with a frieze bearing the initials R. L. and surmounted by a battlemented parapet, probably brought from Leicester’s Buildings. The east wall is obscured by the later additions, but traces of three-light windows are visible above the tiled roof on the north and south sides. In the south-west turret is a staircase giving access to all floors, the doorways having four-centred arches with square heads over. On the ground floor in the northeast turret there is a mutilated original fire-place with a moulded four-centred arch. The south room on the ground floor has a very elaborate alabaster chimneypiece with a flat head, frieze with a motto, and twin pilasters on either side decorated with tracery and the initials R. L., also said to have been taken from Leicester’s Buildings. In the basement, formed when the gateways were blocked, the bases of the jambs of the original arches, with stopped chamfers, are visible, and a base for the jamb of an intermediate arch. The internal arrangements of the gatehouse have been almost entirely obliterated by the original conversion into a residence and by subsequent owners’ and tenants’ alterations. It is in the private occupation of Lt.-Col. the Hon. Cyril Davenport Siddeley, D.L.
Against the east wall of the outer court, between the round ‘Lunn’s Tower’ and the square ‘Water Tower’, is the so-called ‘Leicester’s Barn’, originally stables, and possibly later than Leicester’s time. It is a long building, facing west, with a central gabled porch, the lower half red sandstone ashlar with a wide-splayed plinth, and its upper half timber-framed with ornamental reversedogee strutting and red brick infilling. The north wing has two square-headed two-light original windows, of two splayed orders, and a semicircular-headed doorway in the centre. The remaining door and windows are late insertions. The porch, about 12 ft. square, has angle buttresses and a semicircular-headed doorway of one splay, now blocked with modern brickwork, and a window. The south wing has been much altered and repaired; all the windows and the wide entrance are modern. Internally it measures 156 ft. by 21 ft.; it has been divided by modern partitions, and has a modern wood floor. The open timber roof, which is covered with tiles, has trusses consisting of a tie-beam and two collars, the tie-beam strutted with long struts from the sole-plate of the timber-framing. On the east side the roof is carried on open timber-framing resting on the inner edge of the wall-walk of the curtain wall. Modern brick piers and arches have been added to give additional support, and a modern brick fire-place inserted in the south wall.
When the castle reverted to the Crown in 1603 a survey was made which mentions ‘the Roomes of great State within the same, and such as are able to receave his Maty. the Queen and Prince at one tyme, and with such stately Sellars all carried upon pillars and Architecture of free stone carved and wrought as the like are not within this Kingdome’. As a fortress it was less satisfactory, and at the opening of the Civil War King Charles withdrew his garrison and the place was occupied by the parliamentarians. In July 1649 orders were given to render the castle untenable, but not to damage the living quarters. Accordingly the north wall of ‘Caesar’s Tower’ (the Keep) was blown up and the outer walls breached in various places, and the Mere drained. Colonel Hawkesworth, to whom the site had been granted, established himself in Leicester’s Gate house. How far he was responsible for the ruin of the earlier living quarters, or how far neglect and later owners are to blame, cannot be said. Leicester’s Buildings were occupied by a colony of weavers from Coventry in the 18th century, but by the beginning of the 19th century this part was unroofed and the castle was in its present state, except that it was untended.